Duke heads into the NCAA tournament with unusually low outside expectations. Many self-proclaimed bracket experts have Duke losing in the first round to UNC Wilmington, or to Baylor or Yale in the second round.
The Blue Devils are a popular upset pick, with words like “Mercer” and “Lehigh” and “Virginia Commonwealth” thrown around with some frequency.
And maybe. It’s certainly possible. If Marshall Plumlee gets in foul trouble, if the 3-pointers don’t fall, if Duke has to dip into its little-used bench, then the Blue Devils are certainly vulnerable, to Wilmington or anyone else.
They’re also more than capable of making it out of not only Providence but Anaheim, Calif. In the wide-open West Regional, who’s to say Duke can’t make it back to the Final Four? Or, at the least, the Blue Devils are just as likely to make it back to the Final Four as they are to get knocked out early.
With Brandon Ingram and Grayson Allen, with the ability to put four very accurate shooters on the floor at once, with Mike Krzyzewski pulling the strings on the bench, Duke has shown this season it can beat anyone on any given night, even without Amile Jefferson.
Because of that unique combination of powerful strengths and crippling flaws, Duke lines up as one of the highest-variance teams in the field, realistically capable of both a long run and an early exit.
For example, Duke is the only team to beat two No. 1 seeds this season (one on the road) as well as Big Ten regular-season champion Indiana, at-large team VCU and small-conference champs Yale and Buffalo.
But the Blue Devils are also 6-9 against NCAA tournament teams and struggled in ACC play when asked to play twice in three days. They’re 3-4 over their past seven games (three losses coming to NCAA tournament teams, the other to ineligible Louisville). Plus, they would have to go through Anaheim, where their season has ended twice in the past 12 years.
The most realistic path for the Blue Devils is to beat Wilmington and either Baylor or Yale, then lose in Anaheim, again. That’s where they’re seeded to advance as No. 4 seed, and as the 22nd-ranked team in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings, even a slight overachievement.
But the West Regional is clearly the weakest of the four, with the weakest No. 1 seed (Oregon) and the potential for chaos not only in Providence (where Yale has a solid shot to beat Baylor, coming out of an Ivy League that came close to generating a legitimate at-large contender in Princeton) but elsewhere in the regional. Northern Iowa, Green Bay and VCU are all capable of pulling off an upset or two.
If Duke’s path to Houston goes through UNC Wilmington, Yale, Cincinnati or St. Joseph’s and VCU, the Blue Devils would be favored the whole way through. (The same holds true should Texas or Oregon State make the regional final.) Even if the Blue Devils have to play Oregon, and Oklahoma or Texas A&M to survive, Duke is 4-4 against teams of that elite caliber, not exactly overmatched.
And Duke has to win a tournament game or two on the West Coast at some point, right? There’s no rhyme or reason behind that odd stat, other than a very small sample.
Only Oklahoma wants to play faster than Duke and none of the three is an elite offensive rebounding team, Duke’s biggest defensive weakness (Baylor, however, is). In terms of probabilities, Pomeroy gives Duke an 8.9 percent chance of making the Final Four, better than all but the No. 1 and 2 seeds in the other three regions.
Is this saying Duke is a lock for the Final Four? Obviously not. Only that the Blue Devils have about as good a chance to make it to Houston as they do to get knocked out early. And people are only talking about one of those possibilities.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock