There was a time when you could ink Duke into the Final Four and be pretty sure of being right, a good chunk of two decades when the Blue Devils were among the most reliable and trusted teams in the NCAA tournament.
Now that they have advanced that far only once in the past decade – in 2010, when Duke won the national title – it’s fair to ask that difficult question: Can Duke still be trusted?
This is a program that went to the Final Four seven times in nine years in 1986-94 and three times in six years in 1999-2004, but has gone only once since then.
In the nine seasons since 2004, Duke has won a national title once, lost in the regional final once (last season), the regional semifinals four times and failed to make it out of the first weekend three times. The inconsistency is jarring from a program that was once as consistent in the NCAA tournament as any.
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Playing in Raleigh, the Blue Devils shouldn’t have too much trouble making it out of the first weekend, but the same logic was floating around in Greensboro in 2012 before they lost to Lehigh. Potentially facing Michigan – a team Duke beat soundly this season – and Wichita State or Louisville seems like a doable scenario for Duke should the Blue Devils advance that far.However, the same was said of Villanova, Pittsburgh and Xavier in 2009, or Arizona, San Diego State and Connecticut in 2011.
The worrisome aspect of this team is its defense, not only at critical times – Virginia scored at will late in Sunday’s ACC championship game to deny Duke the title – but over the course of the entire season. Since 2003, this is the worst Duke has ranked going into the tournament in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings, 101st.
The only other Duke team in the past decade that comes close to that figure is 2012, the team that lost to Lehigh, which was 72nd. The next lowest ranks are 40th (2003, regional semis), 39th (2013, regional final) and 38th (2009, regional semis).
In recent Duke history, this team’s defensive inefficiency is unprecedented. Yet it also has a different set of weapons, which makes it difficult to compare to past teams. It’s been a long time since the Blue Devils had two offensive players as dangerous and versatile as Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood.
The key is making sure the offense runs through those two, especially when they exploit matchups and attack the basket, and using the 3-point shooting of Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook, Tyler Thornton and Andre Dawkins solely as a secondary source of offense.
The long-range shots from those guards can provide a quick boost or spark a run, but they can also be a cheap thrill, a dangerous one. The 5-for-20 combined effort from those four in the loss at Wake Forest in particular felt like a harbinger of eventual tournament doom.
Duke is much better off living and dying with Parker and Hood. The more they have the ball in their hands, the less they defer to their teammates, the less Duke’s defensive issues will come into play. If there’s a night when the 3-pointers aren’t falling and the defense can’t get a stop, the Blue Devils will be in trouble.
Duke is certainly capable of facing four, five, six games against quality opponents without that happening and getting back to the Final Four. It’s also capable of exiting much earlier – and in recent years, prone to doing just that.