I’m not quite sure when I started thinking Duke deserved consideration for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It wasn’t when Villanova started its late-season slide in early February, and it wasn’t when Purdue star Robbie Hummel tore his ACL later that month. I knew Hummel’s injury would give the Blue Devils a chance to grab a top seed, but at that point, Duke just didn’t feel like a No. 1.
But I do know when I first thought the Blue Devils had a legitimate chance to win the national championship: as soon as the final buzzer sounded Sunday against Baylor.
That’s not only because all the other No. 1 seeds had been knocked out of the Tournament or because Duke moved to within two wins of the title, although those both help. It’s because the Blue Devils’ win over the Bears answered a lot of doubts about this team.
See, if you were going to assemble a roster to beat Duke, you would end up with a team very similar to Baylor’s. You would want quick guards who can score and a long, athletic frontcourt to keep the Blue Devils off the boards. You would want your most important players to be upperclassmen. You would play a 2-3 zone, occasionally mixing in a full-court press. And just for good measure, you would want to play the Blue Devils within 200 miles of your campus.
The Bears had all that going for them in the Elite 8 Sunday, and yet Duke still won the game. It wasn’t easy, but the Blue Devils got the job done. They beat the press the few times that Baylor employed it. They didn’t attack the zone on every possession, but they did it enough to score 78 points. They didn’t get any field goals from Kyle Singler, but it didn’t matter. And perhaps most important, they managed to grab 22 offensive rebounds against a frontline that has a combined wingspan of 22 feet.
As a result, Duke is headed to the Final Four, and I’m finally ready to accept that the Blue Devils can win the national championship. No matter what the statistics said—Ken Pomeroy has had Duke at the top of his rankings for a long time—I couldn’t buy into the idea that the Blue Devils were the best team in the country.
It wasn’t just because Duke’s offense is ugly. I had bigger doubts. As soon as one seemed to be resolved, another took its place: Can-they-win-on-the-road became how-do-you-let-Georgetown-shoot-72-percent, which was replaced by are-they-too-reliant-on-the-Big-Three, which gave way to can-Brian-Zoubek-possibly-keep-this-up. It was a never-ending list of questions. Now, they appear to be answered. (In order: more often than not, it was an aberration, no and yes.) The biggest one remaining: Can a team that was never considered the best in the country during the regular season win the national championship?
I quickly realized, though, that the answer to that one almost has to be affirmative. Of the four teams remaining, just one—Michigan State—received first-place votes in the AP poll this season. Even then, the Spartans’ recognition was limited to a handful of votes in each of the first three polls of the season. In the 16 weeks since Nov. 30, Butler, Michigan State, West Virginia and Duke have combined for zero first-place votes. That’s right. None.
One of those four teams has to win this crazy Tournament, so why not Duke? The Blue Devils are arguably in the best shape of any Final Four team. The Spartans and Mountaineers are trying to overcome injuries to their starting point guards, and the Bulldogs, playing in their hometown, have the weight of a city on their shoulders. (Las Vegas agrees: Duke is a 7-5 favorite to win it all.)
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski has said all season that Duke isn’t a great team, but rather a really good team that plays great at times. (And in case you’re wondering, making the Final Four didn’t change his mind. After the Blue Devils’ win Sunday, he repeated that his team isn’t great.) But there is no question that Duke is a good team. It is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, grabbing 40.4 percent of its missed shots. Its defense has been solid for all but a couple games this season, and it has been downright stingy for the past two months. The Blue Devils have allowed just 59.1 points per game since Feb. 4.
Duke complements those strengths with just enough of everything else—outside shooting, driving to the rim, limiting turnovers—to win, to the tune of a 16-1 record in its last 17 games.
These Blue Devils aren’t great, and that’s why it has taken me so long to accept that they can win the title. But they are very good, and in a down year for college basketball, that might be good enough.
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