The top five ‘what if’ Duke basketball seasons of all time

Duke basketball (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Duke basketball (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /
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Duke basketball
Duke basketball players Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith, and Kyrie Irving during the 2010-11 season (Photo by Peyton Williams/Getty Images) /


The 2010-2011 Duke basketball season

  • 32-5 overall | 13-3 ACC
  • THE RESULT: Lost in Regional Semifinal to Arizona

This team was hard to leave off the list as it featured senior versions of Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith in addition to a freshman version of Kyrie Irving. Most people remember Irving’s freak toe injury in December and how his March return messed up the chemistry and team rotation.

Many people forget that the early-season version of the Blue Devils was scary. They pummeled opponents and ran their way through two top 10 opponents before Irving was lost.

Duke adjusted and stayed near the top of the rankings regardless, and fans hoped to see utter domination once Irving returned. Arizona spoiled the fun in the Sweet 16, however, and sent the Blue Devils home with a 93-77 victory.

The 1993-1994 Duke basketball season

  • 28-6 overall | 12-4 ACC
  • THE RESULT: Lost in National Championship to Arkansas

The 1993-94 version of the Blue Devils was a tricky team to dissect. This team featured a legend on his farewell tour in Grant Hill plus a solid support team of Antonio Lang, Chris Collins, Jeff Capel, and Cherokee Parks.

Duke even gave powerhouse Arkansas a run for its money, leading the game late. This Arkansas team was about as complete a team to ever play college hoops and starred Corliss Williamson, Scotty Thurman, and Corey Beck.

I left this Duke team off the list simply because I think Arkansas was a better team and was expected to win that game. That doesn’t make the fact that Duke kept it very close — and that Thurman drained a rafter-touching three — any easier to watch.

The 2001-2002 Duke basketball season

  • 31-4 overall | 13-3 ACC
  • THE RESULT: Lost in Regional Semifinal to Indiana

It was going so well. All the main contributors minus Shane Battier and Nate James had returned from a title-winning Duke team the previous year.

Those two departures proved to leave a lull in leadership and toughness, though, as the Blue Devils fell, 74-73, in the Sweet 16 to a scrappy Indiana team. Duke blew a 17-point lead in the second half, and then Jason Williams failed to convert at the charity stripe in the final seconds to secure the loss.

The 2001-02 season was an extra tough pill to swallow as a victory over Indiana would have almost certainly propelled the Blue Devils to a rematch of the 2001 Final Four classic with the Maryland Terrapins. Yet without Battier’s defense and leadership, it would have been hard to knock off the Terps, who were on a warpath that year.

A man can certainly dream, though, and I would have loved to have seen what Williams, Boozer, Dunleavy, and Duhon might have done with a few more games.

The 1985-1986 Duke basketball season

  • 37-3 overall | 12-2 ACC
  • THE RESULT: Lost in National Championship to Louisville

The 1985-86 squad rightfully holds a special place in the hearts of many Duke basketball diehards. Mike Krzyzewski got off to a notoriously poor start in Durham, and this senior class was widely considered to have saved his job.

That senior class included Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, and Dave Henderson. This juggernaut of a team also had the supporting cast of Tommy Amaker, Billy King, Quin Snyder, and Danny Ferry.

Only one person could slow the Blue Devils down that year, and he came along in the title game in the form of Louisville’s Pervis Ellison. That legend alone makes any team a favorite, but add in Billy Thompson, Milt Wagner, and Kenny Payne and this team makes the victory over Duke no fluke.

It should be noted that these Blue Devils made me want to extend the following list to 10. For exclusivity’s sake, I left it at five. But with all these honorable mentions and a surprise appearance later, we sit at nine. I don’t get how my mind works either, folks, just sit back and enjoy the top five!