Duke isn't the top seed in the East, won't play in Raleigh or Charlotte and might have to travel to Phoenix to reach the Final Four.
Still, the Blue Devils' draw is about as favorable as they could have asked for.
Duke received a No. 2 seed in the West Region when the NCAA Tournament brackets were released Sunday night. The Blue Devils (27-5) play 15th-seeded Belmont (25-8) Thursday at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
After Duke lost to Clemson in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament Saturday, some so-called bracketologists had relegated Duke to a No. 3 seed. It was a far cry from a month ago, when the Blue Devils seemed primed for the No. 1 line in the East and the comfort of potentially playing four games in North Carolina before the national semifinals in San Antonio.
Four losses in 11 games, though, shifted expectations. Before Selection Sunday, Duke's draws alternated by pundit. Some had the Blue Devils as a No. 3 seed, some as a No. 2; some had them in the Raleigh pod, some in more remote locations.
Some were right, some were less right: the selection committee rewarded Duke's second-place ACC finish and bevy of quality wins with arguably the last No. 2 seed and two opening games in the capital, home to a large Duke alumni base.
Wisconsin, the team most predicted to steal Duke's second seed, ended up as a No. 3 in the Midwest despite winning the Big Ten's regular season and conference tournament. Then again, Duke pummeled the Badgers 82-58 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. That impressive performance, even in November, might have given Duke the final edge.
The team that routed Wisconsin and the team that struggled at times down the stretch, however, are far from the same. The Blue Devils need to be the former to advance in the Tournament, and they need to conjure that November magic for their opening-round matchup with Belmont.
The Bruins were the only team to emerge from the Atlantic Sun Conference, a rugged league whose teams spoiled powerhouse programs' early seasons. Gardner-Webb knocked off Kentucky and Mercer beat USC. Both major-conference teams qualified for the field of 65. Belmont itself garnered two recognizable wins, topping Cincinnati and Alabama before losing by 41 to Xavier, the region's No. 3 seed.
But the Bruins' finish was more impressive than their early relative success. They won their last 13 games and cut down the nets at the conference tournament to earn the postseason berth, their second straight. As a No. 15 seed last year, they lost to Georgetown 80-55 in the first round.
When the Blue Devils peek past Belmont-as plenty of sudden college basketball experts will-they should be thrilled with their road to San Antonio.
If Duke wins its first game, it plays the winner of No. 7 West Virginia and No. 10 Arizona. The Mountaineers' leading scorer Joe Alexander is a legitimate threat, but his squad pales in comparison to the other No. 7 seeds, two perennial Cinderellas in Butler and Gonzaga and a team that topped Duke, Miami.
Duke fans are already abuzz with a looming Sweet 16 matchup with Xavier, arguably the weakest No. 3 seed in the field. But before you book your tickets to Texas, remember what happened last year in the first round, or what has happened to four No. 2 seeds in Tournament history.
Or you can already start dreaming about a game against No. 1 UCLA with the Final Four on the line, or a National Championship against North Carolina or the even slimmer possibility of a certain perfection: your bracket's.
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