It’s safe to say the midseason struggles that Duke experienced are surely in the rear-view mirror.
The Blue Devils have won six of their last seven games, and five of those six wins came by at least 15 points. What’s more, Duke was so impressive in its one loss during that stretch that it actually moved up to No. 11 in the most recent Associated Press Top 25 Poll.
That loss came at Syracuse in an overtime affair that was arguably the most entertaining game of the entire college basketball season. It was apparent throughout the contest that both the Orange and Blue Devils were on the short list of the most talented teams in the country.
It also left some wondering whether a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament was still in reach for Mike Krzyzewski’s squad despite the early losses.
It takes one-seed talent to put up the fight that Duke did in the Carrier Dome, especially with superstar Jabari Parker and inside presence Amile Jefferson sitting on the bench for overtime after fouling out.
If Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim was to be believed, it was one of the best games in the history of the Carrier Dome, via Dana O’Neil of ESPN.com:
I don’t think I’ve been involved in a better game in here that I can remember…If you paid $2,400 for a courtside seat, it was money well spent. And if you sold your tickets, well, you should be ashamed because you made money but you missed out on an epic.
Yes, the Blue Devils put up quite a challenge against Syracuse, but it was still a loss. With five defeats in total, Duke would not be in contention for a No. 1 seed if the tournament field was to be decided today.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi recently had Krzyzewski and company at the No. 10 spot in his projections, which would be good enough for a No. 3 seed on Selection Sunday:
Super Saturday S-Curve (CAPS=AQ): 01-ZONA, 02-CUSE, 03-KU, 04-WICH, 05-MichSt, 06-FLA, 07-MICH, 08-Nova, 09-SDSU, 10-Duke, 11-CINC, 12-CREI.— Joe Lunardi (@ESPNLunardi) February 1, 2014
Had Duke played its entire season like it has the past seven games, it would likely be higher on that list. However, pairing early losses to Kansas and Arizona with defeats at the hands of mediocre ACC teams Clemson and Notre Dame put the Blue Devils behind the proverbial eight ball in the hunt for a No. 1 seed.
Fortunately for Duke, there is still a month’s worth of games before Selection Sunday to make up some ground.
Parker has completely smashed through the freshman wall that was holding him back during the Blue Devils’ struggles and Jefferson has emerged as a legitimate force on the inside. Rasheed Sulaimon has grown from someone who didn't even see the floor against Michigan to a clutch performer and Andre Dawkins is one of the best long-range shooters in the ACC.
Throw Rodney Hood doing his best Scottie Pippen impersonation to Parker’s Michael Jordan and Quinn Cook playing well in that equation, and you would be hard-pressed to find more than four or five teams in the nation with more weapons.
The only realistic chance Duke has at earning a No. 1 seed with all that talent is by winning out.
On paper, the only team in the remaining eight regular season games that can challenge the Blue Devils is Syracuse, and that rematch will be in front of the Cameron Crazies in Durham. Actual games aren’t played on paper, but Duke is better than Boston College, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and North Carolina.
Working under this hypothetical scenario where the Blue Devils win out, that would mean their end-of-season resume would include victories over Syracuse, Michigan, UCLA, Pittsburgh and North Carolina twice. Furthermore, three of the five losses would be against elite opponents (Syracuse, Arizona and Kansas), which are much more forgivable in the eyes of the selection committee.
Who will win the ACC tournament?
Still, Arizona, Syracuse, Kansas, Wichita State, Michigan State, Florida, Michigan, Villanova, San Diego State and Cincinnati among others will likely have sterling resumes at that point.
That is a crowded race for only four spots, especially since Duke lost to both Arizona and Kansas in head-to-head showdowns. Furthermore, the ACC is not as strong as the Big 12 or the Big Ten, which will hurt the Blue Devils’ cause.
Taking those factors into consideration, Duke will have to win the ACC tournament and pick up a victory over the Orange to have a legitimate case for a No. 1 seed.
So all the Blue Devils have to do is win the final eight regular-season games, win the ACC tournament and have some of the teams ahead of them in the polls drop a couple of contests.
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