Tournament Key For Blue Devils

DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 25: Trevor Thompson #32 of the Virginia Tech Hokies battles with Rasheed Sulaimon #14 and Rodney Hood #5 of the Duke Blue Devils for a loose ball during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 25, 2014 in Durham, North - Grant Halverson

Greensboro is a chance to build momentum.

It's too early to label Duke's 2014 basketball season either a success or a failure.

That will be determined in the next few weeks. Maybe it's not all about postseason, but what happens in the ACC and NCAA Tournaments goes a long way toward determining our view of any season.

Take 2012, for instance.

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At this point two years ago, the 2011-12 season was setting up as one of the great seasons in Duke history. The Blue Devils, helped by a preseason trip to China and Dubai, opened as one of the nation's best teams. In mid-November, Duke beat Michigan State in Madison Square Garden to give Mike Krzyzewski his 903rd coaching win - passing Bob Knight on the NCAA career win list. A week later, the team went to Hawaii and beat Tennessee, Michigan and Kansas on successive days to win the Maui Classic.

As the ACC season opened, Duke added some memorable performances - remember Austin Rivers' game-winner at North Carolina? Remember Andre Dawkins' big night at Florida State?

Going into the regular season finale at home against North Carolina, Duke was 26-4 (13-2 ACC) and No. 4 in the AP poll.

Even measured by the kind of success Krzyzewski has established over the last three decades, that's a damn good season.

But the 2012 season wasn't over.

The season started to go sour when Duke endured a miserable shooting performance in a homecourt loss to UNC. Two days later, starting forward Ryan Kelly broke his foot in practice. Without Kelly - and with the team-wide shooting slump continuing - the Devils barely got past Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals. One day later, Duke - still frigid from the perimeter - lost a heartbreaker to eventual champ Florida State in the semifinals.

And one week later, Duke had its nightmare performance in Greensboro against Lehigh.

Now, few remember that the 2012 team won 27 games and finished No. 8 in the final AP poll. Instead, 2012 is the year Duke lost its NCAA opener to Lehigh.

This season has not been quite as good - to this point - as 2012.

The 2013-14 Blue Devils have been decent - 24 wins, 13-5 in the ACC and No. 7 in the AP poll (No. 6 in the coaches poll). There have been some good wins (Michigan, Syracuse, Virginia and North Carolina) and some disappointing losses (in hindsight, Notre Dame and Wake Forest were bad losses). How does that compare to recent Duke seasons? I tried to break down the 18 seasons following Duke's back-to-back subpar seasons in the mid-1990s (13-18 in 1995 and 18-13 in 1996). Here's what I found:

-- Starting in 1997, Duke has finished first in the ACC regular season race six times, tied for first twice, second four times, tied for second twice, third once and tied for sixth once.

This year's team finished tied for third. That's better than 2007, which Duke was 8-8 in the ACC and tied for sixth. But the only other year in that span without a first or second-place finish was 2005, when Duke went 11-5 in the league to finish third behind UNC and Wake Forest.

The 13 ACC wins is pretty good - only five teams have won more - but most of those years were 16-games ACC seasons. The five losses rank among the worst performances - only that 8-8 mark in 2007 was worse.

-- Duke's 24 regular season wins are the lowest pre-tournament total since 2007 (22 wins).

-- Duke's No. 7 rank in the AP poll matches the Devils position at this point in 1997 and 2008. Duke has been No. 1 at this point twice (1998 and 1999), No. 2 in 2013, No. 3 four times. The Devils have been ranked lower than this season in 2003 (12th), in 2007 (21st) and 2009 (9th).

So where would I rank this season so far?

It's clearly better than 2007 (22-9, 8-8 ACC, 21st in the AP poll).

It's actually comparable to 2005, when Duke was 22-5 (11-5 ACC) and No. 5 in the ACC poll. It's better than 2003, when Duke was 21-6 (11-5 ACC) and 12th in the AP poll. It's actually very similar to 1997 when Duke was 23-7 (12-4 ACC) and No. 7 in the AP poll. The big difference that year was that Duke won the ACC regular season title outright, thanks to a very balanced ACC.

But the big difference in how we remember those seasons is how those teams finished.

THE BASELINE FOR POSTSEASON SUCCESS

Allow me to set the over/under for postseason performance at five wins.

1997 - 1 (0-1 ACC; 1-1 NCAA)
1998 - 5 (2-1 ACC; 3-1 NCAA)
1999 - 8 (3-0 ACC; 5-1 NCAA)
2000 - 5 (3-0 ACC; 2-1 NCAA)
2001 - 9 (3-0 ACC; 6-0 NCAA)
2002 - 5 (3-0 ACC; 2-1 NCAA)
2003 - 5 (3-0 ACC; 2-1 NCAA)
2004 - 6 (2-1 ACC; 4-1 NCAA)
2005 - 5 (3-0 ACC; 2-1 NCAA)
2006 - 5 (3-0 ACC; 2-1 NCAA)
2007 - 0 (0-1 ACC; 0-1 NCAA)
2008 - 2 (1-1 ACC; 1-1 NCAA)
2009 - 5 (3-0 ACC; 2-1 NCAA)
2010 - 9 (3-0 ACC; 6-0 NCAA)
2011 - 5 (3-0 ACC; 2-1 NCAA)
2012 - 1 (1-1 ACC; 0-1 NCAA)
2013 - 3 (0-1 ACC; 3-1 NCAA)

Obviously, winning the ACC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament is the ideal situation. The 2001 and 2010 teams have done that. That's nine postseason wins.

But it's amazing how many Duke teams in the 1997-2013 era wound up with five postseason wins - eight times in the last 17 seasons. Duke has gone over five wins four times and under five wins five times. Check the list:

Every five-win postseason except in 1998 involves an ACC championship and an NCAA Sweet 16 performance.

If the 2014 team can match that baseline of postseason success, I'm sure the season would be remembered fondly - 29 wins, a final top 10 ranking … and Duke's first championship banner since the 2011 team beat UNC in the championship game to win the ACC title. Better than the 5-win postseason baseline and it will be one of the best seasons in Duke history.

But fast exits from Greensboro … and from the NCAA Tournament next weekend, would leave 2014 as a forgettable year.

A REMATCH WITH THE TIGERS

Duke's postseason journey begins with a chance for redemption against Clemson.

One of the team's three bad losses this season was against the Tigers in Littlejohn (I'd count that defeat with the loss at Notre Dame and the loss as Wake Forest as Duke's worst moments in 2013-14). Duke led that Jan. 11 game with just over 10 minutes to go - then went cold and lost 72-59.

Normally, when Duke gets a chance to redeem a bad regular season loss in the ACC tourney, the Devils deliver - think 2011, when Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and company came back to dominate UNC in the finals, just a week after the Tar Heels topped Duke in Chapel Hill. Think 2001, when Jason Williams, Shane Battier and company redeemed a loss to Maryland on Senior Day with a victory over the Terps in the tournament semifinals in Atlanta.

However, just one year ago, Duke faced a redemption game and failed miserably to redeem a bad loss. Maryland had knocked off the Devils in College Park - a tight, emotional win for the Terps that involved some controversial officiating in Maryland's favor. When the two teams were matched in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, everything seemed to be set up for Duke.

Instead, Maryland seized the lead early, stayed in front all the way and delivered a fairly decisive 83-74 victory - handing Duke its first first-game tournament knockout since 2007.

Can Clemson repeat its Jan. 11 domination of the Blue Devils?

The Tigers survived an overtime game with Georgia Tech late Thursday night … actually, the final buzzer came a couple of minutes into Friday morning. The Tigers can thank a missed dunk by Daniel Miller (who did hit a remarkable shot to force overtime) and a questionable offensive foul call on Iron Head Heyward's son.

On the other hand, Clemson finally showed some grit in overtime - something that was missing when the Tigers choked away their home finale against Pitt.

Brad Brownell has a great all-around player in junior K.J. McDaniels (now projected on Draft Express as a first-round NBA pick) and a great rim defender in center Landry Nnoko. The key for the Tigers is the kind of game secondary scorers Damarcus Harrison, Jordan Roper and Jaron Blossomgame provide. They combined for 26 points in the 69-65 overtime victory over the Jackets.

But Duke didn't lose to Clemson in Littlejohn because of the Tiger offense. That was one of those games that we've seen too often this season where the Devils offense went into a funk. If Duke sustains its offensive game for 40 minutes, the Devils should advance into the semifinals.

I'd feel a lot more confident if it weren't for the failure against Maryland in last year's tournament.

FLORIDA STATE 67, MARYLAND 65

It's a funny thing about Maryland and years that end in the number four.

Forty years ago, one of the best teams in Maryland history faced N.C. State on the Greensboro Coliseum court for the 1974 ACC championship. Any who saw it - including Billy Packer, Dick Weiss and this writer - consider that to be the greatest college basketball game ever played. David Thompson, Tommy Burleson and tiny point guard Monte Towe led No. 1 N.C. State to a 103-100 overtime victory over a No. 3 Maryland team that featured John Lucas, Tom McMillen and Len Elmore.

That game had a special resonance since, unlike today, only the winner was able to play in the NCAA Tournament. The outrage over Maryland's exclusion from the field had a lot to do with the expansion of the NCAA event - leading eventually to the format we know today.

But it's not just 1974. Ten years later (and 30 years ago), Lefty Driesell won his first and only ACC Championship, beating Mike Krzyzewski's first good Duke team in the title game - also on the Greensboro Coliseum court. The sophomore-dominated Devils led 30-27 at the half, but drained emotionally and physically by their upset of No. 1 North Carolina in the semifinals, Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and company didn't have enough juice left to cope with Len Bias and company.

Afterwards, Driesell - who had lost heartbreaking title games to UNC in 1972 and 1981, to N.C. State in 1973 and 1974 and to Duke in 1980 - said he was going to strap the trophy to the hood of his car and drive all around North Carolina, honking his horn.

Skip 1994 (Maryland lost in the first round) and flash forward to 2004 - just 10 years ago. And this one - like 1974 and 1984 - was played in Greensboro.

The Terps had to stage the greatest halftime rally in tournament history to beat N.C. State in the semifinals (fueled by a Larry Rose technical foul against a State student manager who was too slow to wipe the floor after a timeout), then rallied in the second half to force overtime against Duke. Point guard John Gilchrist had 26 points to power the Terps to a 95-87 victory and give Gary Williams his one and only ACC championship.

Oddly, despite the frequent complaints by Maryland coaches about the disadvantages of playing the tournament on Tobacco Road, the Terps have a better tournament record in Greensboro than anywhere else it has been played. Indeed, after Thursday 's loss to FSU, the Terps are now 26-23 in Greensboro and 21-34 everywhere else.

Maryland's final ACC team couldn't quite cash in on the "4" magic or the good vibes from Greensboro.

The Terps rallied from an 11-point second half deficit against Florida State Thursday and had the game tied in the final seconds after Dez Wells converted a touch foul into two free throws. But on FSU's last possession, the Maryland defense collapsed on Okaro White in the lane and he was able to dish to 7-footer Boris Bojanovsky, who slashed in from the left side and found himself open for a game-ending dunk.

The play evoked memories of Greg Buckner's game-ending dunk against North Carolina in 1996 - the exact same play at the exact same place on the same Greensboro Coliseum floor.

It was such a dramatic finish that the fans at the Greensboro Coliseum didn't even get to taunt the Terps with the familiar "ACC …ACC!" chant as they exited the court.

It wasn't quite the ending I was hoping for - I wanted to see Maryland lose on a bad call by Karl Hess - what a great sendoff that would have been! Alas, although Hess had his normal quota of questionable calls, there were none that really impacted the game. Well, maybe one … with just over 14 minutes left and Maryland up one, FSU's Montay Brandon drove the lane and crashed into Charles Mitchell as he laid the ball in. Hess allowed the basket, but called Brandon for the charge - the first time I've seen that all season.

Florida State (19-12) will advance to the ACC quarterfinals against top-seed Virginia at noon today. The Seminoles are the last ACC team in the national bubble debate (Lunardi had them as his 7th team out of the field) and could help their case with an upset of the regular season champion Cavs.

But with a loss today, FSU is more likely to end up in the NIT.

PITTSBURGH 84, WAKE FOREST 59

Okay, after three straight dramatic games Including the last two Wednesday), we were due a stinker.

Wake Forest, which showed some fight in beating Notre Dame Wednesday, demonstrated Thursday exactly why so many Deacon fans were fed up with coach Jeff Bzdelik.

The Deacons never showed a sign of life, falling behind 21-9 in the opening minutes and never making a real run. Talib Zanna pounded the Deacs inside and Lamar Patterson was deadly inside and out. Time and time again, the Panthers beat Wake down the floor for easy baskets

I have to correct myself. When I said that Wake never showed any life, I should mention that midway through the second half, the Deacs scored 10 straight points - to cut a 29-point deficit to "just" 19 points. But that rally could be blamed on Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, who cleared his bench early (perhaps considering that his team must face North Carolina tomorrow). After the brief Wake spurt, he put his starters back and the margin blossomed again.

The 29-point loss was one point off the worst ACC Tournament defeat in Wake Forest history - the 1966 Deacons lost by 30 (103-73) to Duke's eventual champions.

N.C. STATE 67, MIAMI 58

Jim Larranaga had a streak of four straight ACC Tournament wins going into Thursday night's game with N.C. State. And when Rion Brown nailed a 3-pointer with just over three-minutes left to give Miami a 53-51 lead, it looked like he might make it five in a row.

But ACC player of the year T.J. Warren tied the game with a tough basket in the post and after a Miami turnover, LSU transfer Ralston Turner - the closest thing N.C. State has to a reliable No. 2 scorer - nailed a 3-pointer to put N.C. State back in control.

The Pack closed the game out with a 16-5 spurt to secure the program's 68th ACC Tournament victory (second only to Duke and UNC which have 91 and 90, respectively) and earn a second shot at Syracuse in today's quarterfinals.

In the two team's only meeting this season, N.C. State seemed to have the game won in the final seconds when T.J. Warren broke down the court with the Pack up one. He was grabbed from behind by Trevor Cooney, just as Warren went up for a layup. The ball went in and the Pack thought they had a chance for a game-clinching 3-point play .. either that or an intentional foul that would have been equally game-clinching.

Instead, the call was a common foul BEFORE the shot. And since N.C. State was not in the one-and-one, all it meant was that the Pack had the ball out of bounds with 14 seconds left. Freshman Cat Barber, who took the inbounds pass, was trapped and threw the ball away - leading to a Syracuse fast break and an improbable 56-55 loss for the Wolfpack.

Naturally, the result was viewed as another page in the epic officiating conspiracy that surrounds N.C. State basketball … a conspiracy that also explains the no-foul-call in overtime against UNC when James Michael McAdoo grabbed Warren by both arms and forced him to lose the ball out of bounds. Throw in the travel by Wake Forest's Codi Miller-McIntyre as he raced for the game-winning shot in Winston-Salem and it's easy to see why Wolfpack fans are so paranoid about the guys in striped shirts.

To be fair, had those three questionable calls gone the other way, N.C. State (20-12) would be a solid NCAA team today and not a desperate team on the far outer edge of the bubble.

Even a victory over Syracuse today is not likely to be enough to put N.C. State on the selection committee's radar. But it would go a long way to assuaging the pain of that earlier loss in the Carrier Done.

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