With 11 victories down the stretch and a matchup with a team it had lost to in a one-point game just one month before, Duke was expected to care of business when it visited No. 7 Notre Dame for its season closer. That was not the case Saturday afternoon in Arlotta Stadium, where the Blue Devils fell to the Fighting Irish in a 16-14 battle.
After two dominant conference wins against now-No. 3 Virginia and No. 19 North Carolina, Duke seemed to be closing out the season with an excellent finish. Notre Dame was quick to rain on the Blue Devils’ parade. Despite a four-point Duke lead at halftime, the Fighting Irish returned from the locker room and outscored the visiting team in the third quarter 4-3, then finished the final 15 minutes with a 5-0 run to take, and keep, the lead.
With that difficult loss, Selection Sunday came and went for the crew as it was announced that Duke will not be competing in the NCAA tournament for the first time under head coach John Danowski.
But in taking a look at the teams competing in the NCAA tournament, it’s clear that there are just too many good teams in this league. Without a sixth team in the ACC, there is no automatic conference bid. Because of this, as the ACC had the potential to send multiple teams to the tournament, there likely would have been two ACC teams sent to the tournament, with Duke being one of them. That’s the case for the Ivy League, which is sending six programs to compete for the hardware. However, falling to the Fighting Irish caused just one ACC team to end up in the NCAA tournament—Virginia.
But even though it would’ve been a treat for the Blue Devil faithful to cheer on the crew, an opportunity in the tournament likely wouldn’t have ended happily. Duke has had struggles throughout the season due to inconsistent play.
It’s not difficult to see that this squad has talent. For instance, if you asked me ahead of Saturday’s game whether I think that the Blue Devils would have had a chance to be a superteam in the national tournament, I would say without a doubt. Additionally, Duke’s last loss before its first defeat against Notre Dame was to Syracuse—a team that went 4-10 this season and had the home-field advantage. And their last defeat before that was an outlier against Loyola, which has historically been a powerful team on the national level.
But the league grows more competitive as time goes on. If you want to compete in the tournament, you basically need to be a superteam if you’re not getting an automatic bid. For that to have happened, Duke would have needed to beat strong groups, especially those with a more difficult schedule. The Fighting Irish may have been 8-4, but those four losses came at the hands of some of the top four teams: No. 1 Maryland, No. 2 Georgetown, No. 3 Virginia and No. 11 Ohio State.
So, what would the Blue Devils needed to have done to rise to the ranks of their top-tier opponents? With a negative strength of record, ranked 16th in the stat per Lacrosse Reference, Duke was already in a situation where it had to prepare to play against its most strenuous opponents all season.
Improving on defense and limiting opportunities at goal should have been the Blue Devils’ primary objective. They already have the offensive talent they need to overcome any potential opponent. But with the squad ranked 39th in defensive efficiency and the No. 1 and No. 2 teams ranked 11th and second in the stat, respectively, the Blue Devils would potentially have a problem keeping up with the numbers on the scoreboard.
Additionally, Duke posted a 30.8% turnover rate this season. The Blue Devils are typically strong at keeping possession, but they can face forced turnovers, such as what happened when the group played Notre Dame this past weekend. With seven fourth-quarter turnovers from Duke to just one from the Fighting Irish, the group's decisive run makes sense. When you lose possession of the ball in a close game like that, especially near the end, the players in this league will capitalize.
So as the NCAA tournament arrives and the bracket finally sees programs on it, it’s disappointing but not surprising that Duke is not one of those names. Despite having strong performances this season, especially towards its end, the Blue Devils have faltered against high-caliber teams time and time again, now with six losses to prove that fact. Only time will tell what’s in the cards for this squad of Blue Devils, but they now have the offseason to get back to their superstar level.
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Ana Young is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.