Duke makes ACC history and a case for NCAA seeding that's sure to be debated
Blue Devils figure to be at the center of Selection Sunday's most significant seed debate
NEW YORK -- An incredible ACC finale was tagged with ACC history.
Duke Blue Devils , seeded fifth, became the first team in conference history to win four games in four days and take the league title. The Blue Devils conquered with a 75-69 victory against third-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Saturday night. The Blue Devils rallied for the third time in as many days to overcome a ranked team in the second half and win their 20th conference tournament crown.
The Blue Devils (27-8) will be front and center for the biggest debate on Selection Sunday. Should Duke be a No. 1? Will Duke be a No. 1? Does Duke even want to be a No. 1 if that means the Blue Devils go to the South Regional (Memphis) rather than the East (Madison Square Garden)?
It’s going to be Duke vs. North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Arizona Wildcats . And it’s going to be spectacular. We almost never have No. 1 seed debates for three teams. And Duke’s usually firmly in or firmly out. Are we having a great March already or what?
“We’ve had a heck of year, and were at our best in the last month once we got everyone together,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “How the team compares to everyone, the committee will do a good job. We’ll go wherever they put us, and we’re OK with whatever seed. We haven’t paid any attention to that. We’ll just let happen. I think that’s the best way of doing it.”
Yeah, easy to say now. It’s a lot different when presented with the reality of the placement you’re handed in a bracket. A 1 always looks better than a 2.
I have to say, this is so fitting. Duke has been the most interesting story in college basketball all season, melodrama after melodrama, the are-they-back-or-aren’t-they-back seesaw. There were injuries upon injuries and Grayson Allen becoming the most villainous person in sports. Nobody has come close to Duke in producing compelling copy.
And here we are, hours away from a bracket reveal, and Duke will dominate the day. The preseason No. 1 team has found its hill and is barreling down it. At this point, the Blue Devils look as lethal as anyone.
If you want to make the case for Duke to land on the 1 line, it’s easy to do. The Blue Devils own 13 top-50 RPI wins, eight coming away from home. Those 13 critical victories are two more than any other team. Over the past three days, Duke has gotten past two top-10 teams ( Louisville Cardinals and North Carolina), and a top 25 team in No. 22 Notre Dame (25-9). The Blue Devils’ overall profile has gotten the biggest boost of anyone in the country.
Yes, eight losses are a lot. No team has ever earned a No. 1 seed with that many. Losses should matter; perhaps we’ll find out around 5:30 p.m. ET that they did.
But no team with eight losses has ever had nearly this many high-quality wins, and the details of those losses are up for sizable debate. More on that in a second. Let’s go back to the wins. Duke’s eight (just eight of its 13) top-50 wins away from home are as many as Kansas Jayhawks has total, and more than Gonzaga Bulldogs , Kentucky Wildcats , Oregon Ducks , UCLA Bruins , Louisville and Arizona can claim to their entire resume. All of those teams project on the 3 line or better.
But Duke finished fifth in its league!
Duke finishing fifth in the ACC is irrelevant. Repeat after me: body of work, body of work, body of work.
Thanks to Brooklyn’s gauntlet, Duke’s body has gone from finely toned to freaking ripped.
From a seeding standpoint, Duke is one of the most interesting cases we’ve seen for the 1 line in the past 10 years, maybe longer. The talent is obvious, and the committee will be forced to reckon with the reality that this team was not a complete one for more than 70 percent of its season.
Injuries aren’t everything, but they are something. And you are both evaluated on your resume but also judged on who you have available at the start of the NCAA Tournament. Whether you believe Duke should be a 1 seed, the fact is this team has given the section committee a lot to hash out. Remember:
- Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles did not play in Duke’s 77-75, last-second loss to projected No. 1 Kansas.
- Grayson Allen did not play in Duke’s loss to projected 7 seed Virginia Tech Hokies .
- Grayson Allen did not play in Duke’s loss to projected 8 seed Miami.
- Amile Jefferson didn’t play in the losses to Louisville and Florida State Seminoles , two teams populating the 3 line.
- Mike Krzyzewski missed seven games due to back surgery. While he was out, Duke went 4-3.
All of those people are fully healthy and able to play for Duke now. It’s not that Duke shouldn’t get dinged for the losses. It should and will -- but that basketful of big-time W’s is heavy. Duke has lost eight time. Two of those losses, both of which came on the road, one of which was at Syracuse Orange at the buzzer, were when Duke had a full roster available.
Duke’s nonconference schedule, and its refusal to play a true road game before ACC play, could be a trump card. Perhaps it should. North Carolina scheduled more ambitiously, as did Arizona. The committee needs to hold teams accountable for non-league play. Duke loses out to the Heels and Wildcats.
If Duke gets a 2, then so be it. That will still bring plenty of debate -- and nobody wants to face this team at this point. And you know what? Duke getting a 2, I have to believe it will be given geographic preference. So, a return trip to New York would have to be in store, no? If so, hello East region. You know who’s at the top of that: Villanova Wildcats , . Plenty of intrigue there. The past two national champions potentially playing at Madison Square Garden with a bid to the Final Four on the line is a stupendous proposition.
Of course, it would be better if those teams met in the Final Four.
If you want more to compare the Blue Devils and Heels, Duke is 12-7 against the projected field. UNC is 10-5. The teams split on each other’s home floors, then Duke got the victory — convincingly — on the neutral. Hard to see that not being a trump card. There is a one-loss difference between the two.
I asked Grayson Allen, Harry Giles, Luke Kennard , assistant Jon Scheyer and Krzyzewski all about getting the 1. Does it matter? Do you think you deserve it?
Kennard didn’t care, and neither did Allen. Giles looked like a kid in a candy store. He’s still got a lot ahead of him, but this was a big week for his future.
“You want to know the truth?” Scheyer told me. “We haven’t talked about it at all.”
They will be speculating about it on Sunday. We all will. The mystery of this choice should ratchet up the drama and outcry after we see what happens. The 1 line does matter. Being a 1 aligns you, broadly speaking, with easier competition than if you’re a 2. And this is Duke. People are invested. Conspiracy theories abound, and it’s part of what makes this day so fun. Duke getting a 1 seed couldn’t possibly be because they earned it. Anything but that!
There’s never been a regular-season roller coaster team in college basketball history like this season’s Blue Devils. The transition to the NCAA Tournament is so polarizing, so controversial, it had to happen this way.
Duke proved this week that it can play like a 1. It looked like a 1. And on Sunday, if the committee does its job and weighs all factors, the Duke Blue Devils will be a 1.
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