I used to start every Monday morning after the NCAA Tournament field was announced the same way — running downstairs, ripping the bracket from the newspaper, and filling it out at school.
I can recall many champions I picked (favorites include ’98 Kentucky, ’02 Maryland, ’03 Syracuse, ’11 UConn), some that fell just short (’93 Michigan, ’08 Memphis, ’15 Wisconsin, ’16 North Carolina), some I don’t remember, and some I wish I didn’t remember (’13 Indiana, ’17 UCLA).
But in more than 20-something years, I have never chosen Duke to win the championship. The thought of Christian Laettner cutting down another net made me nauseous. When Jason Williams slapped the floor, I wanted to slap his face.
The hatred grew when my sister, then I, attended Maryland, and watched one of the sport’s best rivalries — albeit one-sided — routinely cause riots on Route 1 in College Park.
When I entered this field, the animosity soon faded, but the Blue Devils were always a popular choice, and it still felt like picking the iceberg against the Titanic.
But, now, the time has come. After watching Coach K win five titles, I’m betting on the most talented team in the nation giving him another.
Really, nothing has changed since the beginning of the season. At their best, the Blue Devils are better than any team in the country, and the young roster has been its strongest in the past month.
With five soon-to-be first-round draft picks, and incredible athleticism, Duke can win in so many ways. It can be inside, with its incomparable, and imposing, frontline, featuring 6-foot-11 ACC player of the year Marvin Bagley III, and 6-foot-10 Wendell Carter Jr. It can be outside, with Gary Trent Jr. and Grayson Allen, who combined to hit 39.4 percent of their 3-pointers.
It can be with their recently implemented zone defense, which allowed 60.1 points over their final eight games — all against teams which made the NCAA Tournament, or were on the bubble — and it can be on the glass, as the fourth-best rebounding team in the country.
Duke has the third-most efficient offense in the nation, and the seventh-most efficient defense, with Michigan State the only other team to rank in the top 10 in both categories. When they meet in Sweet 16, the Spartans will have the edge in depth, but little else. Michigan State went 2-4 against NCAA Tournament teams this season, and Tom Izzo is 1-12 lifetime against Mike Krzyzewski.
Recent bias from their ACC Tournament loss has made Duke less popular than when it won the conference tournament last year — and then bowed out in the first weekend — but none of the past four national champions have won their conference tournament.
The Blue Devils have flaws — depth, turnovers, feeding Bagley enough — but the other contenders’ faults will be fatal.
Virginia is under the greatest pressure after multiple failed runs, and doesn’t produce enough easy scoring opportunities. Villanova will be doomed by its overreliance on the 3, and fall in the second round for the fourth time in five years. Kansas has the seed of past years, but not the ceiling. Fellow No. 1 seed Xavier is the fourth-best team in its region, and North Carolina has lost too many key pieces after two straight championship game appearances.
There will be numerous early upsets, with none more entertaining than Davidson, riding their run to the Atlantic 10 title, handing John Calipari his first first-round loss at Kentucky. No. 12 New Mexico State — which already defeated Miami — will reach the Sweet 16 after winning a rock fight with Clemson, and strangling slumping Auburn.
Purdue will take its incredible offense on an easy road to its first Final Four since 1980. The Cavaliers will return for the first time since 1984, but lose to an incredibly balanced, and overlooked Gonzaga, slept on again while everyone back East was in bed.
In the title game, the Zags will fall to an ACC blue blood again, and Coach K will win his second title in four years with Allen — known as the reason Duke won the 2015 title before he became the school’s latest villain — and another freshmen-led group.
Looking back, I should have picked them more. Even if they lose, you’ll feel like you won.