Last week I outlined why Duke had a clear path in its quest for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. This week, Duke’s path to a No. 1 seed remains clear. It’s just an entirely different one than I previously charted.
In an unpredictable college basketball season, this past week ranks as one of the most chaotic. First, Duke was embarrassed by NC State in PNC Arena, a venue which continues to vex almost every iteration of the Blue Devils. After that loss, the path towards a top seed appeared to be nearly shut, with the most likely avenue for its preservation being multiple losses by Kansas. When Kansas defeated Baylor in Waco, it looked like the way might be closed for good.
Good thing no one can predict chaos.
Saturday evening three important things happened: Duke rebounded from the loss to the Wolfpack with an impressive showing against Virginia Tech, San Diego State fell for the first time all season, and Gonzaga lost their first game in conference. Sunday afternoon saw the end of Maryland’s nine-game winning streak in the Big Ten as well.
Together, these events give Duke perhaps an even clearer path to the No. 1 seed in the East region that fans have clamored for than it had before the debacle in Raleigh.
How, you might ask? Well, it’s very likely that San Diego State’s loss will cost them a top seed (even though Aztec fans may not much mind, as they’ll likely now end up closer to hope as the No. 2 seed in the West region). Consider that, in the past 16 years, only three teams not named Gonzaga from the traditionally dubbed “mid-major” conferences have earned a top seed. Two were undefeated: 2004 St. Joseph’s and 2014 Wichita State. The other was Memphis, who twice earned that distinction in the John Calipari era. It’s easy to forget that those teams had more in common with the modern incarnation of Gonzaga than they do St. Joseph’s and Wichita State, as they were perennially competitive at a high level, played challenging non-conference schedules, and played in a “high” mid-major conference.
This year’s San Diego State squad can no longer claim to be undefeated, and rely on the precedent set by St. Joseph’s and Wichita State. And any comparison between this year’s Aztecs and top seeded Gonzaga or Memphis teams are tenuous at best, especially considering that San Diego State’s loss was at home to a previously .500 team. The Aztec’s situation is made more perilous by the fact that they have no conceivable way to improve their resume (at best they’ll have a couple of Q2 games upcoming, based on what happens in their conference tournament), while the competition for the top line will have multiple Q1 opportunities.
It’s also worth noting that, with Gonzaga’s loss, the Bulldogs may no longer be the “lock” for the No. 1 seed that has been commonly predicted. If the Bulldogs were to lose again, the committee could very well put them as the No. 2 seed in the West, with San Diego State as the No. 1. But barring a collapse from the competition for the No. 1 seed in the East, it seems unlikely that either West Coast, mid-major power will find itself in New York.
That leaves us to analyze those competitors for the No. 1 seed in the East, which many prognosticators (like ESPN’s Joe Lunardi) agree to be Duke and Maryland. Both have the potential to win their powerhouse conferences, which would necessarily include additional high quality wins both down the stretch of the regular season and in conference tournaments.
As it stands, though, the Blue Devils’ resume appears superior to the Terrapins’, helped by Maryland’s loss to Ohio State on Sunday. Duke is ranked higher in the NET (No. 6 to Maryland’s No. 10), and rank higher in three of the five computer metrics listed on the NCAA’s Team Sheets. Maryland has lost one more game than Duke, and faces a daunting end to their Big Ten schedule that includes two road games against Big Ten teams on the bubble, and two home games against top Big Ten competition (Michigan State and Michigan). The Blue Devils hold a superior non-conference resume (Duke’s non-conference strength of schedule ranks seventh in the nation, while Maryland’s is 62nd), including that all-important marquee victory over Kansas (Maryland’s best non-conference win was over Marquette on a neutral site). And while Maryland has more Q1 wins (and the potential for more, given the strength of the Big 10), only two of those wins currently lie in the top half of Q1; meanwhile, Duke has three such victories highlighting their resume.
All this points, once again, to Duke controlling their own destiny: if the Blue Devils take care of business and claim ACC Championships (both regular season and tournament), it will be hard to deny them the top seed in the East. Saturday at 2:30 pm, this might have seemed like a pipe dream. But in the rollercoaster that is this season’s NCAA landscape, it took just over 24 hours for the doorway to Duke’s optimal path through the NCAA Tournament to be thrown wide open once again.