Duke is running out of time to make the NCAA tournament, but can fix that this week

Steve Wiseman
·4 min read

Duke’s days on the NCAA tournament bubble are new and dwindling.

The Blue Devils enter the final week of the regular season in a place they’ve rarely been — seeking good wins to strengthen a case to simply make the NCAA tournament.

At 11-9 overall and 9-7 in ACC play, Duke has two chances this week — playing on the road at Georgia Tech on Tuesday and North Carolina on Friday.

Having made the last 24 NCAA tournament fields with no misses since 1995, this is normally a time the Blue Devils need wins to make the difference between being a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.

Instead, it’s desperation time for Duke, which is No. 59 in the NET ratings with a mere one Quadrant 1 win.

“The shoe’s on the other foot right now,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Monday during an ACC Zoom call with reporters. “We get a chance to feel like those teams in one-bid conferences, the old ACC a long time ago when only one team is going to make it.”

Duke had a losing record earlier this month before reeling off four consecutive wins to just put itself back in the conversation for an at-large bid. That winning streak ended on Saturday when, after falling behind by 12 points, the Blue Devils rallied to force overtime before losing 80-73 to Louisville at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

During the game broadcast on ESPN, the announcers often pointed out the network’s resident bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, felt the Blue Devils would be in his projected field if they defeated Louisville.

Instead, Lunardi and CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm currently list Duke among the first four teams out of the field.

Krzyzewski said his team usually faces hungrier teams at this time of year since his team is a regular participant and others are trying to make their case for inclusion. But, again, this situation is different.

“You have greater empathy for them because you’re in that spot,” Krzyzewski said. “In some ways, to have that here toward the end of my career, to remember the days at Army, you appreciate the incredible success that our teams have had. But, in saying that, look, you have to earn your right to be in the tournament. I’m all for that. That’s what makes the tournament so great. You earn the right to get in.”

Duke helped its case by hanging on to beat Virginia, 66-65, at home on Feb. 20. Home wins over Georgia Tech and Clemson during the final week of January were nice, too.

But a 77-75 loss at Miami on Feb. 1 started a stretch where Duke also lost tight home games to North Carolina, 93-89 on Feb. 6, and Notre Dame, 91-87 on Feb. 9.

Wins in all three of those games, or even two of them, would have Duke in a far better position.

As it is, Duke has a resume that lacks punch: 1-3 in Quadrant 1 games, 5-3 in Quadrant 2 and 2-3 in Quadrant 3.

Since Georgia Tech (13-8, 9-6 ACC) is No. 40 in the NET, Duke can claim a Quadrant 1 win on Tuesday night. Quadrant 1 games are against teams ranked 1-30 in the NET in home games and 1-75 in road games. Duke’s earlier win over the Yellow Jackets is a Quadrant 2 win.

UNC (15-8, 9-5 ACC) would be another Quadrant 1 opportunity since the Tar Heels are at No. 41 in the NET.

For the ACC tournament, held on a neutral site at the Greensboro Coliseum, games against teams in the NET top 50 are Quadrant 1 games. Teams from 51-100 would be Quadrant 2.

The Blue Devils can still get in the NCAA field, either by winning the ACC tournament or improving their Quadrant 1 record. They just can’t afford to miss out on these wins any longer.

“That’s what makes this time of the year so great, there are so many stories,” Krzyzewski said. “And we’re one of them because we’re not usually in this situation. But our kids are fighting like crazy. This isn’t like we have this juggernaut team that hasn’t produced. These kids have gotten better and they are close. That’s what made the loss to Louisville such a heartbreaker.”