January 9, 2007
DURHAM Was Duke's loss in its ACC opener merely one of those blips that often happens during conference play, or did Virginia Tech expose the highly ranked Blue Devils as a fraud?
Obviously, it's possible to read too much into one game. Just a year ago, Duke needed a midcourt miracle from senior guard Sean Dockery at the buzzer to beat Virginia Tech in Cameron. This time, Virginia Tech's Deron Washington swatted away a last-second three-point try by sophomore point guard Greg Paulus that would have won the game for the Blue Devils in similar fashion.
Last year's narrow Duke-Tech game didn't portend trouble for the Blue Devils. Duke went on to win its first 14 ACC games to claim the conference's regular-season title, then swept to its seventh league title in the last eight years.
This year's homecourt struggle with the Hokies could be different.
Many observers have questioned the strength of this Duke team, despite its lofty ranking. Entering conference play, the Blue Devils ranked No. 5 in the nation in both major polls. Duke was ranked even higher in the RPI at No. 3 while coming in at No. 8 in Jeff Sagarin's computer poll and No. 5 in Ken Pomeroy's computer rankings.
That's pretty familiar territory for a Duke program that's finished no lower than No. 7 in the final AP poll over the last decade. In that span, the Blue Devils have spent far more weeks at No. 1 (51) than in the second 10 (11) and no time at all outside the top 20. Duke's current streak of (195) straight weeks in the rankings is the second-longest in basketball history.
And yet ...
There is evidence on the court that Duke's high ranking is an illusion, perhaps constructed on equal parts a respect for Mike Krzyzewski's program and a misunderstanding of a carefully constructed schedule.
Even before the Tech loss, it was hard to watch this Duke team struggle to put away mediocre opponents and still think of the Blue Devils as a top-five team. Back-to-back, hard-fought, home victories over Indiana and Georgetown were one thing. But four days after knocking off the Hoyas, Duke trailed Holy Cross by six at the half. Two games after that, it took a last-second dunk by sophomore forward Josh McRoberts to prevent Duke from trailing Kent State at the half. And after an impressive victory over Gonzaga in New York, Duke came home and found itself locked in a three-point game early in the second half against 1-10 San Jose State.
That's not what you'd expect from a top-10 team.
Duke is averaging an ACC-low 68 points per game and hasn't topped 80 since the opener against Columbia. It's hard to blow out teams when you're scoring in the low 70s on your best night.
So how could Duke have been ranked ahead of powerhouse teams such as Ohio State, Arizona, Kansas and Pittsburgh?
Well, Duke's No. 12 ranking in the AP preseason poll (11th in the coaches poll) was a testimony to the backlog of respect that Krzyzewski's program has built up over the last quarter-century. Certainly, those rankings had little justification based on an analysis of proven performers returning. George Mason, which reached the 2006 Final Four, lost two starters and didn't make the preseason poll. Duke, which flamed out in the Sweet 16, lost two consensus All-Americans, three starters and four senior contributors and came in at No. 12?
From that starting point, the simple explanation of Duke's high rank was that the Blue Devils opened up 14-1 against one of the nation's toughest schedules.
Only, with this Duke team, nothing is that simple. Take the schedule. Any critic has to face the fact that the computers love Duke's schedule. It's fluctuated between No. 2 and No. 9 nationally on the RPI's strength-of-schedule listing in recent weeks and probably will climb higher as ACC play heats up. Neither Sagarin nor Pomeroy rates Duke's schedule quite that highly, but both agree that it's the best SOS in the ACC Sagarin by a narrow margin over North Carolina's schedule, Pomeroy by a much wider margin.
And yet ...
Duke has played three ranked teams all from the second 10 and won two of those three games. Interestingly, both ranked victims of the Blue Devils (No. 18 Georgetown, No. 22 Gonzaga) are no longer in the polls. To be fair, Air Force was unranked when Duke won in Kansas City, but the Falcons ranked No. 20 in the latest AP poll.
The rest of Duke's opponents bring higher RPIs than reputations. The Blue Devils get a lot of credit from the computers for playing Davidson (RPI No. 33), plus of course Air Force (15), Indiana (27), Gonzaga (29) and Georgetown (41). But what really helps Duke's SOS is the absence of really bad teams on the schedule. Duke has played just two teams (San Jose State, UNC Greensboro) that aren't ranked in the top 200.
By contrast, N.C. State which had played at West Virginia, Cincinnati and Virginia, plus Michigan and Alabama at home had a SOS ranked No. 211 going into the Boston College game, because the Pack also had played eight teams outside the top 200 (and five in the bottom 100).
"Our schedule has been terrific." Krzyzewski said recently.
Well, it's terrific in design, delivering the maximum rankings without many real threats to Duke's record. So there was some justification for arguing that entering ACC play, Duke was one of the nation's most overrated teams. The ACC-opening loss to Virginia Tech seemed to confirm that view.
And yet ...
POSITIVES: BOARDS, THREE-POINTERS
For every criticism of the Blue Devils, there's a positive caveat.
You say Duke's offense is not top-10 caliber, as the Blue Devils struggle to score and turn the ball over on almost one of every four possessions? But what about a defense that is giving up fewer points per possession that any in college basketball? Pomeroy rates Duke's offense as the 56th-best nationally but ranks the Devils' defense as the nation's most efficient.
You say Duke is young? Indeed, Krzyzewski himself claimed this is the youngest Blue Devil team since World War II. But the roster also includes six McDonald's All-Americans, plus a seventh player who made the Parade All-American team. Only North Carolina can match that array of talent.
In addition, Duke is rebounding at a better rate than almost any other Krzyzewski team. (In fact, only the 1999 juggernaut clearly was better on the boards.) The Blue Devils also are hitting better than 40 percent from three-point range, the best rate for a Duke team since 1992.
Krzyzewski has argued that this team should not be judged by the standards of his previous powers, and that it should be given time to develop its own identity.
"This is the most unique season I've ever had with a team," he said before the Virginia Tech loss. "Our guys are doing a very, very good job. They're going to show their warts because they are not this machine that we have been at times. We've had teams win 30 games six times out of the last nine years. People sometimes hold that standard to this group and don't understand the growth process. That's too bad. It's just too bad."
The Virginia Tech loss clearly qualified as another wart. It remains to be seem whether it's a portent of things to come or, like last year's struggle with the Hokies, just one of those things that happens in the ACC.