Not even the harsh realities of the clickbait economy can keep the Blue Devils off this list. Duke checks a lot of boxes for a potential national champ, from efficient balance on both ends (third nationally on offense, fourth on defense) to a wealth of pro talent to being coached by a Hall of Famer who has already won five championships—including one, in 2015, that was largely driven by ultra-talented freshmen.
There are some areas of concern: Duke is not a great free-throw shooting team (68%), which could lead to some dicey late-game situations. The team’s 31.6% three-point shooting would be the worst by a national champion since the shot was introduced to college basketball in the 1986–87 season. (The current low was set by UConn in 2011, at 32.9%). But then there are games like Saturday’s at Virginia when the Blue Devils caught fire and made 13 of 21 threes. If they can become a good shooting team? Hoo boy. I think Duke will lose in the elite 8. I just don’t think they can keep grinding it out consistently and win the way they’ve been winning consistently against top-flight competition.
Yeah, yeah. Nobody is going to feel very good about pinning their bracket’s hopes on the Cavaliers, whose years of tournament disappointment reached its zenith with last season’s unprecedented blowout first-round loss to UMBC. The knock on the Tony Bennett-era Hoos has been that while their formula has helped it dominate regular seasons and efficiency metrics, their approach doesn’t work in the playoffs.
This year Virginia is doing some different things with De’Andre Hunter blossoming into an NBA-bound star, the Cavaliers’ offense is better and more diverse than it’s ever been under Bennett. They can shoot (40.2% from three), they take care of the ball (the country’s 11th-lowest offensive turnover rate), and they’ll be as motivated as ever.
Besides, only one of the last five national champions had made it past the NCAA tournament’s first weekend the year before; Villanova just went from perennial early-exiters to two titles in three years. Write off Virginia ad hominem at your own peril. I like this team to make a solid run to the championship game, maybe even win it all.
History raises some red flags for the Vols too. Tennessee has never even made the Final Four before and only once reached the Elite Eight, in 2010; coach Rick Barnes has made the season’s final weekend once, at Texas in ‘03, but his teams’ last seven NCAA tournaments have ended in the first or second round. I think this year will be much of the same. Despite the level of talent on the roster, I think this team will not do well when challenged and we will likely see an early dismissal for these guys.