The Cases For & Against a Duke Unbeaten Season

Posted by rtmsf on December 8th, 2010

If you haven’t heard, this year’s Duke team is pretty darn good.  The defending national champions are loaded with talent on every area of the court and they’ve looked mighty impressive in the pre-conference slate against an impressive cast of characters — #5 Kansas State, #6 Michigan State, Marquette and defending runner-up, Butler.  As great teams are expected to do, they’ve  handled the contenders and destroyed the pretenders on their way to an 8-0 record. According to Ken Pomeroy’s latest figures, the Blue Devils have the most efficient offense in the nation and the fifth-most efficient defense — their efficiency margin of 36.8 points per 100 possessions is the best around, and they’ve been doing it against a schedule that rates in the top 25 through the first month of the season.  On most nights, the talented combination of playmakers featuring the versatile trio of Kyrie Irving, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler will be enough to secure another win for Coach K’s team; on the rare night when the offense sputters, the Blue Devil defense will keep the game close until the last few possessions, and Duke will have arguably the best point guard in the game handling the rock in crunch time. What’s not to like?

One of the Few Things Coach K Hasn't Done is Go Unbeaten

With the usually-reliable ACC looking like a mangled mess of mediocrity outside of Durham this year, some of the early-season buzz has already noted that Duke has gotten through the toughest part of its 2010-11 regular season schedule.  Liberally allowing for many of those good-not-great teams (i.e., Virginia Tech, UNC, Maryland, BC, etc.) to put it together and make the NCAA Tournament this year, Duke will have at most between 6-10 remaining games against quality competition the rest of the way, making for an interesting barstool debate over whether the Devils can run the table this season.  The argument goes as such:

  1. The remaining nonconference schedule is manageable.  Even considering the ACC as down (see #2), there are seven more non-conference games on the slate.  The next four — Bradley, St. Louis, Elon, UNC-Greensboro — are home or quasi-home games that Duke should have no trouble with.  Two others — UAB and Temple — are also home games that they typically win, although they’ll need to perform well against the Owls.  The last — a roadie to play St. John’s in another familiar environment, Madison Square Garden — is interesting on its face but will ultimately depend on how much Steve Lavin’s team progresses over the next two months.
  2. The ACC is down, way down.  In a typical year the best team in the ACC can expect to be put through the ringer with trips to Maryland, UNC, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, NC State, Florida State, etc., pending.  Duke has all of those road games on the schedule, but already half of those teams have lost home games this year, and all of them will eventually.  The essential point is that if you’re not good enough to generally protect your home court against the likes of Stetson, Virginia or even Florida, you’re not likely to do so against Duke, an outfit that prides itself on road conference wins.
  3. Duke is not a team that is prone to many letdowns.  There are some schools that for whatever reason do not seem to take the regular season as seriously as they do the postseason.  Michigan State comes to mind immediately, but there are others.  Coach K has never been one of those coaches — in fact, a common critique through the mid-late 2000s was that he wore his teams down by overworking them during the regular season so that they had nothing left in the tank for the NCAAs.  Still, the Devils more than any other team and regardless of personnel tend to come strong all year long.  It’s difficult to catch them snoozing, one of the key recipes for a team to pull a major upset.
  4. The Blue Devils will be heavily favored the rest of the way.  According to KenPom’s current analysis, Duke is no less than a 74% favorite for any single remaining game the rest of the way.  For most individual games they’ll be a 90+% favorite, which equates to double-figures on the point spread; and in terms of racking up consecutive wins, the point of the season where odds are no longer in their favor doesn’t occur until a late January game against Boston College — a substantial twelve games from now.  Pomeroy currently gives Coach K’s team a 10.46% chance of finishing the regular season at 31-0, a fairly high number for so early in the season.
  5. Duke has already proven it can sweep the postseason.  Assuming Duke gets through the regular season unscathed, they’ve already proven the capability of sweeping through the postseason.  The ACC Tournament will have the same teams that couldn’t get it done against them in the regular season, the site is once again in Greensboro, and oh-by-the-way, Duke has won nine of the last twelve of these conference shindigs.  At 34-0, that would leave presumably the most difficult part: the NCAA Tournament.  With the first two rounds in Charlotte and an overmatched #16 and #8/#9 winner, 36-0 would seem an obvious result.  Then, at the regionals, even with a #1 seed as talented as Duke, it’s difficult to say what may happen.  But you’d have to think that with its talent, experience and coaching, the Blue Devils would have a better shot than anyone remaining in the field to finish out with four more wins and complete the unprecedented 40-0 season.

That’s how the logic flows, at least.  Is it possible?  Sure.  Is it probable?  No way.  When you’re talking about a perfect season in this sport, so many variables have to go your way that the likelihood of even great teams running the table all the way through the postseason is next to nothing.  So let’s outline the reasons why it’s fun to prattle on about it, but it’s not actually going to happen

The Last Unbeaten: 1976 Indiana Hoosiers

  1. History says so.  The last team that ran the regular season table all the way through was St. Joseph’s in 2004, and St. Joe’s plays in the Atlantic 10, in case you’d forgotten.  The A-10 is a good league, but even in its best year, it doesn’t have the quality of depth or talent of the ACC in its worst season.  The last team before that?  UNLV in 1991.  At the time, the Runnin’ Rebels played in the Big West and were also widely recognized as one of the most talented teams to ever lace up their sneakers.  And by the way, neither Phil Martelli’s Hawks nor Jerry Tarkanian’s Rebs won the national title.  Before that?  Indiana in 1976.  If anyone here thinks that this year’s Duke team is as dominant as that IU team was relative to its landscape, you should just stop reading right here.  Bottom line: it’s really, really hard to run the table in the regular season alone, and it usually requires a situation where elite players are beating up on a mid-major league.  The postseason, as we know, is a whole different animal filled with pressure and really talented teams ready to take shots at #1.
  2. Even great teams lose games.  Some of the best teams we’ve ever seen play the game of basketball lost a game or two, even if they shouldn’t have.  1982 North Carolina, 1985 Georgetown, 1990 UNLV, 1996 Kentucky, 1999 UConn, 2007 Florida…  all of these unbelievably talented national champs lost games during the regular season.  Whether it was because of an off night, a tendency to get bored with winning, foul trouble to key players, or an opponent’s great game plan against a subtle weakness, the point is that it happens and we should always expect it eventually.  This is especially true in the post-modern era of 1-and-done players where the most talented teams are often generally some of the least experienced. 
  3. Injuries.  One of the best few teams of the modern era was Krzyzewski’s last back-to-back champion, the 1991-92 Blue Devils of Laettner/Hurley/Hill.  The ACC was considerably stronger than it is now, but Duke’s two losses that season can be somewhat attributed to Bobby Hurley’s broken foot that kept him out of the lineup for several games.  This year Duke’s depth in the backcourt is outstanding with Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins available to pick up the slack, but a serious injury to one of the Plumlees or Kyle Singler would cause Coach K to go small and potentially put the Devils in trouble against a talented team with size.  A single tweak to an ankle or hand injury could end all talk of an unbeaten season very quickly. 
  4. It’s much harder taking everyone’s best shot.  One of the reasons that the back-to-back Duke and Florida teams are held in such high esteem among basketball people is that it’s one thing to sneak up on some folks once and win a national title; it’s quite another to bring the majority of the same team back and do it again.  As if Duke wasn’t already the opponent every team circles on its schedule, the target becomes amplified when they’re #1 in the polls all season and the pressure to repeat begins to mount.  There wasn’t as much pressure on St. Joseph’s in 2004 because they weren’t the defending champs and nobody (especially Billy Packer) believed they were a legitimate title contender anyway.  UNLV faced considerable pressure to go wire-to-wire, but as we know an embarrassed bunch of Blue Devils had something to prove and caught Tark’s team on an off night in the Final Four.  The 1992 Duke and 2007 Florida teams, by comparison, actually relieved a considerable amount of the media attention and pressure on their players by losing some games along the way.  If Duke were to make it to mid-February with an unblemished record, the amount of pressure the Devils would face would be incomprehensible — would a team featuring a superbly talented but still-green point guard crack?
  5. No team is perfect, even Duke.  There’s a tendency in modern media to exaggerate everything, including just how good teams today are in comparison with teams of the past.  This Duke team is excellent, but they have weaknesses.  In the modern game, we recognize that there are no complete products; but Duke is showing some early signs of trouble areas.  For one, they aren’t defending the three nearly as well as they did last season — giving up a conversion rate 4% higher (28 to 32%) than the national title team.  Four percent may not seem like much, but it suggests that Duke’s defense may have trouble shutting down a hot shooting team from outside as easily as it did last year — and a few more timely threes can mean the difference between a win or a loss.  Additionally, Duke’s work on the offensive glass hasn’t been as strong with the loss of center Brian Zoubek — the Plumlees are usually going to be good enough, but again, a few extra offensive possessions a game with Duke’s firepower can be critical.  Finally, so far this season opponents for one reason or another are only making 55% of their free throws against the Devils; certainly we’d expect those numbers to rise to a more normal distribution in the 70% range with time.  These may seem like nitpicks, but each component adds up to something significant, and in a single game scenario all it takes is a failure in one of these three weaker areas to put an end to the quest for an undefeated season.

So which case seems more convincing to you?  Obviously it takes no moxie for us to say something won’t happen, whereas to walk out on the long, narrow limb and claim that a 40-0 season is coming to an arena near you is incredibly confident.  Or stupid, we’re not sure which.  Either way we’re not willing to take that plunge, but we’d be happy to listen to counterarguments if someone wants to pick it up and run with it.  Until then, here’s our Devil of a prediction: Duke will go 29-2 in the regular season and 36-3 overall

rtmsf (3774 Posts)


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8 Responses to “The Cases For & Against a Duke Unbeaten Season”

  1. Matt says:

    I think Duke has a strong chance to go unbeaten in the regular season. I think it’ll take a close to perfect endeavor by one of the top ACC squads (right now at Maryland and at Chapel Hill look the most threatening), but I think Duke has the firepower to overcome those scares. That said, teams become better when they lose the invincibility aura. A lot of times losing games gives the coaches ample leverage to make necessary changes. So in that sense, I think a loss or two in the regular season would help Duke tremendously.

    But even if they go undefeated in the regular season, the NCAA tourney is impossible to predict. Upsets like last year might knock out Kansas, Michigan State, Pitt, and Ohio State before they get a shot at the Blue Devils. It’s fun to talk about, but the beautiful thing about the tournament is it’s totally unpredictable. What looks like a hard road is made into an easy one by a couple of upsets.

    So it’s pretty easy to argue that Duke will or will not go undefeated in the regular season. But so far this team doesn’t feel lightyears ahead of the competition, and unless that changes it’s tough to hand them the Big Dance without seeing the match-ups.

  2. Matt B. says:

    Thank you for the analysis. I agree with everything regarding Duke, but I can’t help but think the exact opposite about your last point regarding people exaggerating current teams vs. the past. I think that more often, people tend to get old man syndrome and remember the good old days very fondly vs. the present. Past champions always get put on a pedestal because time has worn away memories of the flaws that those teams had, while flaws of current teams are at the fore front.

    As for your prediction, I find it deliciously ambiguous. In an article where you point out two sides of a coin, your record specific prediction allows for two possibilities. 36-3 after a 29-2 season means either that Duke loses the ACC semis and wins the National Title or they win the ACC and then lose in the National Semis. If you meant to have just one (likely the latter) that’s cool, but major props are due if you purposefully left it ambiguous.

  3. garik16 says:

    Heh. Undefeated is fun and all, but well, still way too early to talk about it. Every team has a bad game and opponents have good games…it just takes one game where both happens and bam, a loss.

    If Duke beats Maryland on February 2, then we can start talking about it for fun. Until then, long season to go.

  4. SA says:

    @Maryland, @Virginia Tech, @Carolina. Road games and those teams always play Duke tough. Virginia Tech is always that team in the days leading up to Selection Sunday saying “hey, we beat so and so” and that doesn’t look like it’ll change this year. I haven’t seen Maryland at all this season except for their last second win against CofC (and as a CofC student and fan gaaah) but if that’s the best they can do then they’ll need a big win too. I’m convinced Carolina is better then what we’ve seen so far. Plus rivalry game, last game of the season, etc.

    As a Duke fan I would LOVE to see them go undefeated. And if you want to go undefeated this is the year to do it, especially since the ACC is down. I just think it won’t happen. I say they lose two out of those three games I mentioned, @Maryland and @Carolina. They’ll still be the #1 overall team in the tournament though.

    (See how I didn’t talk about the tournament? Matt said it all above. Plus, I’m superstitious about this stuff. Don’t judge me.)

  5. rtmsf says:

    MattP – I dunno, I think Pomeroy is right at about 10%. To me that’s not very strong. The Devils don’t have the look of a juggernaut to me, at least not yet, and that’s ultimately what we’re talking about. If they’re playing relatively close games often enough, eventually they will lose one of them. Good points on the NCAAs, although I think we can safely slot the Devils into the Sweet 16 (just like Kansas last year, right?). Haha. Agree as well on the losing a game theory — it refocuses everyone from players to coaches and relieves a huge amt of the pressure buildup.

    MattB – I understand the old man syndrome, but it does cut both ways. Sometimes the crush of the modern media starts feeding off of itself, and before you know it, the 2009 Tar Heels are being discussed as an all-time great team when they’re really not one. Thanks for the ambiguity props — I’ll certainly leave it to you to decide which one I meant.

    Garik/SA – appreciate the comments, as always. It’s WAAAAAY early, but we’ve heard enough buzz already that we thought it was a post. Trust me, this’ll be discussed ad nauseum the further Duke heads down this path. I for one kinda hope they make a run at it. I enjoy the discussion.

  6. garik16 says:

    Agreed. Not complaining about the post, I’m just commenting on the buzz being silly this early.

  7. Peter, Dallas says:

    Add another reason to “why it won’t happen:” math. Even as a prohibitive favorite in 16 of its remaining 23 games (90+% chance of winning each game), Duke only has a 10% chance to complete the regular season undefeated – never mind the ACC and NCAA Tourneys. As of today, Kansas has a better chance of going undefeated (11%). (#s from KenPom.com).

    When should we start “considering” it? If Duke reaches 15-0, running the table up to its first real test (@FSU), the odds to go undefeated (regular season only) would still only be 13%. At 20-0, when the media just won’t be able to help talking about it, the odds would still only be about 25%. They don’t reach even-odds (50%) unless Duke hits 25-0 after the game @Miami. It doesn’t become “likely” unless Duke gets past @VaTech at 29-0 – and even then, the odds are still only about 73%.

  8. rtmsf says:

    Nice work on that Peter. Of course, without Irving, forget about it.

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