One lesson has stuck with me from my time as a youth basketball official: if you’re consistent, it can mask your flaws. Call a 50/50 play a charge on one team, and you’ll avoid some scrutiny when you make the same call on a similar play on the other end of the court.
It’s that inconsistency that makes Duke earning just a 5 seed in March Madness a bit tough to swallow.
Now, any discussion of the Blue Devils’ NCAA Tournament draw would be remiss without recognizing that, just a month ago, every Duke fan would’ve gladly taken a 5 seed, no strings attached. And despite being underseeded, the Blue Devils’ draw is generally favorable: they got to stay in the East region (potentially playing in Madison Square Garden, aka “Duke North”, in the regional final), and the 1-4 seeds in the East are arguably the weakest at each of their slots. For that, Duke fans can thank the committee.
But the 5 seed has real consequences. In the first round, the Blue Devils face an Oral Roberts team that is just two years removed from pulling a 15-2 upset over Ohio State. The star of that team, dynamo guard Max Abmas, remains on the squad, and he’s surrounded by a plethora of plus three point shooters. And while the committee’s decision on first weekend locations is notoriously inconsistent, there’s a real possibility that Duke isn’t playing in Greensboro because that would place the higher seeded Tennessee Volunteers at a disadvantage, something the “bracketing principles” aim to avoid.
The contrast between Duke’s seeding and some other high profile decisions is stark. The selection committee chair, in his traditionally brief availability on CBS following the bracket reveal, made a point to mention that Houston earned the No. 2 overall seed over Kansas because their Sunday loss to Memphis happened with star Marcus Sasser injured. It also factored into the bubble, including playing a key role in keeping Rutgers out of the tournament. So, if the committee was taking player availability into account, why wasn’t that applied to Duke?
It was a common refrain during the ACC Tournament, but it bears repeating: Duke lost just one game this season when it’s “full compliment” of players was available. Its December loss at Wake Forest came without Dereck Lively and Dariq Whitehead. Its January loss at Clemson came without captain Jeremy Roach. The list goes on.
The fact that this context wasn’t considered when evaluating Duke’s resume, like it explicitly was to others, is all the more jarring when comparing the Blue Devils to teams just ahead of them on the seed list. Duke was seeded below Virginia despite convincingly beating them in the ACC Championship and having a potential road victory disrupted by incorrect officiating, a decision all the more perplexing considering Duke is ranked 11 spots higher in the NET Rankings with the same number of Q1 wins (and just one more overall loss) than the Cavaliers. Duke is ranked 14 spots higher in the NET than Indiana, a team that only has one more Q1 win despite 4 more opportunities (and three more total losses than Duke). Despite being beloved by the metrics, Tennessee has been a shell of itself since losing Zakai Zeigler for the season, the exact same logic that kept Rutgers out of the tournament. Any of these factors in isolation would be an argument to slot Duke higher than these teams; add in the injury context, and the decision not to becomes nearly unjustifiable.
Is all of this looking a gift horse in the mouth? Very possibly, especially considering that Tennessee squad is a potential second round matchup for the Blue Devils. But the inconsistency of the committee each year remains maddening, despite attempts to use the NET and other metrics to make the process more and more objective. It seems apparent that, while injuries were taken into account when seeding Houston and omitting Rutgers from the tournament, they weren’t considered at all when evaluating Duke’s resume.
If the Blue Devils can make it past their Oral Roberts, all of this will likely be a mere footnote in their March story. Nonetheless, it merits calling out given the inconsistency of the selection committee, on one point or another, year after year. It’s time they learned to call things the same way on all ends of the proverbial floor, or risk losing what shred of credibility they have remaining.