In the realm of college basketball, only a prestigious collection of programs can be classified as elite. Among that select group is the Duke Blue Devils; a team with an immense standard of excellence both on and off the court.
Over the course of a 107-year history, Duke has exemplified the true form of greatness. Achievements include capturing four national championships, appearing in the third-most Final Fours (15) and establishing itself as the fourth-most winningest team in all of Division I college basketball.
Through all of the Blue Devils' success, however, are five seasons that have garnered the largest amount of success and significance.
While the selection of those specific seasons were more obvious, the ranking of each proved to be a difficult challenge.
Beginning at No. 5, these are the greatest seasons in Duke basketball history.
- National Champions (fourth)
- ACC Regular-Season Co-Champions (22nd)
- ACC Tournament Champions (23rd)
- NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament Champions (fourth)
- 35-5 (13-3 ACC)
- Three Future NBA First-Round Picks
The 2009-10 Duke Blue Devils began the season as a good team. By season's end, they had grown together as a solid cohesive unit to become one of the all-time great teams in school history.
Led by senior Jon Scheyer and juniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, the Blue Devils ended a nine-year drought by winning their fourth national championship. In doing so, they withstood a firm challenge from the durable Butler Bulldogs and a desperation half-court heave from Gordon Hayward, in what was considered as the "most eagerly awaited championship game in years."
The thrilling championship game triumph capped off a truly remarkable season for Duke, which also claimed its 22nd regular-season conference title and 23rd conference tournament title, its ninth in the last 12 years. But more importantly, it allowed the Blue Devils to return to their rightful position atop the mountain in college basketball following numerous seasons of disappointment.
Their improbable championship run showed an unquestionable desire to compete day and night for the name on the front of the uniform. Through ultimate sacrifice came the ultimate reward.
And while this team was not the most talented or the most dominant when compared to past Duke teams, it was the most perseverant of them all, defining one unforgettable season.
- National Champions (third)
- ACC Regular-Season Co-Champions (19th)
- ACC Tournament Champions (17th)
- 35-4 (13-3 ACC)
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If there was one season that delivered countless moments that would remain in Duke basketball lore for years to come, it was the national championship-winning 2000-01 season.
Without question, the most memorable of them all was in the first of four meetings from that season against the Maryland Terrapins. Or famously known to this day as the "Miracle Minute."
Facing a 10-point deficit with exactly one minute left to play in front of a raucous Maryland crowd, Duke rallied behind an incredible effort led by sophomore Jay Williams, who scored eight of his game-high 25 points in a 13-second span, and a pair of free throws by senior Nate James to force overtime. After stunning the Terrapins in the final minute of regulation, the Blue Devils' momentum carried over to the extra period as they held on to a 98-96 victory.
Still to this day, it is garnered as one of the most extraordinary comebacks in the history of college basketball.
From there on out, the two teams squared off on senior night at Duke, the ACC tournament semifinals and in the Final Four.
Unable to secure a victory in its final home game of the season, Duke was able to turn back two stern challenges from Maryland on its quest in capturing a 17th ACC tournament championship and a third national championship.
Although Duke was crowned champions that season, the odds of advancing to the national title game looked bleak for the majority of the third contest against Maryland.
Staring at a 22-point deficit and an 11-point halftime deficit, Duke, behind an extremely talented all-around roster, charged back by erasing the double-digit lead and surging to one of its own at game's end. It was the largest comeback in the history of the Final Four.
Two nights later, Duke met the Arizona Wildcats for the national title. In what is considered another special moment in the history of the program, sophomore Mike Dunleavy Jr. connected on three consecutive three-point baskets during a game-changing 11-2 run to propel the Blue Devils to an 82-72 victory and their third championship.
The championship was the defining moment in a spectacular four-year career for Shane Battier, who was also recognized as the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, the Naismith College Player of the Year, a three-time NABC Defensive Player of the Year and the Academic All-American of the Year.
The 2000-01 season will always be full of great memories for Duke.
While the Blue Devils were a clearly superior team, they had to overcome various hurdles over the course of that season. In the end, they surpassed each challenge that was thrown their way, further solidifying their championship season as one of the very best in school history.
- National Champions (first)
- ACC Regular-Season Champions (ninth)
- 32-7 (11-3 ACC)
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Duke had been so close, so many times in the past. Eight Final Four and four championship game appearances, but zero titles to show for it.
In the 1989-90 season, Duke had reached the championship game after an improbable run. However, it became crystal clear that the superior UNLV Runnin' Rebels overmatched the Blue Devils.
Duke suffered a 30-point loss to UNLV, marking it as a championship game record for largest margin of victory.
Little did we know, the two teams would meet one year later.
After adding supremely talented and athletic freshman Grant Hill to join team leaders Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner, the 1990-91 Blue Devils set off on a mission with one common goal in mind. Over the course of the season, they finished a perfect 16-0 inside Cameron Indoor Stadium while also capturing their ninth ACC regular-season championship.
Although they stumbled in the ACC tournament, it allowed them to refocus on the task at hand.
Following four double-digit victories in the NCAA tournament, Duke had reached the Final Four for the fourth straight season. Standing in its way of reaching a second straight championship game appearance, however, was an undefeated UNLV squad that boasted a 45-game winning streak and sought to dismantle Duke once again.
With the memory of that 30-point thrashing still in their minds, the Blue Devils were not intimidated.
Duke fought, battled, outplayed and out-hustled UNLV in the rematch and avenged arguably its most embarrassing loss by handing the Runnin' Rebels their first and only loss of the year, 79-77.
It was a significant and satisfying victory for the program that almost felt like the Blue Devils had won the title. But one game remained.
Awaiting the jubilant Blue Devils were the Kansas Jayhawks, coached by current North Carolina head coach Roy Williams. In what would be the first matchup in a competitive rivalry between Krzyzewski and Williams, Duke finally tasted championship glory by knocking off Kansas 72-65 in the title game.
At that point in time, it was the greatest season in Duke basketball history. After years of chasing a seemingly elusive championship, the struggle of coming so close had ended. Duke was a national champion.
And the Duke Blue Devils dynasty was officially in full effect.
- NCAA Men's Division I Tournament Runner-Up
- ACC Regular-Season Champions (17th)
- ACC Tournament Champions (15th)
- 37-2 (16-0 ACC)
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Considered as the greatest team not to win a national championship, the 1998-99 Duke Blue Devils experienced one of the most successful seasons not only in school history, but in NCAA Division I history.
The 37 wins that Duke recorded tied the 1985-86 team for the most wins in a single season. Of those wins, 32 were by double digits. After their first loss of the season, the Blue Devils went on a 32-game winning streak leading up to the national championship game. Duke finished the regular season undefeated at home, on the road and in conference play.
In addition, head coach Mike Krzyzewski became the Naismith College Coach of the Year.
After easing through the ACC by winning both the regular-season and conference tournament championships, it was on to the Big Dance.
An overwhelming favorite to win the national title, Duke won its first five games of the NCAA tournament by an average margin of 25.2 points. Approaching the championship game, cutting down the nets seemed to be in the stars.
However, the Connecticut Huskies had other plans.
It was a classic game that had virtually everything. Big plays, key moments and go-to players stepping up on the biggest stage.
Duke senior Trajan Langdon was terrific in his final college game, scoring a team-high 25 points, including five three-point baskets. But it was a late-game turnover he committed that sealed Duke's fate.
The loss was a crushing blow to the Blue Devils, as they were essentially at the pinnacle of their success.
What could've been the third national championship in school history, and fifth overall, never was. But the overall success from that season is not in question.
That sensational roster featured five future NBA first-round draft picks, including Langdon, the Naismith College Player of the Year Elton Brand, William Avery, Corey Maggette and Shane Battier.
As far as talent goes, the 1998-99 team is the measuring stick. Despite coming up just short in capturing the title, it was arguably one of the most dominant seasons of all time.
- National Champions (second)
- First Repeat National Champion since 1973
- ACC Regular-Season Champions (10th)
- ACC Tournament Champions (ninth)
- 34-2 (12-2 ACC)
- Four Future NBA First-Round Picks
Following its first national championship, Duke had its sights set on becoming the first repeat champion since UCLA in 1973. With the luxury of keeping its primary rotation headlined by the tremendous trio of Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill, expectations were at an all-time high for the defending champions.
As the Blue Devils ran through the regular season suffering only two losses, both in ACC play, it became evident that they were an unstoppable force primed for a repeat.
With an ACC regular-season and tournament championship to their credit, the Blue Devils looked ahead to the NCAA tournament, seemingly unbeatable to the rest of the country.
For the first three games of the tournament, Duke easily cruised to victory. Then, in the Elite Eight, a team that earned the moniker "The Unforgettables", the Kentucky Wildcats, took Duke to the brink of defeat in a game that no one would ever forget.
Considered "the greatest game ever played," Duke and Kentucky tested each other in every way possible in a game that was back-and-forth for two perfectly played halves and one monumental overtime period.
With a fifth consecutive Final Four appearance on the line for the Blue Devils, they were staring a 103-102 deficit dead in the eye in overtime with 2.2 seconds left to play.
Duke needed one play. One chance. And most importantly, hope.
As Grant Hill lined up on the baseline, a near full-court pass was going to one man. A man, to this day, that is considered the greatest player in Duke history, Christian Laettner.
Hill tossed a perfect pass in the general area of where Laettner was standing. As the 6'11" big man lunged forward and plucked the ball out of midair, the idea that Duke could still win this game was becoming more real.
Laettner took one dribble, turned and put the shot up with only tenths of a second to spare.
Duke had survived, 104-103.
Laettner's game-winner capped off a remarkable performance, as he scored 31 points without missing a shot for the entire game.
The win propelled Duke into the Final Four and kept its championship chances alive.
In that year's Final Four, Duke turned back a challenge from the Indiana Hoosiers to advance to the title game against the Michigan Wolverines. In a highly-anticipated rematch from a December meeting (Duke won 88-85 in overtime), Duke controlled from start to finish, easily defeating Michigan for its second national championship.
It has been 21 years since that historic championship run. From sheer dominance throughout the year, to a game not to be forgotten that eventually culminated in back-to-back championships, the season of 1991-92 for the Duke Blue Devils will rank as the absolute best of all time in program history.