Big Losses Through The Years: How Many, and What Do They Mean?

Every-CloudWith the 27 point beatdown at the hands of Miami still fresh in everyone’s mind, many Duke fans are worrying about the Blue Devils’ ability to bounce back.  Some seem to think that it’s just an aberration and that of course Duke will get off the mat and resume their stellar season.  Others believe it’s the beginning of the end.  What kind of history of big losses does Duke actually have, and have those losses been predictive of the type of year the Devils will have the rest of the way?

For purposes of this article, I am considering a “big loss” to be one of 15 points or more.  And I am looking at the Coach K era, beginning in 1983-84, as that was his first NCAA team.  The year before was Dawkins and Alarie’s freshman year, and the team was below .500, including losing 7 games by 15 or more, so that wouldn’t really add anything to the analysis.  And yes, I understand that 15 is an arbitrary number, and that a garbage hoop at one end or the other sometimes makes a given game either count in the analysis or not count, but what are you gonna do?

OK, so in the last 29 years, starting in the 1983-84 season, how many games do you think Duke has lost by 15 points or more?  The answer, not counting the Miami game, is 23.  Duke averages almost one such loss per year.  More or less than you thought?  It’s more than I would’ve thought.  Those 23 losses have been accumulated in 13 different seasons.  In some of those 13 seasons there was more than one big loss.  Obviously, in the other 16 years, there were no big losses as I have defined the term.

The largest defeat suffered during this 29 year period was a 31 pointer at Wake Forest in 1984, followed by the 1990 NCAA final to UNLV, which was a 30 pointer, 103-73.  Didn’t have to look that score up.

Four of the 23 “big losses” have come in NCAA Tournament play, those being the losses to Seton Hall (1989), UNLV (1990), Villanova (2009) and Arizona (2011).  Three more have occurred in the ACC Tournament, those being to UNC (1991 and 1998) and to Wake Forest (1995).

As the 1995 team did not make the NCAA Tournament, that ACC Tournament loss to Wake was its last game of the year, meaning that five of the 23 (the Wake game and the four NCAA losses) have been season-enders.  So the other 18 provided opportunities for Duke to bounce back from the big loss.  Did they?

For the most part, yes.  After a big loss as I have defined it, Duke is 12-6 since 1984.  Never in this period has Duke lost consecutive games by more than 15 points.  Sometimes Duke has been fortunate enough to face a less-than-stellar opponent after a big loss, giving the Devils a real opportunity to bounce back. But not usually.  Usually they have had to come back and beat, or at least stay competitive with, a pretty good team — usually an ACC team — and they have been able to do so. Also, on only two occasions during this entire period, has Duke followed up a 15 point (or more) loss, no matter where it occurred, with a home loss, and the last time it happened was in 1995.  So good luck on Saturday, Terps.

Here’s the history of bad losses in this period, and what happened in the next game:

1984: Lost at Wake by 31.  Followed it up with a 5 point loss at home to UNC.

1985: Lost at NC State by 18.  Followed by a 17 point win at home over Clemson.

1989: Lost at home to UNC by 20, followed by two more losses: a 4 pointer at Wake and a 15 pointer at State.  That loss to State was followed, finally, by a 30 point win at home over Clemson.

1990: Lost at UNC by 19, followed by a 28 point road win over Wake.

1991: Lost at Virginia by 17, followed by a 41 point win at home over Georgia Tech.

1995: Lost at home to State by 17, followed by a 3 point loss on the road to FSU.  Later in that incredibly difficult year, lost at UCLA by 23, followed by a two point loss at home to Maryland.

1997: Lost on a neutral floor to Indiana by 16, followed by a 52 point win over Lehigh.  Apparently, they never forgot it.

1998: Lost at UNC by 24, followed by a 16 point road win over State.

2003: Lost at Maryland by 15, followed by a 9 point road loss to State.

2007: Lost at UNC by 14, followed by an ACC Tournament loss, by 5, to State.

2009: Lost at Clemson by 27, followed by win over Miami, at home, by 3.

2011: Lost at St. John’s by 15, followed by a win at Maryland by 18.

2012: Lost at Ohio State by 22, followed by a home win over Colorado State by 23.  Lost at 18 at home to UNC, followed by a 4 point win in the ACC Tournament over Virginia Tech.

So if you want to look at the glass half-empty you can say that only once has Duke had a team get beaten by 15 points or more and gone on to win a national championship, that being the 1991 team.  But looking at it half-full, look at all the outstanding teams, teams that had excellent tournament runs, that suffered a big beating earlier in the season.  The ’89 team went to the Final Four.  The ’90 team went to the final game.  The loaded ’98 team went to the Elite Eight, and should’ve gone further than that.  The 2011 team was the Kyrie team, and while they lost in the Sweet 16, that almost shouldn’t count.  Another week or two to work Kyrie back in, and there’d have been no beating that team.

In any event, suffering a big defeat during the season does not, repeat not, mean that the squad is doomed, the year is over, and who do we have coming in for next year?  Not at all.  Patience, folks.  We lose more games than you’d think by big-time double digits, and more often than not, we recover quite nicely, thank you, and end up having the type of season that most other schools would only dream of.