The postponement of last week’s Duke/Carolina game until this Thursday, February 20, has some Duke fans a little nervous. The Blue Devils are now scheduled to play three tough games in a span of only five days – tonight at Georgia Tech; Thursday, February 20 at North Carolina; and then Saturday, February 22, at home against undefeated Syracuse. The concern appears to be that Duke might be worn down by the end of the week and be at less than their best for the much anticipated rematch with the top ranked Orange.
Should the rest of us be worried too? Let’s take a look at similar situations in the past 30 years before we decide.
Certainly three games in five days is a lot of basketball, but it’s not unprecedented. In fact, next Saturday’s game against Syracuse will mark the 53rd time since the beginning of the 1983-84 season that Duke plays three games in five or fewer days.
How have Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke teams fared in the previous 52 such encounters? Have the Devils run out of gas by the third game?
Not so much. Duke has won 45 of the 52 third-game-in-five-days contests, a winning percentage of 86.5%.
Twenty-five of the 52 games came either in the ACC Tournament or in pre-season tournaments where the teams Duke was playing had also played three games in three days. Of those 25 games, Duke won 20 and lost 5 (80.0%), which means when Duke had played a 3-in-5-or-fewer stretch and their opponents probably hadn’t, Duke won 25 and lost 2 (92.6%).
Thirty of the third-games came against unranked opponents. In those games, Duke won 28 and lost 2 (93.3%). When the third opponent was nationally ranked, Duke won 17 and lost 5 (77.3%), significantly worse than when the opponent was unranked, but that’s to be expected. Duke’s winning percentage against ranked teams is significantly worse than against unranked teams no matter how much rest the team has between games.
Here’s a further breakdown:
THREE GAMES IN FIVE OR FEWER DAYS — 1983-84 to 2013-14
TOTAL: 45 wins, 7 losses, 86.5%
DURING THE ACC TOURNAMENT: 13 wins, 3 losses, 81.3%
REGULAR SEASON: 32 wins, 4 losses, 88.9%
AFTER JANUARY 1 UNTIL END OF REGULAR SEASON: 15 wins, 1 loss, 93.8%
WHEN THIRD GAME COMES AGAINST A RANKED TEAM*: 17 wins, 5 losses, 77.3%
* – 11 of those 22 games came in the ACC Tournament; Duke won 9 and lost 2 of those
Of particular interest are similar stretches during the ACC season, since that’s what we’ll be facing next week. In those situations, Duke has amassed an amazing 15 wins against only one loss (93.8%).
However, all 16 of those games occurred in 1993 or earlier, so it could be argued that times have changed and Duke’s past record is the past. With that in mind, let’s look at Duke’s record in three-games-in-five-or-fewer-days situations since the turn of the century:
THREE GAMES IN FIVE OR FEWER DAYS — 1999-2000 to 2013-14
TOTAL: 20 wins, 2 losses, 90.9%
DURING THE ACC TOURNAMENT: 9 wins, 1 losses, 90.0%
REGULAR SEASON: 11 wins, 1 losses, 91.7%
AFTER JANUARY 1 UNTIL END OF REGULAR SEASON: 0 wins, 0 losses
WHEN THIRD GAME COMES AGAINST A RANKED TEAM**: 10 wins, 0 losses, 100.0%
** – 5 of those 10 games came in the ACC Tournament; Duke won all 5
There have only been 22 such situations since the 1999-2000 season, compared to 30 such stretches from 1983-84 to 1998-99, but in the latter period Duke’s winning percentage is better in every category (except the category containing zero games). Frankly, Duke’s performance in third games on short rest during in the past 15 seasons could be fairly characterized as astonishing.
So what’s going to happen this week? Who knows. That’s why they play the games. But history suggests Coach K has a pretty good idea how to make sure the third game doesn’t present a disadvantage for Duke. To my eyes, the numbers above make it very clear that if Duke loses to Syracuse, it won’t be because short rest after the rescheduled game made the players too tired to play their best.