Saturday morning, there was a consensus amongst Bracketologists and Duke fans alike that the Blue Devils had a very narrow path to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, one that would require unprecedented chaos amongst the top teams in the sport.
12 hours later, unprecedented chaos had occurred, and Duke’s postseason outlook got significantly rosier.
Not only were the Blue Devils impressive in their road beatdown of Syracuse, but 7 of the Top 9 teams in the AP Poll fell in a single day. Combine that with Villanova’s loss earlier in the week, and 8 of the AP Top 10 fell in a matter of days. While not all of these were monumental upsets (Kansas, Kentucky, and Auburn all lost to ranked opponents on the road), the odds of them all happening were astronomical.
Correspondingly, Duke’s path to a No. 1 seed, or at very least a preferable No. 2 seed, got astronomically better.
There remain 8 legitimate contenders for the top-line: Gonzaga, Arizona, Kansas, Auburn, Baylor, Kentucky, Purdue, and Duke. By virtue of their superior 3-loss records, Gonzaga and Arizona remain atop that list and the most likely to stay on the top line. But both these teams relied on their loss totals as a clear differentiator, Gonzaga given the historical weakness of the WCC and Arizona given their middling 5-2 record in Q1 games. After Saturday, those teams have fallen back to the pack.
Meanwhile, the SEC’s chances at being represented on the top line were dealt a blow by Auburn and Kentucky’s losses. While Auburn passes the “eye test” and is atop the SEC standings, the NET is bearish on them (Auburn is NET #11). While Kentucky looks better in the NET at #4), they now are a six loss team, with one of those losses coming on a neutral floor to Duke. Perhaps most importantly, at minimum there will be one more loss coming between these pair of teams in the SEC Tournament.
The Big 12 is the other conference represented twice on this list. Arguably, Kansas and Baylor might both be top seeds were the season to end today: Baylor is NET #5 with a 11-4 Q1 record, and Kansas is NET #6 with a 10-4 Q1 record. Both teams now have one more loss than Duke, though, and are more likely to suffer multiple losses down the stretch given their challenging schedules: Baylor plays at Texas and home versus Iowa State before the Big 12 Tournament, while Kansas’ final two regular season games at TCU and home against Texas.
Meanwhile, Purdue has now arguably fallen behind Duke in the pecking order, a five loss team ranked three spots below Duke in the NET at #12. The Boilermakers 7-4 Q1 record is not overly impressive, and they too face two tough challenges (at Wisconsin and home against a bubble-desperate rival in Indiana) before the Big Ten Tournament.
Make no mistake, Duke would not be a 1 seed if the season ended today, and likely won’t be even if they win out without some help. But now Blue Devil fans aren’t banking on complete collapses from the teams ahead of them. Another loss by Purdue would put Duke more comfortably ahead of the Boilermakers and likely avoiding the No. 8 overall seed that would probably be sent out West. Duke is arguably now neck-and-neck with Kentucky (and could benefit from their head-to-head meeting if this is indeed the case), and could surpass Auburn were the Tigers to fall again. Duke likely needs multiple losses to pass either Kansas or Baylor, but that’s quite possible given the Big 12 gauntlet. Meanwhile, were Arizona to fall again they could plummet down the bracket subpar Q1 record, and the Wildcats have to play at USC this week.
The problem is that Duke can’t do much to improve it’s own resume given the ACC’s well-documented down year, and realistically has to win out for any of the above scenarios to have merit. That said, Purdue’s fall, combined with losses by Texas Tech and Villanova, give the Blue Devils some breathing room in terms of staying on the 2-seed line.
Outside of winning the ACCT and hoping to claim some neutral-site Q1 wins in the process, there are three ways that Duke’s resume could significantly improve: if Virginia, Clemson, or Syracuse were to sneak into the NET Top 75 and give Duke another Q1 win. If Virginia does so it would be doubly beneficial, as Duke’s home loss to the Cavaliers would move from Q3 to Q2. With that in mind, Duke fans should be rooting for teams hovering around #75 in the NET rankings to lose and clear a path for these ACC squads: this means rooting against major conference teams like Kansas State, West Virginia, Vanderbilt, Colorado, Northwestern, and Rutgers.
Two days ago, hopes of Coach K earning another No. 1 seed in his final NCAAT were pipe dreams, at best. Today, Duke’s resume compares much more favorably to the top-tier of college basketball after a chaotic Saturday in which essentially all those teams fell back towards the Blue Devils. Now, Duke is just a couple more upsets away from being an ACC Tournament Title away from a top-seed in the NCAA Tournament and an optimal path to the Final Four.