Duke has had some special teams over the years, including the program’s first national champion in 1991 to the freshmen-led group of 2015. A cordial Blue Devil fan may simply appreciate each and every one of those teams and the fond memories that came with them. But in reality, nobody is that civil, and the question will always linger in fans' minds—which is the best Duke team of all time? Thanks to whatifsports, we may have finally found our answer.
I used the website’s historical simulation feature to run a single-elimination, eight-team tournament to determine the best Blue Devil squad to ever don the blue and white. The eight teams included will be the program’s five national champions—1990-91, 1992-92, 2000-01, 2009-10 and 2014-15—as well as three at-large bids. I based the three at-large bids on teams that—talent-wise or performance-wise, or both—I believe should receive legitimate consideration for best Duke team ever: 1985-86, 1998-99 and 2018-19.
If you disagree with those three, you are more than welcome to run your own simulations as well, though I feel my choices should be accepted by most.
In terms of seeding for this eight-team tournament, I tried to be as objective as possible as to avoid inserting my opinion too heavily. Thus, the top five seeds will go to the five national champions, with the three at-larges seeded 6-8. Within those two groups, I seeded teams based on overall win percentage, with conference win percentage as a tiebreaker. Based off those parameters, I created the following bracket:
Lastly, I want to promise you one thing: I only simulated these matchups once. I have no bias in terms of who I want to see win this tournament. Just like you, I only want to know which Duke team really is the best ever. Furthermore, despite the box scores indicating a home and visiting team, each game was simulated on a neutral court. And even if the website—for whatever reason—gives a slight advantage to the team sitting on the home bench, I kept everything consistent by making the higher seed the home team. Now, without further ado, let’s get to the tournament.
No. 1 1991-92: 104
No. 8 2018-19: 88
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Wow. Even with three future top-10 draft picks, the 2018-19 team simply could not compete with the mighty 1991-92 squad. Expectedly, the 2018-19 offense was carried by its top three freshmen, with Zion exploding for 33 points on 13-of-18 shooting, but Barrett and Reddish struggling with efficiency. Meanwhile, the 1991-92 team did a much better job of point distribution, catching fire from beyond the arc and enjoying a nice breakout performance from small forward Brian Davis.
So Laettner’s team moves on to the Final Four, a phrase that was true for all four years the center played in Durham and remains true even in this virtual tournament. Let’s see if he can keep the streak alive in our bracket’s next matchup.
No. 4 2009-10: 93
No. 5 1990-91: 79
And there you have it—Laettner’s streak is no more. The then-second team All-American put up a stalwart effort—posting 22 points and 11 rebounds—but the rest of the 90-91 roster was just too young to take down Duke’s experienced 09-10 unit, led by senior Jon Scheyer’s 26 points and a team-wide 60 percent mark from downtown. Now only one Laettner remains in our bracket as we advance to our third clash of the first round.
No. 2 2014-15: 82
No. 7 1985-86: 89
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey won’t like this one. Without attempting a single 3-point field goal, Johnny Dawkins and Duke’s 1985-86 unit is the first non-national champion to move on, squashing the hearts of analytic gurus everywhere. College basketball didn’t universally accept the 3-pointer until the 1986-87 campaign, and I guess the 1985-86 version of Mike Krzyzewski didn’t want his team shooting from behind that “mysterious” line nearly 20 feet from the basket. It didn’t matter. Dawkins put up 17 points, Danny Ferry added 10 rebounds and even Jay Bilas dropped in 15 points to lead 1985-86 past 2014-15 despite Jahlil Okafor’s 21-point, nine-rebound performance.
And with that comes the final contest of the Elite Eight between the two Duke teams closest in timeframe.
No. 3 2000-01: 103
No. 6 1998-99: 92
In the battle of two Shane Battiers, it’s the senior Battier who takes down the sophomore version of himself. Trajan Langdon had himself a day, pouring on 30 points including seven 3-pointers, but a 13-of-26 overall clip from the free throw line ended up being the downfall of Duke’s 1998-99 squad. On the other hand, sophomore Carlos Boozer dropped a team-high 23 points, Battier added 20 more and 2000-2001 earns the last spot in the Final Four.
Our first battle of the semifinals pits Duke’s only national title defense against perhaps the program’s biggest underdog story. The 1991-92 team entered this tournament as the favorite and remains so for the time being, but the 2009-10 Blue Devils surprised everyone on their way to a national championship and may just do the same here. Let the simulation begin.
No. 1 1991-92: 82
No. 4 2009-10: 63
Yikes. Our biggest blowout of the tournament thus far. The 2009-10 team shot just 29.2 percent from three, a far cry from its 60 percent output in the first round. Scheyer particularly struggled, sinking just 2-of-17 field goals. Meanwhile, Laettner tallied 25 points and five steals for the 91-92 squad, with Bobby Hurley adding 12 assists.
And so, the overall No. 1 seed remains alive, but who will challenge them in the tournament finale?
No. 3 2000-01: 113
No. 7 1985-86: 78
The fearless strategy of not attempting a single 3-pointer had to be the 1985-86 squad's downfall at some point. Duke’s 2000-01 team quickly rewrites the tournament high for point differential, crushing 1985-86 by a 35-point margin. Boozer’s 24 points led the way while Jason Williams—later known as Jay Williams—tallied 22 points and nine assists. Battier added five steals and three blocks for 00-01 while helping hold Dawkins to a meager 6-of-16 mark from the floor.
Now what you’ve all been waiting for: the championship matchup. The game that determines who lives on as the best to ever grace the floor of Cameron Indoor Stadium. The best group of players Coach K has ever coached. The best team of the best program in college basketball history. Drumroll please...
No. 1 1991-92: 97
No. 3 2000-01: 106
And there you go. The 2000-01 Blue Devils are the best Duke team of all time, taking down top-seeded 1991-92 in the championship game. Both squads lit up the floor from beyond the arc, with 2000-01 simply utilizing that success to a higher degree, attempting over twice as many 3-pointers than its opposition.
Laettner posted 25 points for 1991-92, while Grant Hill put up a 14-9-7 line of his own. But 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting from Jay Williams was just too much to overcome, with Battier adding 18 points, two steals and four blocks and Boozer grabbing a team-leading 10 rebounds for 2000-01.
Obviously, this was not the perfect system in determining the best Duke team of all time. Player minutes were certainly not simulated perfectly, and the decision to assume the Blue Devils’ 1985-86 squad would simply not attempt a single 3-pointer was bold to say the least. But the simulation was very accurate in other ways.
Duke’s 2018-19 team struggled from beyond the arc and with offensive balance, weaknesses that led to its downfall in the real NCAA tournament this past March. Meanwhile, the 00-01 team soared behind 3-point marksmanship and exceptional effort on the defensive end, traits that powered its actual championship run 18 years ago.
In the end, maybe you’ll learn a thing or two from this experiment about what it takes to build a dominant college basketball team. Maybe you won’t.
And maybe you’ll just keep running the simulation until your favorite Duke team comes out on top.