March Madness 2020: Seeding Duke could be a devil of a problem for NCAA selection committee

If you happen to care not for the Duke Blue Devils, then this is your moment. They lost twice in a period of seven days, which is as many as their predecessors conceded in the entire 1992 or 1999 seasons.

And there was no Hubert Davis or Kenyon Martin involved in these latest defeats.

Falling Tuesday in double overtime to a Wake Forest squad that began the day eight games under .500 in the ACC is the latest piece of evidence that these Blue Devils are struggling to perform at a level consistent with preseason expectations, postseason projections and in-season metrics.

They are the No. 5 team in the KenPom ratings, No. 2 in ESPN’s BPI and No. 6 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, and yet there is this series of vexing performances in both victory and defeat: a seven-point loss on the road at Clemson; a 1-of-15 3-point shooting effort in an 8-point win at Boston College; the desperate scramble to avoid defeat that required two near-miracles and an overtime period at North Carolina; and now a blowout loss to N.C. State and a late collapse against the Deacons.

Unless there are significant changes in what little remains of the regular season, seeding them in the NCAA Tournament is going to be an adventure.

When the NCAA Tournament selection committee presented its bracket preview in early February, the Blue Devils were the No. 5 overall team behind projected top seeds Baylor, Kansas, Gonzaga and San Diego State. They have not played to that level since, compiling a 4-2 record that, while featuring an impressive home victory over ACC contender Florida State and blowouts of Notre Dame and Virginia Tech, is also scarred by those two defeats and substandard performance at Carolina.

The Devils own just a 4-3 record against Quad-1 opponents. Among the top 20 teams in the NET rankings, only Arizona and BYU have fewer such victories and only Dayton, San Diego State and Louisville have the same number.

Duke’s home pre-conference loss against Stephen F. Austin is a Quad-3 defeat. Among the top 20 teams in the NET, only Arizona, Colorado and San Diego State has one of those.

What Duke has in its favor is star power — not of the sort Zion Williamson delivered a year ago, but rather among its victims. The Devils defeated NET No. 1 Kansas on a neutral floor. They beat No. 9 FSU at home. They manhandled No. 12 Michigan State in a road game. Not all Quad-1 wins are created equal, and Duke’s are more equal than most.

What’s the committee to do?

MORE: WVU’s lofty seeding in bracket preview suggests selections still need tweak

There is a lot that says Duke belongs high on the bracket: at least as a No. 3 seed and possibly a No. 2. There also is a lot that says the Blue Devils maybe deserve a less prominent position, perhaps on the 4-line. Kentucky has been hanging out in that neighborhood for a while now on bracket projections — including on Sporting News’ — and the Wildcats’ primary anchor in that territory is the number of dubious defeats — Evansville, Utah — they accumulated.

If the Devils get the former treatment in light of these obvious struggles, the Duke-disparaging public will not be amused. This is especially true given that seed preference for the Devils likely would include the opportunity to begin the NCAA Tournament in Greensboro — roughly an hour from campus. There’s no top-seed contender who would want that placement more, although some might prefer it to being shipped to Spokane or Omaha.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was not pleased with his team surrendering a nine-point lead in the final 1:21 against Wake.

“We just gave the ball up. There’s no excuse for the two turnovers we had,” Krzyzewski said. “You’ve got to be strong with the ball, and they took advantage.”

Krzyzewski allowed that he was “disappointed in our group. I don’t think we came we should, and the way we practiced. We show our youth so much. … This is our 28th game, and you’d hope that we’d be older by now, but we are not.”

He rejected a suggestion that Duke has struggled to perform with consistency, insisting a team with a 23-5 record has played “really good basketball.”

Duke will need to play more of it, and more often, or else selection week will be a devil of a time for the committee.

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