IS DUKE BASKETBALL A FLAWED FAVORITE?

Duke opened the college basketball season in a familiar role—that of favorite to win the national championship. The Blue Devils are a 7-2 bet to win the Final Four in Phoenix next April. Now let’s be clear—we would never suggest wagering a team at those odds on the futures market, at least not this far out. We do think it’s important to do careful analysis of Duke’s national championship chances though, in order to make a better assessment of whether there’s value further down the card.

Something else we would never do would be to encourage overreaction to one early loss, in this case Duke’s 75-71 defeat at Kansas that dropped the Blue Devils from the top of the polls, though not the Vegas markets. However, there were some signs of possible trouble in that defeat, the kind of trouble that has dogged the Devils of late.

Specially, it’s a lack of defense. Duke finished a woeful 86th in the country in defensive efficiency last year, a season that saw them end up as a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament and lose in the Sweet 16. By contrast, when the Blue Devils won the national championship in 2015, they ranked 12th in defensive efficiency.

Against Kansas, the Jayhawks were able to consistently get good looks from in close. Even though KU struggled from long-range, shooting just 2-for-17 from behind the arc, the Jayhawks still shot 50 percent from the floor overall. Duke was not able to prevent a good opponent from getting makeable shots and that’s been a pattern in any recent season where the Blue Devils failed to play up to their preseason billing.

That potentially dangerous defensive weakness is something one can glean from a simple analysis of the personnel on hand as well. Amile Jefferson and sixth man Chase Jeter are the only real big men in what is a smallish lineup. The team’s most explosive player, Grayson Allen, is terrific on the offensive end but no one will ever confuse him with being a defensive stopper.

There’s certainly plenty of time for Duke to demonstrate more on defense. To say they’re well-coached is a dramatic understatement. Every team in the country is working out kinks in their game at this point. There will be a couple more non-conference tests before ACC play begins, against Michigan State next Tuesday and Florida on December 6.

But while every team has problems to work out, only one team is the 7-2 betting favorite to cut down the nets in April. That puts a higher standard on Duke. If you ask me simply whether the Blue Devils have as good a shot as anyone else to win it all, I’d say yes. If you ask me whether they look head and shoulders above the competition though, I’d have to say that so far I’m not seeing it. And that means ultimate betting value on the college basketball futures market is going to come elsewhere.

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