A week ago, I outlined why Duke’s tough three game stretch at Boston College, at North Carolina, and against Florida State might determine the Blue Devils’ path to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. With the help of some magic (how else would you describe Saturday night?) and a fantastic show of toughness against the Seminoles, Duke “held serve” and won all three contests.
Helpfully, amidst Duke’s hot streak, other contenders for a No. 1 seed fell off in the past seven days. West Virginia lost twice, including a late game collapse that cost them the chance for a marquee win against Kansas. Meanwhile, the ACC contenders both lost as well: Louisville was upset on the road against a subpar Georgia Tech squad Wednesday night, and the Seminoles fell to Duke on Monday. Even a team with a very outside shot at the top-line, Seton Hall, lost at home Wednesday night against a streaking Creighton squad.
The good news is that the combination of those results has allowed Duke to distance itself from the “next tier” of teams, putting itself in a great position to earn at absolute minimum a No. 2 seed come Selection Sunday. The bad news is that, especially after Kansas’ win over the Mountaineers on the road, the gap up to the currently projected top seeds (Baylor, the Jayhawks, Gonzaga, and San Diego State) may be widening as well.
The most plausible path for Duke to earn that coveted No. 1 seed is clear: hope Kansas loses (operating under the reasonable assumption that Gonzaga and San Diego State won’t fall in their mid-major conferences). And while the Jayhawks have a relatively easy schedule down the stretch, they do have two more challenging Q1 road games: at Baylor (against whom Kansas has already lost at home) and at Texas Tech. Kansas also has to travel to rival Kansas State, and if Saturday night proved anything, it’s that rivalry games are inherently unpredictable (and don’t forget what happened the last time those two teams played You can bet no one on either team has).
But even if the Jayhawks falter a couple of times down the stretch, their resume will likely remain in the same caliber as Duke’s come Selection Sunday. As it stands, Kansas currently has 10 Q1 wins compared to Duke’s 4, and the committee has shown in recent years that it often favors the quality of wins over the number of losses. So, for Blue Devil fans searching for a rooting interest in games not proactively advertised on SportsCenter, there are some key teams that could help Duke’s resume or hurt Kansas’.
Root for Georgetown to jump into the NET Top 50. The Hoyas, despite a tumultuous season, find themselves ranked No. 53 in the current NET rankings. If they jump into the Top 50, Duke’s victory over them in the Empire Classic will become a Q1 victory (having come on a neutral court). Georgetown will have opportunities for quality wins in the tough Big East, but also would benefit if the teams immediately above them (including Mississippi State, Wichita State, Richmond, and Notre Dame) falter.
Root for Texas and Oklahoma State to collapse. These two teams find themselves towards the bottom of the Big 12 standings, but just inside the Top 75 in the NET, meaning Kansas’ road victories over this pair represent Q1 victories. It’s entirely plausible given their struggles in conference play that these teams could fall out of Q1 status, and give Duke a better chance at matching Kansas’ number of Q1 victories. Coincidentally, these events would help Duke in an additional fashion...
Root for Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech to finish strong in the ACC. Sitting at No. 77 and 80, respectively, in the latest NET rankings, either of these squads could squeeze into the Top 75 and provide Duke additional Q1 victories (as the Blue Devils beat both of these teams on the road). If Texas and Oklahoma State struggle, that would only help this quest. For what it’s worth, the Hokies have been struggling lately and have a challenging remaining stretch (including playing Duke in Cameron), while Georgia Tech is riding high off of a victory over Louisville and has a much kinder late season ACC schedule.
Root for Stephen F. Austin. The largest blemish on Duke’s resume is no longer quite the black mark that many anticipated: Stephen F. Austin finds themselves at No. 84 in the latest NET rankings. As it stands, this means the loss at home to the Lumberjacks falls into Q3, but if they jump into the Top 75 it will become a Q2 loss. Currently, Duke and Arizona are the only teams in the NET Top 25 with a Q3 loss, so getting that point of differentiation off of the Blue Devils’ resume would be a huge boost. The Lumberjacks would be helped by late-season struggles by teams like Ole Miss, Iowa State, and UConn.