Duke players watch the final minutes of their game against South Carolina in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament on March 19. (Chuck Burton/AP)

The perennial collapse of the Duke University men’s college basketball team in the NCAA tournament is a consistent source of solace to freedom-loving Americans everywhere. Duke is a remarkably hateable program, thanks to its consistent legacy of decent teams and  its legacy of hateable players, from Bobby Hurley to Grayson Allen. So when Duke fails to meet expectations in the NCAA tournament, as it usually does, real American patriots in all 50 states spend the next 24 hours celebrating.

With South Carolina’s victory over Duke on Sunday, those patriots are celebrating now.

What made the South Carolina win particularly enjoyable to people with good taste was that they weren’t supposed to win. They were a 7-seed, supposed to lose to the 2-seeded Duke. But the Gamecocks prevailed, fairly easily, upsetting the favored Blue Devils.

That really shouldn’t be a surprise, though. Over the past three decades, no team has suffered more NCAA tournament upsets than Duke.

It’s important to differentiate between real and on-paper upsets. A real upset is something like that South Carolina game, where Duke was five seedings higher than its opponent. An on-paper upset is like what happened to Miami against Michigan State; the latter was a 9-seed to Miami’s 8-seed, meaning that, basically, they were equivalent.

Using data from Sports-Reference.com, we tally 20 upsets of the Duke Blue Devils since the 1985 tournament, including 14 that were against opponents more than one seeding away from them. That’s easily the most total upsets over that period.


But looking only at those more-than-one-seed upsets, Duke is tied with Oklahoma. Both schools have been upset by teams more than one seeding away the same number of times. On average, Duke is upset by teams that are 4.4 seedings worse than they are; Oklahoma by schools that are 5.3 seedings worse. Of the schools that have suffered the most upsets since 1985 (listed above), Syracuse has been upset the most consistently badly, being upset, on average, by schools that are 5.9 seedings worse.

Over time, Duke’s upsets have grown worse. The last four times they were upset were by teams that were at least four seedings worse than them.


Why so many upsets? There are two possibilities. The first is that the school is consistently overrated in the rankings. The second is that they consistently underperform. Which is the case in any given year probably varies, but we can certainly all agree that Duke is far worse overall than Duke fans would have you believe.

Those Duke fans who somehow also have rudimentary math skills may object to the first graph in this article on the grounds that Duke has also appeared in far more tournaments than other schools on the list. And that’s true. If you look at upsets as a percentage of tournament appearances since 1985, Duke drops to second in terms of total upsets as a function of appearances.

The school that has fared worst? Ohio State.


Ohio State, of course, is home to one of the most beloved college sports programs in the country, and their losses on the basketball court always prompt real Americans to spend the next 24 hours in a state of abject sorrow.

My editors would probably suggest that I reveal that I attended Ohio State, but I fail to see how that’s relevant.