GELFAND: Bettors, Bracket Fillers Should Regret Picking Duke in the NCAA Tournament

Photo Credit: Bob Donnan (USA Today Sports)

By now, you are either aware of how fortunate Duke is to still be in contention for the NCAA hoops title, or you are sipping Soylent in an underground bunker while waiting for a conjugal visit from Pamela Anderson. In other words, you are beyond pity.

You do, however, meet all pity requirements if you took a stab on some wild long shot, such as Murray State or, ahem, Minnesota.

By many measures, the chalk is flying as never before. All one, two and three seeds are alive going into the Sweet 16, which makes this the most chalkful tournament of all time (tied with the 2009 event).

But one of the shakiest teams of all is the one picked to win the whole thing: Duke. The Blue Devils are precisely the kind of team that you don’t want right now. Which in no way implies I avoided the temptation. Hell, I’m so myopic that even my hindsight isn’t 20-20, but even I can see where I went wrong.

Yes, March Madness had become Zion Zaniness, and it was difficult to avoid the temptation of his violent and yet graceful charm. Watching him play this year filled many a lonely night and, in any event, was far more alluring than a visit from Pamela Anderson.

The problem here is that, according to ESPN, about 38 percent of everyone who filled out a bracket put the Blue Devils on top. As a guy who will occasionally proffer a wager, I probably should have worried about Duke’s failure to exceed expectations this year. This I glean from gambling stats, which show that vs. the spread, Duke was entirely mediocre all year, covering at a 50 percent clip. (Just like another mediocre team, namely the one that claims to represent my maroon and gold alma mater.)

But Duke was the most seductive of all the suitors. So even if Duke starts hinting at its potential, you’re still in a battle with lots of other combatants if you hope to win it all. Now that it’s too late, I can see that the value was always Virginia, even though it had the best record (tied with North Carolina) in the best conference this year. It seems that so many people felt betrayed after Virginia’s shocking first found exit last year that burned bettors wanted no part of them this year. Get this: Virginia covered more than 70 percent of its games — best in the country. But even though the Cavs were Number One in the NCAA’s NET rankings, just 8 percent of the bracket crowd circled them to go all the way.

And now it seems that this might be the year of the Cavaliers. They’ve got the easiest game on the board this week; they’re favored by 8 1/2 over Oregon, a 12-seed and the only team left that qualifies as a (zzzzz) Cinderella. In fact, none of the other 15 remaining teams is worse than a five-seed (and just one of those, Auburn).

Having said all of that, however, I wouldn’t want to leave you without hope. Duke might not be the value team, but I can think of one simple way they can not only polish off Virginia Tech on Thursday, but win a far more ominous challenge from either Michigan State or LSU on Sunday. And all Duke has to do is not miss so many three-point attempts.

Don’t laugh. Or grin, or smirk. When experts talk about Duke’s weaknesses, or toss around inane clich├ęs such as “Duke was exposed by Central Florida,” you can be sure you’re going to hear all about how pathetic the Blue Devils are from beyond the arc. While Virginia was knocking down 40.2 percent of its threes this season, Duke was hitting just 30 percent of its attempts. Improve that percentage a bit and Duke looks a lot better.

Only problem being that I don’t know whether Duke’s elder statesman, Mike Krzyzewski, is up to the task. Earlier this year, Coach K allowed Jack White to miss 25 straight three-point attempts before he finally pulled White from the lineup. And now, Krzyzewski is allowing (don’t blame the messenger) Tre Jones to damned near shoot Duke out of the tournament.

After the first two tournament games, Jones was 1-for-10 from the trifecta zone, and it’s not a fluke. For the year, Jones is hitting just 23 percent. He’s so bad, in fact, that it looks like his Timberwolves brother, Tyus, is working with him. Cheap shot? Well, that’s another conversation.

Now, it’s not like Duke can win without Jones. He’s an exceptional defender, an elite point guard, and happens to be a master of the declining art of the mid-range jumper. But if he’s not curtailed, Duke will be doomed.

Yes, I took Duke to win it all. (I bet North Carolina at 10-1 in the futures book.) But I admit that as I gaze at my keyboard, I’m wishing I could repeal and replace my brackets. If you hurry, you can probably get +475 on Virginia to win the title, which strikes me as far more value than +300 on Duke.

And yet the winner of your company pool might be the person who didn’t pick a single upset. Trouble being that if Duke does win the championship game, you could be sharing that prize with the actuary on the 14th floor, half the sales department and more than a few MOTOs, AKA Masters Of The Obvious.

Sure, I’m contemptuous. I tried to sneak a six-seed, Buffalo, into the Sweet 16 and I did it for the worst possible reason: I had seen the Bulls play a few times this year and was impressed. Here’s a hint I have to re-learn about ever six years: don’t pay attention to anything you see. Because, to paraphrase the great bard Jackson Browne, it’s more than likely that what you were seeing wasn’t happening at all.

On that existential note, enjoy the tournament but don’t get your hopes up. Sanity has prevailed. March was mundane, and April may well be anodyne. I already replaced the Soylent with something I can taste. Namely, defeat.


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