Ed. Note: Check the category team of the 2000s for our other entries in this feature.
As we mentioned in our earlier “Team of the 2000s” posts, we felt that the top-tier programs fell into a few clear clusters. There was some debate amongst the RTC braintrust about where certain teams fell within those clusters so we can understand if you disagree with where a team is ranked (that’s what the comment section is for). Teams in the top five either have made it to every NCAA tournament this decade (a sign of at least being respectable every season) or have a 2nd championship to bolster their case.
#4 – Duke
Overview. This will be the most controversial selection on the list because it is Duke. Love them or hate them (and I’m pretty sure that most college basketball fans hate them), the Blue Devils remain the standard that other programs are judged against. That is not to say that they are the best program of the decade (there are still three teams ahead of them), but much like the New York Yankees, who are experiencing a similar title “drought,” every fanbase judges their success against what the guys in Durham are doing. To be completely honest, I ranked Duke lower than any of the other voters, but in the end their consistency (particularly during the regular season) won out and put them ahead of some of the other elite programs. The case for Duke being ranked above the teams below it in our countdown: 82.6% (regular season winning percentage–Gonzaga is the only other team to crack 80% and they don’t play in the ACC); 7 post-season and 4 regular season ACC titles (just an absurd number when you are competing against UNC although UNC’s inconsistency helped inflate this); 10 NCAA tournament trips (look at the above summary to see how often many excellent programs have missed the NCAA tournament this decade); 8 Sweet 16 appearances (maybe Duke hasn’t been that successful during the 2nd weekend, but they have gotten there more than anybody else); and 1 national title (more on this in a bit). The case against the Blue Devils? I alluded to it earlier, as Coach K’s teams have struggled mightily in the NCAA second weekend making it to the Final 4 “just” two out of the eight times they made it to the Sweet 16. In addition, Duke’s absence of a 2nd title prevents it from claiming a spot in the top 3. Out of the team’s below it, Tom Izzo‘s Michigan State Spartans have the best argument, but Duke’s vastly superior winning percentage (82.6% vs. 72.1%) and huge edge in conference titles combined with playing in a better conference (the ACC may be down, but you never see an abomination like this come out of the ACC) and NCAA-best 8 trips to the Sweet 16 (versus 6 for the Spartans) are just enough to make up for Michigan State’s edge in Final 4 appearances (4-2 although both teams were only able to seal the deal once).
Pinnacle. As it is with any team that won a single title this decade, the choice here is simple: the 2001 title. After coming up just short with one of the most talented teams in recent history in 1999, Coach K reloaded with a class featuring Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy Jr., and Carlos Boozer. Although not quite as dominant as the group that left just before they came in (Elton Brand, William Avery, and Corey Maggette – I know he was a year after the other two, but I wasn’t going to include Chris Burgess in there), the former was able to do something the latter failed to do – win a title. Together with Shane Battier, who led the Blue Devils emotionally and in taking flops, this group made it to the Sweet 16 in 2000 before being upset by Florida. The following year the Blue Devils were able to give Coach K his 3rd title, but not before surviving three marginally tough games (vs. USC in the Elite 8, vs. Maryland in the national semifinals, and vs. Arizona in the championship game) to claim the title. The defining moment of that title game was Dunleavy Jr.’s 3-point barrage (three 3-pointers during an 11-2 run) that re-established Duke’s control of the game. One thing that will stick with Blue Devil fans forever though is their four games against Maryland, which were some of the best college basketball games you will ever see, the most memorable being the 10-point comeback in the last minute at College Park (although we are willing to debate with someone who argues that the 22-point comeback in the national semifinals might be better).
[Warning: Maryland fans may want to avoid this video.]
Tailspin. Other than the two UNC titles? The 2006-07 season. A rather mediocre Duke team went 22-11 in a season that included two separate four-game losing streaks. The latter of those losing streaks came to finish the season with the final insult coming courtesy of Eric Maynor and VCU. Much has been made on this site and others about the lack of elite talent in Durham lately, but fielding a team whose four best players were DeMarcus Nelson (junior), Josh McRoberts (sophomore), Greg Paulus (sophomore), and Jon Scheyer (freshman)… you are in big trouble. The primary explanation for this was that outside of Shelden Williams and J.J. Redick, the Blue Devils had a long string of McDonald’s All-American busts from 2002 on, with Shavlik Randolph, who left prior to that, being the most famous example.
Outlook for the 2010s: Grade: B+. Duke is still Duke and can land 5-star recruits, but it’s not like it was at the end of the last decade when Duke had its choice of McDonald’s All-Americans. Back then, one of the big controversies was if Coach K made the right choice taking Mike Dunleavy Jr. instead of Casey Jacobsen (for the younger generation of readers trust us when we say they were both actually very good college basketball players). Now it is a big deal when Duke lands the #3 shooting guard in next year’s class instead of John Wall. Duke will still be able to get a couple of top-notch recruits every year because of their tradition (it goes back to before Coach K, youngsters), Notre Dame-like TV deal with ESPN, Coach K’s stature, and the fact that it’s one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the country (mothers like to brag about the Duke degree even if it is for the infamous Sociology major). However, the Blue Devils have fallen a notch below UNC in the hearts and minds of elite recruits and that will only get worse when Coach K retires (gasp!) as their is no clear successor in line for his throne.