The calm before the storm.
Tomorrow, March 21st marks the start of what many sports fans would consider the greatest weekend in the sporting world. 48 games in four days that result in mayhem, madness and ultimately sadness for at least half the teams proudly standing in the current field of 64. Among those 64, there is one team that has been analyzed and covered this year more than perhaps any team in NCAA history: the Duke Blue Devils. So much has been said about this team and what makes them so polarizing, and it starts with Zion Williamson, who is the most hyped college basketball player in many years. The athletic freak is the clear top pick in this coming NBA draft. His hype is justified and his dominance is unmatched. However, Duke goes deeper than one player. This team features four potential first round picks and three (Zion, RJ Barret and Cam Reddish) that will likely be taken in the top 10. Duke is the heaviest NCAA tournament championship favorite since Kentucky entered the tournament undefeated in 2014-15. Kentucky did not win the tournament that year and neither will Duke this year.
Side 1: Duke WILL finish their historic season with a championship
Quite honestly, it is not too difficult to argue this stance. Duke easily has the most raw talent in the field and has made great work of the second hardest strength of schedule in the country this year. After a few hiccups and adjustments with Zion out of the lineup due to a knee injury sustained a minute into Duke’s loss to North Carolina on February 20th, Duke cruised to the ACC tournament title with wins against solid UNC and FSU teams as well as a revenge win against Syracuse. Duke’s players look to have settled into their roles and there have not been chemistry issues for this team. Furthermore, Marques Bolden, Duke’s junior interior force and rim protector, is back practicing with the team and may return this weekend for the first round. His presence and ability to lock down the paint is key to allowing Zion to roam and wreak havoc freely. In the East region, Duke seems to be on a collision course with Michigan State, a team they beat by 7 early in the season. In many people’s eyes, injuries are perhaps the only thing that can stop this machine.
Side 2: Duke will NOT cut down the nets in April
Experience and shooting. Experience is one of the most valuable, and perhaps underrated, factors for a talented team in March. Experience is why perennially stacked Kentucky has not won a championship since 2012, while experienced Villanova teams have celebrated championships in two of the last three years. 3 point shooting is another critical metric come tournament time. Duke is shooting 30% from 3 point range this season. Due to the exhilarating win-or-go-home nature of the tournament, it’s very possible that Duke struggles from 3 one game while their opponent gets white hot and ultimately knocks them off. If Duke loses in this tournament, we will all surgically break down and analyze the little key factors as to where they went wrong and lost. For now, it’s impossible to point to one statistic to explain why Duke will not win it all this year. The best explanation is not quantitative or analytical; it is simply that March will be madness and any team can win any game. This time last year, this article could have been about Virginia, last year’s top overall seed, and how they were expected to stomp through the tournament on their way to the final four. We all know how that ended: a shocking first round whipping at the hands of UMBC. In fact, a number 1 seed has only won two of the last four tournaments. Health is another factor. Yes, I know every team faces health issues but a top-heavy team like Duke is more prone to these risks. Duke’s rotation does not go 10-12 consistent men deep like a lot of other teams in this tournament and another Zion injury could cause Duke to falter and lose earlier than anyone anticipates.
There are compelling arguments to make on both sides. Of course, none of us will really know until at least April 8th, the date of the NCAA championship game in Minneapolis. Given everything, I do NOT think we will see Duke cut down the nets this year. There are simply too many other talented and experienced teams that will make Duke’s path to reeling off sixth straight wins very difficult. Personally, as long as Duke stays healthy, I think this juggernaut will roll through the first two weekends and into the Final Four. Once there, Duke will potentially have to face teams like Gonzaga and UNC, two teams who have beaten Duke this year. Even before the Final Four, keep an eye out for a potential Sweet 16 matchup with another team who beat Duke this year, Virginia Tech. In the end, I think Duke’s lack of experience and lack of depth will cause them to fall short of bringing home a sixth national championship.
Now it’s your turn to sound off below. Why do you think Duke will or will not win it all this year? Let’s get some hot debates going. After all, this is the BULLHEADED debate section!
NBA expert and IU grad. '96 Bulls > Warriors. #FireGarPax