Yesterday I thought I had this great idea for an article to write: I was going to title it Bet On Duke and talk about all the reasons why they won’t lose another game this season. That was before they took down Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament Championship game.
It was going just fine. I mentioned all of their shiny victories over top teams like North Carolina (twice), Louisville, Notre Dame (before they beat them a second time), Florida, Florida State… and you get the point. I also mentioned that, right now, they happen to be playing their best basketball of the season.
But mostly it was about this: the idea that — whether the Blue Devils win another championship, or burn this thing to the ground next weekend in the round of 32 — this has been by far the strangest Duke team/season of my lifetime. Or at least since 1999 when I became a fan.
I started that article, but I did not finish and thus did not post that article. Maybe part of it was due to some underlying superstition that I would never admit to in real life. The three days prior I was at work and missed Duke defeating Clemson, Louisville and North Carolina back-to-back-to-back. If I posted that article before a tilt against Notre Dame, a team that has had more success than any other ACC team since joining the conference in 2013, then surely the Blue Devils would lose and make me look like some jackass homer.
So by the mere fact that I did not go through with it, Duke went ahead and obviously won the damn thing. I will be waiting patiently for Coach K and the squad to send me a thank you letter.
A day later, Duke has two things that they didn’t have before: a second win against Notre Dame, and an ACC Tournament title. How much either of those are worth is anyone’s guess; I tend to believe they mean very little. They happened, so that’s something. But my confidence in this team and their prospects moving forward are unchanged. Duke is the most talented college basketball team in America, and if they don’t win the National Championship it will be a disappointment.
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On Sunday the NCAA released its 68-team tournament field. Duke is the number-2 seed in the East region, paired with the number-1 overall team, and defending National Champion, Villanova. By most counts the East the second-toughest region of the four — behind the South, which features all of North Carolina (1-seed), Kentucky (2-seed) and UCLA (3-seed) — but most of the real conflict figures to take place in Villanova’s half of the region, not Duke’s.
What I mean by that: (1) NOVA’s second round game will either be against (8) Wisconsin or (9) Virginia Tech. If they were to win that, then a potential Sweet 16 matchup against (4) Florida or (5) Virginia could be in the works. Basically, for the chance to play Duke, for instance — Vegas’s early favorite at 5:1 to win the tournament — the top overall seeded team, Villanova, might first have to defeat two other ACC teams.
Virginia Tech was good enough to beat Duke by 14 points this year. Virginia led Villanova by double digits, on the road, before NOVA stormed back and won on a last-second tip-in. This is the gauntlet that Villanova could realistically have to navigate through to make it back to the Final Four.
Meanwhile, Duke has it relatively easy in comparison. Following a first round game against Troy, they will meet the winner of (7) South Carolina and (10) Marquette. Here are the rubs: if it’s USC-East, then it will essentially be a road game for the Blue Devils. The location for the first two rounds is in Greenville, South Carolina. Secondly and unforgettably, if it’s Marquette then Coach K will be on opposing sidelines with former player and former assistant, Steve “Wojo” Wojciechowski.
Who would I rather play? Marquette, obviously. Who do I think Duke will play? The other guys.
Should Duke make it through the first weekend, then a matchup with (6) SMU would seem appropriate. The Mustangs are coached by a former UNC assistant and overall coaching legend, Larry Brown, and one of its best players is a Duke transfer named Semi Ojeleye. Never forget that it’s about the stories, man. Never forget that this is theater. It’s no mistake that these teams are all bunched up tightly in the same region.
Duke is like the sun, and teams like Marquette in round two, SMU in round three, and Villanova in round four, all orbit around.
But that is essentially where I’m at in the East region, which is the most interesting if only because that’s where my favorite team is. I like Duke over Troy, Duke over South Carolina, Duke over SMU and Duke over Villanova.
There are entire articles I could write about each region specifically, but for here I will just list who I think will beat who in the Elite 8:
(1) Gonzaga over (3) Florida State
(1) Kansas over (3) Oregon
(3) UCLA over (1) North Carolina
In the National Championship I think Duke beats Kansas by a score of 79-74, with Luke Kennard as the Most Outstanding Player.
So yes, the sentiment still holds from yesterday: Bet on Duke.
What this tournament field lacks is great teams, which may give people the impression that there are going to be a ton of upsets. (And for all I know that could be the case in the earlier rounds.) But I anticipate the opposite. In the end I’m looking for most of the better teams to advance. My Elite 8 field features all four 1-seeds, Duke, and three 3-seeds. In the business we call that chalk.
The chance this all blows up in my face is extremely high, which is the nature of anything that involves weighted coin-flips and a 68-team field. But this is no longer the regular season. In the overwhelming majority of cases, I take the talent over everything, and I can’t deny that the most talent is on Duke.
I will leave this here to remind myself either of how unavoidably brilliant I am, or how painfully out of my hands these damn sports games often turn out to be.