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The opening weekend of the NCAA tournament featured a glaring lack of surprise. Every team seeded first, second or third advanced to the Sweet 16, along with two No. 4s, one No. 5 and one No. 12, but even that on-paper Cinderella, Oregon, comes from a power-five conference. Chalk may have reigned supreme in the first two rounds of the tournament, but we’re still getting our fair share of overreaction from what we saw this weekend, the most ridiculous of which concerns the monumental upset that wasn’t in Columbia, S.C., on Sunday.
Duke escaped its second-round matchup against UCF with a 77-76 win, outscoring the Knights 7-2 in the final two minutes of the game to keep its national title hopes alive. Listen to the "experts" and you’d think those hopes have evaporated, even though the Blue Devils are still dancing. They want you to believe that, yes, Duke may have won the battle, but UCF will help someone else win the war. You see, the Knights exposed some fatal flaw in this Duke team, and now Virginia Tech or Michigan State or some other team in the Final Four will finish off what UCF started.
This is ludicrous. Could UCF have upset Duke? Yes. Would the Knights have done so if not for a failed alley-oop that would have put them up six with less than two minutes remaining? It’s likely. Is Duke now doomed? Not by a long shot.
To be clear, I am not picking Duke to cut down the nets in Minneapolis. I picked North Carolina to win the championship at the outset, and nothing that happened in the first weekend of the tournament changed my mind. Still, the notion that Duke is in serious trouble because it almost lost in the second round must be curbed.
UCF had a smartly conceived gameplan, and executed it to perfection. The Knights crowded the lane, cut off Duke’s driving paths to the basket and dared the Blue Devils to beat them from the outside, the team’s one fatal flaw. For all its lottery-pick talent, Duke is a poor shooting team that ranks 329th in the country in three-point percentage. The Blue Devils, however, are fourth in two-point percentage, 14th in offensive-rebounding rate, and 18th in adjusted tempo. Get back in transition, pack the paint, and you can take some of the efficiency out of Duke’s offense. That's exactly what UCF did, and it nearly helped them get to the Sweet 16.
There are two significant problems with any other team picking up where UCF left off. First, it’s not like this was some secret that the Knights uncovered. We’ve known about the Blue Devils’ inability to score from deep all season, and yet Gonzaga remains the only team to beat them at full strength. Second, UCF is uniquely suited to execute this gameplan. Something about having a 7’6” center makes it a whole lot easier to pack the lane and force Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and the rest of the Blue Devils into uncomfortable situations. There isn’t a Tacko Fall on Virginia Tech’s roster, nor on any of the other teams Duke could play should it get past the Hokies in the Sweet 16. Those teams may want to play the way UCF did, but it will be easier said than done.
This narrative also willfully ignores two other major factors from UCF’s near bracket-busting win. Despite everything the Knights did defensively, the Blue Devils still scored 1.13 points per possession and made 10 of their 25 attempts from behind the arc. Additionally, they wouldn’t have been anywhere close to the upset without a singular effort from Aubrey Dawkins on the offensive end. Dawkins scored 32 points on 12-of-18 shooting, including 5 for 7 from distance. His tip at the buzzer that somehow didn’t fall is the indelible image from the game, but his performance on the offensive end was an even more necessary element of UCF nearly toppling Duke than the Knights’ defensive gameplan.
Is Duke vulnerable? Sure. But what team isn’t when just 15 others remain, especially in this year’s tournament where all the best teams in the country made it out of the first weekend?
The Blue Devils almost went home in the second round, but you better believe they're still one of the favorites to win the national championship.
• These are the 10 biggest lessons we've learned about this year's NCAA tournament. (By Molly Geary)
• Because we all deserve a second chance, our writers repicked their brackets for the Sweet 16.
• In a tournament devoid of Cinderellas, Virginia might be Prince Charming. (By Charles Pierce)
• Kenny Wooten's highlight-reel blocks have defined the Ducks' surprise Sweet 16 run, and he still has so far to go. (By Chris Ballard)
• Monday's newsletter: It's a bad year to be Cinderella, but that's left us with a loaded Sweet 16. (By Jeremy Woo)
Best Thing We Saw
I spent the first weekend of the tournament covering games in Columbus, where North Carolina and Tennessee emerged from their respective pods to reach the Sweet 16. The best thing I saw, however, concerned one of the teams that lost. Iowa fell behind Tennessee by 25 points in the first half of their second-round matchup, and trailed by 21 at halftime. They could have gone quietly into the offseason, but instead rallied and forced overtime after spending most of the game trailing a national title contender by double digits. Their comeback ultimately fell short, but it typified what we expect of March Madness. It also produced one of my favorite stats of this tournament.
This has to be about the national championship, right? I picked North Carolina over Duke at the start of the tournament, and that’s what I’m sticking with. What I love about the Tar Heels, and why I picked them to win it all on Selection Sunday, is the diversity of their offense. They can beat teams in so many different ways, and they do it in truly unique fashion thanks to their breakneck, yet controlled, pace. I’ll look deeper into the crystal ball and say that Cam Johnson will be this year’s Most Outstanding Player.
At the Buzzer
Just try and tell us this isn’t the perfect way to end a basketball practice. Watch a clip of UNC's dunk contest here.