March Madness: Here's how Duke could play in the 2021 NCAA Tournament after all

Scott Gleeson
USA TODAY

Duke is poised to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996. The Blue Devils (13-11) were a reeling bubble team hoping for an at-large bid and trying to claim the ACC's automatic bid by winning the league tournament.

But then a positive COVID-19 test prompted athletics director Kevin White to declare that the team's season was over Thursday. Coach Mike Krzyzewski issued a season-ending statement praising his players' resiliency through adversity, and the story line was about Duke's omission from March Madness. 

White, who is retiring in August, is the head of the 10-member selection committee.

Now, we're seeing hints that the aforementioned story line could change — just in time for Selection Sunday. ESPN reported that Duke could still play in the NCAA Tournament if selected by the committee.

A person with knowledge of the situation told USA TODAY Sports that Duke's chances of playing in the NCAA Tournament are very "fluid" and contingent on what direction the committee goes near the bubble line. The person requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the situation. 

Here's where it gets tricky. As an at-large team, the Blue Devils' credentials are nowhere near good enough to be included in the field of 68 due to a low win count and just two Quadrant 1 wins.

Due to COVID-19 protocols, the "first four out" list of snubbed teams takes on extra weight this season. In past years, those four teams would be No. 1 seeds in the consolation NIT Tournament. Instead, those four teams will be alternates on standby should a COVID-19 situation develop with one of the 68 teams selected. 

So, there's a glimmer of hope for Blue Devils' fans that Duke sneaks into the alternates on standby — meaning we could see the blue-blood of all blue-bloods, after all. 

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Duke players gather prior to the start of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in the second round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C.

The alternates' bubble could go down to the wire, with Wichita State, Colorado State, Boise State and Saint Louis the "first four out" on USA TODAY Sports' final bracketology. But perhaps Duke's profile is intriguing enough to the 10-member committee to squeak in as an alternate. So while Duke may be left out of the initial field, being named an alternate is a possibility.

To play in the NCAA Tournament, a team needs to show seven consecutive days of negative COVID-19 tests before arriving in Indianapolis. The First Four is Thursday and the first round opens Friday. Should any teams selected to the field be impacted by COVID-19 and forced to withdraw, there is a contingency plan to quickly replace the school in the bracket. After Tuesday at 6 p.m. ET, the bracket is locked. 

The first priority in replacing any team will be to ensure that all 31 conferences playing will be represented. (The Ivy League chose to sit this season out because of the pandemic). That would mean if a school from a one-bid league drops out then it would be replaced by a team from the same league. Should the team withdrawing be from a conference with multiple bids then a selection would be made from at-large teams considered when the field was announced.

Will Duke be one of those teams? For now, it appears Duke's streak of 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances will end.

Contributing: Erick Smith

Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson