- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Duke played its first true road game Thursday night, beating a depleted NC State in Raleigh. The Blue Devils play at surprising Miami next Wednesday and then at struggling Florida State on Jan. 22.
So, when exactly does Duke play at one of the potential favorites for the ACC title? Not until Duke goes to Wake Forest on Feb. 2. Duke also visits Maryland on Feb. 12, Georgia Tech on Feb. 23 and will close the season at North Carolina on March 6.
Clearly, the Blue Devils caught a break with their ACC schedule. Duke will almost certainly have forward Shavlik Randolph back (he could be on the court against the Hurricanes next week after battling mononucleosis) and reserve Reggie Love (broken foot).
Of course, Maryland could right itself by then and Georgia Tech should have B.J. Elder (hamstring) on the court when Duke is town. But is the early-season schedule luck? Is it just a coincidence that Duke opened against Clemson the last four seasons?
The reality for the rest of the ACC is that Duke plays the best teams in the ACC on the road, later in the ACC season, because that's when the ACC television partners want the high-profile, highly-anticipated, and usually highest-rated games.
"Duke is our highest rated television team," said Fred Barakat, who handles the television schedules for the ACC.
So, while Maryland went to North Carolina and Wake Forest last week and Wake Forest plays North Carolina on Saturday in Winston-Salem after the Tar Heels hosted Georgia Tech, the rest of the league can stop wondering why they're beating each other up while Duke gets its feet wet.
Barakat said there is a selection process among the television partners and that the top games, like Duke-North Carolina, go first. Every one of Duke's ACC games is part of the national ACC package (ESPN, ABC, CBS, Fox). Accordingly, the selection process continues from the best to least-desired matchups -- and one of the last games selected for Duke is Clemson.
"Duke-Clemson hasn't been part of the early selection process and that's why it has been the first game [each season]," Barakat said. FSN picked up the Duke-Clemson game on Jan. 2.
Barakat said one season's schedule has nothing to do with the next and that Duke would probably not play Clemson to start next season (Virginia Tech, maybe?). But that doesn't ease the pain for Clemson coach Oliver Purnell. He raised his concern about playing Duke to open his first two ACC seasons at the league meetings last spring, drawing a chuckle from those in attendance.
But Purnell isn't letting this issue die.
"I raised it at the meetings and I raised it with my athletic director the other day," Purnell said. "I understand the importance of the ratings but at the same time there needs to be some equitable competitiveness as well."
Purnell said Clemson shouldn't open with Duke four years running.
"It's a tough opener," Purnell said of the 62-54 loss to Duke at Cameron. What's worse, in the new unbalanced schedule this season, Duke doesn't go to Clemson.
"Let's face it, we don't want to open with the best team in the league every year," Purnell said. "That's the bottom line. I want my AD to take this to the AD level and talk about it and consider moving it around."
Barakat defends the scheduling process by saying that once the television games are selected, then he inputs the other games and the computer spits out the results. He positions non-conference games in the schedule and puts in the bye weeks.
Duke had a bye week last Saturday and that's why the Blue Devils played Temple in a non-conference game. The Clemson game was moved from the first Wednesday of the ACC season to Sunday for Fox and that opened up a Wednesday date on Jan. 5 for Duke to play host to Princeton. Duke's next bye date is on Feb. 26 when they play at St. John's.
"Every team in our league gets two byes and they can play a made-for-TV game or a non-conference game not on television during those bye weeks," Barakat said. "Everyone has that, not just Duke."
Duke's first one just fell right for the Blue Devils to squeeze in two non-conference games at the start of the ACC season.
Barakat will get an earful on this subject with the 12-team ACC, too, as he attempts to make the schedule somewhat equitable once Boston College joins the league in the fall. It will be difficult, though, to change the mentality that Duke and North Carolina get the first choice of dates.
Is it true? When it comes to those two games, the answer is yes -- because television dictates the schedule.
"We're going to protect the integrity of January and February and March," Barakat said of having the best matchups later in the ACC season."I'm sure Fox would rather have better matchups in December, but I can't. We have so many TV partners that it's hard to make this work because we have to satisfy Fox, ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, CBS and Raycom, and then regional cable."
That still doesn't appease Maryland's Gary Williams, fresh off pastings at North Carolina and Wake Forest.
"I'm glad Fred said that because I've been in the league for 16 years and I know they do that," Williams said of giving the Duke-UNC games preferred treatment. "The year after we won the national title, Duke-Carolina was still the ultimate game. It's always the last ACC game. It makes every other team in the league look secondary. That's what I object to. Whoever is good should get the publicity.
"If we're not good this year then that's fine, but there's nobody better than Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and North Carolina this year. They're the top three."
Williams said the "big games" should rotate every year -- especially the placement of the games. Under this rationale, Saturday's Wake Forest-North Carolina game should be the last game of the ACC season, since it's their only meeting of the season.
"The league has been set up for Carolina and Duke since that became the featured game," Williams said. "All the schedules are off of those two games and set up for television. CBS, ABC, ESPN pick the games for ratings and what's left goes to Fox. We've been the third team picked and that's why we play every Sunday night. We play one Saturday (ACC) home game in January and February and that's not fair."
And who is it against?
"Duke," Williams said.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.
The reality in the ACC is that Duke gets some schedule breaks -- because that's what TV wants.