February 20, 2007
DURHAM A Duke basketball fan, returning to this country after an extended stay in Afghanistan or somewhere else ACC news is hard to come by, could have picked up a newspaper on Valentine's Day and seen that with less than three weeks left in the regular season, the Blue Devils were still in their accustomed place atop the college basketball world unbeaten, ranked No. 1 in the nation, and alone atop the ACC standings.
What? You mean that's the Duke women? Then where the heck is Mike Krzyzewski's team?
That answer wouldn't be as reassuring.
No, Krzyzewski's young Blue Devils have not dropped off the face of the basketball earth. But, yes, Duke's men are headed for their worst regular-season finish since 1996, even after their Valentine's Night massacre of Boston College in Conte Forum.
The biggest news last week was the two major basketball polls. Duke dropped out of the ESPN/USA Today's coaches poll for the first time in the 11-year history of those rankings and fell from the AP Top 25 for the first time since the final 1996 poll.
Duke's streak of 199 straight polls (misreported by a number of media outlets as 200) was the second-longest in the 59-year history of the AP rankings, just behind UCLA's record 221 straight from the start of the 1966-67 season to midway through the 1980 season.
Also, when Duke lost to Maryland in College Park on Feb. 11:
The loss gave the Devils a four-game losing streak. That matched the longest ever for a Duke team coached by Krzyzewski. He had four-game losing streaks in each of his first four seasons in Durham, and again in 1996. He's never had a five-game losing streak, although the 1995 team, led by interim coach Pete Gaudet in Coach K's absence, did lose six in a row at one point.
The loss dropped Duke to 5-6 in the ACC. That guaranteed Duke its worst ACC finish since 1996. In the last 10 seasons, the Blue Devils have not finished worse than 11-5 in league play.
Not quite guaranteed, but likely to happen:
Duke hasn't finished worse than third in the ACC standings since 1996. After losing at Maryland, the Blue Devils were at least three games behind four other ACC teams in the loss column, making a top-three finish unlikely.
Duke hasn't lost more than seven regular-season games since the 1996 team lost 11 in the regular season. Unless the Blue Devils win out, that streak is going to fall, too.
But for all the bad news, it wasn't quite as bad as some media outlets tried to suggest. Duke remained a top-20 RPI team, and with 18 wins (during the losing streak) against the nation's third-toughest schedule, no bad losses and as many top-25 RPI wins as anybody in the country.
So despite the slump, the Devils were never in much danger of missing the NCAA Tournament, as some commentators tried to suggest.
HOW BAD WERE FOUR DEFEATS?
Duke's problem is that by failing to meet the standards the program has set over the last decade and, except for the 1995-96 hiccup, for the last quarter-century it makes the current situation look worse than it is.
Considering that Duke was 18-3 and ranked No. 8 in the nation on the last day of January, it's fair to suggest that the perception of weakness pretty much stems from that four-game losing streak. But just how bad was that streak?
It started Feb. 1 at Virginia, where Duke led the Cavaliers most of the way en route to a 68-66 overtime loss. The Devils had excellent chances to win the game in regulation (Josh McRoberts' last shot in the lane bounced away) and in overtime (Greg Paulus missed a wide-open three-point shot at the buzzer). In contrast, Virginia guards J.R. Reynolds and Sean Singletary made a number of terrific shots down the stretch, including Singletary's amazing, fall-away rainbow over McRoberts for the game-winner.
"When we beat Indiana or Gonzaga or Georgetown, somebody like Singletary didn't make a shot," Krzyzewski said. "Sometimes it's not what you do or don't do. It's what somebody else does. Like in the Virginia game, that kid and Reynolds made big plays. When somebody doesn't do that against you, then you end up winning."
Three days after the Virginia loss, Duke had a chance in Durham to make a big play of its own. The Blue Devils missed three close-in shots in the final seven seconds in a one-point loss to Florida State.
"One shot determines two of those games," Krzyzewski said. "We just travel a narrow road between winning and losing. You have to make sure that the kids know that they're doing a lot of things that put them in position to win (and you) don't lose confidence because of missing one shot."
Duke's third loss at home to powerful North Carolina didn't come down to a final shot, but it was a hard-fought game that was decided in the final minute. It wasn't until the Devils traveled to College Park and fell behind Maryland by 20-plus points in the first half that Krzyzewski's team was truly beaten.
"Maryland kicked us back," Krzyzewski said.
It says something about Duke's recent run of excellence that Maryland's 12-point victory was Duke's largest margin of defeat in four years, and even that 14-point loss to Wake Forest on Feb. 13, 2003, came in double overtime!
The bigger problem with the Maryland loss was that it could be seen as evidence that the losses close or otherwise were taking a toll on the confidence of a young team. But just when it began to look as if the Devils' season might be spiraling out of control, Duke bounced back to dominate Boston College on the road, leading by as much as 24 points before winning 78-70.
"This is a huge win for us," Krzyzewski said. "We've just been trying to keep even keel throughout. We're still learning how to be a good basketball team. We've played a helluva schedule and have been in a lot of pressure situations. We just have to learn how to win. This was a hard-fought win, and I'm really proud of our guys."
Of course, one victory even over the leader in the ACC standings doesn't mean that Duke is back where it's used to being. The Blue Devils almost certainly will be playing Thursday in the ACC Tournament and undoubtedly will end up with their worst NCAA slot since the 1996 team was a No. 8 seed.
The truth is that Duke is not an elite team this season. But the Blue Devils are not an NIT team, either.