The 2016 NCAA Tournament field has been set, and we now know the path for Duke.
The Blue Devils begin the big dance by facing UNC Wilmington, in a 4 vs. 13 seed matchup. The Seahawks reached the tournament as the champions of the Colonial Athletic Association.
Duke finds itself in the West Region, which, at first glance, appears to offer a realistic opportunity for Mike Krzyzewski and his team to make a deep postseason run.
Of all the regions, this one likely gives the Blue Devils the chance to avoid the teams that would have presented some of the most difficult matchups.
If the seeds hold (a huge assumption given the inconsistency of the top teams in college basketball all season), Duke’s path to the Final Four would include games against No. 5 seed Baylor, No. 1 seed Oregon, and No. 2 seed Oklahoma.
Duke has to bring a strong effort to avoid being upset by a UNC Wilmington team that’s won 4 straight, but if it can reach the 2nd round, it’d play a Baylor team that’s lost 3 of its past 4 games as it enters the tournament.
The Blue Devils would have their hands full with Baylor on the glass as Scott Drew’s squad is one of the best rebounding teams in the country, but I’d say there’s a significant coaching advantage between those two programs.
A potential Sweet 16 matchup for Duke would involve facing an Oregon team that could struggle with the unique pressure of being a No. 1 seed. Given the other No. 1 seed options of Kansas, UNC, and Virginia, Duke appears to be in the region with the most vulnerable top seed.
Then, there would be a potential Elite Eight showdown with Oklahoma to advance to the Final Four. It’s a guess to assume the Sooners will advance this far in the tournament, but we’ll stick with forecasting the toughest possible road for Duke.
Shutting down potential National Player of the Year Buddy Hield is much easier said than done, but that’s the type of matchup where the experience and leadership of Matt Jones could be huge for the Blue Devils. If Jones and Duke can contain Hield, Oklahoma is definitely beatable.
It’s still a long shot for Duke to be able to reach its second straight Final Four, especially with a short rotation and such a thin frontline, but it’s not a crazy possibility.
Though I’m not penciling the Blue Devils into the Final Four and making my hotel reservations in Houston just yet, I’m thinking about it much more now than I was a couple days ago.