Heading into the weekend, Duke looked like a virtual lock for at least a No. 2 seed. With some help and a great finish, a No. 1 wasn't out of the question, either.
Anyone who saw Chelsea Gray crumble to the ground and clutch her knee after attempting to grab an offensive rebound Sunday knows that nothing in Durham is certain anymore.
Duke's leader, point guard and best player left Sunday's game against Wake Forest with what, at this point, has been diagnosed as a dislocated right knee. If Monday's MRI reveals no further damage, Gray is expected to miss the rest of the regular season but hasn't been ruled out of returning in the postseason.
Thanks to espnW player of the week Tricia Liston's 29 points, the Blue Devils managed to survive Sunday's game against the improved Demon Deacons, who just wouldn't go away. Unfortunately for Duke, that might be the easiest game it has the rest of the season.
The Blue Devils' final four games are against Florida State, Maryland, Miami and North Carolina. All four are in this week's bracket projection and have been all season long. This is easily the toughest stretch of games Duke has on its schedule and now the Blue Devils must play them without one of the conference's best players, as well as their glue. Gray leads the ACC in assists and steals and is averaging 12.6 points per game, good for second on the Blue Devils.
Duke's NCAA tournament seed fate now hinges on these four games, especially if it turns out that Gray is done for the rest of 2013.
There is no hard and fast rule as to how the committee evaluates injuries to top players, but they are very much taken into consideration; these four games will be watched very carefully. By no means does the injury to Gray mean that Duke will fall from its current spot of No. 5 overall on the S-curve, but given the difficulty of these next two weeks and the quality teams lurking, it won't be easy to hold onto.
Say the Blue Devils win all four games they have left. Even if Gray can't return at all, that should be enough to prove to the committee that this is still a team worthy of a No. 2 seed. If Duke goes 4-0 or 3-1 and Gray returns to play in the ACC and/or NCAA tournament, it's pretty likely that the No. 2 seed also will remain safe.
Where Duke runs into trouble is if it has problems in the next two weeks and Gray can't return at all in March. That means the team that struggled will have to be the team that is evaluated, and everything that the Blue Devils have accomplished up to the point of Gray's injury wouldn't mean as much. That might even be oversimplifying things because this situation has so many variables and possibilities.
Nothing that happens leading up to Selection Monday is independent of anything else. What some of the other teams do along the way is a big factor here. Texas A&M, Tennessee and Maryland are looming to steal a No. 2 seed. But if none of them earn it with wins, Duke could stay there even with some losses.
What if Duke goes 1-3 down the stretch, but the one win is over the Terrapins? Maryland wouldn't be moving up. At the same time, what if Tennessee and Texas A&M both lose to Kentucky and then the Wildcats also win the SEC tournament? If it was known that Gray was coming back and Duke rebounded to win the ACC tournament, the Blue Devils would hold onto the No. 2 seed.
Of course, the biggest factor in all of this is whether Gray can return. If she cannot, Duke will be pretty strictly examined on how it does in the final four regular-season games and in the ACC tournament. If Gray recovers in time for the NCAA tournament and the committee knows that before Selection Monday, then a heavier weight gets put back on the great regular season Duke has had up to this point.
Another interesting factor here is that the committee will have some direct comparable, tangible measures to apply to the Blue Devils because Duke has played three of its four remaining opponents already (Florida State is the exception). It just so happens that all three of those games were easy Duke victories. The fact that these are all tournament-worthy opponents also gives the committee a true measure of how the Blue Devils might perform in the tournament without Gray. No one will have to guess as the men's committee did in 2000 when Cincinnati's Kenyon Martin suffered a broken leg in the Conference USA tournament quarterfinal. That committee had no opportunity to see how the Bearcats might perform without their star before the start of the NCAA tournament. A certain No. 1 seed became a No. 2. This year's women's committee has time and some real games on its side.
Ultimately, this situation is not unlike any scenario in the tournament selection. Wins translate into better seeding. Keep winning and maximize your seed. Even now, it's no different for Duke -- the level of difficulty just rose exponentially. Maybe this is the time for Elizabeth Williams to really shine. Or maybe Sunday was no fluke and Liston is ready for a full-fledged breakout. Perhaps a combination of freshman Alexis Jones and junior Chloe Wells can be good enough to cover for Gray. If any of those players deliver and Duke keeps winning, the injury will be much less an issue as it relates to the Blue Devils' seed.