After making history in winning four games in four days to become ACC Tournament champions, the Duke Blue Devils have gone from a team that was “still evolving” per head coach Mike Krzyzewski to the odds-on favorite to win the national title. In many circles, Duke may have even deserved a one seed in the NCAA Tournament. As the number two seed in a relatively friendly East region, however, the Blue Devils are in excellent position to make a run to the Final Four… and possibly to their six championship. Here are a few reasons why they will get to Phoenix:
1. Identity: found
While questions may still surround Duke’s ability to be consistent, they are clicking on all cylinders internally. Amile Jefferson said after the win over Notre Dame that there was never any doubt amongst the players when the Blue Devils trailed against Louisville, North Carolina, and the Fighting Irish. The word that comes to mind is resiliency. Whereas in January Duke may have faltered when they fell behind, these Blue Devils simply made plays. Whether it was an extra pass from Grayson Allen leading to a crucial four-point play for Luke Kennard against Louisville or a block and subsequent alley oop for Harry Giles against the Tar Heels, Duke found a way to make the big play when they needed it the most. When talent is matched by unwavering confidence, it makes for a dangerous team in March.
2. The East region
A first-round win over Troy should be a formality. South Carolina would be an intriguing matchup for Duke, but they don’t possess the weapons necessary (particularly in the frontcourt) outside of Sindarius Thornwell to score against the Blue Devils. Should Marquette thwart the Gamecocks in the first round, they simply won’t be able to stop Duke from running rampant on the offensive end. Baylor and SMU could be potential roadblocks. Johnathan Motley has been one of the best bigs in the entire country for the Bears, but the rest of his team has struggled to make consistent contributions on the offensive end. The Mustangs are a popular sleeper pick, and with good reason after they rampaged through the American conference and allowed opponents to score only 59.8 points per game for the year. Their stingy defense and the versatility of Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye could pose a problem for the Blue Devils.
However, the most intriguing game the region could hope for would be an Elite Eight showdown against top overall seed Villanova. The Wildcats have been consistently excellent in their quest to repeat as national champions (save for a season sweep at the hands of Butler), but Duke matches up well with the Wildcats. Villanova consistently relies on the ability of their perimeter threats, particularly Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson. Their high screen and roll could pose problems as Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum have at times been exposed for their defensive weaknesses in switching and guarding on screens. That being said, Villanova also lacks the kind of frontcourt strength and rebounders that frequently give Duke problems (Hart is the Wildcats’ leading rebounder). The Blue Devils simply possess too much versatility and offensive weapons for Villanova. They should win the East.
Is it safe to say that the former All-American is back? Allen was superb throughout the ACC Tournament, acting as a scoring option off the bench while also showing a newfound poise and love of the game that has been on again, off again all season long. Allen single-handedly kept Duke adrift early on against North Carolina, connecting on his first four three-point attempts. The much-maligned junior guard not only racked up 18 points against the Tar Heels, but notched five assists. Allen is arguably one of the more underrated passers in the country, particularly when he attacks off the bounce. His athleticism and ability to finish at the rim allows him to draw defenders and kick the ball out to the likes of Kennard, Tatum, and Frank Jackson. He is a crucial element in Duke’s success, especially on the offensive end. If Allen continues to be aggressive and keeps his turnovers down while maintaining a level head, he very well could be the x-factor that propels Duke to the title.
4. Coach K’s newfound confidence in his depth
One of the aforementioned problems that Duke has struggled with is teams with bigger frontcourts that can rebound. However, with Amile Jefferson facing fatigue and foul trouble throughout the tournament, coach Krzyzewski turned to Harry Giles to anchor the middle for extended periods. Giles responded, playing some of his best basketball of the season. Giles helped neutralize Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks after they torched Duke in the first half, and his toughness on the interior has made a huge difference in allowing coach K to run different lineups. Similarly, the growth of Frank Jackson has made Matt Jones a valuable bench player, one who can come off the bench and guard multiple positions. If Jones can regain his shooting touch and confidence (look to the end of the Notre Dame game for any indications of this), his ability to stretch the floor adds yet another shooter to an already lethal perimeter. Additionally, the potential to run both Jefferson and Giles on the floor together continues to be a potentially daunting prospect, as Tatum’s versatility means the Blue Devils can run both big and small lineups depending on the opponent and the situation. Much of this is contingent on Krzyzewski’s willingness to experiment with different rotations–he’s been very hesitant to do this all season– but his growing confidence in his team and their response on the court means that Duke has (at the very least) seven players that can step in at any moment and play a role.
5. Jayson Tatum
Luke Kennard has, of course, been sensational for the Blue Devils all season long, and is well worthy of the Naismith talk. But there is no question that Tatum has been Duke’s most sensational player down the stretch. His ability to take over games late is reminiscent of Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones from the 2015 national champion Duke team, and his willingness to take (and make) the big shot is a boon for Duke in the next few weeks… just ask Virginia. The tournament is where the biggest stars really make their impact on the season, and Tatum’s maturity and makeup lend themselves to success moving forward. Expect some big things from the freshman phenom as he looks to deliver Duke to the Final Four.
The Blue Devils have faced adversity all season long after being the preseason no. 1 team in the country. They have outlasted fatigue on their way to the ACC Tournament title. What else do they have to prove? Their is just one task left… a national championship. Expect Duke to reach Phoenix. From there, anything can happen.