Every year I write a post as to why Duke will win the National Championship and then go ahead and pick them to win it all in our BroBible March Madness Bracket Challenge. Some years, it's easier than others — in 2010 I nailed it to a tee; in 2011, not so much. Is the 2012 campaign a long shot? Definitely, but it could still happen. Here's why I think they'll be cutting down the nets in New Orleans:
1. Because I'm a Duke Fan
This is my first reason every year and for good reason. If your team is a perennial powerhouse and you're not confidently picking them to win it all in at least one bracket, you're not going to have much fun watching your team try to advance each round of the tournament.
Watching Duke get manhandled by Carolina in Cameron a couple weekends ago reminded me of my freshman year in Durham. My friends and I were in Tent 87 for the big Duke-Carolina game. A friend went to Wal-Mart and bought an arcade mini-basketball game, with two side-by-side hoops, to help us pass the time while we were tenting. Shane Battier, my all-time favorite Duke player, showed up one day, ESPN cameras in tow, to try his hand at the game. A few days later, as I walked into Cameron toward the bleachers, I gave Battier a fist pump of encouragement, which he returned with a nod of understanding. These guys know it's the biggest game of the year. They know we've been sleeping out in the cold and rain, under flimsy tents, for upwards of six weeks. They know they can't lose. So what happened? Duke lost. And Battier even committed a silly foul in the final seconds that sealed the two-point win for the Tar Heels.
I was reminded (unfortunately) of that gut-wrenching experience a couple Saturdays ago, but it got me thinking: Can 2012 be like 2001? Can they turn the feeling of this loss into a National Championship? Granted, Battier, Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, and Chris Duhon are not on this team. None of this year's players would likely start on that championship squad, including Austin Rivers. But can the revenge factor of losing the ultimate heartbreaker play any role here? Can it at least give Duke fans hope that there's a chance to win the whole damn thing? That's what I'm banking on, especially because Carolina has a great shot of making it to the Finals, and we all want that revenge game that we didn't get in Charlotte this past Sunday.
2. Because We're Due to Shoot Lights Out in a Few Big Games
Live by the three, die by the three. It's the same story every year, and I can barely remember the last time that all of Duke's shooters caught fire from behind the arc, all at once. And I'm not just talking about Seth Curry and Rivers. Andre Dawkins, in fact, has shot at a higher percentage this year (39.8%) than both of them, and Ryan Kelly has shot even better (40.8%), albeit with considerably less attempts. And don't forget Tyler Thornton and Quinn Cook, who can both hit big threes when needed. If Duke can get two out of their top 3-point shooters hot in the same game, watch out. Three or more, and it's game over.
Will it happen? Maybe. My biggest problem with this team, as with most Duke teams, is that when they're not shooting the three well early, they dig themselves a hole, and then try to climb out of it by shooting — and ultimately missing — lots of threes. Usually bad ones. And typically in the final minutes of the game. I'd prefer if they change up their strategy, drive to the hoop, not get desperate, and only take the long-range shots that are wide open. Austin Rivers kills me the most on this: If there's anyone who should be passing up contested threes in order to drive to the hoop, it's him.
Still, I've got to have faith that at some point in this Tournament these guys catch fire. Let's just hope that starts in the Elite 8.
3. Because Austin Rivers Has Something to Prove
Speaking of Doc's son, you just get this feeling that he's about to put the team on his back and carry them through these brackets. I think part of it was watching Kyrie Irving's experience last year — the one-and-done freshman point guard could have led the 2010-2011 squad to the title game if he hadn't gotten injured in December and pretty much blown his season. (He came back in time for the tournament, but just wasn't ready. Of course, eight months later, when the NBA lockout finally lifted, guess what, Irving was plenty ready to lead his Cavs team to big wins.) I don't think Austin Rivers will jump to the NBA this year; I don't think he's had a good enough freshman season and, as most observers argue, it's not like he really needs to go get cash, considering who his father is. (Doc is surely telling him to stay.) And yet I think Austin has a lot to prove this tournament. I think he wants to be in consideration for the First-Team All-American squad next season, and ultimately a lottery pick in 2013, and the campaign for those honors start now. As I mentioned above, Rivers needs to think about driving to the hoop more than he does taking tough threes. When he's open, take 'em. Otherwise, get creative.
Ultimately, why I trust and am counting on Rivers is because he's not afraid to win a game for this team. Final seconds of a lose-and-your-out Sweet 16 game against UNLV, and he's no LeBron James. This is the guy I want with the ball:
4. Because the Defense is Weak, but the Guys Are Fresh
Defense is this team's Achilles heel, and everyone knows it. I certainly won't sugarcoat over it. But here's the thing. These guys aren't exhausted heading into the tournament as they have been in previous years. Coach K has gone very deep into his bench this season — on occasion nine or 10 deep — and the guys have an energy that a lot of other teams (and previous Duke squads) won't. Al Featherston wrote a great column about this "spent factor" for Duke Basketball Report this week. Here was the most encouraging part, which includes a comparison to the 2008 squad, which had the same record as this year's team heading into the tournament, also nabbed a #2 seed, but lost in the second round:
The Duke team I watched in Charlotte [last week] is — despite the injury to Ryan Kelly – in much better physical shape than the ’08 Blue Devils. The game Duke played against Florida State was a classic ACC Tournament game. The two teams competed with a ferocity that was mesmerizing from courtside. Duke lost, but the Devils lost to a physically imposing team that was playing very, very well (as the 'Noles proved by beating North Carolina one day later).
You have to understand how good Florida State can be. It’s easy to underestimate them because there are times when their offensive inexplicably disappears. They lost some bad games early and one inexplicable game in February (at Boston College). But at their peak — and the 'Noles were definitely at their peak in Charlotte — they match up with anyone. They have imposing size, great athleticism, two senior guards and two more veteran guards with even more talent. Plus, they have considerable experience – every player who plays was a member of last year’s Sweet 16 team (that came within an overtime loss of going to the Elite Eight).
It was impressive, not discouraging, that Duke battled them to the wire on a day when the Blue Devils did not shoot well. The conventional wisdom is that Duke has to make 3-pointers to beat a top team. But Duke made just five 3-pointers against the 'Noles and still came down to the final second with a chance to win or tie. The Blue Devils didn’t blow that game — Florida State won it.
That’s why Mike Krzyzewski was so upbeat on the podium after the game. You could see his pride in his team’s performance … and the confidence that gives him going forward.
5. Because When Coach K is Happy, I'm Happy
I wouldn't trade a confident Coach K for any other player or coach in the country. Let's do this. Duke over Carolina, 82-77, for the national title … and a whole lot of revenge.
Check out Reggie Noble's take on whether or not his Michigan State Spartans will win the championship. And don't forget to sign up for our Bracket Challenge before 11:55 a.m. ET!