On the eve of Duke's 2019 ACC tournament opener, it's more than okay to start looking ahead to next week. As much as the Blue Devils would love to bring a 21st conference title back to Durham, they know that a sixth national title would be even sweeter.
But what happens in Charlotte this week could go a long way to determining how the selection committee will seed the tournament's top teams and where each of them could be sent during the first two weekends.
The Chronicle breaks down all the possibilities for Duke as it hopes to get things straightened out with Zion Williamson back in the fold and show the committee members why it was atop the AP poll for several weeks this season:
Getting the top overall seed
Gonzaga's loss Tuesday night changed things dramatically in terms of how the top teams will fall on the S-curve, or seed list. As of now, Virginia is the top overall seed and controls its own destiny—if the Cavaliers can win their three ACC tournament games, they'll stay at the top, meaning Virginia would likely begin its NCAA tournament in Columbia, S.C., before heading to Washington, D.C., for the East Regional.
Both the Blue Devils and North Carolina, however, have the chance to surpass the Cavaliers for that top spot. Duke almost certainly, assuming Williamson is at full strength, would move back to the top spot if it wins the ACC title, setting up a similar run through Columbia and then the Nation's Capital.
The Tar Heels could do the same, although losses to both Kentucky and Virginia could keep North Carolina out of the top overall spot.
Getting into the South regional
Chances are that if the Blue Devils are not the top overall seed, it will either be the Heels or the 'Hoos. Should Duke lose to North Carolina while Virginia moves to the ACC final, the Blue Devils will likely get shipped further away than Louisville, Ky.
Then, it really becomes a question of who Duke will be competing with for the final No. 1 seed—if the Blue Devils can't win two games in Charlotte, it's unlikely they'll end up ahead of the Bulldogs, given Gonzaga's win when the two teams matched up back in November in Maui. But a Duke win Friday night would all but assure a trip to either Louisville or D.C.
Getting a No. 1 seed
As we've already discussed, Duke can essentially guarantee a No. 1 seed by getting to the ACC tournament title game. That will involve winning its opener Thursday night and then likely beating the Tar Heels in the semifinals.
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If the Blue Devils can't get a win against North Carolina this time around, however, then it becomes a fight to stay on the top line. The Cavaliers are all but locked in. So too are the Bulldogs, even with their stunning defeat at the hands of Saint Mary's. If the Tar Heels beat Duke with Williamson and get to the ACC title game, they'll probably be secure on the 1-line.
That leaves a battle between the Blue Devils, the SEC tournament champion (if it's Kentucky or Tennessee), the Big Ten tournament champion (if it's Michigan or Michigan State) and Texas Tech, if it can win three games to capture a Big 12 tournament title. Even if Duke gets just one win in Charlotte, a 26-6 record (with four losses coming sans Zion) may very well keep the Blue Devils ahead of either a five-loss Wildcat squad or a five-loss crop of Red Raiders.
The Spartans have some bad losses, but the metrics favor Michigan State more so than other teams. The Volunteers, if they can win the SEC tournament, would have just four losses—three of them on the road and the other on a neutral site vs. Kansas. Remember, Duke was ahead of Tennessee by just one spot when the selection committee did its early reveal in mid-February, and the Spartans were only three spots behind the Volunteers.
If the Blue Devils were to lose Thursday night, it would basically slam the door shut on a No. 1 seed, barring chaos across the rest of the country.
Where could Duke play its opening weekend?
The Blue Devils would certainly prefer to play in Columbia if they can make that happen. Duke would have to finish ahead of either Virginia or North Carolina or both. Given that each site can only host two pods, not all three teams can end up in the South Carolina capital.
So, if not Columbia, where might the Blue Devils go? Last year, when Duke was booted by the Tar Heels and Cavaliers, most assumed it would go to Nashville. Instead, the Blue Devils went to Pittsburgh. This year, Jacksonville, Fla., would be the most likely alternative destination, but it wouldn't be stunning if Duke was sent to Columbus, Ohio, either—both those sites are a little more than seven hours by car from Durham, whereas Columbia is just about four.
Who could be slotted in Duke's regional?
The NCAA has certain rules as to which teams can be put into the same quarter of the bracket. Given that the ACC is essentially guaranteed to have four teams on the top 4 seed lines, the Blue Devils will not be put in the same region as another team from their conference, unless that team is seeded No. 5 or lower.
That means Duke will almost certainly be paired with one of the following teams as the other top-two seed in its region: Kentucky, Tennessee, Gonzaga, Michigan, Michigan State, or Texas Tech. By far, the worst-case scenario would be the Blue Devils ending up in the South Regional with the Wildcats, who would have to travel just 76 miles to the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. Not as bad, but still challenging, would be Duke getting shipped out west to Anaheim, Calif., where it would likely be paired with the Bulldogs.