March Madness is all about matchups. In a year where no team truly distinguished itself as head and shoulders above the rest, even the nation’s top teams are vulnerable. Every team has a weakness that could be exploited by an unfavorable draw in the bracket.
Of course, that’s exactly what makes March Madness great. The tournament throws two teams together in odd pairings that favor whichever team can minimize its weakness and adapt to the challenge on an unfamiliar foe.
Given that, what matchups would Duke fans most like to see come March? Obviously ones that offered a favorable outcome to the Blue Devils are preferred, but what about the storylines and subplots?
Here are five teams that I think would be interesting games for Duke in the NCAA tournament.
Slated anywhere from an eight to an 11 seed, the Wildcats offer a potential second- or third-round matchup with the Blue Devils that would be immensely fun to watch.
Duke beat Big Blue Nation early in the season down in Atlanta, the sight of this year’s Final Four. Since that seven-point victory in November, however, Duke has gotten better while Kentucky has gotten worse.
In that November meeting, Nerlens Noel had 16 points and eight rebounds (box score via ESPN). Of course, now the big center is sidelined with an injury. And although Kentucky point guard Ryan Harrow didn’t play in that game, he’s been anything but impressive for the Wildcats.
Meanwhile, Ryan Kelly’s extended absence allowed Duke’s younger players to grow and develop. With Kelly back, the current Duke team is even better than the one that beat Kentucky in the second game of the season.
Like Duke, Kentucky suffers from the fact that opponents relish beating it even in what constitutes a down year for the program. So even though the Wildcats might be one of the last four teams to make the tournament, the Blue Devils would be happy to beat a fellow member of college basketball’s top-tier programs and send the defending champions home for the season.
Plus, any Duke versus Kentucky matchup is an excuse to replay Christain Laettner’s magical game-winning shot.
Do you enjoy watching Duke versus North Carolina? Well UCLA’s basketball team is basically the University of North Carolina–Los Angeles.
Obviously the stars on UCLA are the freshman recruits it landed last summer. Shabazz Muhammad jostled for the title of top recruit in the 2012 high school class and Tony Parker was a recruit that the Blue Devils highly coveted but were unable to snag.
As much as Duke’s veteran-heavy team would enjoy beating the Bruins’ hyped recruits, it’s UCLA’s three North Carolina transfers that would make this matchup one to hope for.
Larry Drew II, Travis Wear and David Wear all fled Chapel Hill for Los Angeles. As a result, playing the 2013 Bruins look a lot like playing the 2011 Tar Heels.
Short of actually playing North Carolina in the tournament, something the selection committee will probably make a near impossibility, Duke fans wouldn’t mind seeing the Blue Devils winning a second- or third-round battle against Ben Howland’s squad of over-hyped recruits and UNC ex-patriots.
Also, UCLA, though talented, are prone to bad losses. The team won the Pac-12 regular season, but lost the second-to-last regular-season game to conference cellar-dweller Washington State (schedule via ESPN). In a contest with the unpredictable Bruins, the senior heavy Blue Devils would likely show enough composure to dispatch North Carolina’s most western satellite campus.
Chris Collins, an Illinois native, was in the running for the Illinois job. In the end, the Fighting Illini hired John Groce.
Groce had a good first year in Champaign, but it’s difficult to imagine that it wouldn’t put a smile on the faces of Chris Collins and the Duke staff to end Groce’s season.
After a 12-0 start, Illinois turned into a team of streaks. Since the start of conference play, Illinois went through two three-game losing streaks. Then, the Illini went on to win five in a row, including an upset of then No. 1 Indiana (schedule via ESPN).
That sort of wishy-washy season is likely to land Illinois a middle-of-the-road seed that sets up the potential for an early-round meeting with Duke.
Despite the excellence of Brandon Paul, who is averaging 16.3 points per game, it will likely take more than a one-man show to bring down the Blue Devils. So this matchup would provide a little professional revenge for Chris Collins, favorable odds for a Duke win and provide the joy of an ACC team beating a Big Ten school.
This is another team that Duke faced earlier in the season. That game was played in Charlotte, and though Duke won, it was a hard-fought contest.
That’s not atypical when these two teams meet. Davidson has a history of playing the Blue Devils close and people living in the Carolinas have long known that battles between these two teams are something to take note of. A battle between the two North Carolina teams would make for good tournament viewing.
In the first meeting, Seth Curry didn’t exactly shoot the lights out against his brother’s former team. He’d surely like another opportunity to showcase his superiority in that sibling rivalry. Essentially, Curry could prove that even though his brother Steph led a fantastic tournament run for Davidson, by transferring to Duke, Seth has set himself up for the chance to go all the way.
A game with Davidson would also be a good omen for Duke because it would mean that the Wildcats had upset a higher seed. Currently Davidson is projecting somewhere around a 12 or 13 seed. To play against Duke, Davidson would have to take out one of the better teams in Duke’s bracket.
Personally, I’d like to see Duke beat Davidson because I’m an alum of the College of Charleston and the Wildcats ousted the Cougars in the Southern Conference championship game. But even if you don't have my personal bias, a clash between two teams from North Carolina with long-tenured coaches would be a fun one to watch.
For years, Gonzaga has been like a poor man’s Duke. What the Zags lack in talent, they make up for with coaching and players who fit into a particular type of system. The current team relies on outside shooting from its guards and finesse forwards. Sound familiar?
As a Duke fan, I hate Gonzaga. I hate the Zags because they embody the irrationality of people who hate Duke. What has Duke ever done to earn the ire of every other sports fan? Gonzaga is also a private school that plays a similar style of basketball and frequently turns goofy looking white guys into great college players with limited NBA potential. Worse, Gonzaga’s road to success comes by way of beating up inferior competition in a mid-major conference.
At least Duke has the decency to pick on teams its own size.
Maybe this is a matchup I’d like to see solely because it feeds into my irrational sports anger towards Gonzaga. Then again, a game against Gonzaga would likely spark the same media firestorm that preceded the Duke versus Butler game.
Pundits could wax poetic about programs ‘doing it the right way’ and TV audiences could vilify Duke while making Gonzaga out to be some kind of heroic David versus Goliath. As a Duke fan, I’m comfortable with that scenario.
But the best thing of all about a potential matchup with Gonzaga is that it couldn’t happen until the Elite Eight at the earliest. So if these two teams meet, then it means that Duke hasn’t flopped out of the tournament early thanks to poor shooting and failing to stop penetration.
Plus, since I think Gonzaga is vastly overrated, it’s a game Duke ought to win relatively comfortably.