With four consecutive wins, Duke has played itself off the NCAA Tournament bubble and into the field of 68, according to USA TODAY Sports’ most recent bracketology breakdown.
Amid historic inexperience, attrition and general ineffectiveness — not to mention the daily roadblocks presented by conducting a season during the coronavirus pandemic — the Blue Devils’ normal expectations have been adjusted to meet one of the most challenging years in recent program history.
“I think we’re maturing,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “A lot of our veteran teams would not have won with this kind of turnaround.”
Several other college basketball blue bloods find themselves on similar postseason footing or worse, creating the potential for an NCAA Tournament bracket lacking some of the biggest names in the history of the sport.
Among those teams joining the Blue Devils on the bubble are Michigan State, North Carolina and Kentucky.
National championships are more common than tournament misses for these four historic powers, which have won five championships since the 2008-09 season and played for three more.
►Conversely, Duke hasn’t missed the NCAA Tournament since 1995, when a ruptured disk in his lower back sidelined Krzyzewski for most of the regular season.
►Kentucky has missed the tournament just twice since exiting out of NCAA penalties in the 1992 season, most recently in 2013.
►Michigan State’s last tournament absence came in 1997, in the program’s second year under longtime coach Tom Izzo.
►UNC was last out of the tournament in 2010.
And all four teams haven’t missed out on tournament play in the same year since 1973-74, when the field consisted of just 25 teams and included only conference champions and independent programs. The tournament was expanded to 32 teams the following season to include at-large bids. At least three of the four have made every tournament since 1983, two years before the NCAA widened the field to 64 teams.
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Now 11-8 overall and 9-6 in conference play, the Blue Devils close the regular season with games against Louisville, Georgia Tech and the Tar Heels, needing a sweep to virtually ensure a tournament bid and wins in at least two of three to remain on solid ground entering the ACC tournament.
UNC is 14-8 overall and 8-5 in the ACC with games remaining against Florida State, Syracuse and the Blue Devils. Efforts to boost the team’s postseason credentials, which are weighed down by just one win against opponents in Quadrant 1 of the NET rankings, backfired in Wednesday’s 83-70 loss to Marquette, a hastily scheduled non-conference pairing against the second-to-last team in the Big East standings.
“Well, if I’d known we were gonna lose, God almighty, I wouldn’t have scheduled them,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Come on. We can’t operate in damn hindsight. … If you told me we we were gonna lose, hell yeah, we wouldn’t have played the game. If you told me we were gonna beat the Lakers, I’d have scheduled them.”
Michigan State sits at 13-9 overall and just 7-9 in the Big Ten, in danger of posting a losing record in conference play for the first time since 1992-93. The Spartans’ home stretch features Maryland, Indiana and a home-and-home series against rival Michigan.
Kentucky’s postseason hopes are far more dire. The Wildcats are 8-13 overall and 7-7 in the SEC, during a season that has seen the conference offer upward of eight teams for tournament consideration. Like Duke, however, Kentucky has reeled off three straight SEC wins to carve out momentum entering the home stretch of the regular season.
Well, if I’d known we were gonna lose, God almighty, I wouldn’t have scheduled them.
UNC coach Roy Williams on the Tar Heels’ loss to Marquette
The possibility of a bracket short of historic blue bloods raises several concerns, none bigger than the impact on television ratings for this year’s tournament without traditional brands in attendance.
Viewership was up dramatically in 2019, one year after the tournament posted the lowest championship game numbers since expansion in 1975. But those numbers were driven in no small part by Duke and star forward Zion Williamson, who were bounced from the tournament in the regional finals; games featuring the Blue Devils posted the highest ratings of the first round, second round and Elite Eight.
“I still think that March Madness, because of this rainbow of people and places that tune in, especially during the first weekend, and the fact that sports gambling has continued to grow, will drive a big number,” said Joe Favorito, a veteran sports media consultant. “I think you will still see that, especially during the first few rounds.”
A tournament field without multiple blue bloods would not be devoid of national brands. Three teams from the Big Ten — Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois — round out the top five of this week’s Ferris Mowers Coaches Poll. Close behind are No. 7 Alabama and No. 8 Oklahoma. The tournament may also be defined by top-ranked Gonzaga’s efforts to become the first team to go unbeaten since Indiana in 1975-76.
Sunday’s matchup on CBS between the Wolverines and Ohio State, won by Michigan, drew in an average of 2.63 million viewers, making it the most-watched game of the regular season and the most-watched game on CBS in nearly two years.
Meanwhile, last month’s Duke-UNC game on ESPN was the least-watched game in the rivalry since at least 2007, according to Sports Media Watch, suggesting that quality of play and national impact may trump name recognition.
A tournament lacking the sport’s biggest draws — programs that fans love or love to hate, with emphasis on the latter — would put that theory to the test.
“March Madness has always been the perfect story of heroes and villains,” Favorito said. “As things play out, you’re probably going to find a few more Cinderellas. But you’ll still have household names that will make it to the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.”
Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg