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Bracket Lames: Dance with Duke and prepare to get burned

Brad Evans
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Its head coach is a living legend. Its reputation as an elite program is infallible. And its list of postseason records and accomplishments are downright gaudy:

  • 27 NCAA tournament appearances, 17 straight
  • 16 No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 seeds
  • Won 77.5 percent of tourney games
  • 11 Final Four berths
  • 4 national titles

Without question, love it or hate it, Duke is one of college basketball's most feared goliaths.

However, this year, David isn't shivering in his boots.

The Blue Devils are an oxymoron. Despite ranking No. 1 nationally in effective height, they are the antithesis of interior-oriented. Yes, brother bigs Mason and Mile Plumlee have at times skied over the competition. Against Maryland the tandem totaled a whopping 29 points and 32 rebounds. When they've avoided whistles, controlled the glass, bodied up in the box and contributed sound offensive numbers, Duke, as a whole, has played like a legitimate national title contender. In each of its 13 RPI top-100 wins, the siblings contributed soundly. Conversely, when off, the Devils have become overly trigger-happy, relying almost exclusively on a "Live by the three, die by the three" mentality.

On occasion, the arc bombardment has proven effective. Duke, no surprise, is 8-0 when netting over 46-percent from distance. But in other instances, as seen in its downfall at home against Miami a few weeks ago, the three-point barrage has led to catastrophic failures. Against the Hurricanes, the Devils converted a lowly 9-of-31 attempts from downtown. Unsurprisingly, the Plumlees also underperformed in that game, finishing with eight points, 17 rebounds and seven fouls.

Getting third-leading scorer Ryan Kelly healthy — he's currently dealing with a sprained right foot — along with striking an inside-outside balance are imperative for the Devils' postseason success. Absent synergy will lead to broken dreams and a red-slash on your bracket sheet.

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Their dastardly defense will too.

Duke's perimeter marksmanship has masked crippling defensive flaws. Entering the Dance it ranks 66th in defensive efficiency, its worst mark in the KenPom era and, if the data was tracked beyond 2000, possibly ever on Coach K's watch. Based on the historical performance of similar teams in the tournament, a rather grim picture is painted. Since 2003, a stunning 85.2 percent of single-digit seeds with D-efficiency rankings above 60 failed to reach the Sweet 16. In fact, of the 54 qualifying teams, only Marquette in '03 and Arizona last year advanced to the Elite Eight. It makes sense. Teams that steadfastly contest shots are almost always within striking distance. Those that don't are one brick-laying night away from a long, bitter offseason.

Minus adequate front-court depth, the Devils surrender numerous high-percentage shots down low. As a result, opponents have netted 47.7 percent from two. Betty White could score against them off the dribble. Though it's shown defensive improvement of late, Tyler Thornton especially, Duke's exploitable lanes and open looks are simply too high in number.

The Devils' weakness in the paint has also gifted foes ample second chance opportunities and a fair amount of free-throw attempts. The regular season finale/bloodletting versus North Carolina was a prime example. Overall, the Devils check in at No. 184 in defensive rebound percentage. Basically, attack the rim against Duke and you will be rewarded.

Bottom line: The Devils would make a strong frontcourt look heavenly.

Expect Notre Dame to soon sit on Cloud Nine.

The Irish were supposed to be bottom feeders in the Big East this season, especially after losing it's offensive leader Tim Abromaitis to injury in November. But Mike Brey's bunch absorbed the impact, righted the ship and finished as the third-best team in its conference.

Notre Dame isn't the strongest interior squad, but it shares the sugar extremely well and rarely commits turnovers. Most importantly, defensively, it's rather inflexible along the perimeter. Opponents have netted just 31-percent against the Golden Domers this year. If they bring their 'A' game on D and control tempo, Duke will become an early round casualty. Keep in mind, a No. 2 seed hasn't survived the first weekend in 23 of 27 tournaments during the expansion era (since 1985).

Obviously, if snipers Andre Dawkins, Seth Curry and Austin Rivers are drilling shots with regularity from Bermuda, Duke will again make a deep run. The trey, after all, is the game's great neutralizer. But, if not, and obtuse brackteers who dance with these Devils are bound to feel blue.

Here are five additional favorites that could bomb:

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SYRACUSE ORANGE — 31-2, 1 seed - East Region, 11-2 vs. RPI top-50, 22 SOS

Why they fail: Top-to-bottom this year's Orange is the deepest team Jim Boeheim has had in his 36 years calling shots in Western (Central) New York. In total, 10 players average at least 10 minutes per game. That depth combined with the 'Cuse's outstanding execution in transition, balanced scoring, overall length and suffocating 2-3 zone makes it a title frontrunner. However, it's not without weaknesses. The Orange ranks 341 out of 345 D-I schools in defensive rebound percentage, an astonishing revelation considering they are one of the nation's tallest teams. That lack of interior toughness could lead to the 'Cuse's demise, especially if matched against an opponent active on the offensive glass. A potential Round 3 matchup with Kansas St. presents such a problem. The Wildcats are the nation's seventh-best offensive rebounding club. If Fab Melo gets into foul trouble or struggles neutralizing the fearsome threesome of Jamar Samuels, Jordan Henriquez and Thomas Gipson, the Orange will get squeezed. Buyer beware.

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MICHIGAN ST. SPARTANS — 27-7, 1 seed - West Region, 11-5 vs. RPI top-50, 1 SOS

Why they fail: Unsurprisingly, the Spartans are peaking at the right time, practically a yearly occurrence during Tom Izzo's tenure in East Lansing. Winners of its final nine of 11 regular season games in the nation's preeminent conference, the Big Ten, Sparty is white-hot entering the Dance. The prize-fighter mentality instilled by Izzo makes MSU the toughest team in the country. It's one of four schools that rank in the top-15 in offensive and defensive efficiency. Much like its on-court leader, Swiss Army Knife forward Draymond Green, the Spartans are versatile, interiorly strong and relentless on defense. They aren't the best three-point shooting team around and the loss of freshman enforcer Brendan Dawson hurts, but if Keith Appling can continue to elevate his game along with key bench contributors Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, the pair played great in the Big Ten tourney, the Spartans will again end up in a familiar setting, the Final Four. However, MSU's potential Round 3 matchup with Memphis is a nightmare. The Tigers, arguably the most under-seeded team in the tournament, enters the Dance sizzling. Their athleticism and effectiveness inside and out are worrisome for Izzo.

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MISSOURI TIGERS — 30-4, 2 seed - West Region, 11-3 vs. RPI top-50, 69 SOS

Why they fail: Experts and casual fans alike have compared this year's Mizzou squad to the unforgettable Illinois team from 2005. Slashing, lightning-quick, relentless from three, very experienced, yet relatively undersized, the Tigers are a guard-heavy squad that can pile up points quickly. On the season they've netted 1.25 points per possession, tops in college basketball. However, they're a bit suspect on the opposite end, a consequence of its lack of interior brawn. Opponents have converted nearly 48 percent of their shots from inside the arc. Overall, Mizzou check in at 75th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Kansas St, which toppled the Tigers twice, exploited their weakness in the paint. Florida or Virginia are far from intimidating, but a possible Sweet 16 tussle with Marquette could give Marcus Denmon and company headaches. The Eagles' slashing, attacking style and aggressiveness on the glass presents an unfavorable matchup. Yes, drilling threes can overcome even the most adverse situations, but Marquette's length and athleticism could prove problematic for the interior soft Tigers.

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BAYLOR BEARS — 26-7, 3 seed - South Region, 9-7 vs. RPI top-50, 10 SOS

Why they fail: Despite having a wealth of natural talent and athleticism, the Bears are a difficult team to grasp. On paper, its peripheral profile is quite impressive. Baylor ranks in the top 30 in several important categories including offensive/defensive efficiency, offensive rebound-percentage, three-point percentage and free-throw percentage. However, it has played very poorly against high-level competition, indicative in blowout losses to Kansas and Missouri. In many ways, this team goes the way Perry Jones III goes. When he wakes up on the right side of the bed, like he did during the Big 12 tournament, Baylor is a force. When he falls onto the floor, it's a farce. At first glance, the Bears, through sheer athleticism, should run opening round opponent South Dakota St. out of the gym. But the Jackrabbits are a rascally group that's careful with the basketball and lethal from three. On the year, they've cashed nearly 40-percent from downtown. If Baylor, which ranks 154th in three-point percentage D, doesn't step out to defend the trey, it will get caged.

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INDIANA HOOSIERS — 25-8, 4 seed - South Region, 8-5 vs. RPI top-50, 27 SOS

Why they fail: The Hoosiers, one of this year's biggest surprises, were poll staples throughout the season. Wins against Kentucky and Ohio St. propelled it again into the national spotlight. Freshman stud Cody Zeller, the school's leading scorer, is a force in the middle, kicking in 15.5 points and 6.4 boards per game. Christian Watford, Victor Oladipo and sharpshooter Jordan Hulls also average double-figures. Well-greased offensively, IU is one of the finest scoring machines in the field. Conversely, though, it pales in comparison defensively, ranking north of No. 110 nationally in effective field-goal, three-point and defensive rebound percentage. If Zeller can avoid pine time, the Hoosiers are dangerous, but its poor frontcourt depth, transparent defense and questionable play away from Bloomington makes it a possible early out. A disastrous misstep against New Mexico St. is a very real possibility. The Aggies, particularly forward Wendell McKines, clean up on the glass ranking fourth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. If Hulls scorches, IU is very tough to beat. But understand New Mexico St. has the interior brawn to contain Zeller. Tom Crean is already pacing.

TOURNEY TIDBITS

• No team that has lost its opening round conference tournament game has won the national title.

• Excluding 2009, at least one No. 2 seed has been eliminated in Round 2 every year since 1997.

• Thirteen 8/9 seeds have upended a No. 1 since 1985, including Northern Iowa's dismissal of Kansas two years ago.

• No. 5 seeds have lost 34-percent of its first-round matchups since '85

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