Nothing would look stranger than an NCAA tournament without Duke. But for the first time in more than two decades, that is a possibility.
The Blue Devils landed at a No. 8 seed in the latest projections, down from a fifth seed two weeks ago (Duke, however, is a No. 7 seed in this week's Bracketology, the result of a procedural bump; the Blue Devils rank as the 32nd overall team on the board).
The last time Duke struggled through a season like this was 1994. That year the Blue Devils missed the NCAA tournament altogether. Since then, the program's worst seasons were in 1995 and 1997. Duke was a No. 5 seed in each. The Blue Devils were last outside the top-four in 1997 as a No. 5 seed. Duke hasn't been that low since.
That's 18 consecutive seasons of being a top-four seed, consistency that only Connecticut can match (even Tennessee was a No. 5 in 2009).
That streak looks like it will end in this highly unusual season in Durham. Could Duke for the first time in 22 years miss the NCAA tournament?
After Sunday's win over Boston College, the Blue Devils are 13-6 overall and 2-3 in the ACC -- the first time a Duke team has had a losing conference record since beginning the 2000-01 season 0-1. Even the 1994 team began 4-1 in ACC play.
Despite a typically challenging schedule, Joanne P. McCallie's team has an RPI in the 40s. That's because this edition of the Blue Devils has yet to beat any quality opponents. They are 0-5 against the top 50. Even last year when Duke ultimately slipped to a No. 4 seed (its worst since 1997), it had beaten Oklahoma, Kentucky and Syracuse before Jan. 18.
That alone puts the Blue Devils in a precarious position, and in what is a slightly down year overall in the ACC, Duke only has three more chances (Notre Dame, at Miami, and Florida State) to beat a top-50 team. In fact, twice as many opportunities to stumble against conference foes outside the top-100 still exist. Duke will be in serious danger if it fails to win against any of the top teams left on the schedule or suffers any losses to the likes of Pittsburgh, Clemson or Wake Forest.
The depth and defensive prowess that has characterized the Duke program for the better part of two decades isn't there. Slippage in those areas showed up at times last year, but the shortcomings have arrived in full this season. Azurá Stevens has flourished with an All-America-caliber season (she's second in the conference in scoring and ranks first in rebounding and blocks), but McCallie -- who has started all 13 players on her roster at some point this season -- hasn't been able to find consistency to surround the sophomore with anyone other than Rebecca Greenwell. Without reliable point guard play, Duke is next to last in the ACC in turnovers per game and the offense has lacked consistency (95 points against Wake Forest; 48 three days later at Louisville).
That's the bad news. The good news is that many of the teams below Duke are also struggling right now. Not everyone can fall out of the field. Georgia, Southern California and Rutgers, for example, are all coming off multiple losses in the past two weeks and, despite loftier RPI numbers, are in worse shape than the Blue Devils.
At this point in mid-January, Duke missing the tournament still seems like an unlikely scenario, especially if it can score at least one upset. The next two weeks are critical, leading up to a Big Monday meeting with Notre Dame in Durham on Feb. 1. If the Blue Devils have any more losses ahead of that matchup, and lose big to the Irish, Duke being a part of March Madness really could be in jeopardy.