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Can Duke finish as a No. 1 seed?

Duke didn’t match last year’s squad by earning a No. 1 seed when the NCAA Tournament selection committee released its early February rankings Saturday. But ESPN’s College GameDay analysts said they liked Duke’s chances to wind up with a No. 1 seed when it matters on Selection Sunday.

Before the rankings came out, GameDay’s analysts attempted to project what the rankings would look like, and correctly pegged the Blue Devils as a No. 2 seed. And when GameDay host Rece Davis asked analyst Jay Bilas which of the No. 2 seeds could move up a line, he pointed to a pair of ACC teams.

“Well, I think Louisville or Duke,” Bilas said. “It won’t be both. But Louisville or Duke if they can run the table in the ACC because there aren’t a ton of high-value targets left in the ACC, but if they can run the table, win the ACC Tournament, Louisville or Duke are likely to jump up to that one line.”

Seth Greenberg narrowed it a step further.

“I think it’s Duke—just look at the remaining schedule,” Greenberg said. “Obviously tough games against Carolina. If they can beat Florida State at home, Duke will run the table and I think they’ll move to a No. 1 eventually.”

Greenberg went on to agree with Bilas that Duke likely needed to win the ACC Tournament as well to claim a No. 1 seed.

There’s little question that Duke has the ability to run said table; the Blue Devils’ biggest issues this year haven’t come because they’ve been outgunned. The bigger risk has been the occasional let down game, with two of Duke’s three losses coming to teams ranked 97th (Clemson) and 99th (Stephen F. Austin) in KenPom, respectively. The only other team to best Duke is Louisville, and the Blue Devils don’t have the Cardinals again in the regular season.

In fact, of Duke’s remaining nine ACC games, only one is against a team ranked higher than 50th on KenPom, the Monday date against Florida State. And that one comes at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

That’s not to say that Duke can’t slip up; in this season in particular, it seems a fool’s errand to pick any team to avoid upsets for an extended period of time. Rather it’s to note that Duke will likely be a sizable favorite in each regular season game the rest of the season, and possibly all through the ACC Tournament, with the possible exception of a rematch with Louisville, which wouldn’t likely come until the tournament championship game, if ever.

As the No. 5 overall seed, Duke was just one spot off from landing one of the four coveted No. 1s, though it’s also worth noting that NCAA Tournament selection committee chairman Kevin White — whose day job sees him serve as Duke’s athletic director — said that the top four teams were “unanimous” as the No. 1 seeds.

Can Duke Recover from Recent Skid and Snap a 4-Year Final Four Drought?

College Basketball National Analyst March 4, 2020 Comments Comment Bubble Icon

For most of the 2019-20 men’s college basketball season, the Duke Blue Devils have ranked among the five favorites to win the national championship.

That is no longer the case following a recent stretch of three losses in four games.

Per Tuesday’s Caesars Palace title odds, the five best marks belong to Kansas (+550), Gonzaga (+700), Kentucky (+1100), Baylor (+1100) and Dayton (+1300). The Blue Devils were tied for sixth place with Louisville at +1400, with San Diego State (+1500) and Michigan State (+1600) nipping at their heels.

Not only have Duke’s Vegas odds dropped, but its projected tournament seed has too.

Just two weeks ago, the Blue Devils were the projected No. 5 overall seed. That almost certainly would have made them the No. 2 seed in the East Region, starting with two games in Greensboro, North Carolina, followed by two more in Madison Square Garden, potentially culminating in a major “home-court” advantage in the Elite Eight against projected No. 1 seed San Diego State.

But the Bracket Matrix has Duke projected for a No. 3 seed, which means starting in Greensboro is no longer guaranteed, and there’s no telling into which region the Blue Devils would be placed.

If you think the seed doesn’t matter, be sure to note that Duke has a 4-5 record in its last five NCAA tournament appearances as a No. 3 seed or worse, and it hasn’t advanced beyond the Sweet 16 from that starting position since 1990.

If the Blue Devils can rally to win the ACC tournament, they may still get that No. 2 seed in the East and the coveted NC-to-NYC path to the Final Four that comes with it. However, that’s a big “if” with the way they have been playing.

It might seem a little preposterous to voice concerns about the Blue Devils shortly after Monday night’s 88-69 drubbing of NC State. But showing up on offense at Cameron Indoor hasn’t been Duke’s problem —it’s getting that show to go on the road.

Even before the back-to-back-to-back road losses in the latter half of February, Duke was struggling during a down year for the ACC.

On Jan. 8 at Georgia Tech, the Blue Devils blew an early 12-point lead and survived by the skin of their teeth when the Yellow Jackets went ice cold down the stretch. Six days later, Duke lost at Clemson, in large part because it had no answer for the frontcourt duo of Aamir Simms and Tevin Mack.

Then came the six road games in February, in which Duke shot a collective 25-of-107 (23.4 percent) from three-point range. It still managed to score 97 at Syracuse, 98 at North Carolina and 101 at Wake Forest, but mostly because those were defense-optional foul-fests that produced an average of 75.3 combined free-throw attempts.

All told, Duke is 4-4 in its last eight road games with a scoring margin of negative-15, even though only one of those eight contests was against a projected NCAA tournament team (the loss to Virginia).

Why is Duke — which beat Kansas on a neutral court and won by 12 at Michigan State in the process of opening the season 7-0 away from home —suddenly playing like an apathetic bubble team when it leaves Durham?

It’s not the dynamic duo’s fault. In the eight games in question, Tre Jones averaged 19.3 points and 5.3 assists while Vernon Carey Jr. accounted for 18.6 points and 9.4 rebounds. Both the point guard and the center scored in double figures in each contest, combining for at least 30 in all eight games. Moreover, aside from Jones’ assists (6.2 per game), each of those numbers is higher than the year-to-date marks for those guys.

And Jones’ assists are a bit lower because the non-Carey portion of the supporting cast has been either inconsistent or downright bad.

Jordan Goldwire isn’t regarded as a go-to scorer for the Blue Devils. He shoots less often while on the floor than anyone else on the roster. Still, he has averaged 8.9 points over his last eight home games, reaching double figures on four occasions. But in the last eight road games, he scored either zero or two points six times, averaging 2.6.

Matthew Hurt has had similarly problematic home/road splits. In the last eight home games, Hurt is averaging 12.1 points and shooting 43.8 percent from three-point range. On the road, those numbers plummet to 5.3 and 26.1, respectively.

Just between those two guys, that’s a staggering difference of 13.1 points per game over nearly two months.

Cassius Stanley’s averages haven’t been that divergent, but three of his worst performances of the season were the February road games against Boston College, NC State and Virginia. He shot a combined 5-of-22 from the field and averaged a meager 5.0 points in those contests.

It’s a small miracle that Duke competed with Virginia and beat Boston College while getting six points and nine points, respectively, from the law firm of Goldwire, Hurt and Stanley.

As troubling as those offensive numbers are, though, the real problem has been the defense.

Duke was more than adequate on that end of the floor in the aforementioned BC and UVA games, winning the former 63-55 and losing the latter 52-50. But in the other four road games in February, the Blue Devils allowed 88, 96, 88 and 113. That’s 96.3 points per game, and that is decidedly not a winning formula.

With scores that high, you would think Duke was getting bombarded with threes. To the contrary, those four opponents shot a combined 23-of-62 (37.1 percent) from deep, which is only 17.3 points per game. That leaves 79.0 coming from twos and free throws, which highlights Duke’s limited interior defense.

Jones, Goldwire and to a lesser extent Stanley have been great at denying three-point looks all season, but all it takes is one ball screen with a big man to open up the floor. Carey is a limited defender (and more likely to get into foul trouble) when you get him out of the lane, and Hurt has been a massive defensive liability all over the court.

This has resulted in either easy buckets at the rim or reaching fouls on a far-too-regular basis. And when Carey is the one who picks up early whistles, Duke doesn’t have a Plan B for creating offense from the 5.

The obvious answer has been staring head coach Mike Krzyzewski in the face for a while, and he finally opted to dabble in the dark magic of zone defense.

Coach K went deep into his bag of tricks and pulled out the 2-3 zone late in the first half of Monday’s win over NC State—forced into this emergency decision by watching the Wolfpack simply ball-screen his defense to death.

The impact was almost instantaneous. NC State, which is not a great three-point shooting team, couldn’t figure out how to score with any regularity the rest of the way. Defense turned into offense as Stanley threw down thunderous alley-oop dunks en route to a blowout victory.

So, will that be Duke’s new normal on defense?

With North Carolina coming to town — a team that shoots even worse from three-point range than NC State and which made 33 twos and 21 free throws against Duke less than a month ago —sticking with the zone for at least one more game seems like the obvious decision. But we’ll need to wait and see if that’s the long-term solution to a season-long issue that has come to a head in the past few weeks.

If the Blue Devils revert to man-to-man for the tournament and continue to get lackluster scoring outputs away from home from the guys not named Jones or Carey, a repeat of the 2014 Mercer fiasco could be forthcoming.

Kerry Miller covers men’s college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.

For most of the 2019-20 men's college basketball season, the Duke Blue Devils have ranked among the five favorites to win the national championship. That is no longer the case following a recent stretch of three losses in four games… ]]>