Coming into the tournament, I did not think Duke had a chance at winning it all.
But, after seeing the bracket, I got excited about their chances.
They are the two seed in the West Region, which is the weakest of the four regions. It is the weakest by a mile.
This season, Duke has been sort of an enigma. Yes, they have been good, but never good to the point where you thought they were a dominant team, or that they had the chance to win it all at the beginning of April.
Early in the season, they came out of the gate strong. Nobody was expecting them to be as good as they were so early. Nobody knew what to expect out of their freshmen. And, after last season, nobody expected much out of their returning "stars."
But, Kyle Singler lived up to his hype, performing at a high level right away and having one of his best games against the first tough battle against Marquette. DeMarcus Nelson and Gerald Henderson also outdid themselves, making up a trio of players who would have to be taken seriously.
And, seriously, they were taken.
On any given night, Duke can beat any team in the nation. Obviously, they struggle in the post, on both offense and defense, but make up for it with great outside shooting, and their incredible pressure defense in the backcourt and on the perimeter.
If I had to say what they struggled with mostly, I would say it would be good guard play, mostly focusing on guards who can penetrate well, and strong guards, who can take their men into the post.
If the guards on the opponent's team like to stay along the perimeter and take jumpshots all day; Duke can handle that, as seen with the job they did against Ellington of UNC. But, when that jumpshooter can take his man off the dribble, Duke struggles, as seen against Stephen Curry of Davidson and Tyrese Rice of BC.
But, with that said, they can still win games they struggle in because of their outside shooting and great ball control. And, looking at the games they will have to win in the Tournament, my outlook is good.
The first round matchup against Belmont does not need any looking into. They are a 15 seed for a reason, and I don't see them taking out Duke in the first round.
In the second round, the matchups grow a bit tougher, but nothing that Duke can't handle. Preferably, I'd like to see them matched up against West Virginia, because they are a more perimeter-oriented team, which shoots a lot of 3-pointers, which fits right into the hands of the Duke defense.
But, I have a feeling that Arizona is going to handle West Virginia, and will move on to give Duke a tougher challenge. Jerry Bayless is the exact type of guard Duke has trouble with, and Chase Budinger is someone that Duke will, also, have trouble defending.
But, the thing that will get Duke over the Arizona hump is the way Arizona struggles on the defensive end. They are not great at defending the 3-pointer, which is what Duke's offense is based around. And they are susceptible to getting beaten up by penetrating guards, which is something else that Duke has this season, with both Gerald Henderson, DeMarcus Nelson, and, to an extent, Nolan Smith, being able to get to the rim.
I like Duke's chances over Arizona, but absolutely love them over West Virginia, if they happen to get by Arizona.
In the Sweet 16, they would face off against either Purdue, Baylor, Xavier, or Georgia. Out of those four teams, to tell the truth, I am most afraid of Baylor. They have four guards, who all score in double digits. They average over 81 points a game, but the good thing about Baylor is that they do rely on the 3-pointer, almost more than Duke does, which, like I have said before, fits right into the hands of the Duke defense. But, it does scare me that they shoot it well (38 percent as a team).
Purdue does not scare me at all, and, if I had my choice, I would want them to make it through, but I doubt that is happening. I do not put much stock into Big Ten teams in the Tournament. They rely on the 3-pointer way too much, and still only put in 68 points per game, so I don't see Duke having any trouble with them.
Georgia is the hot team right now, which is always scary. But, they are just not good enough of a team to handle the pressure of playing a team like Duke in the Sweet 16.
Sure, it would be a great Cinderella story, but I don't see them getting passed Xavier in the first round. If they did, and then beat up on Baylor/Purdue, I would think differently of them, but still wouldn't worry about Duke's chances against them. They don't have enough offense to beat Duke even if Duke decided to play at their tempo. Duke can win a 65-60 game just as easily as they can a 95-90 game.
Xavier can be trouble. They are a big team, which would give Duke trouble in the frontcourt and on defense, but who on their team is going to guard the shooters on Duke?
Xavier almost has too much size to matchup with Duke. People forget that Duke's "shooters" are big, as well. Singler is 6-foot-8, Henderson and Nelson are 6-foot-4, Jon Scheyer is 6-foot-5, and David McClure and Taylor King are 6-foot-6.
Drew Lavender does have the quickness that can bother Duke's guards, but the ball handling and movement Duke uses on offense can help them free up their shooters in the half court sets. I think this would be a close game, but Duke would pull it out.
I have Baylor getting past Xavier, in my bracket, so we might not have to worry about that size.
In the Elite Eight, we would need some help. The two toughest teams in the region that Duke would have to face would not come out until the Elite Eight. Those two teams are UCLA, obviously, and UConn. It would help if both of those teams were knocked off early, but I don't see that happening.
To be honest, I think Duke has a better chance against UCLA then they do UConn, which is a scary thing to say. Not only does the UConn's size bother me, but it is the skill that those big men possess that would trouble Duke.
Jeff Adrien, Stanley Robinson, Hasheem Thabeet, and Jerome Dyson would be too much for Duke to handle defensively. The difference between this team's size and Xavier's size is that UConn can defend well. The one bright spot is that UConn does struggle defending the three, which is what Duke would need to focus on in order to beat them.
They would need another shooting night like the one they had in their win against Carolina if they were going to beat UConn. It can happen, but I don't know if I would want to hope for that.
Now, UCLA is a complete team. They can shoot, pass, handle the ball, run an offense, defend, make adjustments, so on and so on. In my eyes, it is them and North Carolina at the top of the mountain, and everyone is trying to climb up to reach them.
Duke is not as good a team as UCLA, so they would need to play up to standards they have only reached one other time this season, and that was in the North Carolina victory.
Russell Westbrook and Darren Collison are both the type of guard that gives Duke trouble. And a team having one of those guards is something Duke can overcome, but two of them would end up getting Duke into foul trouble, and that would be the death of them. Not to mention Kevin Love and Josh Shipp, as well.
I think that Duke would have to get both of them into foul trouble early in the game to have a chance at upsetting UCLA. If the tables are turned on Duke, and they get into foul trouble, they have absolutely no chance. So the key to this game will be who gets into foul trouble first. I think that Duke will struggle, because UCLA defends the 3-point line well, so Paulus, Henderson, and Nelson would have to get into the lane and draw fouls. That is Duke's only chance at winning. It can happen.
So, to come out of the West, and make it to the Final Four, Duke truly only has one game they, seemingly, can't win. It is a fairly easy course to the Elite Eight, which is exactly what Duke will need if they are hoping to beat a UCLA or UConn in that game.
Stranger things have happened, and, like I said, I really do like their chances in this region. To only foresee one game in which they will struggle is all a team can ask for when seeded in March Madness.
In the Final Four, they would, most likely, face off against Texas, Memphis, Pittsburgh, or maybe even a Marquette team they already beat. Now, I would love to see a team like Oral Roberts, Temple, or Austin Peay make a run to the Final Four to make it easy on Duke, but that won't happen.
All of the teams that I mentioned above are teams that Duke can beat. They already proved they could beat Marquette, Pittsburgh beat them on a last second shot, in overtime, in a game that Duke was ahead throughout. That was an early season game for Duke. If they played now, I think that Duke would not need an overtime to take them out.
Memphis would give Duke fits, but I don't see Memphis having the defense to play along with Duke. Yes, Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts would trouble Duke, but the Duke's perimeter play would keep them in the game and move them ahead late. I think that would be a game of who could outlast who, and I feel that Duke has the shooting, and late-game presence to beat Memphis. But, I don't think they'd face Memphis. It would be Texas. And Texas is a team I think Duke can beat.
In all the games that Texas lost, they lost due to the other team shooting well, and playing good defense, holding them to a low shooting percentage. Not letting them get open looks from behind the arc. If they stop AJ Abrams from hitting his 3-pointers, I do not see anyone else on that team who is beating them. Yes, DJ Augustin can get into the lane and score, but Duke can give up those points. It is going to come down to whether they can stop the 3-pointers from falling.
And, then, in the Championship game, they would, most likely, face up against a North Carolina team that they have proven they could beat, as long as they play their type of basketball. If a Kansas, Georgetown, Tennessee, or Louisville makes it to the Championship, I would feel better about our chances, but it's looking like it would be a rematch with Carolina. We can win that game.
So, all in all, thank you to the committee for putting Duke in the West Region, and giving me a chance to get excited about our chances to come out of this with a Championship.
Do I think it will happen? No.
But, do I think it could happen? Yes. Why not?