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Bracket Noise: Major letdowns

Brad Evans
Yahoo Sports

Whether you're someone who houses disdainful or blissful feelings toward Duke, it's safe to assume you will strongly consider it a Final Four contender this season.

Why wouldn't you?

Hyped incessantly, usually hyperbolically, positive Duke spins are inescapable this time each year. Hey, it's understandable. Mike Krzyewzki is 69-20 in tournament games.

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Warning: Trusting Duke in your Final Four could lead to utter shock and horror
(US Presswire)
But before you project the Blue Devils to blaze a trail to Detroit, let's backtrack for a moment.

Odds are several participants in your office pool picked Duke to advance deep into the tournament last year. You remember. They're the ones who still watch reruns of "Melrose Place", shout "Show me the money!" humorously during fiscal meetings and bump Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" in the office parking lot at lunch. No matter how Duke has performed in current time, they invariably reflect on the Blue Devils' dynasty of the 90s – a decade they reached the Final Four five times, cutting down the nets twice – when filling out their pool sheets.

However, Duke's recent tourney runs haven't been synonymous with domination, but rather underachievement. Since 2002, Coach K's traveling band of McDonald's All-Americans (Based on the film evidence, quite literally) has advanced past the Sweet 16 only once in seven appearances. And over the past two years they haven't survived the first weekend. Those who've invested heavily have produced red-streaked brackets that resemble battle scenes from "Braveheart."

Pencil them into your Final Four again and tragedy will surely follow.

This year's Duke is nearly identical to 2008's underwhelming bunch. On paper, the guard-heavy right coast giants are an incredibly balanced team. They rank 11th in offensive and 14th in defensive efficiency ('08: 11th in offensive efficiency, 9th defensive). However, different from '08, they have attacked the glass with more ferocity, are slashing to the bucket with more conviction and have launched fewer threes.

But despite the improvements and their wondrous ACC tourney performance, the Blue Devils may still fall on their own pitch fork.

Because reaching the later rounds is matchup conditional, Duke likely won't outlast the first weekend. As seen in losses against Michigan, Clemson and North Carolina, when teams have clogged the paint, the Blue Devils have struggled. Strong interior squads have simply worn them down late in games. Also, adversaries that handle the press effectively and control tempo can frustrate Gerald Henderson and company by forcing contested threes in a half-court setting. Since they're only hitting 34.4 percent from long-range as a team (151st-best nationally), scoring can be elusive. Unless they maintain a frenetic pace or are unconscious from three, Duke will be bounced by either Texas or Villanova in the first three rounds.

Here are five other teams poised for major letdowns:

Bracket Busts
Team W/L Seed-Region RPI SOS
Oklahoma Sooners 27-5 2 – South 6 24
Starting Five: G – Willie Warren (14.7 ppg, 3.0 apg), G – Tony Crocker (9.6 ppg, 36.1 3PT%), G – Austin Johnson (8.8 ppg, 3.9 apg), F – Blake Griffin (21.9 ppg, 14.3 rpg), F – Taylor Griffin (9.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
Key Wins: Purdue (5), Utah (18), VCU (11), Tecas (16), at Oklahoma St. (8), at Texas A&M (6)
Key Losses: at Arkansas (8)
Why they tank: Most pundits would automatically assume having Superman, Blake Griffin, on the roster would make any team indestructible. But despite Griffin's monstrous offensive contributions – he has 26 double-doubles this year – the Sooners' wagon will break an axle before Detroit. Defensively, OU has performed marginally. On the season it ranks 46th in defensive efficiency and 304th in turnover percentage defense. In other words, Jeff Capel's club doesn't generate many extra possessions. Sure, their offensive execution could be described as generally tremendous, especially when Willie Warren and key bench marksman Cade Davis are tickling the twine from outside, but this is a squad that has looked stagnant at times away from Norman. Combine that with a home-heavy non-conference slate and the letdown potential swells. Younger Griffin may have an 'S' scrawled across his chest, but defensive inconsistency will ultimately be the Sooners' kryptonite.
Prediction: Sweet 16 loss to Syracuse
North Carolina 28-4 1 – South 3 20
Starting Five: G – Ty Lawson (15.9 ppg, 6.5 apg), G – Wayne Ellington (15.2 ppg, 39.5 3PT%), F – Danny Green (13.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg), F – Deon Thompson (11.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg), F- Tyler Hansbrough (21.4 ppg, 8.2 rpg)
Key Wins: Michigan St. (35), Clemson (24), at Florida St. (3), at Duke (14), Duke (8)
Key Losses: Boston College (7), at Maryland (3)
Why they tank: At the beginning of the season, metaphoric Psycho-T shrines were constructed by hardwood analysts from coast to coast. Many predicted the giant, unstoppable Heels would stomp on opponents in crushing style. However, Carolina's vulnerabilities have routinely been exposed. Offensively, Roy Williams' bunch is the most efficient team in the land. They've netted nearly 52 percent from inside the arc and 37.3 percent outside it. More impressively, they're interior aggressiveness has generated abundant free-throw opportunities, which they've converted at a 76.6 percent clip (11th-best in DI). However, teams who've controlled tempo by forcing a grind-it-out half-court game against them (e.g. Florida St. and Miami (FL)) have kept contests close. Outside of their offensive prowess, the Heels have occasionally fallen asleep at the wheel defensively. Their frenetic style has lead to easy transition buckets for opponents, indicative in their 88th-ranked effective field goal percentage defense (47.2). Carolina certainly has the talent and experience to reach Detroit, but its unsteady D could have supporters, and Coach Williams, saying "Daggumit" by the semifinals. Remember, since 2004, only one team with a defensive efficiency ranking outside the top 20 has advanced to the Final Four. Entering the Dance, UNC ranks 35th. Also of utmost importance is the health of ACC Player of the Year Ty Lawson. Without him, the Heels are very vulnerable.
Prediction: Sweet 16 loss to Gonzaga
UCLA 25-8 6 – East 33 61
Starting Five: G – Darren Collison (14.5 ppg, 4.9 apg), G – Jrue Holiday (8.5 ppg, 3.5:2.1 AST:TO), G/F – Josh Shipp (14.4 ppg, 50.5 FG%), F – Alfred Aboya (9.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg), F – Nikola Dragovic (9.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
Key Wins: Arizona (23), California (15), Washington (9), at California (4)
Key Losses: Michigan (3), Washington St. (1), at Arizona (12)
Why they tank: Watching this year's Bruins team has surely deepened John Wooden's wrinkles. Historically known for its incredible class of paint patrollers (e.g. Walton, Alcindor and Love) and stifling defense, UCLA has strayed away from its past identity. The Bruins are as highly efficient offensively as they are defensively deficient. Similar to Oklahoma, they have little difficulty putting the ball in the basket. Specifically, swingman Josh Shipp has spurred the nation's third-most efficient offense down the stretch averaging 19.3 points per game on an awesome 54.9 percent shooting since February 19. On defense, Ben Howland's squad has manufactured plenty of turnovers (15th in TO% D), but it has failed to routinely body-up defenders from any point on the floor. On the year, they rank 202nd in effective field goal percentage defense and 275th in three-point defense. If the Bruins can contest shots, there's hope for a deep run. But any stalwart defender with excellent three-point shooters will send UCLA back to SoCal pouting. VCU is exactly that type of team.
Prediction: First Round loss to VCU
Pittsburgh Panthers 28-4 1 – East 1 8
Starting Five: G – Jermaine Dixon (9.0 ppg, 31.4 3PT%), G – Levance Fields (10.7 ppg, 7.6 apg), F – Tyrell Biggs (6.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg), F – Sam Young (18.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg), F – DeJuan Blair (15.6 ppg, 12.2 rpg)
Key Wins: at Florida St. (8), Syracuse (18), West Virginia (11), at Connecticut (8), Connecticut (10), Marquette (15)
Key Losses: at Providence (8)
Why they tank: Although Jamie Dixon has constructed consistently talented clubs, the 500-pound gorilla continues to weigh heavily on his back. Historically, Pitt has reached darling status in the eyes of many during the regular season only to become a loathed derelict in the tourney. In the school's rich basketball history, not once has it surpassed the Sweet 16. Despite the gaudy record, poll accolades and high seeding, the Panthers might be unable to dodge failure again. Like North Carolina, Pitt's success was a result of an unmitigated offense. Trouncing schools by an average of 14.8 points per game, the nation's second-ranked offense has performed exceedingly well. Sam Young's slashing style mixed with DeJuan Blair's bruising mentality has been extremely difficult for top-quality enemies to cage (e.g. Connecticut). But at times the Panthers have played questionable defense. They coax limited turnovers (235th in TO% D) and rank 126th in three-point field-goal percentage defense. Pitt's 67.3 team free-throw percentage (228th) is also a concern. Once it advances into the deeper rounds, tight games could be decided by charity stripe performance. Also keep in mind, save wins at Florida State and UConn, the Panthers have not been particularly effective on the road. Most of their notable wins came at the Zoo. They will be a very tough team to eliminate, but based on their sketchy past, occasional defensive lapses and inability to create turnovers, Pitt could once again disappoint.
Prediction: Sweet 16 loss to Florida State
Marquette Golden Eagles 24-9 6 – West 34 48
Starting Five: G – Maurice Acker (2.9 ppg, 1.4 apg), G- Jerel McNeal (19.7 ppg, 40.2 3PT%), F – Wesley Matthews (18.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg), F – Lazar Hayward (16.1 ppg, 8.6 rpg), F – Dwight Burke (2.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg)
Key Wins: Wisconsin (3), Villanova 97), West Virginia (22)
Key Losses: Dayton (14), at Tennessee (12), at South Florida (1), at Villanova (18), at Pittsburgh (15)
Why they tank: Losing floor leader and premiere defender Dominic James to a fractured foot has crippled Marquette. Novice bracketeers will gravitate toward the Golden Eagles based on name, conference and record, but they are a very vulnerable team which could get tossed early by Cinderella. Stumbling down the stretch, Marquette enters tournament action dropping five of its last six. The 1.19 points per possession surrendered in those loses is appalling. More disturbing, even with James healthy for much of the season, Golden Eagles foes converted 35.0 percent from three (217th) and 50.1 percent closer to the bucket (252nd). Yes, senior guard Jerel McNeal is a very special scorer who regularly fills the stat sheet – he's totaled twenty 20-point games this year – but Marquette's inability to manufacture key stops will lead to its undoing. Don't be tempted. A potential second-round matchup against the athleticism and full-court press of Missouri is ominous.
Prediction: Second-round loss to Missouri

TOURNEY TIDBITS
Below are a handful of fast facts to help you construct the ultimate bracket.

Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell is 0-5 in tournament games
Duke is 11-2 in first and second round clashes since 2002, but 1-4 in the Sweet 16
Pittsburgh's all-time marks per round: 9-4 (Rd. 1), 4-5 (Rd. 2), 0-4 (Rd. 3)
Illinois has toppled a higher seed only once in its 26 tourney wins since '85
High-major conference win percentage since 2000: ACC (66.1%), Big 12 (62.1%), Big Ten (61.7%), Big East (60.3%), Pac-10 (59.8%), SEC (57.3%)