A month ago, many prognosticators suggested that Duke’s best-case scenario for Selection Sunday might be to be the No. 2 seed in the East region, with a mid-major as that region’s No. 1 seed. And after a roller coaster past few weeks, in which the Blue Devils momentarily had a clear path to a No. 1 seed before fumbling it away, that seems to still be the case.
Following Duke’s loss to Wake Forest, it would take a cascade of events for the Blue Devils to get back into the conversation for a No. 1 seed. Ironically, that isn’t because the loss had any great affect on the NET rankings: Duke remains No. 6 in the NCAA’s primary classification tool, below the likes of Dayton and San Diego State but above Florida State, Creighton, and Maryland (also ironically, I must have jinxed Arizona with my “NET Nitpicking”, because the Wildcats fell last night and are now ranked at a slightly more appropriate No. 11). But the gap between Duke at the Top 5 teams appears to be growing wider, especially when you consider that the computer rankings, which were once the hallmark of the Blue Devils’ resume, have cooled (Duke has fallen to 8 in the KPI rankings, 13 in Strength of Record, and 19 in the SAG rankings). As such, it seems a safe bet that the four No. 1 seeds will come from the current NET Top 5 of Kansas, Baylor, Gonzaga, Dayton, and San Diego State, barring a collapse from at least two of those squads.
Rather than drive oneself crazy pining after a pipe dream of a No. 1 seed, Duke fans should likely focus on earning that No. 2 seed in the East. The Blue Devils’ record in “Cameron North” is well documented, and it is highly likely that the No. 1 seed in the East will be at a geographic disadvantage as the last top seed. Duke obviously needs to finish the season strong, likely including a victory at Virginia on Saturday and at least a trip to the ACC Tournament finals, for that to be a realistic possibility. What else must happen?
First, Duke needs to carefully watch Dayton. If the Fliers win out, it will include at least one more Q1 win (they currently have 4), and likely a couple additional Q2 victories. That would compare quite favorably to San Diego State’s resume, which only has 4 current Q1 wins and a much weaker conference unlikely to provide more than 1 additional opportunity for a Q1 or Q2 victory in their conference tournament.
Why does this help Duke? The Blue Devils want Dayton to either be a No. 1 seed, which would likely happen in this scenario, or falter significantly and not be the “top” No. 2 seed. It all comes down the NCAA’s “procedures” for building the bracket. Despite the number of so-called experts (SI.com is the worst offender) who say the contrary, the NCAA does not use the S-Curve in seeding. Rather, it places the Top 4 seeds based on geographic preference. The one major exception is that the NCAA says explicitly it will avoid “the overall No. 5 seed being sent to the same region as the overall No. 1 seed”.
So if Dayton is the last No. 1 seed, and San Diego State the first No. 2 seed, the Aztecs will certainly get placed in the West Region, meaning Duke needs only be the best of the remaining 2 seeds to get their geographic preference and be sent to the East. But if Dayton is the top No. 2 seed, things would get complicated. Dayton’s “geographic preference” among the regionals would be the Midwest, but this would also be Kansas’. If Kansas remains the top overall seed, Dayton could not be put in the Midwest, and instead would be sent to their secondary geographic preference, which would likely be the East.
So while Dayton’s performance will dictate much of this, there are some other factors at play. Another San Diego State loss (ensuring they earn a No. 2 seed) would be a godsend. Kansas losing the top overall seed to Baylor would also help, as the Bears’ geographic preference is clearly the South region and would not conflict with Dayton in any form.
Second, Duke needs to distance itself from Florida State. It’s unclear how the committee would compare the Blue Devils and Seminoles at this point. While Duke has a head to head victory and a superior non-conference resume, the Seminoles are on pace to claim the ACC regular season title and have one fewer loss. Duke’s non-conference victories over Kansas and at Michigan State are both superior to Florida State’s best non-conference win (at Florida), but the Seminoles have beaten Louisville both home and away.
If the Seminoles falter down the stretch, leading to a potential three-way split of the ACC regular season title, that would be ideal for Duke. But even if this happens, the relative seeding of these conference rivals will likely come down to the ACC Tournament, and a potential second matchup, considering how similar their Team Sheets are.
Third, Duke needs Maryland to continue to struggle. The Terrapins might have been slotted in as the East’s No. 1 seed following San Diego State’s loss, but they immediately faltered at Ohio State. Maryland then needed an incredible second-half comeback to avoid a second straight loss at Minnesota on Wednesday. Despite leading the consensus best conference in college basketball, the Terrapins are only ranked No. 9 in the NET, largely based on a lackluster non-conference schedule (their 69th ranked non-conference strength of schedule only yielded one Q1 victory, on a neutral site over Marquette). The Terrapins’ three remaining regular season games will be hotly contested (home games against Michigan and Michigan State, and a road game against a desperate Rutgers squad that has only lost once at home all season), and the Big Ten tournament will be a minefield. At least one more Maryland loss would help ensure Duke remains above the Terrapins on the final seed line.
Finally, Duke should root for Creighton in the Big East. The Big East moniker has been undermined by the recent conference realignment, as the Blue Jays hail from the very non-eastern state of Nebraska. Their geographic preference would be the Mid-West, followed by the South, and only then the East. Meanwhile, the Villanova Wildcats are lurking at No. 12 in the NET rankings. If Villanova were to run the table, they could make a claim for the No. 2 seed in the East considering the perceived superiority of the Big East to the ACC this year. The Wildcats also hold an impressive non-conference victory over Kansas, and eight total Q1 wins. The same could also be conceivably said of Seton Hall, which has a marquee non-conference victory over Maryland and is in the driver’s seat for the Big East regular season crown; however, Seton Hall finds itself much lower in the NET rankings (No. 15) and still has to play Creighton and Villanova in the regular season.
It would be difficult, but not impossible, for either Villanova or Seton Hall to make a major late-season push for a high No. 2 seed. But if Creighton stays hot and fends off their conference rivals, Duke won’t need to worry about competing with a No. 2 seed with a similar geographic preference coming out of the Big East.