After Duke's heartbreaking loss to Syracuse, many people were quick to put Duke in the National Championship conversation. Duke showed great determination, dealing with many difficult situations while finding a way to keep the game close. While they ultimately lost the game, it was a great showing from Duke and they proved that they can perform on one of the biggest stages in the country. A Duke team that seemed on the ropes at the beginning of conference play has began to enter into the championship conversation. Duke is one of the top teams in the country, but can they win a National Championship?
Statistically, the answer is mixed but appears to be yes. Based on rankings by KenPom, Duke is currently ranked third in the country. They are just 0.001 points behind second ranked Syracuse and top ranked Arizona has become unproven with the season ending injury to Brandon Ashley. Offensively, Duke is ranked first in the county by KenPom, and by a pretty wide margin. Creighton is the only team close to them, followed by a big gap to the third ranked offense, Michigan. Their top ranked offense was on full display against Syracuse, as they efficiently scored on a Syracuse's top twenty ranked defense by KenPom.
While their offense is ranked incredibly well, for good reason, their defense leaves much to be desired. It is currently ranked 85th in the country by KenPom, surrounded by teams like Maryland, Purdue and Georgia Tech. Over the last ten years, there has only been one Final Four team ranked outside of the top 50 in defense. That team was VCU in 2011, who made it to the Final Four due to their pressure defense. Duke's defensive ranking had been improving of late, before it dropped again after the Syracuse game, but improvements can and likely will be made to their ranking as the season goes on. It remains to be seen if Duke will ever break into the top 50 on defense, but their top rated offense may be enough for Duke to win a National Championship.
Duke's defensive numbers are not impressive, but overall, they are a Championship level team. Although they have the worst defense of teams in the top thirty of KenPom's rankings, their offense has been dominant enough to land Duke in third overall. They may be forced to rely on their offense more than other teams in the same situation, but their offense is better equipped to handle difficult situations. Duke will need to continue improving their defense, without harming their top rated offense, but they are definitely a contender in the NCAA tournament.
Based on the eye test, Duke definitely proved themselves as a contender this week. Pittsburgh may be overrated, as they have failed to win any big games this season, but it was still an impressive Duke win on the road. As mentioned before, their game at Syracuse only added to Championship sentiments, despite the loss. Duke is still not a finished product, with many things they will continue to improve on as the season progresses. If Duke continues to stay motivated and push to become a great team, I have little doubt they will get there. Match ups and luck may determine their ultimate fate in the NCAA Tournament, but Duke has proven they are one of the teams with a real chance to win the Championship.