Will there be another Loyola-Chicago Cinderella run this year? Maybe. Scott Gleeson thinks these five teams could shock the college basketball world.
USA TODAY Sports
What’s the best Duke team of all-time?
The Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill teams of the early 1990s?
The Jay Williams, Shane Battier and Mike Dunleavy version of the early 2000s?
The Danny Ferry mid-’80s team? The Elton Brand late ’90s team? J.J. Redick’s era? Jon Scheyer’s unexpected 2010 title team? The 2015 title team?
Odds are, coach Mike Krzyzewski might be looking at his most talented team ever this year.
The Blue Devils, top overall seed in this NCAA tournament, feature two national player of the years in RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson (Barrett took USA TODAY Sports’ award, while Williamson is the front-runner to win the Naismith POY).
Williamson has wowed with his highlight reels and brute force, while Barrett’s finesse and knack for scoring have carried a freshmen-laden team bolstered by two other elite freshmen — Cam Reddish and Tre Jones.
Williamson’s recent injury raised doubts about Duke’s status as a national title contender, but the 6-7 star’s return changed the narrative: it’s the Blue Devils tournament to lose.
But in a single-elimination tournament, teams that aren’t supposed to win can do the unimaginable.
Here are three main reasons this heavily-favored Duke team (+225 favorites according to Westgate SuperBook) will not win the national title:
1. Bad three-point shooting. The Blue Devils rank 339th in the country in three-point field goal percentage and 220th in made triples per game. That doesn’t bode well in a tournament where the ability to shoot the three can tilt momentum to outmatched teams with nothing to lose and where even the bluest bluebloods need to shoot well to advance. Duke’s best outside shooter, Cam Reddish, is as streaky as they come while only managing 33% from three. (Barrett and Williamson shoot under 32%).
In a Jan. 14 overtime loss to Syracuse, Duke shot 9-for-43 (21%) from three and struggled against the Orange’s 2-3 zone. A zone takes a seemingly dominant team like Duke out of its rhythm. Williamson orchestrates much of Duke’s offense off big defensive plays, but the way to beat the Blue Devils is by keeping them out of the paint and putting the pressure on their perimeter game while limiting transition opportunities.
2. Inability to win close games, lack of experience. In Duke’s Nov. 21 loss to Gonzaga, Barrett tried to play hero ball in the closing seconds and had an out-of-control lay-up rejected while other teammates watched in disarray. While that moment came early in the season, it provided a snapshot for a group of 18-year-olds going up against mature veterans.
Most of the time, these freshmen play like upperclassmen, but three years experience by another blue-blood (ahem, Michigan State) can exploit their youth. That’s why the Blue Devils’ ACC tournament semifinal win over North Carolina was so crucial. It showed this team can win close games. But even in that win, Barrett missed two free throws at the end that could’ve been costly.
3. Mounting pressure, Michigan State. Hype and soaring expectations could play a role in this tournament. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Blue Devils won’t rise to the occasion. But in an East Regional where it’s extremely likely Duke and Michigan State meet in the Elite Eight, there’s room for the Blue Devils to let their foot off the gas pedal while facing inferior opponents in the the first few rounds.
If Duke eventually draws Michigan State, the Spartans play with a chip on their shoulders and feed off the grit of fiery point guard Cassius Winston. And make no mistake, coach Tom Izzo is the type of tactician to make teams pay if they don’t bring the proper amount of hunger, maturity or strong shooting