Let’s suppose, for just a minute, that the Duke men’s basketball team lost to Baylor last night. Imagine the sports headlines: “Duke washes out again,” “Blue Devils can’t win the big ones,” “K is for Kaput.” I have read so many stories that note that “Duke hasn’t been to the Final Four since 2004,” that it’s time for a deep breath and some perspective.
Let’s start with that last point. “Since 2004,” — all of five tournaments — twelve teams have made it to the Final Four. So if shame and ignominy befall teams that fall short of that mark, there’s a lot of ignominy going around the men’s college hoops world. If we were to apply the “hasn’t been to the Final Four since…” tag to each team, only a dozen teams would be able to boast nearly as recent a trip to the finals as Duke has.
What has Duke done during that miserable, disappointing interval? They made it to the NCAA tournament every year (where they were first seeds twice, second seeds twice), compiled a 139-34 won-loss record, and won two ACC tournaments. They were eliminated from the NCAA tournament earlier than their seeding would predict each year — that’s true, and no Duke fan wanted those early exits. But to suggest that a team with that record of achievement was somehow in a slump overlooks the unlikelihood that you could find more than five teams to equal Duke’s success (I’m thinking of UNC and UCLA; no other programs showed comparably consistent accomplishment, as far as I can recall, but I don’t pay as close attention as I did once upon a time). Again, we’re setting the bar of success awfully high at that point.
Now, someone will say, “But Duke expects more,” and that’s also true — true because, by and large, Duke has established a record of consistent success to which very few programs in history can be compared, and has done so in a highly competitive conference. To that extent, one might say that for the past five years, Duke has “underachieved.” Even that, however, misses crucial points about the postseason tournament. To start with, practically every team that makes the tournament has lost at least one game to a lesser adversary. It happens during the season; there’s no reason it won’t happen during the tournament. Only one highly-regarded team in the nation wins its last six games, whereas most teams lose at least one game out of six in their regular schedule (and all the more so if one factors out the games against mismatched opponents). In the past five tournaments, Duke lost its one game earlier than its partisans would have liked; but everyone — fans and adversaries alike — should balance being disappointed with a program over a relatively short run (on one hand) with regarding the extremely rare record of achievement over a longer run.
So, we did in fact win yesterday, against a very impressive Baylor team (and against a tough Purdue team on Friday); but that’s not so very much more outstanding an accomplishment than the past five years have racked up, nor is it fair to treat those past five years as a let-down. An off stretch for Duke would the highlight of many programs’ history. If we win one or two games next weekend, it’ll be great, and I’ll be proud. But I won’t be much more proud than I am of a team that’s show astonishingly strong performances year over year for more than twenty-five years.