March Madness: Why Isn’t Duke Basketball in the 2021 NCAA Tournament?

When it comes to college basketball, certain teams have a long-established history of dominance. The Kentucky Wildcats, Kansas Jayhawks, and North Carolina Tar Heels are three of the winningest schools in the NCAA. Another team with a well-earned spot on the list: the Duke Blue Devils.

This year marks an unwelcome turning point for Duke, however. It’s the first time in over 25 years that the Blue Devils failed to secure a March Madness berth. Let’s look back at Duke’s run of excellence in the NCAA Tournament and consider why they failed to become one of the 68 teams vying for the championship this year.

Duke’s elite March Madness history

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The simple fact is that few teams have as strong an NCAA Tournament history as the Blue Devils. A quick glance at the numbers should make that apparent. To begin with, Duke has made the NCAA Tournament 43 times — the fifth-most appearances of all-time, per the NCAA. In those 43 bids, the Blue Devils have made it to the Sweet Sixteen 31 times, and to the Final Four 16 times.

And on five occasions, Duke has come away from March Madness with a national championship: in 1991, 1992, 2001, 2010, and 2015. Those five wins put Duke in a fifth-place tie (with Indiana) for most all-time, per the NCAA. Meanwhile, Duke’s 114 total tournament wins are good for third-place all-time, again according to the NCAA.”

A rare tournament miss

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils reacts during a game
Mike Krzyzewski of the Duke Blue Devils | Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

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The Blue Devils’ run of excellence extends back throughout much of the school’s history. However, Duke has been especially dominant under the leadership of head coach Mike Krzyzewski. Krzyzewski, or “Coach K,” as he is commonly known, has been the Blue Devils’ coach since 1980.

In that time, Krzyzewski’s squads have missed the NCAA tournament just five times, according to Sports Reference. Three of those times came in the first three years of Krzyzewski’s career at Duke. The last time the Blue Devils missed the NCAA Tournament was 26 years ago, in 1995. Not coincidentally, that season also saw Krzyzewski leave the team after 12 games to recuperate from an injured back.

Why Duke didn’t make the 2021 NCAA Tournament

The 2020-21 season was one of the worst in Duke’s time under Krzyzewski’s leadership. The team put together a 13-11 record—a dismal effort, by their own lofty standards. In fact, according to ESPN, that was Duke’s worst record since the 1994-95 season, when they also missed the NCAA Tournament.

This season, Duke managed to win just one game against a ranked opponent. They especially struggled to score the ball, putting up just 930 points in 2,392 total minutes — their worst showing since the 2012-13 season. Even when they did score, the Blue Devils had trouble stopping opponents. In mid-February, they were ranked 300th in the country in field-goal percentage defense, per the NCAA.

Things only got worse on February 15, when star freshman Jalen Johnson announced his decision to opt-out of the rest of the season in order to prepare for the NBA draft. Still, fans kept expecting to see Duke sneak back into the NCAA Tournament picture at the last minute. A relatively soft schedule made that outcome seem like a real possibility.

Those hopes of a late run into March Madness were finally dashed when Duke had to bow out of the 2021 ACC Tournament due to a positive COVID-19 test, according to CBS Sports. Duke’s failure to make the 2021 NCAA Tournament was finalized on Selection Sunday when the NCAA officially announced the 68 participating teams.

Krzyzewski maintained a positive attitude in summing up the Blue Devils season, with AP News quoting his statement as saying:

“We have not asked more of any team in our history, and they deserve enormous credit for handling everything like the outstanding young men they are. I feel deeply for our players, who have done a terrific job all season in taking care of each other and the team. I am extremely proud of their collective attitudes and effort, which could not have been stronger.”

Needless to say, Duke will surely be looking to re-establish themselves as one of the top teams in the country again next season.