The Home Stretch - How will Duke finish out the regular season?

Grant Halverson

Examining the matchups left on the schedule as Duke tries to enter the postseason with some momentum.

Let's look forward at the rest of the regular season and see what we can surmise for Duke. At the end of a 4 games in 10 days stretch the Devils looked physically and mentally drained and finally dropped a game to a middle-of-the-pack Maryland team after trying their hardest to drop games at BC and vs. UNC. Oddly, the NC State game was the easiest of the 4 (though, to be fair, it was also the first of them).
Duke's loss to Maryland and UVA's loss to UNC kept the Devils 1 game ahead of the 'Hoos for 2nd place in the conference and 2 games ahead of UNC and NCSU. Miami survived a scare in Little John to stay perfect in league play and expand their lead to 3 games in the standings with 6 to go.
Looking forward, the final 6 games for Duke are @VT, BC, @UVA, Miami, VT, and @UNC. The first two should be wins with VT struggling and a young BC probably not playing as well in Cameron as they did in Chestnut Hills (or, is it that the Blue Devils just don't stumble through entire games when playing at home?). The games that are more interesting are Miami, @UVA, and @UNC. But how will each of these games actually matter as we look forward?
The Miami game is a no-brainer since the 'Canes are out front and embarrassed Duke a few weeks back in Coral Gables, so Duke will be looking for retribution in the rematch. There could also be a #1 NCAA seed on the line for Duke, while Miami would probably need a pretty big collapse (read: 2+ losses by Selection Sunday) to lose their #1 seed. In the ACC standings, there might not be much hanging in the balance. Miami will likely come into this game still undefeated in conference, hosting the Virginia schools with a trip to Winston Salem in between leading up to the game in Cameron. After the Duke game they host Clemson and Ga Tech. The Hurricanes should be at least 17-1 or, at worst, 16-2 to end the regular season. That would wrap up the ACC regular season before the even play the last 2 games. If Duke beats UVA (and especially if both Duke and Miami beat UVA) then the Devils won't have much to gain in the ACC standings from a win, either.
Tournament spots as well as tournament seeds will likely be on the line when Duke plays both UVA and UNC. The Hoos will probably lose to Miami and beat Ga Tech before hosting Duke, which would put them 2 games behind Duke in the standings going into the game. After that, 2 of their remaining 3 games are against teams desperate to make a move and improve their resumes in FSU and Maryland. UVA will almost HAVE to win against Duke and fend off those other 2 to have a chance at a top 3 ACC finish and be reasonably calm on Selection Sunday as they are currently one of the Last 4 In.
Likewise, UNC seems to be on the inside of the bubble right now, tied for 4th place in the ACC with NCSU one game behind UVA. Last weekend's win over UVA was big for the Heels, as it's considered one of their "best" wins, but few can argue that it was a really quality win. So, the Heels will need at least one more quality win, and NC State and Duke are really the only ones left on the schedule who can accommodate them. Losses to both teams will certainly not help as the Heels hope to show they can beat quality opponents. Also, remember that a 5 seed in the ACC tournament means playing on Thursday, and right now the Heels are in that spot, losing the tie-breaker to NCSU. Nobody wants to play on Day 1, so that will be motivation as well.
Summing it all up, Duke has 3 games remaining against either very tough teams (Miami) or very desperate teams (UVA, UNC). The other 3 games will be simply Taking Care of Business exercises, which hasn't been too easy of late. A 2 seed in the ACCs seems pretty well decided and probably the same for the NCAAs. So, tournament seeding will not be a huge motivational factor for the Devils. The question is whether Duke can get up for the less than exciting games in addition to the more marquee matchups. If Ryan Kelly can come back and play some in these games (and that "if" seems to be growing in size by the day), that might provide a spark. I think Coach K will have to instill in his team a sense of urgency to finish strong while pointing to last year as a cautionary tale. They'll need to channel their inner selves that played in Tallahassee, not the ones who played in Chestnut Hills or College Park.
I am going to optimistically call 5-1 over the 6-game stretch, with no specific game as the one loss. That's 14-4 in conference, a 2 seed in the ACCs. My confidence in that, however, isn't ridiculously high. Here's to that happening, though, and an ACC quarters matchup against Maryland to "settle one old score, one small point of pride"...

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