Duke Basketball: Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios for Rest of Blue Devils' Season
With its 63-62 win over Virginia on Saturday, Duke has thrown itself back into the race for the ACC title only a few weeks after it seemed like the 2015-16 season was headed for disaster.
That doesn't mean all will go well from here on out, though, as we've seen how quickly things can go from good to bad (or vice versa) for the Blue Devils and almost every other top college basketball program.
With three weeks left in the regular season, Duke is 19-6 overall and 8-4 in the ACC, tied for fifth but only two games back of first-place North Carolina. It has two games left with the Tar Heels, including Wednesday's contest in Chapel Hill.
So much can still happen—not just in the regular season but also once the postseason begins.
Based on what has occurred to this point and how things are trending, we've created scenarios that explain the best or worst for Duke over the remainder of 2015-16.
Best Case for Regular Season
Duke's remaining six regular-season games are equally split between home and the road, with three of four away from Cameron Indoor Stadium and then two straight in Durham. Three of the games are against teams the Blue Devils are either tied with or trailing in the ACC standings, which means the opportunities are there to challenge for the conference title.
The key games are the two against North Carolina, on the road on Wednesday and to finish things out on March 5 at home.
Win both of those, and Duke has a real shot to win the league, but without a second game against Miami—which beat the Blue Devils on Jan. 25—it would need the Hurricanes to lose at least twice to finish ahead of them in the standings.
A 6-0 finish puts Duke at 14-4, which would guarantee a top-four finish and a double bye in the ACC tournament. Going 5-1 would likely do the same since Louisville will be removed in the final standings, and thus being in the top five at the end of the regular season could still allow for the Blue Devils to get the first two days of the tourney off.
Having that extra day to rest before playing up to three straight days will be essential for the thin Blue Devils.
Worst Case for Regular Season
Duke is 4-2 on the road this season, which is the best mark by percentage of any team in the ACC. But the two most difficult road games to this point—at Clemson and Miami—have resulted in losses, while the Blue Devils' road wins have been over the bottom four teams in the conference.
What remains on the road are trips to Louisville, North Carolina and Pittsburgh, teams that are 41-4 at home.
Expecting Duke to be able to win in all three of those locales is asking a lot of this thin team, and losing at least two of them is very likely.
So, too, could falling to North Carolina at home to end the regular season, which would lead to no better than a 3-3 finish down the stretch. That would put the Blue Devils at 11-7 and have them finish somewhere between sixth and ninth place.
Even with removing Louisville from the equation, since the Cardinals aren't eligible for the ACC tournament, Duke would still have to play on the second day of the tourney and thus would be facing as many as four straight days of games.
Best Case for ACC Tournament
The Blue Devils head to Washington, D.C. as one of the hottest teams in the conference, a roll that continues in the ACC tournament. They can get an added boost with the return of senior forward Amile Jefferson, who hasn't played since mid-December because of a foot injury.
With Jefferson available, Duke now has a seven-man rotation with six of those players used to extended minutes at this point. That enables the Blue Devils to breeze through their first two games and reach the ACC final.
The run will end in that title game, though, with Duke losing to North Carolina, Miami or Virginia. Still, the momentum will remain heading into the NCAA tourney.
Worst Case for ACC Tournament
Regardless of Duke's seed in the ACC tournament, it will be coming in with three or four days of rest before that initial game. But that time off won't be enough to counter the desperation mode that its first tourney opponent is in.
While the Blue Devils should be safely in the field, others such as Clemson, Florida State, Pittsburgh or Syracuse will all enter on or near the zone. Winning that first game will be critical for their NCAA chances, and that sense of urgency will lead to a spirited performance that Duke can't counter.
An early exit won't bode well for NCAA seeding, though in reality the extra time off will help Duke rest up and be better prepared for March Madness.
Best Case for NCAA Tournament
The latest projections tabulated by BracketMatrix.com have Duke looking at a No. 6 seed for the NCAA tournament, which would tie for its first in the past 20 seasons.
But a hot finish to the regular season and a strong performance in the ACC tourney raise the Blue Devils to either a No. 3 or 4 seed, either of which is good enough to keep them from having to leave the state for the opening weekend of the Big Dance.
A pair of wins in Raleigh, North Carolina, will send the Blue Devils to their 29th all-time Sweet 16 and sixth since 2009. But that next round will find Duke—no longer the higher-seeded team—as an underdog for the first time in the tournament.
The Blue Devils will have one more victory in them, pulling an upset to reach their 21st Elite Eight and be the first defending champion since Florida in 2006-07 to get past the Sweet 16 the following season.
Going further won't be in the cards, though.
Worst Case for NCAA Tournament
With an overall record that includes 10 losses, its most since 2006-07, a No. 6 or 7 seed will put Duke in a position in March that it hasn't been in for some time: that of a non-contender. And though the wide-open nature of the 2015-16 season has made it so there are no sure bets for the Final Four, the Blue Devils won't be included in that mix.
Duke will get shipped out of the region, to either Denver or Oklahoma City, and its season will end in that locale.
The Blue Devils go down in the first round, their third exit that early in the last five seasons. Within days of the national title defense coming to an end, freshman forward Brandon Ingram and sophomore guard Grayson Allen declare for the NBA draft.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.
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