Duke's Down Season Is Still Better Than Most

In case you've missed it, the Duke Blue Devil mens' basketball program is in the midst of its worst season in a decade. Streaks have been broken, and several former doormats have extracted revenge on this flawed and vulnerable group. This has been highlighted tremendously by local and national media, not to mention every college hoops message board. But is this season worthy of such attention?

With the most inexperienced roster in more than 50 years, Duke has failed to finish ranked among the nation's top 25 programs - and fell out of the rankings earlier this season for the first time in more than 200 weeks, failed to make the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, and earned its lowest NCAA Tournament seed since 1996. To make matters worse Duke raced out to an 18-3 overall start before losing seven of its final 11 games to finish with 10 losses - just the third time since the 1983-1984 season that's happened.

That's all been well documented. Countless articles have been written, and just as many talking heads have dissected this team on the radio and television. All have come to the same conclusion - the nation's most recognized and hated program isn't reloading like usual - they are clearly rebuilding. So much so that several opposing players have commented that beating Duke this year isn't the same as it once was.

"I don't think it's the same Duke team," N.C. State's Gavin Grant said after the Wolfpack bounced the Blue Devils last Thursday. "I don't think it has any more talent than we do. Maybe more players, but not more talent."

Still, Duke has managed to win more than 20 games and grabbed a top six seed in the NCAA Tournament. That's the kind of season many programs would call a rousing success. In Durham it's the leanest year in more than a decade. But before any more negativity is heaped on this year's Blue Devils, perhaps an examination of the preseason polls is in order.

A look at this season's initial AP and Coaches' Poll reveals four very distinct cases of teams 'under-achieving' far more severely than Duke.

Connecticut: The Huskies, like Duke, were devastated with off season departures after last season, leaving head coach Jim Calhoun with a roster full of highly touted freshmen playing big roles. Just like the Blue Devils, Connecticut was ranked in the preseason polls. 18th in both to be exact. Clearly the media expected the recent string of success enjoyed by Calhoun's program to continue with another NCAA Tournament berth. As we head into the initial week of March Madness, Connecticut isn't among the 65 teams with a shot to make it to the Final Four. In fact the Huskies are no longer playing, as they didn't even garner an invitation to the NIT.

Preseason Ranking: 18/18
Overall Record: 17-14
Post Season Invite: None

Louisiana State: After knocking the Blue Devils in the Sweet 16 en route to an appearance in the National Title game a season ago, the Tigers also find themselves at home watching March Madness. They're also watching the NIT after failing to earn an invitation there as well. Sure, they suffered NBA defections with the loss of big man Tyrus Thomas, but they returned preseason Wooden Award candidate Glenn Davis, and were picked extremely high in the preseason polls. In the preseason AP Poll LSU was ranked fifth in the country, while the Coaches' Poll slotted them as the nation's seventh best team. With all that talent, and all that experience, LSU coach John Brady guided his team to just a 17-15 overall record and no post season.

Preseason Ranking: 5/7
Overall Record: 17-15
Post Season Invite: None

Alabama: The Crimson Tide entered the 2006-2007 season as a trendy pick to make some serious noise in March. That may very well still be the case, but it'll have to happen in the NIT as Mark Gottfried's team couldn't convert those preseason rankings of 11th (AP) and 12th (Coaches) into a NCAA Tournament bid. Alabama did win 20 games, but an early exit in the SEC tournament coupled with a 2-6 record in their final eight prevented an NCAA Tournament nod.

Preseason Ranking: 11/12
Overall Record: 20-11
Post Season Invite: NIT

Arizona: Having a roster with several future NBA players and a preseason top 10 ranking usually garners up images of not only a gaudy record and a top conference finish, but also a high NCAA Tournament seed. That's exactly what the Wildcats had going into the 2006-2007 season. Instead Lute Olsen's club finished with 20-10 overall mark (that concluded with a 20 point shellacking at the hands of Oregon in the first round of the Pac 10 Tournament) and a date with Purdue in the 8/9 game of the Midwest Region. Should the Wildcats get by the Boilermakers, they'll be rewarded with Florida. Clearly the season Olsen's team has put together would be the envy of a vast majority of other programs. But after being ranked 9th in the AP and 10th in the Coaches' poll, it's a wonder the national media hasn't focused more attention on a disappointing season in Tuscon in which the team didn't live up to its usual high expectations.

Preseason Ranking: 9/10
Overall Record: 20-10
Post Season Invite: 8 Seed NCAA Midwest Regional

Despite the varying levels of disappointment and failure to live up to the lofty preseason rankings, there has been very little, if any, mention by the national media on any of these four programs' seasons. But there's been no shortage of analysis on why Duke isn't Duke this season, or why beating the Blue Devils isn't as special as it once was. It's a testament to the past successes and consistent level of excellence achieved by Mike Krzyzewski's program over the years.

If the season ended today, as it has in Storrs and Baton Rouge, the 2006-2007 body of work would be the least impressive since 1995-1996 season. However, the Blue Devils have a chance to buck that classification beginning Thursday against VCU - which is more than some of the other preseason "elites" can say - but you probably won't hear about them.

The Devils Den Top Stories