Obviously the best-case scenario for Duke in the ACC tournament involves the Blue Devils cutting down the nets on Sunday. Likewise, it stands to reason that a worst-case scenario is losing in the first game.
But the fringe benefits of Duke’s best case ACC tournament scenario and the collateral damage of a worst-case result are worth examining. After an impressive road win against the rival Tar Heels, Duke goes into the ACC tournament with tons of confidence and momentum. In terms of a deep NCAA tournament run, how the Blue Devils fair in Greensboro will impact their road to the Final Four in Atlanta.
In the tradition of getting the bad news first, let’s start with the worst-case scenario.
The worst case would be if Duke lost in the first game. That will be against either Maryland or Wake Forest. Though Duke has made a strong case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, a loss to Wake or Maryland would raise a few eyebrows among the selection committee.
Depending upon the nature of the loss and how other conference tournaments played out, a loss to Wake or Maryland could potentially cost Duke a top seed.
Moreover, a first-round loss would undercut the team’s confidence and momentum. It would prove that Duke is vulnerable and possibly set the team up for another first-round game against a feisty 15 seed like last year.
While a loss to Wake Forest would be bad, the absolute worst-case scenario would be losing to Maryland. Though both teams are inferior to Duke and the negative effects would be the same, taking another loss to the soon-to-be Big Ten Terps would really stick in the craw of Duke fans.
The Maryland faithful would surely relish another upset of Duke. Those looking to pile on about the demise of the ACC and rise of the Big Ten would use that kind of loss as ammunition for their arguments.
But enough dwelling on doomsday scenarios. Let’s construct the absolute best-case ACC tournament run for Duke.
Ideally, the road to an ACC tournament win would serve to further cement Duke’s status as a No. 1 seed and continue to build upon the Blue Devils’ momentum and confidence.
Therefore, a best-case scenario would involve starting the tournament with a rematch versus Maryland. The Terps would have to win a first-round game against Wake Forest to make this happen, and though that seems like the likely outcome, Maryland has been anything but predictable this season.
For all the reasons that losing to Maryland would be the absolute worst thing to happen, beating them would be an emotional jump start to the ACC tournament.
Duke would love to avenge the loss in College Park and knock the Terps out of the last ACC tournament they’ll ever play in. What a way to put a stake in the heart of a team that desperately wanted to be Duke’s rival and send them limping over to the Big Ten.
Better still, Mason Plumlee would get a chance to redeem himself after getting pushed around by Alex Len in the previous matchup.
Plumlee was fantastic against North Carolina, but there’s still a suspicion that the senior center isn’t tough enough to hold his own in the post against bigger bodies. Getting another chance to play a physical Maryland team would answer questions about Plumlee and Duke’s toughness.
Speaking of North Carolina, part of the best-case scenario would include meeting North Carolina in the semifinals. The Tar Heels played Duke close in Cameron and then got blown out over the weekend in the Chapel Hill. Fans of the lighter shade of blue might want to chalk up that drubbing to North Carolina having a bad shooting night, but a third win over the Tar Heels would establish Duke’s undeniable and overwhelming dominance of Tobacco Road.
Moreover, even in the blowout win, not every Blue Devil shined. In a potential third meeting with North Carolina, it’d be advantageous if Rasheed Sulaimon got the chance to stand in the spotlight of college sports’ greatest rivalry. That would likely serve to restart the good run of play he was going through prior to this recent slump.
Plus, I imagine Ryan Kelly would like one last chance to drop more than eight points on Duke’s rival.
Finally, in the championship game Duke would probably face Miami, Virginia or NC State. Those three teams each account for one of Duke’s four losses this season.
Beating Miami would send a clear message that the Blue Devils are the favorites going into the NCAA tournament. It would undeniably add to the message that Duke has yet to lose with Ryan Kelly in the lineup and show that even on a neutral court Duke can handle one of the nation’s top teams.
Neither Virginia nor NC State has faced Duke with Ryan Kelly. Both teams beat a depleted Duke squad and in NC State’s case, the Blue Devils were able to enact some revenge in a second game even without Kelly’s services. Still, a rematch with either of those teams in the championship game would nicely exhibit just how much better Duke is with Ryan Kelly.
However it plays out, it’s important that the Blue Devils continue to improve. Ryan Kelly’s return has been beneficial in every aspect of the game, but the team is still trying to adjust to having him back in the rotation. Playing three games in Greensboro would give Duke three more opportunities to improve on team defense and in the offensive sets.
All season Duke has improved. The ACC tournament offers Duke a final chance to continue that team growth and showcase how far the Blue Devils have come in terms of development. A positive showing in Greensboro would surely have the Blue Devils off and running towards Atlanta.