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There are 68 teams in the NCAA tournament field, but only one has three projected top-five picks in the 2019 NBA draft: Duke. The Blue Devils and Zion Williamson are the main attraction of this tournament, just as Kentucky was in 2015 when the Wildcats pursued an undefeated season. So who could be this year’s Notre Dame (who scared UK in the Elite Eight) or Wisconsin (who took down the Wildcats in the Final Four)? Here’s what lies ahead for the nation’s most talked-about team.
Cannon Fodder: NC Central/North Dakota State
Whichever squad wins Wednesday night’s play-in game will likely open as more than 20-point underdogs against the Blue Devils. NC Central coach LeVelle Moton put it best: “Some coaches will say, ‘We'll take on anyone. We'll be ready.’ But I don’t want any part of playing Duke. Us playing against Zion would be like my six-year-old son playing against me.”
Similar Duke opponent from the regular season: Eastern Michigan (84–46 Duke win)
The other game everyone will probably forget unless Zion does something cool: VCU or UCF
Duke’s potential second-round opponents are defense-first squads that will be in serious danger of falling behind early and struggling to catch up. Everyone knows Duke as a high-flying outfit with Williamson and R.J. Barrett providing numerous highlights, but the Blue Devils are also a stout defensive group, and point guard Tre Jones does his best work on that end of the floor. VCU’s full-court pressure could throw Jones off, but it’s worth noting he had just one turnover in his fifth collegiate game against a high-pressure Auburn squad. As for UCF’s main defensive weapon, 7'6" center Tacko Fall, he’ll be lucky to stay on the court. Despite starting in his team’s two games against Duke, 7'4" Florida State center Christ Koumadje played just 24 minutes. With Marques Bolden’s status still uncertain after he missed the ACC tournament with a sprained MCL, Duke might play small-ball lineups with Williamson at center.
Similar Duke opponent from the regular season: Clemson (87–68 Duke win)
Duke’s first high-major opponent: Virginia Tech or Mississippi State
First, there’s no guarantee these squads make it out of their first-round games against St. Louis and Liberty, respectively. Second, they’ll both probably lose to Duke. The Hokies beat Duke in their only matchup this season, but that happened in Blacksburg while the presumed No. 1 pick was still recovering from his MCL sprain (though to be fair, Justin Robinson was out for Virginia Tech as well).
The Bulldogs, on the other hand, would be getting their first crack at the Blue Devils. They’re heavily reliant on the scoring prowess of Quinndary Weatherspoon, whose brother Nick has been suspended since mid-February. The Bulldogs have struggled against elite competition this season, losing their four games against Kentucky and Tennessee by an average of 12.25 points per game.
Similar Duke opponent from the regular season (for Mississippi State, which hasn’t already played Duke): Auburn (78–72 Duke win)
A true challenger approaches: Michigan State
If anyone from LSU to Bradley steals the Spartans’ spot in the Elite Eight, the Blue Devils should feel great about their chances of making it to Minneapolis. Unlike the other 14 non-Duke teams in the East Region, the Spartans had a case for a No. 1 seed. They’re led by junior point guard Cassius Winston, the Big Ten Player of the Year, and feature an elite cast of role players in post behemoths Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman, three-point marksman Matt McQuaid, freshman Aaron Henry and stretch-four Kenny Goins.
Michigan State has the best assist rate in the country and shoots well from everywhere on the floor. With Ward and Tillman, the Spartans are unsurprisingly active on the offensive glass. Stoppers like McQuaid and Winston anchor their elite defense, which rarely ever fouls or forces turnovers but tanks opposing shooting percentages. They haven’t faced any team as talented as Duke, but they are battle-tested: kenpom ranks their strength of schedule as the third-hardest in the country.
Similar Duke opponent from the regular season: Virginia, only faster (72–70 and 81–71 Duke wins)
Possible Final Four foes: Gonzaga/Michigan/Texas Tech/Florida State
The West region has taken criticism as the weakest at the top with Gonzaga and Michigan as its 1 and 2 seeds, but Florida State, Buffalo and Murray State bring unparalleled depth. Any of the top four teams would be an imposing threat to Duke in the Final Four, where that Kentucky team famously lost to Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Wisconsin. The favorite is Gonzaga, the only team to defeat the Blue Devils this season with Williamson, Barrett, Jones and Cam Reddish all healthy. But the Zags are not alone. Michigan is an extremely efficient, low-possession outfit that could pull the upset. Texas Tech led Duke in the second half at Madison Square Garden in December before its offense disappeared, but the Red Raiders now boast the best defense in the country. Florida State has already played Duke close twice this season.
Similar Duke opponent from the regular season (for the only team that hasn’t played Duke already, Michigan): Virginia.
It could happen: North Carolina
Picking a single squad from the entire South and Midwest Regions is ambitious, but the Tar Heels are the most fun championship game opponent. The three Duke-UNC matchups this season have been among the most entertaining college basketball games this season. Their ACC tournament semifinal matchup, with Zion finally healthy after the shoeburst seen ‘round the world in the first matchup, was a wild, back-and-forth affair that culminated in college basketball’s biggest star making the game-winning play with less than 10 seconds left.
The Tobacco Road rivalry has everything this year. There are the headliners on both sides: Williamson and Barrett vs. Coby White and Luke Maye. Both teams play fun, up-tempo basketball with UNC ranking fifth in the country in pace and Duke at 18th (they rank first and third among tournament teams). A potential meeting for the national title would be the most anticipated college basketball game ... ever? It would also have a revenge narrative on both sides, as UNC looks to prove it can beat fully-powered Duke while the Blue Devils will be out to show that they only lost the first two games because Zion was hurt. Duke and North Carolina have never played against each other in the national title game before, but 2019 could be the year.