Tuesday, January 24, 2012

While always worthy of the hype, Duke's flaws exposed annually in true-road games

Despite Duke being a great program, with a great coach and great fan base, the Blue Devils have been able to hide their flaws for the past 5 1/2 years and keep an aura of unmatched greatness.

How? Scheduling.

I've called Coach K, and whoever at Duke helps him create the Blue Devils' yearly schedule, a RPI master. The way Duke's schedule is crafted in pure genius, as it "tricks" the selection committee and its "nitty gritty" sheet into assume Duke is a lot better than it really is.

The biggest trick: Loading up on neutral-site games against teams good enough to stay in the RPI Top 100, but not good enough to contend in their own conferences, let alone handle Duke for 40 minutes. And, for the sacrificial lambs willing to play at Cameron Indoor Stadium, well, it doesn't matter who that opponent is; the Blue Devils are surely going to protect their home floor. (Let's face it, before Florida State shocked Duke on Saturday, only one ACC team in the last five years - North Carolina in 2008 and 2009 - had beaten Duke on its own floor).

The RPI formula is weighted heavily by winning road and neutral-site games while also not losing at home. Yes, it takes into account who you've played and who you've beaten and lost to, but having the, ahem, huevos, to play away from home is a big plus.

Duke knows this and the Blue Devils have made other venues their annual semi-home arenas. Madison Square Garden seemingly hosts Duke every year for at least one game and as many as three. The Greensboro Coliseum also is a Duke favorite.

(Note: NCAA rules prohibit a team from playing at a site during the NCAA Tournament that it played more than three games in during the regular season. Therefore, when Greensboro is a host site, Duke makes sure it doesn't play more than three games there).

All the types of games listed above tend to be Duke victories. With a typical year garnering at least 25 wins and either an ACC regular season or ACC Tournament title (or both), Duke gets NCAA Selection Committee love in terms of a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. It helps, as I've said, that Duke is a great program which features very good to great teams every year.

But with all Duke's nonconference success there is one major flaw: Puzzling losses.

When analyzed, the losses aren't so puzzling at all; They're actually pretty predictable. Most are on the road.

In the last 5-plus years, Duke's nonconference schedule (see graphic below) has features 12 road or semi-road games. Duke's record: 6-6.

Those dozen games include three games with St. John's. The game was always an easy victory until St John's brought in Steve Lavin last year. Naturally, with the talented Lavin pushing the right buttons and the game at the Johnnies' home gym, St. John's ran Duke off the floor, 93-78, in a game that wasn't as close as the score indicates.

The other four wins were against Temple, Purdue, Oregon and UNC-Greensboro. Obviously, those teams don't compare at all to Duke and only Purdue is a team that, at the time, was projected to make a real game out of the contest.

Check out the other five losses: Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgetown, Ohio State and Temple*. What do these games all have in common? They were against good-but-not-great teams (outside of Ohio State this season) that Duke played in a hostile environment.

(*Note: The first meeting with Temple came in a season where the Owls finished 21-12 and 11-5 in the Atlantic 10 before losing as a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament. In current Bracketology projections, Temple is as high as a No. 5 seed with an average in the 8-9 range.)

By avoiding big-time road games, Duke racks up wins in the nonconference and then, outside of North Carolina, has a relatively weak ACC to deal with each year.

It's true that Florida State and Virginia Tech, in any given year, play Duke very well and occasionally steal victories in Tallahassee and Blacksburg, respectively. Before Maryland slipped into oblivion approximately three years ago Gary Williams' team would always give Duke a battle in College Park. Add Virginia to that list this season as the Cavaliers pushed Duke to the brink in Durham before losing, 61-58 this past week. Nevertheless, the league's bottom feeders are so bad that Duke rarely breaks a sweat in home games and road games tend to provide little stress en route to ACC dominance.

No wonder Duke hasn't won fewer than 28 games since 2007. Heck, over the past 15 years, Duke has won 178 ACC regular season games, slighly less than 12 per season. In fact, just once in that decade and a half did Duke fail to win at least 11 conference games (Duke went 8-8 during the 2006-07 season). The large win total coupled with some quality neutral-site victories and ACC dominance usually results in a No. 1 or No. 2 seed for Duke.

With Greensboro being a host, Duke again plays semi-home games for the first two rounds of the tournament. It makes it much less surprising to understand how the Blue Devils had that streak of 9-straight Sweet 16s.

Due to the gaudy record and typical Sweet 16 success, most people don't realize Duke has major flaws. When do they get exposed? The next round where Duke plays a non-Duke friendly neutral-site game.

In recent years, Duke's NCAA downfalls have been in the following games: Playing Virginia Commonwealth (79-77 loss) in Buffalo; squeaking by Belmont (71-70 win) before losing to West Virginia (73-67) in Washington D.C.; getting blown out by Villanova (77-54) in Boston; and losing to Arizona (93-77) in Anaheim. All those years Duke reached the Sweet 16 before losing, the first and second rounds were played in either Greensboro or Charlotte. Talk about home cookin'!

It should be noted that Duke's 2009-10 NCAA National Championship didn't feature any type of semi-home game in the tournament. In fact, Duke won its first two games in Jacksonville, it's next two in Houston (with the Elite Eight game being against Baylor), the Final Four in Indianapolis.

Still, one great run doesn't hide the simple fact: Duke has a serious inability to win road games or semi-away games against good teams.

So, don't forget when you're handed a bracket this year and Duke is on the No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 line, pencil the Blue Devils into the Sweet 16 (the first two rounds - or, to be correct in the new format, rounds two and three - will likely be in Greensboro). Then take a serious look at the opponents and ask yourself: Will Duke really win a tough, neutral-site game against that team? Chances are 50-50 at best.

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