Despite having the best resume as considered by most experts and despite an 18-1 record with Ryan Kelly in the lineup, none of that was enough to erase Duke’s lack luster effort in their conference tournament, while Kansas and Louisville won their respective conference tournaments and Miami completed its sweep of the ACC Championship.
The Blue Devils and their fans have no real room to gripe though as Duke has been trending down since Kelly first got hurt and especially over the last month.
Even his return which resulted in Duke going 3-1 over the final four games, the Blue Devils still didn’t demonstrate the same level of play they had over the first 15 games of the season when they were arguably the best team in the country. Now they are a No. 2 seed in the Midwest Bracket, arguably the toughest bracket in the entire NCAA Tournament.
Duke is in the same bracket as overall No. 1 seed Louisville, a team that won the Big East Tournament and a team that the Blue Devils defeated earlier in the season in the Battle for Atlantis Tournament.
Clearly Louisville has gotten better and Duke at best has level out. But it isn’t the Cardinal who present challenges for the Blue Devils.
If you assume that Duke makes it past their first round game this year against Albany, then they would have to play the winner of the 7-10 matchup between Creighton and Cincinnati. That match up isn’t one many Duke fans were hoping to see, considering that both teams spent a good portion of the year ranked in the Top 25 and both present serious match up issues for Duke.
Creighton features a serious National Player of the Year candidate in Doug McDermott who could present a match up problem for Duke. McDermott was a high school teammate of former Duke recruiting target and North Carolina player Harrison Barnes. As for Cincinnati, the Bearcats have guards that can cause the Blue Devils issues on the perimeter.
Duke could beat either team if they played their best but neither matchup is particularly easy.
If the Blue Devils manage to advance to the Sweet 16 they will likely have another tough matchup with Michigan State who appears to be the best team in the lower half of that part of the bracket. The Spartans and Tom Izzo have had some success against Duke in the NCAA Tournament, and specifically in the Sweet 16, where the Blue Devils have struggled a good deal in recent years.
Once past the round of 16, Krzyzewski tends to win in Elite Eight matchups where he has only lost one time in his career. For the Blue Devils to get back there they have to re-establish the confidence that has gradually faded as the season has gone on. And it is most likely at an all-time low following its early exit from the ACC Tournament at the hands of Maryland, a team that beat Duke twice this season and still didn’t make the tournament.
Most are expecting Duke to fall somewhere before they could get to a potential Elite Eight rematch with Louisville. The Cardinals are widely seen as one of the hottest teams coming into the tournament and at first glance there aren’t many teams expecting to challenge them on the upper half of the bracket.
There are some potential sleepers in St. Louis and Oregon, but still most expect the Cardinals to be waiting for whoever comes out of the lower half in the Elite Eight.
If Duke does make it through they would likely be playing at the same level that got them the No. 1 ranking back in December. They have proven they can beat the Cardinals but that was without big man Gorgui Deng. Whether he could be the difference maker in a possible rematch remains to be seen and unless Duke starts playing better it will be a mute point anyway.
Ultimately Duke is a team, that when, on its game, can beat anyone and cut down the nets in Atlanta, but they also are vulnerable. They have been inconsistent and are not a very solid defensive team. They can be very good offensively but as the loss to Maryland shows, if they aren’t hitting their shots, they can easily be beat.
The Blue Devils have to rise to the occasion and play with an edge, something they had at the beginning of the year, but has faded as the year has gone on. They will not have an easy go of it, but again Duke has nobody to blame but themselves. The only question is will they do something about it?
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