Cliché or not, this has been a strange year in college basketball.
We have Kentucky and Syracuse, seemingly number one and two nationally most of the season, still with just one loss each, on their way to incredible records. Yet, neither is anywhere near as impressive as great teams of past years with similar marks — mostly due to watered-down competition and subpar conferences.
Last fall, North Carolina was thought to have one of the great teams of all time due to multiple returning NBA lottery picks, yet has sat quietly in the five to ten polling range during 2012. Ohio State and Connecticut were also thought invincible, which has proven far from true. (The former, staring at a two or three seed at best, has been inconsistent all season in a brutally strong Big Ten; the latter is a bubble team, 9th in a down Big East.)
Then you have Michigan State, Kansas, and Missouri, all expected to have rebuilding seasons, among America’s best. Meanwhile Wichita State had been in the Pomeroy Top 10 for two months (above Duke), yet probably won’t be granted higher than a four seed.
And then there’s Duke, somehow steamrolling to another one seed March 11.
Duke Getting Credit It Doesn’t Deserve
I am not a Duke hater. I admire Coach K as a person and leader. And compared to the type of player many top teams have recruited the past 20 or so years, Duke has a roster of upstanding young men. However, this does not excuse the fact that for the third year in a row the Blue Devils are cruising toward a one seed they do not deserve.
In 2010, Purdue was locked in as the final top seed until Robby Hummel tore his ACL Feb. 24 in Minneapolis; Duke quietly took the final number one seed for March Madness, somehow was clandestinely given a cakewalk draw, and hung on to take the national title when Gordon Hayward’s desperation shot hit the rim April 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium. I was at the game, and support Butler, but Duke played even up with a “mid-major” for their first title in a decade. (The Blue Devils beat a banged-up West Virginia team, playing without its two best players, in the national semifinals 48 hours prior.)
In 2011, Duke was ranked #1 deep into January, then lost to unranked Florida State, St. John’s, and two of their final three games (non-tourney Virginia Tech and UNC). Like this year, the ACC was a weak conference; Duke lacked quality road wins; had questionable losses, yet somehow “propelled” themselves to a questionable one seed after winning three games in the meaningless ACC tourney. The Blue Devils were quickly demolished by a one-man Arizona team in the Sweet 16 a fortnight later. They were not worthy a one seed.
When Austin Rivers hit the game winning shot in Chapel Hill Feb. 8th, Duke was at its low point of the season. Coming off home losses to sloppy Florida State and enigmatic Miami, the Blue Devils were getting ripped by rival North Carolina before the freshman’s three pointer capped a furious late comeback. If the shot missed, Duke would’ve fallen out of the Top 10 and was staring a 3 seed (at best) in the NCAA Tournament.
Instead, as soon as Rivers’ shot ripped through the net, I could see the jump in the polls (voters ignored the struggles and bumped Duke to a #5 ranking) and the momentum rising on the horizon, blessed by soft scheduling. Even with a weak ACC, Duke struggled mightily to survive at home against non-tourney N.C. State and awful Virginia Tech, just as they had earlier this season at bottom-dwelling Georgia Tech. Number one seeds in March Madness don’t need 40-45 minutes to hold off inferior teams.
Duke apologists like Dick Vitale, Seth Davis, Jay Bilas and most folks at ESPN point to the school’s “quality wins” as to why they deserve a one seed. Factually, Duke’s “best” wins are the UNC game and against Kansas, Michigan and Michigan State.
The latter seem impressive, until you realize these all occurred in November before any of those young teams were what they are today. None were road games. Michigan State was unranked and traveling 3,000 miles in three short days after opening their season against UNC on the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego.
Every possible break has gone Duke’s way — again.
A December blowout loss at Ohio State, and Jan. 4 loss at Temple — well before the Owls hit their recent stride — have been ignored. Duke did not have a non-conference road win this season. Creighton, for example, who has a similar overall record to Duke yet was considered on the bubble until last week, has three.
College hoops has issues. They are nowhere near as bad as fraudulent football and the BCS, but despite the incredible success of mid-majors in March, a problem is increasingly apparent:
If you’re ranked in the top five or ten in November, schedule weakly non-conference, play in a weak “major” conference like the ACC or SEC, win 90% of your games, you’ll receive a top seed. Many have done it, but the Blue Devils will soon have done it three years in a row.
Many Americans dislike Duke’s basketball team, their coaches, their often obnoxious fans, the school itself, mainstream media hype and bias toward them, et al.
I do not have an agenda other than “exposing injustice” at the sports level — be that obvious (BCS, inordinate length of the NBA playoffs) or less obvious (incessant NFL hype, overrated Ryan Howard).
I don’t know which category Duke falls into, but I believe the objective summary I provided above is worth considering.