You are preparing to fill out your March Madness bracket and, while you might not know a lot about most of the teams, you are absolutely certain about one.
You know exactly whose name you’re punching into that final line. You know precisely who is going to be the last team standing. You’re still unsure about the early rounds, but you’ve already figured out your champions.
You know them because they’re the most celebrated college team in years, featuring the most famous amateur basketball player since LeBron James was in high school. You are amazed by the players’ athleticism, awed by their swagger, and certain that nobody else in this 2019 NCAA basketball tournament has a chance.
And you’re as wrong as Zion Williamson is big.
The Duke Blue Devils are not going to win it.
The pressure will be too much. Their versatility is not enough. Their journey to the final Monday night in Minneapolis is filled with one significant hurdle, and they’ll trip over it on a Saturday night in Minneapolis, and everyone’s fawning bracket will crumble.
The Blue Devils, the top seed in the tournament and the top-ranked team in the Associated Press poll, are essentially four freshmen battling history, and when that happens, history usually wins.
In the 34 seasons since the tournament expanded in 1985, the No. 1-ranked AP team has won it four times. That’s right. Four times. That’s 12%, and suddenly Duke isn’t looking like such a lock.
The last team to enter the tournament as such an overwhelming favorite was the undefeated Kentucky team from 2015. The kid Wildcats were soon unbeaten no more, defeated by veteran Wisconsin in the national semifinals
The last team to command such attention was the “Fab Five” Michigan team of 1992 and 1993, a freshman group featuring future NBA stars Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose. The Wolverines won the attention of a nation, but never won a championship, losing in consecutive title games to Duke and North Carolina.
On the back of the mighty Williamson, and with two other NBA first-round picks in RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish, Duke is like that unbeaten Kentucky team and the Fab Five all wrapped into one giant viral video.
Except in an era of three-point shots, they can’t shoot the three, with the worst percentage behind the arc of any team in the tournament, making just 30%. And in a tournament often won by free throws, they’re not great at shooting free throws, making just 69%, with Williamson making just 65%, and you can just guess how much he will be fouled.
If Duke gets down and Williamson gets flustered and the game must be won with the long ball, the Blue Devils are in trouble. This will eventually happen. Keep reading.
Not that they won’t breeze through the first rounds of the tournament, because they will. They’ll win each of their first three games by at least double digits, and they may beat their first-round opponent — probably North Dakota State — by 50.
Duke won’t lose early, but there are plenty of other upsets that can sweeten your bracket.
In that same 34-year period, only five times has a 12th seed failed to win a game. This year it will happen three times, surging Oregon overpowering average Wisconsin, deep New Mexico State beating exhausted Auburn, and Ja Morant-led Murray State running over fading Marquette. You need to watch that latter game if only to feel a bit of the electricity that lives in Morant.
Another tournament trend is a victory by 11th seeds; it’s happened in eight of the last 12 meetings with a sixth seed. It will happen again this year when play-in winner Belmont, after it defeats Temple, wins against overrated Maryland.
Belmont, Oregon and New Mexico State are the three double-digit seeds that will advance to the Sweet 16 where, as usual, the blue bloods will take over.
Yes, the Cinderella story is a myth. Did you know that of the last 34 national champions, 20 have been a No. 1 seed? No team lower than an eighth seed has ever won the tournament, and 30 of the last 34 winners since tournament expansion have been a top-three seed.
The disparity between the top echelon and the rest of the mob seems particularly acute this year. When Duke falls — and Duke will fall — there are only a handful of teams that can step into the breach, and most of them possess season-ending deficiencies.
Kentucky is too disjointed. Louisiana State doesn’t have a coach. Virginia has a coach in Tony Bennett who has had three top-seeded teams and never even made a Final Four. Purdue always disappoints. Michigan got a tough draw. So did Michigan State.
This brings the bracket to the Final Four, which will feature North Carolina, Tennessee, Duke and Gonzaga.
The Tar Heels, with a veteran team surrounding entertaining freshman point guard Coby White, will defeat an equally veteran Volunteers team to reach the final. The game will come down to coaching, and Tennessee’s Rick Barnes has known for being a March disappointment, only making the Sweet 16 three times in 23 tournaments.
The other bracket is where Duke reaches the end of its dance. The Blue Devils will lose to Gonzaga, and before you start raising your eyebrows, remember something.
Duke has lost to the Bulldogs before, back on Nov. 21 in Maui, an 89-87 victory that proved Gonzaga has no fear.
Just as Wisconsin once stunned Kentucky, Gonzaga will make history repeat itself. The Bulldogs are older, wiser and deeper. They are the top offensive team in the nation. Four of their top six players are juniors and seniors. They only lost three times this year and, while one of those defeats was a stunner by Saint Mary’s in the final of the West Coast Conference tournament, that game carried questionable motivation for a Gonzaga team that had already locked up a top seed.
The Bulldogs are really, really good. They’re the best team I’ve seen this year. And they are perfectly set up for a 2017 national championship rematch with North Carolina.
The Tar Heels won that game, and also beat them by 13 earlier this year in Chapel Hill, but this Gonzaga team is deeper and more complete. This time, Gonzaga finishes the march, winning its first national title in its 20th consecutive tournament appearance under coach Mark Few.
Duke will be among many stunned folks wondering what happened. Don’t you be one of them.