'Blueblooderellas' Still Have a Chance To Make March Madness

One of the nice things about college basketball is that it’s so simple to follow. For example, it’s never difficult to remember when to watch because it’s called March Madness. And when the NCAA Tournament starts, you have just two types of teams to pay attention to: Cinderellas, who add charm during the first week, and Bluebloods, who take over from there and try to save your bracket.

Very simple. But this week, a new creature has emerged: The underdog blueblood. 

Blueblooderella. Duke and Kentucky have been the theme of college basketball this year, as the bluest of the bluebloods have crashed and burned. 

It’s unfortunate when a sport is defined by its failures. Gonzaga is undefeated and possibly historically good (I think Illinois will win the championship), but it goes mostly unnoticed because so many of the teams that have dominated the sport for years are struggling.

It is most pronounced with Duke and Kentucky. The last time both teams didn’t get into the NCAA Tournament was 1976.

It’s about to happen again. But they have reached their conference tournaments this week with one last chance: win the conference tournament and get an automatic bid into the NCAAs.

They are both longshots. Very long longshots. But are they really a bad bet?

The truth is that both teams have a legitimate shot -- a legitimate longshot -- of winning their conference tournaments. 

Mike Krzyzewski of Duke might be the butt of everyone’s joke right now, but he also is the best coach in the country. And the ACC Tournament is there for the taking. The conference has the reputation as the dominant league, but it isn’t this year.

As the 10th seed in the ACC Tournament, Duke beat 15th seed Boston College by 35 points in the first round. Next up, Wednesday evening, is Louisville, which has beaten the Blue Devils twice this year. Once was in overtime and once was close in regulation.

Duke can beat Louisville.

Krzyzewski has gone the one-and-done route, meaning he brings in players who intend to play a year and then move on to the NBA. But in the end, Duke has a young team. Stud Jalen Johnson was mostly bombing out and left the team. And because of COVID restrictions and a shortened preseason, the Blue Devils never found a rhythm.

They still have the best players and the best coach. And Krzyzewski has been adjusting all year.

In the final minutes of Duke’s loss to North Carolina the other day, UNC fans chanted “NIT, NIT,’’ mocking Duke.

The NIT is sort of the consolation tournament for teams that get left out of the NCAAs. It’s hard to know what the NIT is for now, or why they even play it. I guess, just like the minor bowl games: Why not? If it makes money and makes TV networks happy, then why stop?

This year, the NIT wisely cut its field in half to 16 teams and dropped its usual requirement that teams have a winning record. And in a year when the bluebloods are all bloody, that means the NIT could actually have Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State, Indiana, Syracuse, Memphis and Louisville. Spread them across the bracket, and you have a blueblood in every single game.

And more importantly: TV ratings.

Kentucky’s situation in the SEC Tournament is similar to Duke’s. The Wildcats actually have a losing record, but everyone has been waiting all year for them to just turn it on. Coach John Calipari has a history of starting slow and then finding a rhythm when his players figure out how to play together.

They play Mississippi State in the first round, and you’d have to favor the Wildcats in that game. In the next round, they’d get No. 1 seed Alabama, which has questionable incentive to fight.

I’m not predicting wins here, but as mediocre as they’ve been this year, Duke and Kentucky still walk onto the court with an aura. At some point, you have to realize that what’s disappointing about Duke and Kentucky is that they’re loaded with talent, have top coaches and a ton of experience.

Those aren’t usually negatives. So maybe now, at the last minute, the glass slipper will fit. Blueblooderella can live happily ever after.

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Written by
Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian. Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.