I keep hearing that Duke stands a good chance of earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and when I hear something like that enough times in March, even very early March, I tend to give it some credence. The NCAA tournament selection committee hands out those top seeds based in large part on the number of good wins that a team records (and on the number of bad losses that they do not suffer), and, as we'll see, on this metric the Blue Devils do indeed look very strong. But I'm here with a word of caution for you as you fill out your bracket this season. You should know that if Mike Krzyzewski's men do indeed earn a No. 1 seed, they'll be the weakest team we've seen on the top line in years.
To be sure, Duke can claim what would appear to be a very impressive resume. Heading into their season finale against North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium this weekend, Mike Krzyzewski's team is tied for first atop the ACC at 13-2 along with the Tar Heels. The Blue Devils are 26-4 overall, a record that includes wins over UNC, Kansas, Michigan State, and Michigan. That's an incredible collection of notches for any team to put on its belt. It's entirely possible that all of the above will be among the first 12 teams seeded on the S-curve by the selection committee. If "good wins" are the test, you can make a case that Duke looks as strong as any team in the country.
A closer look, however, shows just how unusual this year's Duke team really is. Ordinarily we would expect that a team with a resume that good would be much more effective on a possession-by-possession basis. That's not the case with the Blue Devils in 2012. Coach K's team has played 1,012 possessions in ACC action, and over that time they've scored 1,136 points while allowing 1,010. It takes a really good team to post numbers like that, of course, but we're no longer talking about who's "really good." We're talking about a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, something awarded annually to just four out of 300-plus Division I programs. And measured against that lofty standard, Duke doesn't look so good. In fact they look historically weak.
This is partly but not primarily a case where Duke has won an unusual number of close games and thus can be branded as "lucky." On the one hand the team did get some good breaks late in the game in Chapel Hill, and certainly their overtime win over Virginia Tech could have gone either way. But fans of the Blue Devils will also be quick to remind you that both of their team's conference losses -- to Florida State and Miami, both at Cameron Indoor -- came down to the final seconds. It turns out that a team performing at Duke's level would ordinarily be expected to win perhaps 12 of its 15 conference games. In fact Coach K's team has won 13, but that's by no means the largest such discrepancy I've seen between performance and results.
No, the larger issue is simply the actual level of Duke's performance relative to what is an unusually weak ACC. It's no mistake that in the past couple years the Blue Devils' league has started losing that annual Challenge they play against the Big Ten. The conference has indeed dipped in overall strength. Assuming either Duke or North Carolina is given a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, the 2012 ACC will have the lowest Pomeroy rating of any league to place a team on the top line since Conference USA sent John Calipari-era Memphis into the 2008 tournament as a top seed.
The weakness of the league is not within Duke's control, of course, but how well they play against that weak league is. The Blue Devils have outscored their conference opponents by 0.12 points per possession. Conversely, the average major-conference team given a No. 1 seed over the past five seasons has outscored their league by 0.16 points per trip. (Coincidentally North Carolina's in-conference scoring margin at the moment is +0.16.) Meaning Duke suffers from something of a double evaluative whammy. Compared to past No. 1 seeds, Coach K's team has outscored their unusually weak conference by an unusually small margin.
If you're thinking all this doubt surrounding a team in Durham sounds vaguely familiar, you're right. Two years ago another Duke team triggered a healthy dose of skepticism, even as the committee handed that group of Blue Devils a No. 1 seed. As it happens Coach K's men went on to win the national championship that year. But in 2010 Duke actually had a much stronger team, one that outscored a significantly tougher ACC by 0.18 points per possession. That team -- which featured Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith, and Brian Zoubek -- was widely held to be lacking in talent and athleticism, but even before that year's NCAA tournament the track record of 1,054 in-conference possessions showed that whatever else those Blue Devils may have been, they were very good at basketball.
And, granted, in 2012 Duke is once again very good at basketball -- at least certain parts of it. We know for instance that Austin Rivers can most certainly make a big shot when it matters most. By the same token Ryan Kelly is in many ways Duke summed up in just one player. The 6-11 junior is an exceptionally efficient performer on offense, one who manages to combine a fair number of makes from beyond the arc with frequent trips to the line. The Blue Devils as a team are good at both those things, and as a result Krzyzewski has, easily, the best offense in the ACC.
What sets Duke apart from other recent No. 1 seeds, however, is their defense. It isn't bad, mind you, but it is average, allowing ACC opponents to score one point per possession. No team seeded on the top line in recent years has been as bad at either offense or defense as Duke is at defense this year. In fact that statement is true even relative to recent No. 2 seeds.
Now the good news for Duke fans. Take everything dire and pessimistic I've just said about the Blue Devils, magnify it by a factor of five, and all of the above would fit last year's Connecticut team like a glove. The Huskies were thoroughly mediocre all season long, went just 9-9 in conference play, caught fire at the opening tip of the Big East tournament, and never looked back. This year's Blue Devils, average defense and all, are night-and-day better than UConn was last year during the regular season. Maybe Coach K's men will make some needed defensive adjustments and prove the skeptics and nay-sayers wrong. Stranger things have happened, goodness knows.
For the purposes of your bracket, however, you should definitely keep in mind that not all No. 1 seeds, or even all recent top-seeded Duke teams, are created equal.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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