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NET News: Charting An Optimal Path

Duke can still find itself as a strong 2 seed in March Madness despite a heartbreaking rivalry loss

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Duke
Duke Blue Devils forward Paolo Banchero (5) drives to the basket as North Carolina Tar Heels forward Armando Bacot (5) defends during the second half at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Tar Heels won 94-81.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

How Coach K’s farewell to Cameron would affect Duke’s seeding in the NCAA Tournament was the least of anyone’s concerns, even more so following the heartbreaking result on Saturday night. Now, as the conference tournaments begin, the Blue Devils are refocusing on hanging more banners in Coach K’s final season. Duke fans, in turn, are likely placing a renewed focus on where Duke might be seeded come Selection Sunday.

Unfortunately, the loss to UNC likely removed Duke from the list of teams feasibly competing for a No. 1 seed, a reality which Joe Lunardi explicitly mentioned in his most recent “Bracketology”. It would likely take a first game conference tournament loss from three of Arizona, Baylor, Kansas, Auburn, and Kentucky for the Blue Devils to even be back in the conversation, something that would present unprecedented chaos even amidst an unusually chaotic season.

Putting aside the pursuit of a No. 1 seed, Duke can still improve its NCAA Tournament path by ascending to one of the top No. 2 seeds. Doing so would, at minimum, ensure the Blue Devils aren’t sent out West, which would be a less than ideal geographic location and set up a potential rematch with Gonzaga in the Elite 8. It could also set Duke up in the East regional (Duke fans could much more easily flock to Philadelphia) and a potential matchup with a much more vulnerable No. 1 seed out of the Big 12 or SEC.

So where does Duke stand in this endeavor? With the loss to UNC, the current consensus Top 3 teams (Gonzaga, Arizona, and Baylor) are well out of reach unless they implode in their first conference tournament game. Duke finds itself towards the bottom of a “next tier” of teams that includes Kansas, Auburn, Kentucky, and with a bit of a cushion ahead of the third tier of teams that includes Wisconsin, Purdue, Villanova, Tennessee, and Texas Tech.

If the season ended today, the Blue Devils would be in a position to be the #7 overall seed, helped partly by Wisconsin’s staggering loss at home to Nebraska yesterday. According to the NCAA’s bracketing procedures, teams sharing a seed are placed into brackets first according to location preference (i.e., the top 2 seed gets its first preference, then down the line), and adjust as necessary to avoid obviously unbalanced brackets (i.e. the No. 1 overall seed getting the No. 2 seed) or conference rematches (if a conference has four or more teams that get Top 4 seeds, the first four teams must be placed in different regions; this could arise for the Big 12 or SEC). Let’s assume that the “true seed” list follows the current BracketMatrix consensus; in that case, Kansas (as the top 2 seed) would go to the Midwest, Kentucky would go to the next closest location in the East, and Duke would get sent to the South. Since the presumptive No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga is out West, this would mean they’d get the lowest No. 2 seed, meaning there likely wouldn’t need to be any major shuffling for competitive balance.

But the season doesn’t end today. By this analysis, Duke needs to only jump one spot to be in a position to go to the East, considering both Kansas, Kentucky, and Auburn (the likely top No. 2 seeds) all would prefer the Midwest or South. Such a jump is very feasible. Duke has one less loss than Kansas and Kentucky, while Auburn is not beloved by the advanced metrics (as evidenced by their No. 10 NET ranking, one spot behind Duke). Were any of these three teams to suffer an upset and Duke win the ACC Tournament, it’s likely the Blue Devils would jump them.

If these teams suffer a less embarrassing loss (for example, losing in the conference title game), then things get more complicated. Duke still has only 5 Q1 wins and the black mark of a Q3 loss on their resume. With Virginia standing at NET #77, a run by the Cavaliers could move them into the Top 75 which would give Duke another Q1 win and move the Q3 loss to Q2. It’s also not out of the question that a run by Virginia Tech gets the NET #37 Hokies into the Top 30, another Q1 opportunity. Duke would likely get a Q1 opportunity in the ACC final, and could get another in the semifinal if Wake Forest is the opponent.

Given the head-to-head matchup, I posit an ACC Tournament champion Duke team would pass a Kentucky team that loses in the SEC Tournament, provided Duke adds another couple Q1 wins this week. A comparison with Kansas or Auburn would be much less clear, and may go to the “eye test”.

And what if Duke falters in Brooklyn? Then, the quest becomes staying on the No. 2 line. The good news is that seems likely barring a major upset, given Wisconsin’s crippling loss, Purdue losing two of their last 3, and the buffer between the Blue Devils and teams like Villanova, Tennessee, and Texas Tech. A loss in the ACC Tournament would likely leave the Blue Devils behind the top Big Ten team on the No. 2 line and sweating things out, especially if any of Villanova, Tennessee, and Texas Tech have impressive weeks.