The ACC has had 17 No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament since 2000, but not one has gone unbeaten in conference play. Which team was the last to accomplish that feat? You guessed it — Duke, in 1998-99.
The top-ranked Blue Devils had an impressive nonconference showing even with the loss. The blowout win against Kentucky to open the year only inflated the already sky-high expectations for the Blue Devils and the four freshmen that have largely led the team to an 11-1 start.
With Duke now in ACC play, we wanted to look at three arguments for and against the argument that Duke will go a perfect 18-0 in the ACC. We’ll start with the positive outlook for Duke fans.
Duke will go undefeated in the ACC because...
1. It has multiple NBA players
The 1998-99 Duke team had a few players you might know. Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Shane Battier. Remember them?
There were five players on that team that went on to have at least a brief career in the NBA. On this Duke team, there’s no shortage of high-end NBA talent either.
Freshmen Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones are all projected as first-round picks, per NBAdraft.net, if they decide to turn pro after this season. In order to make history in arguably college basketball’s toughest conference, there has to be pro players. Duke hasn’t won the ACC regular-season championship outright since 2006. That team had four eventual NBA players.
Big mood 💪💪💪💡💡💡🍎 pic.twitter.com/LRrIhev4TB— Duke Men’s Basketball (@DukeMBB) December 21, 2018
2. Four players can do the heavy lifting
Through 12 games, Williamson, Barrett and Reddish have all led the Blue Devils in scoring for at least one game. Tre Jones hasn’t done that yet, but he has shown in the Maui Invitational and against previously undefeated Texas Tech that he can put Duke over the top when needed.
Barrett leads the team in scoring with almost 24 points per game, followed by Williamson (19.8ppg) and Reddish (13.5ppg). Jones averages nearly nine points, but he has scored double digits in Duke’s biggest games this year: Auburn, Gonzaga and Texas Tech. Duke leads the nation in scoring margin at nearly 30 points.
In 1999, that Duke team had just one ACC game that was decided by fewer than 10 points and had three players average double figures — five that averaged at least nine points per game. This Duke squad might not reach those numbers, but there’s no doubt the four freshmen have shown in short time that each is capable of picking up the slack when another can’t produce.
3. It has a championship defense
Take the Texas Tech game for example. Sure, the Red Raiders don’t have the most potent offense in college basketball (65th in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom.com), but the Duke defense showed resilience when its offense struggled to find answers.
After Texas Tech took the lead with 6:22 remaining, the Duke defense held the Red Raiders to 0 for 11 shooting to end the game and blocked three shots. The Blue Devils are first in the nation with 8.1 blocks per game and second in steals per game at 11.2. Duke won’t always shoot 15 percent from the 3-point line like it did against Texas Tech, but it’s a good sign for Duke fans that its defense can show up late in tight games.
Alright, now for some cold-hard truth about trying to go undefeated in conference play.
Duke will not go undefeated in the ACC because…
1. It’s incredibly hard to do
There’s a reason the best teams from this conference haven’t gone undefeated since 1999. It’s very, very challenging.
When Virginia won the ACC having lost just one game last year, that was the fewest amount of ACC losses in a season since the 1999 Duke team. Now, the ACC has become much tougher since that 1999 season. Duke played just two ranked opponents in conference, beating Maryland and North Carolina twice. The ACC hasn’t had fewer than four teams in the final AP poll since 2013.
2. No breaks with conference schedule
Even in the ACC, some teams will catch a few breaks in its conference schedule having to only play a top team once instead of twice, and maybe get a few favorable home matchups in big games. Duke certainly doesn’t fit that narrative this year.
Aside from the usual home-and-home with North Carolina, Duke also has home-and-homes with Virginia and Syracuse. The Blue Devils also have a lone road matchup with Virginia Tech, Louisville, Notre Dame and Florida State. This schedule will certainly test Krzyzewski's group before March.
Welcome to the Garden, Zion! 💪pic.twitter.com/15lnDsM10S— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) December 21, 2018
3. Inside presence still a question
Yes, Duke can rebound and score in the paint, mostly due to the uber athletic Williamson, who is shooting 65 percent from the field and averages more than nine rebounds per game. While his strength and quickness makes him a great player around the rim, Duke is still missing that go-to post player.
The 6-foot-11 Marques Bolden has primarily started with the four freshmen with 6-foot-10 Javin DeLaurier getting a few starts in there as well. Neither has solidified himself as a marquee player, partly because there needs to be enough space on the floor for Williamson and Barrett to create plays for themselves.
Bolden (4.4 ppg) and DeLaurier (5.1 ppg) are averaging less than 20 minutes a game with 6-foot-7 forward Jack White getting nearly 25 minutes per game. Bolden still gets nearly three blocks per game, however having limited scoring at the center position could be an Achilles’ heel for the Blue Devils. Physical teams like Virginia could try to lock down the perimeter and clog driving lanes to dare teams to score out of the low post.