Duke’s Narrow Wins Over UCF, Virginia Tech Are Almost Unprecedented for a National Champion

    Survive and advance. That's the motto for success in March Madness. There are no style points in victory – a one-point win counts the same as a 30-point

    March 31, 2019

    Survive and advance.

    That’s the motto for success in March Madness. There are no style points in victory – a one-point win counts the same as a 30-point blowout.

    Overall No. 1 seed Duke has twice tested fate up to its breaking point, coming within inches, literally, of its season potentially ending short of the Final Four despite a roster that features three projected top-10 picks in the 2019 NBA Draft.

    UCF’s B.J. Taylor’s runner with three seconds left banked too hard off the glass, then the front iron, and Aubrey Dawkins’ one-handed putback had a little too much juice and it rolled off the rim.

    Either shot would’ve sent the top-seeded Blue Devils home in the second round.

    Instead, Duke advanced, 77-76.

    On Friday night, Virginia Tech Coach Buzz Williams drew up a beautiful baseline out-of-bounds play that gave Ahmed Hill a wide-open look at the rim that would’ve tied the game and forced overtime.

    He left it short. Game over, 75-73.

    By the skin of its teeth – or more appropriately, by the iron on the rims in Columbia and Washington D.C. – Duke has survived and advanced.

    But is its day of reckoning approaching?

    I went through every national champion’s path to a title since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 to examine if there’s a precedent for a team surviving multiple close calls this early in the tournament before ultimately cutting down the nets.

    Here’s what history tells us: Odds are Duke won’t win the national championship, unless the Blue Devils can become the first team since Villanova in 1985 to win the national championship after surviving multiple one-possession games in the first three rounds of the NCAA Tournament.

    The Wildcats won by the thinnest of margins throughout their ’85 title run. They won their six NCAA Tournament games by a combined 30 points.

    It started with a 51-49 win against No. 9 seed Dayton in the first round.

    Playing in the pre-shot clock era, the Flyers held the ball for the final possession in a tie game but a steal gave the Wildcats the ball, setting up the game-winning layup by Villanova’s Harold Jensen.

    “[Harold] Pressley doesn’t make that steal, Jensen doesn’t get to the goal, there’s no history,” former Villanova assistant coach Steve Lappas told Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden. “There’s no Miracle of ’85.”

    Next up was a 59-55 victory against No. 1 seed Michigan in the second round.

    Then 46-43 against No. 5 seed Maryland in the Sweet 16.

    Fittingly, the Wildcats beat No. 1 seed Georgetown 66-64 in the national championship in game Sports Illustrated dubbed “The Perfect Game,” which gave them three one-possession wins in the NCAA Tournament, including two in the first three rounds.

    It shouldn’t be reassuring for the Blue Devils that their only precedent is a team that’s associated with the words “miracle” and “perfect.”

    Arizona in 1997 is the next closest example. The No. 4-seeded Wildcats won all six of their NCAA Tournament games by eight points or fewer, and by a total of just 32 points.

    The 33 national champions since ‘Nova in ’85 have combined for just six one-possession wins in the first round, second round or Sweet 16. They’re listed below.

    None of the last 14 national champions have had a one-possession game in the first three rounds of their title run.

    School Year Round Opponent Outcome
    Kansas 1988 Second Round No. 14 seed Murray State Won 61-58
    UNLV 1990 Sweet 16 No. 12 Ball State Won 69-67
    UCLA 1995 Second Round No. 8 seed Missouri Won 75-74
    Arizona 1997 Sweet 16 No. 1 seed Kansas Won 85-82
    Syracuse 2003 Sweet 16 No. 10 seed Auburn Won 79-78
    North Carolina 2005 Sweet 16 No. 5 seed Villanova Won 67-66


    For what it’s worth, kenpom.com projects No. 2 seed Michigan State to defeat Duke 77-76 in the Elite Eight.

    If the Blue Devils win, they’ll play Texas Tech, which led Duke for roughly 23 minutes when the teams played on a neutral court in December.

    Can Duke win the national championship?

    Of course.

    The Blue Devils will be the most talented team whenever they step on the floor with a full roster available and they’re 6-1 against the rest of the Elite Eight field this season.

    But “can” and “will” are two different questions.

    Duke, the third-worst 3-point shooting team in the entire NCAA Tournament at 30.7 percent, has avoided a true clunker from behind the arc. The Blue Devils’ 6-of-20 mark against the Hokies matched their season average and it ranks as their 21st-best 3-point shooting game out of 37 games this season in terms of 3-point percentage.

    They have a fairly short bench, which gets even shorter if freshman Cam Reddish misses more time with a knee issue.

    Thanks to Villanova in 1985, it’s not unprecedented for a team with multiple close calls this early in the NCAA Tournament to win the national title, but doing so would require the Blue Devils to beat three opponents in a row that are better than the UCF and Virginia Tech teams that pushed them to the brink of defeat.

    Duke’s margin of victory doesn’t matter as long as it continues to survive and advance.

    But how long will that last?


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