For the second year in a row, Duke will miss the NCAA Tournament. And, one could argue, it is because of COVID-19.
A year after all of college basketball missed out on the 2020 NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils could once again be absent from March Madness. At 13-11 on the season, Duke likely needed an ACC Tournament championship — or, at least, a berth in the title game — to earn a bid to the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
However, coach Mike Krzyzewski and Co. had their season cut short again Thursday after it was reported the team had a COVID-19 positive. That forced its quarterfinal meeting with 2-seed Florida State to be canceled, with the Seminoles advancing with no contest.
“We are disappointed we cannot keep fighting together as a group after two outstanding days in Greensboro,” Krzyzewski said in a statement. “This season was a challenge for every team across the country, and, as we have seen over and over, this global pandemic is very cruel and is not yet over. As many safeguards as we implemented, no one is immune to this terrible virus.”
That said, there is a chance — however small — the Blue Devils could make the NCAA Tournament, though not in a way Krzyzewski would prefer. If that falls through, Duke’s incredible streak of made NCAA Tournaments — not including 2020 — is over. Below is everything you need to know about Duke’s streak:
When is the last time Duke missed the NCAA Tournament?
The last time Duke missed the NCAA Tournament was in 1994-95; that Blue Devils limped to the end of the season with a 13-18 record, finishing the year with a second-round ACC Tournament loss to Wake Forest. Duke had a fairly good reason for its abysmal season, a year after it made the NCAA championship game: Krzyzewski had to miss the majority of the season — leaving after the team’s first 12 games — to seek treatment to his back and recover from exhaustion.
Krzyzewski led the team to a 9-3 record before sitting out the remainder of the season, which included wins over No. 23 Michigan and No. 17 Georgia Tech (but also a loss to No. 16 UConn). Assistant Pete Gaudet took over for Krzyzewski, leading the team to its disappointing record that included four streaks of at least three straight losses and 10 defeats to ranked teams. The Blue Devils also lost two games to rival North Carolina.
Even then, Duke was at a point where missing the tournament was rare: After Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils missed the tournament in his first three seasons (1980-83), the team made the NCAA Tournament 11 straight years. The Blue Devils won at least one game in every tournament in that stretch, made six Final Fours, won runner-up three times and twice won the national championship.
If Duke does not make March Madness in 2021, it won’t just break a streak of 24 made NCAA Tournaments; it will also miss March Madness for only the second time in 35 seasons (not including 2020).
Duke basketball record 2020-21
Despite Duke’s substandard 13-11 record, the team had a fairly decent start to the season, going 5-2 through its first seven games. (That, of course, followed a 2-2 record, the Blue Devils’ worst start to a season since 1999-2000). Still, the team’s two losses came to teams ranked in the top 10 at the time (No. 8 Michigan State and No. 6 Illinois).
It was obvious from the outset, however, that the Blue Devils wouldn’t be able to play a full schedule, as six games were either canceled or postponed through Jan. 2. In retrospect, the first Duke loss that could potentially be considered “ bad” came on Jan. 19, when the team suffered a 79-73 loss to a Pitt team that ended up 10-12 (but was 8-2 after the win at the time).
Duke’s likely lowest point of the season came from Feb. 1-9, when the team lost three straight games to unranked opponents. The last of those losses dropped the Blue Devils to 7-8, the only point in the season their record was sub-.500. The team’s high point is debatable, but it could be the 66-65 win over No. 7 Virginia on Feb. 20, the third of a four-game win streak. The Blue Devils ended the regular season with three straight losses to enter the ACC Tournament with an 11-record.
From there, Duke played some of its best basketball on the season with its NCAA Tournament berth on the line: The 10-seed Blue Devils beat 15-seed Boston College 86-51, then beat 7-seed Louisville — which had beat them two times already this season — 70-56.
Duke and NCAA Tournament COVID-19 protocols
Despite saying its season is over, Duke could conceivably make the NCAA Tournament under the organization’s COVID-19 protocols.
The selection committee will identify four teams — the first four teams out of the tournament — and seed them 1-4. In the event a team from a multi-bid league can’t participate in the NCAA Tournament — after the initial 68-team field is set but before Tuesday at 6 p.m. ET — the NCAA will choose one of those four teams, in ascending order, to replace the team that can’t play.
If Duke is among those four teams and is up to replace a team, it would need five healthy players to produce seven straight days of negative COVID-19 tests. It is uncertain whether a quarantining player would be eligible to travel to Indiana if they produced negative test results as well. Regardless, the Blue Devils would have to remain on campus and continue COVID testing while awaiting word of whether it could compete in March Madness.
Duke had till 11 p.m. ET Saturday to inform the selection committee whether it would be unable to meet NCAA medical protocols. According to a Saturday report by the Raleigh News & Observer, Duke men’s basketball administrator Jon Jackson declined to comment on whether the team would inform the NCAA it’s unable to play.
Timeline of Duke’s 2020-21 season
Below is a timeline of Duke’s biggest hits and misses of the 2020-21 season.
Nov. 25: Duke’s season opener against Gardner-Webb is postponed due to COVID-19 issues on the latter team. It was rescheduled for Dec. 19, nearly a month after the original game was scheduled.
Dec. 6: Duke suffers its second nonconference cancellation against Elon.
Dec. 8: Following Duke’s 83-68 loss to Illinois — dropping the team to 2-2 — Krzyzewski asks whether teams should be playing nonconference games amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would just like for the safety, the mental and physical health of players and staff to assess where we’re at,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re just plowing through this.”
That comment prompted Alabama coach Nate Oats to question whether Krzyzewski would make that assessment had his team been playing better (something for which the Crimson Tide later apologized).
Dec. 10: Duke announces it will cancel all remaining nonconference games including Charleston Southern (Dec. 12) and the rescheduled Gardner-Webb game (Dec. 19).
Dec. 29: Duke misses its first conference game of the season against Pitt, which had a COVID-19-positive player. The teams ended up playing on Jan 19, with the Panthers winning 79-73 at home. The team’s ensuing game vs. Florida State on Jan. 2 was also postponed.
Jan. 23: Krzyzewski admonishes student-reporter Jake Piazza after his team’s 70-65 loss to Louisville dropped Duke to 5-5 on the season.
“Why don’t we just evaluate this game, I’m not really into what our next step forward is right now,” Krzyzewski said.
Krzyewski called Piazza to apologize for the admonishment.
Feb. 15: Freshman Jalen Johnson — a five-star recruit and No. 13 overall player in the 2020 class — announces his decision to forgo the remainder of the 2020-21 season and focus instead on the 2021 NBA Draft. The move is reportedly supported by Krzyzewski and Johnson’s teammates, but the move is regardless criticized, including by Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim .
Feb. 27: Duke loses three straight games (the first two in overtime) to drop to 11-11 on the season, removing any chance the Blue Devils make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid.
March 11: Duke’s ACC Tournament quarterfinal matchup with 2-seed Florida State is canceled after the former produced a COVID-19 positive from a “Tier 1” individual on the team. Florida State advances to the semifinals while Duke declares its season “over” at 13-11.