An hour before Wednesday night’s Duke-Michigan State game, when I told a fellow reporter about my master plan, he asked me if I’d been drinking.
Let me get this straight, T.C. You’re going to ask Coach K about an undefeated season? Tonight? After seven games?!
Then he inquired if my health insurance was paid up.
I know it’s a ridiculously ridiculous question, but I’ve been doing this sportswriting thing since we stuck cards that read Press in our fedoras, so I can sense when a tidal wave of silliness is coming. We knuckleheaded simpletons in the media can’t control ourselves. Like Heisman talk in August, we think, is it ever really too early to think about an undefeated season?
So unfamiliar are we with perfection, we are intoxicated by the concept. Since the NCAA basketball tournament began in 1939, only seven teams have produced perfect seasons. All of those occurred in a 21-season span between 1956 and 1976, the last being Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers.
Just when we were starting to think we might not see another perfect season before America’s Tricentennial, all of a sudden I’m overhearing crazy talk inside the Cameron Indoor Stadium press room on Wednesday. You know, Fred, if Duke wins this game, I’m looking down the road and….
OK, so we writers may not be the sharpest tools in refrigerator, but we can count. Before the Michigan State game, Duke had beaten its six opponents this season by an average of nearly 28 points a game. They were leading the nation in scoring average at 91.3 points per game. They were shooting 50.4% from the field, 44% from the three-point range, 73% from the free throw line. No wonder the Blue Devils were the nation’s consensus No. 1.
Then on Wednesday night against the 6th-ranked Spartans, preseason first team All American Kyle Singler shot just 5-for-14, including two airballs. Probably-should-have-been preseason first team All-American Nolan Smith scored just one more basket in the first half than I did and he got 12 more minutes. During one stretch in the second half, Duke bricked six of seven free throws. Michigan State shot 49% from the field and 53% from beyond the arc in the game and outrebounded the Blue Devils 37-31. Duke still won.
And here’s why Duke is really scary. After the Spartans took a 17-15 lead at the 11:00 mark of the first half, the Blue Devils’ freshman point guard Kyrie Irving produced two consecutive three-point plays, one on a drive and one on a jumper, and scored 11 of Duke’s next 13 points. Irving finished with 31 points. Irving is Duke’s third option.
If all of that wasn’t convincing enough for the scribes to overreact, at this point it’s frighteningly clear that outside of Durham in every direction, the ACC, well, stinks. The league just suffered its second straight defeat in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge because the teams predicted in the preseason to finish second, third and fourth in the conference all went belly up. Not a single team on Duke’s remaining regular season schedule is currently ranked in the Top 25. Unless the Blue Devils starting five is leveled by Bubonic plague, Duke is likely to be favored in every game for the rest of the regular season.
So what choice did I have? For the purpose of retaining sanity in the media, I had to be that guy. I didn’t want to do it. I had to do it. I had to make a preemptive strike. I had to bring up the U-word to try to stop the madness before it began.
First, I set my feet and asked Tom Izzo if Duke could go undefeated this season.
“Mike’s a friend of mine, so I’m not going to put that pressure on him,” Izzo said. “I really like their team. They have so many weapons. I think Duke is the best team in college basketball, but they’ve got some work to do yet and I think it’s going to be hard for anybody to go undefeated. Why can’t it happen? Because the parity in college is unbelievable.”
Then I swallowed hard and asked Mike Krzyzewski if Duke could go undefeated this season.
“You have to have a really old team, old and talented, to do it,” said Krzyzewski, pointing out that the 1976 Indiana lineup included seniors Quinn Buckner, Bobby Wilkerson and Scott May and junior Kent Benson. “There aren’t teams like that anymore. There’s no way our team would be able to do it. They’re still kids. They still have a big learning curve. I’m not going to throw a game or anything like that. You’re just more susceptible to getting beat.”
Huh. No blood was shed. Just some knowledge. Pick whichever reason you want. To think Duke is really going to go undefeated this season, you’d have to be crazier than that Towel Guy. If Duke were to win all its games including another NCAA title, the Blue Devils would finish with a record of 40-0. Read that again. 40-0? Does that even look real?
Perfect seasons are hard. Ask Tom Brady. I’m told that at this point in the season, the Duke coaching staff has not spoken to its players at all about an undefeated season for one simple reason: They think it is impossible.
(Editor’s Note: There’s a reason we posted this column today. Duke plays Butler on Saturday afternoon in East Rutherford, N.J., and based on recent history between those two teams, this column could be fishwrap by tomorrow night.)
Suppose we humor ourselves and assume that the Blue Devils somehow do survive undefeated during the 2010-11 regular season. Then what? Since 1939 no fewer than 12 Div. 1 teams have finished the regular season unscathed, only to then lose in a postseason tournament. It happened to Larry Bird, for chrissakes. To understand how hard it is to do what the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers did, you merely have to look at the 1975 Indiana Hoosiers who finished the regular season 29-0, then lost to Kentucky in an NCAA regional final. Krzyzewski, who was a grad assistant coach for that ’75 team, believes that the ’75 Hoosiers were actually better than the ’76 team.
Then there’s the case of UNLV. The last time there was a team as statistically dominant as this Duke team potentially could be, it was the 1991 Runnin’ Rebels. UNLV finished that regular season 27-0 with an average margin of victory of more than 31 points per game and only #2-ranked Arkansas hung within single digits of them. Then the Rebs got knocked off in the Final Four.
Tim Crothers is the author of The Man Watching: A Biography of Anson Dorrance, the Unlikely Architect of the Greatest College Sports Dynasty Ever, and he is the co-author of Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court, the autobiography of Roy Williams.