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Dissecting Duke

Why the Devils have sunk down stretch since 2001

Posted: Thursday February 21, 2008 11:47AM; Updated: Thursday February 21, 2008 3:14PM
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Gerald Henderson was held to five points in Duke's loss to Miami.  It was the Blue Devils' second straight loss to an unranked conference foe.
Gerald Henderson was held to five points in Duke's loss to Miami. It was the Blue Devils' second straight loss to an unranked conference foe.
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The fans stormed the floor at Wake Forest's Lawrence Joel Memorial Coliseum on Sunday night. The same thing happened at Miami's BankUnited Center on Wednesday. They celebrated their teams' purportedly stunning upsets of vaunted Duke.

If you've followed the Blue Devils closely over the past seven years, however, this week's sudden swoon should come as little surprise. If anything, the scenes described above probably seemed extremely familiar, if not inevitable, considering where they fell on the calendar.

In the seven seasons since Duke's last national title (2001), college basketball's most publicized program has almost annually seen its weaknesses exposed at the worst possible time: the end.

In reviewing important data from those seasons, one discovers an undeniable trend. Mike Krzyzewski's teams are not nearly as talented as they once were, yet the combination of a deceptively unchallenging schedule and accompanying rise up the polls leads to the same, lofty expectations as always.

These Blue Devils, however, rarely achieve them.

With Duke once again starting to show chinks in its armor, anyone planning to enter a tournament pool this March should be asking themselves an important question: Why should we believe this year will end any differently for the Dukies?

Limping to the finish

With all the hype that perennially surrounds Duke's program -- the lofty rankings, the seemingly endless national-television appearances (including 27 this regular season), the weekly on-air love-fest from Mike Patrick and Dick Vitale -- one might assume the Blue Devils to be college basketball's most dominant program.

Dig a little deeper, however, and take a closer look at the numbers. Since 2001, the Blue Devils have dominated all right -- in December and January.

In each of the past six seasons (2002-07), AP voters have dubbed Duke a top five team late in the regular season, including a No. 1 ranking four of the six years. Only once, however, has Duke validated those lofty opinions come March, reaching one Final Four (2004) while failing to advance beyond the Sweet 16 in the others.

This despite entering the tournament as a No. 1 seed in four of the six years.

Season Highest AP NCAA seed NCAA finish Lost to
2002 No. 1 No. 1 Sweet 16 No. 5 Indiana
2003 No. 1 No. 3 Sweet 16 No. 2 Kansas
2004 No. 1 No. 1 Final Four No. 2 UConn
2005 No. 3 No. 1 Sweet 16 No. 5 Mich. St.
2006 No. 1 No. 1 Sweet 16 No. 4 LSU
2007 No. 5 No. 6 First round No. 11 VCU

Beyond the obvious preseason expectations, there's a legitimate reason Duke annually rises so high in the polls -- it begins each season with an astounding record. The Blue Devils' current record of 22-3 is not all that different from their hot starts in previous seasons, including 23-2 (2002), 22-1 (2004) and 27-1 (2006).

A closer look at the numbers, however, reveals Duke has not been nearly as dominant late in the season. The Devils' demise has not been limited solely to the Big Dance, either -- in most cases, their swoon begins in February.

Season Nov.-Jan. Feb.-March
2002 19-1 12-3
2003 14-2 12-5
2004 18-1 13-5
2005 16-1 11-5
2006 19-1 13-3
2007 18-3 4-8
2008 18-1 4-2
TOTAL 122-10 (.924) 69-31 (.690)

One possible source of the discrepancy is the fact that Duke usually plays both editions of its home-and-home with archrival North Carolina in February and March. However, the Tar Heels have only been responsible for five of those 31 losses. The Blue Devils have lost more frequently to teams that failed to reach the NCAAs (seven).

Rather than focusing on Duke's ACC foes, which the Blue Devils have no control over and which, for the most part, they've continued to dominate (including four ACC tournament titles during the six-year span), it's time to focus on a largely overlooked area that's contributed to both Duke's inflated rankings and postseason failures since 2002: Its relatively unchallenging nonconference schedule.

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