If a No. 1 seed was still within reach for Duke entering play Wednesday night, the Blue Devils may not be in contention anymore.
A discouraging 82-72 loss at previously struggling Wake Forest sent the Blue Devils tumbling back to fourth place in the ACC and made it more likely they fall back to the three-seed line than climb up and claim the last available No. 1.
The most agonizing part of the loss for Duke was that it appeared to have a firm grip on the game with about five minutes remaining. A Jabari Parker dunk gave the Blue Devils a seven-point lead, but the visitors did not score another point until less than a minute remained.
Wake Forest's 17-0 blitz began with four innocuous free throws from Devin Thomas and Travis McKie. Tyler Cavanaugh then gave the Deacs the lead with back-to-back baskets. And by the time Codi Miller-McIntyre stole the ball from Rasheed Sulaimon and fed Coron Williams, Wake Forest had stunningly extended its lead to 10 points.
Duke's loss was its second of the season to a team outside the top 100 in the RPI, with the other coming at Notre Dame on Jan. 4. Quality wins against Virginia, Syracuse, Michigan, UCLA and Pittsburgh help balance that out, but those are the only five likely at-large NCAA tournament teams the Blue Devils (23-7, 12-5) have beaten all season entering Saturday's regular season finale against North Carolina.
That's certainly not a resume the caliber of a Florida or Arizona, nor is it enough to overtake an unbeaten Wichita State. ACC champion Virginia, Big 12 champion Kansas, Big East champion Villanova and Big Ten runner-up Wisconsin can each make a case for their resumes being stronger than that of the Blue Devils in some areas.
Kansas and Wisconsin have nearly twice the RPI top 50 wins Duke has. Villanova has lost only to top 10 Syracuse and Creighton all season. Virginia is four games ahead of the Blue Devils in the ACC standings, though Duke did hand the Cavs their only loss and Tony Bennett's team did have the unbalanced schedule in its favor.
Wherever Duke is seeded, it will have to finish games stronger than it did Wednesday night, it will need to defend less lackadaisically and it will require more production from star forwards Parker and Rodney Hood. Rasheed Sulaimon had a decent 14-point night, but no other Blue Devil besides Parker and Hood tallied double figures.
Duke still has the firepower to be a threat in the NCAA tournament and it still has a very good chance to earn a No. 2 seed.
But f the ACC is going to produce a No. 1 seed, Virginia is probably its last hope.
Syracuse excused itself from consideration Tuesday night by suffering its fourth loss in five games at the hands of middling Georgia Tech. Duke then bowed out of contention a night later with an even more brutal loss.