Duke recently rose to fifth in the latest AP Poll for Duke. For those who follow me on twitter, I have consistently said that it is too high of a ranking for Duke at this point in the season. I believe they should be in the top ten, but they are not quite top five worthy just yet. Being a top five team can be viewed in multiple ways. The AP Poll is usually a look at teams based on their resume, similarly to the way the NCAA selection committee grades teams for selection into the NCAA Tournament. There are also statistical rankings, like KenPom, and the eye test, which can show different things that a pure resume cannot show. Either way someone looks at it, I am not convinced that Duke has reached top five status, yet.
While Duke has played the 13th ranked strength of schedule based on KenPom, their record and lack of top quality wins holds them back from having a top 5 resume. Three of their losses have come against top 10 teams, so they can easily be forgotten. Losses against unranked Notre Dame and Clemson are much less excusable. Duke has a few quality wins, against Michigan, UCLA, Virginia and Pittsburg, but they are not as good as other top teams can offer. With the lack of a true top notch win, and two bad losses, there is not a great argument that Duke should be ranked ahead of Syracuse, Florida, Wichita State, Arizona, San Diego State, Cincinnati, Kansas and Villanova. Each team offers a better win than Duke’s best and has avoided bad losses.
So far this season, Duke’s best win would likely be Virginia or Michigan, with two unranked losses. Syracuse boasts wins over Villanova and Duke and has yet to lose this season. Florida has wins over Kansas, Memphis and Kentucky and their two losses are to ranked teams. Wichita State has not played a tough schedule but did win at St Louis, better than any win Duke has, and also has not lost. Arizona has two unranked losses but has better wins than Duke, against Duke and Michigan. San Diego State has one unranked win but has beaten Kansas, something Duke failed to do. Cincinnati has three unranked losses but they were not as bad as Notre Dame and Clemson and they also hold wins over Memphis, Louisville and UConn. Kansas has six losses, although none should be classified as bad losses, and has a plethora of top rated wins. Villanova has zero unranked losses and holds wins over Kansas and Iowa. All of these teams may not be as talented as Duke, but their resume this season shows they should be ranked ahead of Duke.
Going into this week, where Duke plays North Carolina and Syracuse, I believe Duke should be ranked ninth based on their resume. This week could greatly change that ranking, but Duke needs to prove themselves against top teams before they receive a top quality grade. Their talent may speak to a top five grade but their resume does not match that yet.
Based on talent, statistics, and the eye test, there is a much better argument that Duke is a top five caliber team. Duke boasts some of the best talent in the ACC, with a NCAA player of the year candidate and many other top players on their team. Duke has multiple top players as well as talented depth that other teams cannot offer. Duke may have struggled at times to fit together, but they are beginning to come around as a team. Once the tournament comes, where Duke should be fully mature as a team, they have a great chance at making a run in the tournament.
KenPom statistical rankings also put Duke in the top 5, but are not totally convincing that Duke should be there. Duke has gotten their ranking off their offense, ranked first by KenPom’s adjusted offensive ratings. Their defense has not faired quite as well, currently ranked 78th, after being in the 100’s during parts of the year. If their defense continues to improve, Duke will have a much better chance at winning games against top ranked opponents. It should be noted that the last ten National Champions have been ranked in the top 20 for adjusted offense and defense and currently only Florida, Syracuse, and Louisville fit the bill. This does not mean doomsday for Duke, as KenPom also has not seen an offense as efficient as Duke since it began in 2003. KenPom ranks Duke fourth and that gives reason for comfort.
Finally, the eye test, especially in Duke’s recent stretch, seems to show Duke turning the corner in their last 9 games, Duke has just one loss, in overtime to Syracuse. Duke has six double digit wins in the stretch, with two close wins over seventh ranked (KenPom) Virginia and Maryland. Duke appears to be turning the corner in their season and this could mean great things for the rest of the season.
In short, I do not believe Duke is a top five team yet. This could definitely change with Duke’s 3 day stretch against North Carolina and Syracuse. If Duke can win both games, they will be very worthy of a top five ranking and a potential one seed. They will also likely show themselves as a team with the talent and ability to beat just about anyone in the country. Everyone knows how important these two games will be for Duke, and they will be a great measuring stick for how they will finish the season. Two wins will prove they are potential force. A loss, while it may not be a bad loss, may show they are not quite there yet.