With a 26-4 record and a No. 3 ranking in the AP Top 25, the Duke Blue Devils are in position to make a splash in the NCAA Tournament. They’ll have to get through some stiff competition in the ACC Tournament first, though.
Duke travels to North Carolina for its regular-season finale on March 9. The Tar Heels trail Duke by just one game in the ACC standings, but the Blue Devils aren’t in much danger of losing their No. 2 seed in the tournament behind first place Miami.
If Duke can manage to get past UNC and secure the second spot for the ACC Tournament, a first-round bye and a matchup with either the No. 8 or No. 9 seed will be on the horizon.
Duke and Miami are on a collision course for the title, and the Hurricanes will obviously be the biggest test of the tournament. But as this college basketball season has shown us, every team is susceptible to an upset.
Let’s take a look at the biggest obstacles and potential struggles standing in Duke’s way in the ACC Tournament.
Forget Virginia’s 73-68 win on February 28. Losing to a team doesn’t mean Duke has any less of a chance of winning in a rematch.
It’s not the outcome that should have the Blue Devils concerned, though. The way the Cavaliers stifled Duke’s offense should be its biggest concern.
Virginia is a very good defensive team, and its 10-6 record in the ACC isn’t indicative of how well the team has played against some tough competition. Holding any team under 50 points is a good defensive night, and the Cavaliers have done it eight times already this season.
In their most recent matchup, the Cavaliers held Duke to just 39.6 percent shooting from the floor and 32 percent (8-for-25) from behind the arc.
This leads us to the next obstacle in Duke’s pursuit of a tournament title.
The Blue Devils haven’t lived and died by the three-pointer as much this season as in some more recent years, but they certainly shoot a lot of them.
As a team, Duke is shooting almost 42 percent from three-point range this season, making 239 of 571 attempts. Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly do work in the paint, but there’s no question what Duke relies on for a lot of its scoring.
When a team shoots almost 48 percent from the floor, it’s pretty clear what it has to do to be successful. If the Blue Devils can’t get hot and stay hot throughout the tournament, there’s a good chance a team (like Virginia) can pull off an upset.
Seth Curry and Quinn Cook will be the keys to a deep Duke run in the ACC Tournament. If one of the two hits a cold streak, its chances get a little slimmer. If neither can find the bottom of the bucket, the Blue Devils will find themselves in a lot of trouble.
It’s completely subjective to say Duke can’t handle physical opponents, but that belief carries a little more weight coming from its head coach.
After the Blue Devils’ loss to Virginia on February 28, Mike Krzyzewski had this to say on the matter (via ESPN).
“It was a very, very physical game and we're not equipped to that type of game. We got knocked back."
Not every team has to be able to play a physical style of basketball to be successful, but Duke is going to run into a lot of that aggressive play in both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments. It has to find a way to play its own brand of basketball and not get into a knock-down affair with a more physical team.
With so many big upsets this college basketball season, no team is guaranteed a deep run in postseason play. For Duke to make it out of the ACC Tournament with a spotless run, a lot of things will have to fall perfectly in place.