Under Mike Krzyzewski, the Selection Sunday routine for Duke fans was almost second nature. With a top three seed a given almost every season, the selection show instead revolved around anxiously awaiting the location of the Blue Devils’ games and the potential matchups. Hands would be wrung when dangerous teams would end up in Duke’s bracket, and panic over viable upsets would set in. Last season followed the trend, with Blue Devil fans up in arms about Duke’s potential (and eventual) second and third round opponents, Michigan State and Texas Tech respectively.
This year will be different.
Instead of trying to avoid those dangerous lower seeded teams, Duke in all likelihood will be one. The Blue Devils are all but assured a 4 or 5 seed despite their stellar performance en route to an ACC Tournament Championship, given their mid-season struggles and the metrics’ poor opinion of the conference. But after playing more like a Top 10 team over the past month, this year the Blue Devils will be that team that no top seed wants to see in their bracket.
Duke’s path to a National Championship, which is and will always remain the program’s primary goal each season, will by definition be more challenging than usual. But instead of playing each game with the weight of favorite status, the Blue Devils are arguably playing with house money. At the end of January, many fans were nervous this team would even make the tournament. Now, this young Duke squad is playing with an apparent ease and confidence, one that will be much easier to maintain without the extra target of a top seed.
And why shouldn’t they feel confident? The Blue Devils’ nine-game winning streak is tied for the longest by a major conference team entering the tournament (alongside Marquette). It’s defense is clicking on all cylinders after finishing a regular season in which it held 30 of 34 opponents below their season scoring average. And despite the ongoing anxiety about their offense, over the last 10 games Duke’s adjusted offensive efficiency is 18th in the country according to Bart Torvik’s metrics.
Indeed, it’s likely Duke will be a strong favorite to make the Sweet 16. While 12 and 13 seeds are always dangerous, the Blue Devils could benefit from a relatively week crop of potential fellow 4 and 5 seeds in the second round. Iowa State, TCU, and Tennessee aren’t whole, either due to injury or player departures. Duke has already beaten Xavier once this season, with a less than 100% Dereck Lively and in the absence of Dariq Whitehead. Meanwhile, Indiana’s offense is extremely reliant on center Trayce Jackson-Davis, who would face unique challenges against Lively and Kyle Filipowski in the paint.
The downside of a 4/5 seed is a potential earlier than usual matchup against a No. 1 seed. But the pressure in such a hypothetical matchup will be on that No. 1 seed, and not Duke. And if the young Blue Devils can continue their current play, there’s every reason to think they’ll be competitive against any opponent March Madness throws at them.
So enjoy this unique Selection Sunday, Duke fans. Enjoy it when the talking heads make their “bold predictions” that Duke’s presence gives the No. 1 seed in its bracket the “toughest road” to the Final Four. Enjoy it when terms like “dangerous”, “under-seeded”, and “sleeper” are thrown around in reference to the Blue Devils, rather than their potential opponents. Enjoy a relatively stress-free Selection Sunday.
Because if the program’s trajectory continues in this way, Duke fans could be back to that same old routine under Jon Scheyer sooner than many expected.