— The Atlantic Coast Conference championship game Sunday seemed like a big deal to most of us. It was Duke vs. North Carolina and that’s always an attention getter, especially along Tobacco Road. But there was a national focus on Selection Sunday.
The Blue Devils and Tar Heels split their regular season meetings, so this was the tiebreaker — a real important tiebreaker. Based on the results from the Big East tournament, where Notre Dame and Pittsburgh both exited before the championship game, there was speculation that one of the top four seeds to the NCAA Tournament field might have been up for grabs.
Gene Smith, athletic director at Ohio State and chair of the men’s basketball committee, was asked about this repeatedly Sunday. Before the game, Smith said he couldn’t comment when asked if North Carolina and Duke were playing for a No. 1. After the brackets had been announced, Smith clearly answered, “No,” when asked if the game’s outcome had produced a No. 1 seed.
Most of the time Smith knows how to answer a question without really answering it. But in the case of UNC vs. Duke, he was pretty straight-forward and consistent.
In a teleconference call with the media, Smith said, “Part of the conversation throughout was how well they performed in the regular season. … There were multiple teams that could have been No. 1’s. They were in that mix. Based upon their total body of work, we didn’t put that much on one particular game.”
Could have fooled the rest of us — including the Blue Devils. Duke played more like the Blues Brothers. Remember how Jake and Elwood were on a “Mission From God”? Yeah, I think Duke was on a similar mission against the Tar Heels. And the Devils did come away with a No. 1 seed.
The final score was Duke 75, North Carolina 58.
It felt worse than that.
“They were more aggressive,” North Carolina’s John Henson said, “and they had more want-to than us.”
When Duke has more “want-to” the rest of the field is in trouble.
“We don’t talk about the NCAA tournament or anything like that,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We just say we want to win this tournament.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all believe that, don’t we? Coach K has been around the S-curve and back more than once.
Coach K says this, but this is what I hear. I hear Coach K in the locker room at the Greensboro Coliseum, just before tip-off. “I’ve got new information in from NCAA sources boys. If we win today, we’ll get a No. 1 seed. That’s right, boys.” Then he tells everyone in the room not to repeat what they just heard.
It is Duke’s world again. The Blue Devils are just renting out space to the other 67 teams in the tournament field. Based on Duke’s run in the ACC tournament, I think the Blue Devils are going to repeat as national champions. Krzyzewski has done it before, why not again?
I woke on Selection Sunday with my mind was focused on Ohio State. The Buckeyes are supposed to be the popular choice, right? They have the sensational freshman, Jared Sullinger, inside. Jon Diebler is the three-point threat from outside. William Buford is versatile. Then there’s David Lighty, who I swear enrolled with Perry Carter back in 1987. Lighty has been around forever, but point guard Aaron Craft brings the fresh blood of a freshman quarterback.
The Buckeyes have the right mix, but they don’t have much depth and that worries me in the tournament. They just haven’t blown me away, despite their consistency. It’s that type of year in college basketball. I have Syracuse upsetting Ohio State in the Elite Eight.
I vowed not to pick Kansas, despite the fact I think the Jayhawks have found their stride the last four or five games. The Jayhawks are playing very well. Bill Self has worked through all the suspensions and tragedy to create a team that shares the ball and shoots very well. The Morris twins present the most unusual matchup problem of any team in the nation. Tyshawn Taylor is back in the starting lineup and the Jayhawks are the deepest, most athletic team of the four No. 1 seeds. The only question is whether the Jayhawks will keep the electricity on at all times. They have a tendency to shut down from time to time and that could lead to a meltdown in the NCAA tournament. Louisville and Purdue will present big challenges but I don’t see a Northern Iowa incident for KU this year.
The Jayhawks will reach the Final Four to meet Pittsburgh. The Panthers bowed out of the Big East tournament early but that might have been a blessing. Instead of wasting their legs in games, coach Jamie Dixon could work on issues such as fighting through screens, switching back to your man and not letting Kemba Walker take the game-winning jump shot off a defensive mismatch.
Pitt guard Ashton Gibb will finally lead the Panthers to the Final Four. But Marcus and Markieef Morris will overpower Pitt inside to win one national semifinal.
Duke will have its hands full in the Sweet 16 against either Texas or Arizona but the Blue Devils will survive and then break the Final Four dreams of San Diego State, despite a homecourt advantage for the Aztecs in Anaheim.
The edge for Duke is simple. The Blue Devils have Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, who went through this last year and made enormous contributions to a championship team. Duke was No. 1 in the preseason polls. Why not put them back in the driver’s seat now?
Smith continued his brilliant play in the ACC tournament despite his toe injury. If freshman Kyrie Irving returns for even limited action, the Blue Devils will be unstoppable. The Charlotte Observer reported in a blog Sunday that Irving said there is a chance he will return. Krzyzewski downplayed that, but why did Irving work out Friday and Saturday during pre-game (even if he wasn’t in uniform). Irving said Nike has constructed a special shoe for him. Nothing would be shocking at this stage of the season. If Irving is cleared medically, why not give him some minutes before he heads to the NBA?
Duke will hit enough 3-pointers to negate Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. Then the Blue Devils and Jayhawks will stage an epic championship game to help us forget what a mediocre season it has been.
I think it will come down to a last shot, maybe a Christian Laettner kind of moment for Smith.
For the record, we will pick Duke to win the national championship. But I withhold the right to fill out half my bracket sheets with my alma mater downing the Devils. Maybe this time Marcus Morris will play the role of Mario Chalmers. Or maybe none of this will happen.
It’s all speculation right now. Just close your eyes and fill out your bracket.