After another loss to UNC, many of the so-called “Bracketologists” finally soured on Duke’s status as a No. 1 seed. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi moved Duke off the top line, and as of Monday morning BracketMatrix.com has Duke as the last top seed, just edging out Kentucky. But the NET rankings, the NCAA’s replacement for the outdated and reviled RPI, still has Duke at No. 3, ahead of primary competition Kentucky (No. 5), Tennessee (No. 6), and UNC (No. 7). Plus, Michigan State’s comeback win over Michigan likely eliminated the B1G from a legitimate claim to a No. 1 seed: while MSU has a stellar Q1 resume, many of those victories came before the injury bug bit the Spartans (not to mention that their six losses are most amongst the contenders for the top line, and they’re stuck at No. 8 in the NET).
With all that in mind, the outlook for Duke to earn a No. 1 seed in the big dance is much rosier than you might imagine. Let’s consider the following three scenarios that are the most likely outcomes in the ACC Tournament, barring any unexpected early upsets.
1: Duke wins the ACC Tournament, beating UNC and Virginia along the way. With Zion expected back in the lineup on Thursday, this is nowhere near the longshot that Duke’s recent play may make it seem. And were this to occur, Duke would be all but guaranteed not only a No. 1 seed, but probably one of the top-2 overall seeds: after all, it would be very hard to justify placing Virginia ahead of Duke were the Blue Devils to beat the Cavaliers on three separate occasions (assuming of course that Virginia isn’t upset this week in Charlotte).
2: Duke beats UNC in Round 3 on Friday night, but loses to UVA. Were this to happen, UVA and Gonzaga would likely remain locked in as the top two overall seeds, and the remaining two would come down to a combination of Duke, UNC, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Duke and UNC would be the most directly comparable teams, and beating UNC with Zion in the lineup would probably weigh more heavily in the committee’s mind than two losses without him. If you mark the head-to-head down as a tossup in this scenario, Duke likely edges UNC based on the Team Sheets (the information provided to the committee to evaluate teams).
As of Monday Duke is four spots better in the NET rankings than UNC (a differential that would likely only increase in this scenario), and Duke edges UNC in four of the other five analytic-based ranking systems included on the sheet. Meanwhile, the teams’ resumes are quite similar in terms of quality wins and bad losses. In this scenario, with a “proof of principle” of what a healthy Zion can do in place with a victory over UNC, it seems likely Duke would maintain a seeding edge over the Tar Heels, not to mention the SEC Champion.
3: Duke falls to UNC in the ACC semi-finals. This is obviously the scenario in which Duke fans would be most nervous come selection Sunday, as Duke’s resume would clearly fall behind Virginia, Gonzaga, and UNC. It is worth noting, though, that beating Syracuse in the quarterfinals would amount to an additional Q1 win for the Blue Devils. In this case, it would likely come down to Duke and the winner of a potential Kentucky-Tennessee matchup for the final top spot. So let’s compare Duke’s resume to both of these teams.
Against the Wildcats, the early-season head-to-head matchup will likely hold some sway over the committee, with its significance likely depending on how Zion looks in his return and how close a loss to UNC was. But even disregarding that, Duke’s resume differentiates itself from Kentucky’s in terms of top-tier wins, going beyond the “Q1” distinction: while Kentucky has more Q1 wins, seven of Duke’s eight Q1 wins come within the “top-half” of Q1 (meaning road wins against the NET Top 40, neutral site wins against the Top 25, and home wins against the Top 15)… in fact, they’re well within those margins, with the “worst” win being on the road against Net No. 22 Louisville. Meanwhile, three of Kentucky’s ten Q1 wins are in the “bottom-half” of Q1, while road wins against Florida and Ole Miss, despite falling in the “top-half” of Q1, are less impressive than nearly all of Duke’s Q1 wins. Now, an SEC Championship would likely include a victory against either Tennessee or LSU, if not both, which would improve the Wildcats’ resume considerably. But there’d still be a legit argument to make to place Duke ahead of the Wildcats if Zion is healthy.
The case is even stronger against Tennessee. The Volunteers seven Q1 wins are currently worst amongst the non-Gonzaga contenders for a top seed. Two of those victories are in the “bottom-half” of Q1, and two more are the same road victories against Florida and Ole Miss that Kentucky can claim. The computers also aren’t high on Tennessee, as seen by their lower NET ranking at No. 6 than Kentucky and Duke (two teams with an additional loss), and the analytic rankings are even less bullish on the Volunteers (they are 8 in the KPI, for instance). Even with the couple additional top-tier wins associated with winning the SEC Championship, Tennessee’s relatively weak non-conference slate and favorable SEC schedule still prevent them from differentiating themselves from Duke.
What’s the takeaway? Well, in two of these three scenarios Duke earns a No. 1 seed, meaning the Blue Devils still control their own destiny. Even in the least optimistic scenario, a loss to UNC, Duke still has a compelling argument to make against Kentucky or Tennessee to enact the mythical “three ACC 1-seed” possibility. This would be even more possible were Kentucky or Tennessee to falter early in the SEC Tournament, not only eliminating them from contention but potentially robbing the other of a quality win. And all of this fails to account for the possibility of other upsets rocking the ACC, the SEC, or even Gonzaga.
There’s a lot of basketball to be played this weekend before Selection Sunday, which will significantly affect the NET, the Team Sheets, and the committee’s perception of all these teams. But the numbers make it clear that Duke controls its own destiny if it wants to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And given all the foul luck that’s befallen these Blue Devils, that’s not a bad situation to find oneself in.
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