Who's No. 1? Ranking Duke's Top 10 teams under Coach K
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If you pinched yourself this week to see if it is real, yes, it’s still happening.
Will the Blue Devils gain sweet revenge on their bitter rivals after North Carolina spoiled Mike Krzyzewski’s going-away party at Cameron Indoor Stadium earlier this month? Or will North Carolina get the last (literally) laugh and end the storied career of Krzyzewski with a defeat to his greatest rival on college basketball’s grandest stage? We’ll soon find out.
If Duke wins, there’s an argument that this Blue Devils team, win or lose in the national championship game that would follow, would rank among the greatest teams Krzyzewski has coached in Durham. In fact, by taking Krzyzewski to his record-breaking 13th Final Four, the 2021-22 Blue Devils are probably already a part of that argument.
Saturday Road wanted to offer its take on the debate ahead of Saturday’s Final Four matchup with the Tar Heels.
Here is Saturday Road’s list of Duke’s Top 10 teams under Coach K.
10. 1999-2000 (29-5, 15-1, ACC champion, ACC Tournament champion, Sweet 16)
This Blue Devils team famously started 0-2, losing both its games in the Coaches v. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden to open the year. The Blue Devils were nearly flawless after that, winning 24 of their next 26 games to close the regular season 24-4 as ACC champions. Led by Chris Carrawell, the ACC Player of the Year, the Blue Devils then stormed through the ACC Tournament, leading every game by double-digits and routing No. 20 Maryland in the ACC Championship.
Carrawell’s star turn was perhaps the ultimate compliment to Coach K’s ability to develop any player he brought on campus, as the senior did not become a great NBA player like his 1999-2000 teammates Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer and Shane Battier. But Carrawell, who averaged 17 points per game and 6.1 rebounds as a 6-6 wing before 6-6 wings became the fashion of the sport, made this Duke offense lethal and the Blue Devils posted the 6th-best average margin of victory in the Coach K era.
Ranked No. 1 entering March Madness, Duke were prohibitive favorites in Vegas to win the national championship and hammered Lamar and fellow blue-blood Kansas in the NCAA Tournament before being stunned by an upstart Florida team in the Sweet 16. The Gators went on to the national championship game, falling to Tom Izzo’s lone national champion at Michigan State.
As for Duke, they remembered the sting of that defeat and used it as fuel to win the national championship a season later.
9. 2021-22 (32-6, 16-4, ACC champion, Final Four)
This year’s Blue Devils belong on the list already. The ACC champions also posted signature wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga, both among the top 8 overall seeds in the NCAA Tournament. A splendid blend of young lottery pick talent in Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin and salty veterans like their captain, Wendell Moore Jr., the Blue Devils were nonetheless a trendy upset pick in either the Round of 32 or the Sweet 16 in many brackets. No matter. Duke dispatched of Texas Tech in a thrilling Sweet 16 contest and made easy work of an overmatched Arkansas team in the Elite 8 to advance to Coach K’s record-breaking 13th Final Four.
In a great year for offense in the sport, Duke arrives at the Final Four ranked 1st nationally in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, per KenPom. How good is this Duke offense historically? Well, KenPom rankings date to 2002, and this offense is the 2nd-best Krzyzewski has had in that time frame from an efficiency standpoint.
8. 1997-98 (32-4, 15-1, ACC champion, Elite 8)
No team in the country spent longer ranked No. 1 in the 1997-1998 season than Duke, which posted a 27-2 regular-season record. Two of Duke’s 3 losses came to UNC, including a heartbreaking defeat in the ACC Tournament championship game, but the Blue Devils still rightly earned a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. A sensational freshman class headlined by Elton Brand (13.4 ppg, 7.5 rebounds in only 21 games) got most of the media attention, but it was the grizzled veterans Roshown McLeod (15.3 ppg, 5.6 rebounds) and Trajan Langdon (14.7 ppg, 2 assists) who helped Duke cruise to the Elite 8, where they lost a game for the ages 86-84 to eventual national champion Kentucky.
7. 1998-99 (37-2, 16-0, ACC champion, ACC Tournament champion, NCAA runner-up)
Led by the Naismith College Player of the Year and Wooden Award winner Elton Brand, this Duke team lost a game at the now sadly defunct Great Alaska Shootout in November and wouldn’t lose again until the national championship game. If you are curious, Duke only played in the Great Alaska Shootout because Coach K wanted senior guard Trajan Langdon, who came from Anchorage, Alaska, to have the chance to play in front of family and friends. After the loss in Anchorage, the Blue Devils won 32 games in a row, which included Coach K’s only perfect ACC campaign and an ACC Tournament championship where Duke won every game by at least 15 points.
To suggest that the Blue Devils’ NCAA Tournament Championship game loss to UConn was stunning really undersells it. Duke was a 9-point favorite and had steamrolled through their regional with an average victory margin of 30 — yes, 30 — points. UConn, led by Khalid El-Amin and Rip Hamilton, was a great team, but Duke’s defeat was heartwrenching, and one that many players on the team, including Brand and Battier, say they’ve never gotten over.
6. 1985-1986 (37-3, 12-2, ACC champion, ACC Tournament champion, NCAA runner-up)
The team that started everything.
Coach K was in Year 6 in Durham and had mustered only 2 Round of 32 appearances in the NCAA Tournament before the 1985-1986 Blue Devils took college basketball by storm and changed Duke hoops forever. Coach K himself has long credited the 1986 senior class of All-American Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Dave Henderson, Weldon Williams and Jay Bilas as being the foundation upon which he built his program, and that season, they were the granite foundation to a national runner-up.
The Blue Devils spent the entire season ranked in the top 10, won the ACC Tournament over a great Georgia Tech team and earned the first of many No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament under Krzyzewski. The magnificent Pervis Ellison and Denny Crum’s Louisville would be their undoing in the national championship game, but every so often, a legacy is bigger than a championship banner. This was such a team for Duke under Coach K.
5. 2014-2015 (35-4, 15-3, NCAA champion)
The 2014-2015 Blue Devils dealt with immense adversity on their way to winning Coach K’s fifth national championship. Former National High School Player of the Year Semi Ojileye left the program in the middle of the season, and a starting guard, Rasheed Sulaimon was dismissed from the program in late January under a cloud of off-court questions and allegations. Whether the off-court drama was the reason Duke fell short of an ACC championship, finishing 2nd to Tony Bennett’s Virginia squad, is a fair question. By March, however, Duke had righted the ship. The Blue Devils won 12 games in a row after Sulaimon’s dismissal, and despite being upset by Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament semifinals, Duke was dominant in reaching the Final Four, pushed only by Utah in the Sweet 16.
This was a unique Duke national champion because unlike the previous 4 champions, this version of the Blue Devils was led almost exclusively by star freshmen, including the ACC Player of the Year and Wooden Award winner Jahlil Okafor (17.3 ppg, 8.5 rebounds). All-American guard Tyus Jones, who would be named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament, was also a freshman, as were sharpshooting guard Grayson Allen and the physical wing Justise Winslow.
Coach K masterfully surrounded this group with senior Quinn Cook, and the rest, as they say, is history, as Duke routed Michigan State in the Final Four and felled a great Wisconsin team for the 2nd time that season in the national championship.
4. 1990-1991 (32-7, 11-3, ACC champion, NCAA champion)
You always remember your first.
Krzyzewski’s first national championship team at Duke didn’t have the brilliant regular season the 1895-1986 national runner-up did, but they captured the ACC regular-season championship and reached the championship game at the ACC Tournament before losing to — who else — UNC.
This Duke team had plenty of star power, from point guard Bobby Hurley to future NBA star Grant Hill, but it was the great junior frontcourt player Christian Laettner who made everything go for the Blue Devils. Laettner posted absurd numbers: 19.8 points per game, 8.7 rebounds, 1,9 assists, 1.2 blocks — on his way to being named an All-American.
Of course, the team is most well-remembered for upsetting No. 1 and to that point undefeated UNLV in the Final Four. The win helped Duke avenge a 30-point loss to Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels in the national championship game a season before. Another fascinating fact about that team? It nearly played UNC for the national championship but missed out on that matchup when Kansas upset a favored North Carolina team in the Final Four.
3. 2009-2010 (35-5, 13-3, ACC co-champion, ACC Tournament champion, NCAA champion)
Has there ever been a more consummate “team” national champion at Duke than the 2009-2010 Blue Devils? The Blue Devils did not have a single First-Team All-American, the only Duke national champion without at least one. Jon Scheyer, who led the Blue Devils in scoring at 18.2 points per game and assists at 4.9 a contest, was named a Second-Team Consensus All-American. Without a superstar, Duke relied heavily on balance: Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler all averaged 17 points a night or more, making the Blue Devils hard to guard.
They also had a top-5 KenPom defense, thanks to a tenacious frontcourt led by Lance Thomas, Mason Plumlee and Brian Zoubek, who protected the tin and allowed Duke to extend teams with high ball pressure on the perimeter. As a result, Duke fielded the 2nd-best 3-point defense in the nation, which helped them hold 5 of their 6 NCAA Tournament foes to under 60 points. In the national championship game, Duke nipped Butler, 61-59, when Gordon Hayward’s game-winning halfcourt heave rimmed out at the buzzer.
2. 2000-2001 (35-4, 13-3, ACC co-champion, ACC Tournament champion, NCAA champion)
After 2 years of excruciating March Madness heartbreak, the Blue Devils finished the job in the 2000-2001 campaign. The accomplishment was all the more satisfying to Coach K because the core of the teams that fell just short, including Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer, Shane Battier and Mike Dunleavy, was still in place to finally win the national championship that had so cruelly eluded them in the prior 2 seasons. Williams and Battier were the superstars. Williams, who won the NABC National Player of the Year, averaged 21.6 points a contest and 6.1 assists. Battier, who edged out Williams for the Naismith and Wooden Awards as National Player of the Year, averaged 19.9 points and 7.3 rebounds, and was the centerpiece for what Coach K would call his “best defensive team ever” after the Final Four.
(Coach K would change his mind after his 2009-2010 team, above, captured its own title on the backs of a stingy defense).
Duke also managed to win every NCAA Tournament game by double-digits, a feat accomplished only a handful of times by champions in tournament history since the field expanded to 64.
1. 1991-92 (34-2, 14-2, ACC champion, ACC Tournament champions, NCAA champion)
The hardest thing to do in sports is repeat.
That’s why only 2 programs have managed to win back-t0-back national championships in the past 40 years.
The first was Duke, who, once again led by Christian Laettner, stormed through the regular season and captured the ACC championship and ACC Tournament championship before getting down to the businesss of defending their title in March. With the core of the national title team (Laettner, Grant Hill, Bobby Hurley, Thomas Hill) on the floor, the Blue Devils looked dead in the water against Kentucky in the Elite 8. Until this happened:
After “The Shot,” the Final Four in Minneapolis seemed like almost an afterthought. Duke crushed the Fab Five and Michigan, 71-51, in the national championship game.
Given who the Blue Devils defeated to capture a second straight title — including one of the greatest Kentucky teams ever, a Bobby Knight Indiana team in the Final Four, and the Fab Five — it is difficult to dispute this Duke’s team status as Coach K’s greatest team, and one of the best teams in the history of college basketball.