Duke Basketball: Blue Devils Prepare For March With UNC Looming

BLACKSBURG, VA - FEBRUARY 26: Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski reacts during the game against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Cassell Coliseum on February 26, 2018 in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Photo by Lauren Rakes/Getty Images)
BLACKSBURG, VA - FEBRUARY 26: Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski reacts during the game against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Cassell Coliseum on February 26, 2018 in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Photo by Lauren Rakes/Getty Images) /

March Madness.  The iconic phrase was popularized by Brent Musburger in the 1980’s, but its first use dates all the way back to 1939 when the Illinois High School Association published a magazine titled as such.

Today, its the most over-used phrase in college basketball. To be clear, I am not being critical of the coaches, journalists, underdogs, and announcers who use the phrase. It fits perfectly. However, for the next 31 days, if you watch if a single college basketball game, you’ll hear “March Madness” at least 15 times. If you visit any college basketball website, you’ll see articles titled in the likeness of “March Promises To Bring The Madness Like Never Before,” or “The Maddest March Ever” or “The Unofficial Guide to March Madness.” It gets a little old.

But it is March. I couldn’t help myself. I am writing the obligatory March Madness article but with a specific look at Duke Men’s Basketball as the team prepares for the all-important month in college basketball. Duke has been on both sides of the Madness. How will the Blue Devils fare this year? Will they beat UNC on Saturday? Will they win the ACC Tournament? Is an early upset or a National Championship more likely?

Will Duke Beat UNC on Saturday?

I don’t know. I predicted Duke to win the last game and that didn’t work. Both teams are coming off losses. UNC lost in epic fashion while Duke blew a game it controlled throughout. Both Duke and UNC are wildcards. Coming into the pre-rivalry games,  Duke and UNC looked like legitimate National Championship contenders. In the losses…. not so much.

Interestingly, Duke’s season changed after the loss to UNC. Duke’s defense struggled all year. Meanwhile, the offense was one of the strongest in the country. Since the UNC game though, Duke’s defense has been one of the best in the country while its once-stellar offense has faltered.

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Duke’s switch to playing almost exclusively zone defense is the obvious reason for improvement on that side of the ball. But what about the offense? In the last two games, Duke has put up its second and third lowest point totals of the year. It’s a small sample size so it’s difficult to tell if this is a trend worthy of concern or just two off shooting nights.

Fortunately for the Blue Devils, the concerns about defense now belong to the Tar Heels. After a dismal defensive performance against the offensively challenged Miami Hurricanes, UNC is ranked 58th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. For reference, despite consistent and loud criticism from the media, Duke is ranked 14th.

It sounds like UNC’s defense is the perfect medicine for Duke’s offense to start off March Madness with a bang.

Will Duke Win the ACC Tournament?

Last year, Duke played its best basketball of the season in Brooklyn. In a four-day stretch, Duke beat Clemson, Louisville, UNC, and Notre Dame to win the ACC Championship. In all likelihood, Duke will not need to play 4 games in 4 days to win the Championship this year. However, a loss to UNC could drop Duke all the way to 5th in the standings and erase the double bye.

In my opinion, it depends on where Duke finishes in the standings. While certainly capable of repeating last year’s run, it is very unlikely this inconsistent Duke team can win 4 games in 4 days. However, if Duke beats UNC or otherwise manages to back in to double dye, I expect Duke to win the ACC Tournament. A revenge win over Virginia would be an added bonus.

Is Duke More Likely To Suffer An Early Upset Or Win The National Championship?

There hasn’t been much in between for the Blue Devils in the past 10 years. Here are Duke’s NCAA Tournament results since 2008 with its seed in parenthesis:

2008: Second Round (2)

2009: Sweet 16 (2)

2010: National Champions (1)

2011: Sweet 16 (1)

2012: First Round (2)

2013: Elite Eight (2)

2014: First Round (3)

2015: National Champions (1)

2016: Sweet 16 (4)

2017: Second Round (2)

Duke has not reached the Final Four, without winning the Championship, a single time in the last ten years. In fact, the last time Duke lost in the Final Four was 2004. Now, winning two National Championships over a ten-year span is a huge accomplishment. But on the other hand, Duke has lost in the first or second round three different times as a two seed.

As of today, Duke certainly seems destined for another two seed. A one seed may be in reach if Duke wins out. However, a loss to UNC and a quick exit at the ACC Tournament could drop Duke to a three seed.

So, what is more likely? A first or second round upset? Or a National Championship?

Unfortunately, I must pick the early upset. It is March Madness after all. Duke has shown too many inconsistencies this season to be considered a lock for an appearance in the Final Four. Duke’s inexperience is also a concern in close games (i.e., Virginia, UNC, Virginia Tech).

The middle ground would be the safest bet. The Blue Devils are ultra-talented and, now, a well-balanced offensive and defensive team. Duke is certainly more likely to reach the Sweet 16 than lose in the first round and probably more likely to reach the Elite Eight than lose in the second round.

To be clear, I do believe Duke can win the National Championship and I will likely be picking the Blue Devils to do so. Frankly, I believe Duke is one of the primary favorites to win it all along with Villanova, Michigan State, and Kansas. The reason an early upset is more likely is not that of Duke but rather a reflection of how difficult it is to win a title.

If you skipped to the end of the article here is the scoop – Duke beats UNC, Duke wins the ACC Tournament, Duke wins the National Championship. Sounds like March Madness will be a breeze.