Duke and Syracuse’s Worst March Madness Losses

No college basketball programs are more beloved by our obsequious sports media than Duke and Syracuse. Excluding former athletes, looking at the self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader’s staff directory is akin to a Duke or Syracuse class reunion.

Mike Krzyzewski Jim BoeheimBut for all their hype, especially toward both schools’ long-time coaches, few teams underachieve so regularly when it matters most.

Despite all Dick Vitale’s fawning over “Jimmy” Boeheim, did you know the Syracuse coach didn’t win a national title until Carmelo Anthony carried him there during his 27th season at the helm? Boeheim hasn’t been back to title game since, and the Orange made just their fourth final four in four decades last spring.

While Duke used a friendly draw to win the 2010 title by a few inches over Butler, the Blue Devils lost their first tournament game in two of the last three years. They have reached just one Final Four since 2004.

Since last weekend was another choke job for Duke and Syracuse, let’s look at the five — yes, five —  most embarrassing NCAA Tournament losses in recent years by these ACC partners:



2012: Lehigh, Round of 64

Despite fading down the stretch and finishing second in the ACC with seven overall losses, Duke was still granted a No. 2 seed. The Blue Devils took on 15 seed Lehigh from the Patriot League in the round of 64. The Blue Devils couldn’t stop C.J. McCollum, and the Mountain Hawks led most of the game, finishing off Duke by five in a game played just 55 miles from Durham.

2014: Mercer, Round of 64

Again playing near campus with a partisan crowd, the Blue Devils failed to hold a five-point lead with fewer than five minutes to play against the Atlantic Sun Champs. The senior-laden Bears closed with a 20-5 run. An astounding 57 of Duke’s 71 points were scored from the free throw or three-point line.

2007: VCU, Round of 64

In arguably Duke’s worst season in the past 20 years, Coach K’s crew finished just .500 in the ACC, yet was rewarded with a No. 6 seed. VCU never led by more than two points, overcame a 13-point first-half deficit and a seven-point hole before Eric Maynor hit a jumper with two seconds left to hand the Blue Devils another opening game defeat.

1997: Providence, Second Round

Playing in their home state per usual, the No. 2 seeded Blue Devils — with nine losses on the season — were steamrolled by the 10th seeded Friars, allowing 56 second half points in a 98-87 setback.

2002: Indiana, Sweet 16

Arguably Duke’s most talented team ever (six future NBA players, 31-4 and a No. 1 seed) was defending champs and heavy favorites to win another national championship, but No. 5 Indiana, who trailed early by 17, pulled out a miracle one-point victory.


1991: Richmond, First Round

The Spiders, confused Syracuse all night, and became the first 15 seed to ever take down a No. 2. It’s still considered the biggest first-round upset in NCAA tournament history.

2005: Vermont, First Round

The Big East champs received a No. 4 seed and a short trip to central Massachusetts, but Vermont forced unprepared Syracuse into 24 turnovers and just 51 points in regulation. The Catamounts hit big shots and prevailed in overtime.

2014: Dayton, Second Round

The Orange were undefeated and top-ranked into late February, but came crashing down with five losses in their final seven contests. Disastrous close to the season notwithstanding, Syracuse still found itself as a No. 3 seed and placed just 150 miles from campus in Buffalo. The Flyers didn’t care. Unable to adjust to Dayton’s defense, Boeheim’s team didn’t make a single shot from beyond the arc for the first time in 665 games. The Flyers made the big shots late and won, 55-53.

2006: Texas A&M, First Round

The Orange finished sub .500 and ninth in conference play, but but rallied to win the Big East tournatmet on miracle shots by Gerry McNamara. Somehow this catapulted ‘Cuse to a questionable No. 5 seed, where it quickly proved unworthy. Paced by Acie Law, 12th-seeded Texas A&M rolled Syracuse, in a result probably only considered a surprise to the east coast media. The Orange were an NIT team the next two seasons.

2010: Butler, Sweet 16

In what truly began Butler’s improbable run to back-to-back national title game appearances, no one gave the Bulldogs a chance against the No. 1-seeded Orange, who were winners of 30 games. The Bulldogs had 31 victories themselves, but few media types noticed. Syracuse fans joked about Butler even showing up, yet 33-year-old Brad Stevens promptly coached rings around a man twice his age, and Boeheim’s “vaunted” 2-3 zone defense was no match for the Bulldogs’ sharp shooting, especially late. The Orange had only three more field goals than turnovers and didn’t score during the final five minutes of the game.  Unlike Coach K last week versus Mercer, the Bulldogs received little respect from New Yorkers afterwards.

We don’t hear about most of these choke jobs very often — at least not as frequently as Kansas is mocked for early exits, despite the Jayhawks never having done so as a two seed in their first game — and that’s for obvious reasons. Shouldn’t these two private schools’ fan bases and their media allies hold their hoop squads to a higher standard? Or should we just expect underachievement from an ACC that hasn’t even produced a Final Four participant since 2010?

About the Author

AJ Kaufman

A former schoolteacher and military historian, A.J. now works in public relations. As an MSF columnist since 2009, he supports anything baseball-related. Raised in San Diego, A.J. has since resided in numerous parts of America, including Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Ohio and Washington State. After departing the coasts in 2005, he's traveled the back roads of all 50 states and prefers the Heartland. Married to Maria, A.J. is the author of three books and enjoys reading presidential biographies.