Youmans: Duke's price too good to pass up in NCAA Tournament

March 1, 2022 07:22 PM
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Expect the hype to be over the top and unbearable, but in a month or so, it will all be over. Mike Krzyzewski’s farewell tour will either hit a dead end somewhere on the road to the Final Four or finish with a bash on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where the NCAA championship game will be staged April 4.

Coach K planned his final-season victory lap, which is a lot like throwing your own birthday party, partially to set up his successor but also because he wanted the adulation and attention. Many of Krzyzewski’s media cheerleaders are tearing up at the thought of saying an emotional goodbye.

The rest of us are ready to move on, yet this is not going to be easy and here’s why: Krzyzewski’s last Duke team is tough enough to win it all, like it or not. College basketball’s all-time leader in wins and black hair dye could go out on top.

When the NCAA selection committee unveils the 68-team bracket on March 13, you can bet the red carpet will be rolled out for Coach K and the Blue Devils.

“Duke will get a phenomenal draw, and I can tell you that right now,” Gaughan Gaming sportsbook director Vinny Magliulo said. “It’s not going to be a bracket of death.”

Krzyzewski’s last ride is the top storyline of March, and it appears Gonzaga will be the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs are + 350 favorites to win the title, a price that seems crazy and creates value on several other contenders, including Duke.

While no fan of Coach K, I’m objective enough to dance with the Blue Devils at 12-1 odds. As I have said since November, this tournament is not going to be a runaway for the Zags, a theory that was reinforced last weekend.

The last Saturday in February, when the top six teams in the AP Top 25 went down, was a sign of the madness to come. No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Arizona took the worst beatings. The Zags were 10.5-point favorites in a 67-57 loss at Saint Mary’s, and the Wildcats were laying 9.5 points in a 79-63 loss at Colorado.

Auburn, Purdue, Kansas and Kentucky also lost, but only the Boilermakers were favored from that group of four. Auburn, Kansas and Kentucky were small underdogs to ranked conference opponents — Tennessee, Baylor and Arkansas, respectively. All six teams that lost were on the road. So what does Saturday’s crash of the titans mean?

“I don’t think there’s any really great teams, and every team has got some warts,” Texas-based handicapper Paul Stone said. “I think we could go 16 deep as far as teams that have a chance to advance to the Final Four.”

The list of legitimate Final Four hopefuls probably goes as deep as 25 teams. The top eight in this week’s AP poll — Gonzaga, Arizona, Baylor, Duke, Auburn, Kansas, Kentucky and Purdue — are obvious title contenders.

And on the NCAA championship futures board at Circa Sports, none of these 17 teams should be counted out from Final Four consideration: Texas Tech (18-1), UCLA (22-1), Villanova (24-1), Houston (25-1), Illinois (34-1), Tennessee (37-1), Arkansas (55-1), Ohio State (58-1), Wisconsin (60-1), Texas (64-1), USC (71-1), Alabama (77-1), Connecticut (84-1), Michigan (84-1), Iowa (89-1), LSU (100-1) and Providence (110-1).

Not on that list are Murray State and South Dakota State, teams which ran the regular-season table in small conferences. The Racers and Jackrabbits could be first-weekend Cinderella teams that reach the Sweet 16, but they have conference tournaments to deal with first.

When the heavyweight class was almost entirely wiped out last weekend, no major adjustments in power ratings were needed and there was only a minor shuffling at the top of the poll.

“After Saturday, you are not going to adjust too much,” Magliulo said. “Those teams were all on the road and taking the opponents’ best shot. Home-court advantage is back and it’s back in a big way. I don’t adjust too much off those games because that would be an overreaction.”

While carnage grabbed the headlines, a spectacular performance by Duke slipped under the radar, something that rarely happens. The Blue Devils also were on the road, as 7.5-point favorites against Syracuse, and rolled 97-72.

“I have upgraded Duke,” Magliulo said. “They are as good as anybody. They are loaded and playing their best basketball now.”

The Blue Devils sit No. 5 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings (Kenpom.com) behind Gonzaga, Kentucky, Baylor and Arizona. Duke, with a 25-4 record, has lost three ACC games by a total of four points and is 8-2 in true road games, with narrow losses at Florida State and Ohio State.

In Gonzaga’s surprisingly lame showing at Saint Mary’s, star big men Drew Timme and Chet Holmgren were ineffective and sleepwalking from start to finish. It showed the Zags are far from invincible, but everyone should have already known that.

On a neutral court in Las Vegas in November, Duke was an 8-point underdog in an 84-81 victory over Gonzaga. A week later, the Zags took a 91-82 loss to Alabama on a semi-neutral court in Seattle. Those losses made me wonder why Gonzaga is the clear NCAA title favorite, a status many bettors and media analysts have accepted as fact all along.

This is critical analysis and not a rip job on the Zags, who I still rate as a top-five team. Gonzaga assumed the No. 1 spot because it crushed weak teams in the West Coast Conference while major-conference teams took losses in January and February. The Zags did not face a ranked opponent in a true road game until they ran into Saint Mary’s.

The bottom line, in my view, is Duke is just as good or better than Gonzaga. One team is + 350 to win the title and the other is 12-1.

When Krzyzewski coaches his final home game Saturday against North Carolina, the Coach K lovefest will be on full display. The Blue Devils are a good bet at -125 to win the ACC tournament in Brooklyn, and it would be stunning if they don’t get a favorable draw from the NCAA selection committee.

Duke is definitely a threat to finish the season in New Orleans, love it or hate it.

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