clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Al Featherston Evaluates The Field!

When CBS first flashed Duke’s name on its NCAA Tournament pairings show, I was mildly -- and pleasantly – surprised to see that the Blue Devils were a No. 6 seed.My next reaction was “Wow, they’re playing Jeff Capel’s team!”

Before I could digest the idea that Coach Mike Krzyzewski would have to coach, not exactly against one of his protégés, but against a team his protégé put together, I saw that Pittsburgh was the No. 3 in the West and thus a potential second-round opponent if Duke survives against the Rams. I immediately thought of Dick Groat.

Younger Duke fans may not remember Groat – the first great player in Duke basketball history. Oh, the Blue Devils had had previous All-Americans (starting with Bill Werber in 1930), but Groat was something else – the consensus national player of the year in 1952, when he averaged 26.0 points and led the nation in assists for a 24-6 team. His was the first jersey ever retired by Duke.

The two-sport All-American played briefly in the NBA, but his baseball deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates put a stop to that. Groat, one of the last players signed by the legendary Branch Rickey, became a cornerstone of Rickey’s rebuilding plans. The old master didn’t live to see his groundwork pay off, but the ex-Duke shortstop was the National League MVP and batting champion in 1960 when the Pirates won the pennant and beat the mighty Yankees in the World Series. A five-time all-star, Groat moved to St. Louis and helped the Cardinals win the 1964 world championship in another memorable seven-game World Series with the Yankees.

What does all that have to do with a possible Duke-Pitt basketball game? After Groat retired in 1967, he retired to the Pittsburgh suburb of Swissvale, where he bought and operated a golf course. But he also became the radio color analyst for Pitt basketball.

“Basketball was always my first love and still is,” Groat told me last fall when I interviewed him for a book about Duke basketball that will be published this coming fall (forgive the shameless plug!). We talked at the time about the odd fact that Duke and Pitt haven’t met since 1980 – in Bill Foster’s last season. He brought up the tidbit that Pitt’s All-Big East center Aaron Gray is the nephew of former Duke guard Steve Gray, a member of Duke’s magical 1978 team. As we finished our conversation, I casually wished him luck and said I hoped Duke and Pitt would meet somewhere down the road to bring his two favorite teams together.

Now Duke and Pitt stand one game away from giving Groat the chance to do a Duke-Pitt game.

However, let me caution my readers – do not take that game for granted. Even though Duke is certain to be favored Thursday, this is nothing like a sure thing for the Blue Devils.

Virginia Commonwealth won 27 games this season and won both the regular season and tournament titles in the Colonial Athletic Conference this season. Keep in mind that’s the same league that produced George Mason a year ago and the Rams will start the tournament from the same No. 11 seed that Mason used as a launching pad a year ago.

“I have a lot of respect for them,” Mike Krzyzewski said Monday. “They’re good and they have great, great guards – four of them. They’re very explosive on the perimeter.”

Krzyzewski knows a lot about the Rams because of Capel. The former Duke standout built the team that Duke will face Thursday night. He guided VCU to 19 wins a year ago before he was hired to replace Kelvin Sampson at Oklahoma.

“We cheered for them and we got to know who they were,” Krzyzewski said. “We knew they were going to have an incredible year. It was difficult for Jeff to leave them.”

Capel left his replacement, former Florida assistant Anthony Grant, the players who dominated the CAA this season. The key for the Rams is 6-2 sophomore point guard Eric Maynor, who matured from a support player last season into a star this year.

“They are a little like Clemson,” Krzyzewski said. “They have a couple of shooters like [K.C.] Rivers and [Cliff] Hammonds and then they have a guard like [Vernon] Hamilton who can really pressure the ball.” Krzyzewski said that he would not call Capel this week to ask for some inside dirt on the Rams. He doesn’t want his protégé to have to choose between players he recruited and coached and the man who recruited and coached him.

“I wouldn’t want to put him in that position,” he said. Overall, Duke should be pretty happy about its seeding. A lot of poll watchers had the Devils as a seven or even eight seed and with the team’s unimpressive finish, it would have been hard to argue with that. Apparently, the committee gave more weight to the strength of Duke’s schedule and the sheer number of quality teams the Blue Devils played – 15 in the top 50 of the final RPI ... 20 in the top 61.

VCU, which was 2-3 against the top 50 RPI teams, is a tough opponent – but it could have been a lot worse. Stanford, which features a pair of seven-footers and beat UCLA, Washington State, Southern Cal and Virginia at Virginia, was also a No. 11 seed. Winthrop, one of the most dangerous mid-majors around and a veteran team with a ton of playoff experience (last year they came within a last-second 3-pointer from Chris Lofton of upsetting No. 2 seed Tennessee), was a No. 11.

Had Duke gotten the No. 7 or No. 8 seed that many expected, the Devils first-round opponent could have been a Villanova or Michigan State (not again!) or even one of the oft-predicted matchups with Kentucky or TexasTech.

And getting a No. 3 in the second round – even a No. 3 as tough as Pitt -- is a heck of a lot better than being a No. 7 and having to face the likes of Wisconsin or UCLA ... or being a No. 8 and having to beat Ohio State or Florida to get to the Sweet 16.

No, Duke came out okay – as long as everybody realizes that nothing is going to come easy for this team. Virginia Commonwealth represents the toughest first-round opponent Duke has faced in the modern era and Pitt represents the biggest hurdle between Duke and the Final Four since 1996, when No. 1 seed UConn loomed if the Devils had gotten past Eastern Michigan. It’s a totally different dynamic for a team that’s used to starting as a No.1 or No. 2 seed.

“I like our seeding,” DeMarcus Nelson said. “We’re in a position where we have to come out and play our best from day one. In the past, playing a 16 seed, we didn’t come out that strong, then we had to pick it up. We have to come out running.”


Unlike last year, when the selection committee’s blatant incompetence was maddening, there’s little in this year’s bracket to get worked up about. One of the committee’s strangest decisions is, to my mind, also one of the most meaningless – the decision to rank the No. 1 seeds as 1. Florida, 2. North Carolina, and 3. Ohio State.

Committee chairman Gary Walters warned of the danger of putting too much weight on any one criterion. He said all teams have to be evaluated by the full range of factors that the committee is charged to consider. Okay, let’s do that with the top three No. 1 seeds:

  • Record: Ohio State 30-3; Florida 29-5; UNC 28-6
  • RPI: Ohio State (1); UNC (2); Florida (6)
  • Last 10: Ohio State 10-0; (tie) UNC and Florida 7-3
  • Conference Tournament: All three won tournament titles
  • Vs. Top 50: UNC 11-3; Ohio State 10-3; Florida 8-4.
  • Road record: Ohio State 7-3; UNC 6-4; Florida 5-4.

Okay, Ohio State lost to North Carolina and to Florida earlier this season. But both games were on the road. The loss to UNC was before Greg Oden joined the team and the loss at Florida was in his second game after returning this season.

Still, that’s one criteria that gives the edge to Florida over Ohio State. In every other category, Ohio State has a superior record over the course of the season. There’s more: Ohio State enters the NCAA Tournament on a 17-game winning streak; Florida has lost three of its last eight; North Carolina has lost four of its last 12. Ohio State’s three losses were on the road to two No. 1 seeds and at a No. 2 seed. North Carolina lost to a team that didn’t make the tournament and five teams seeded No. 4 or higher. Florida lost to a No. 1 seed on a neutral court, but also fell to two teams that didn’t make the tournament and two teams seeded No. 4 or worse. Yeah, Florida is the defending national champion, but that’s a factor the committee was specifically forbidden from considering – past NCAA Tournament results aren’t relevant.

By any rational measure, Ohio State and not Florida should be the top seed in the tournament. It’s not that big a deal, except as it applies to the regional placements. And there, once again, the committee’s action makes no sense. Florida was seeded No. 1 in the MIDWEST, so that it could play in St. Louis. Walters said that St. Louis was marginally closer to Gainesville than San Antonio, the host site for the SOUTH regional. Honestly, I doubt it matters very much to Florida fans whether they are in St. Louis or San Antonio. But it makes a big difference to Ohio State fans, who could have driven to St. Louis, but now face a daunting trip to San Antonio.

Again, not a terribly big deal ... but still another example of the committee’s lack of consistency.

As for the selection of the final at-large teams, my only problem is with the selections of Arkansas and Purdue. I feel much stronger than they don’t deserve to be in than about anybody that was left out. In the case of Arkansas, the committee gave a lot of weight to the Hogs’ run to the finals of the SEC Tournament. But was that run really that impressive?

The SEC was marked this season by a huge split between the East – which featured the league’s three best teams – Florida (No. 6 RPI), Tennessee (No. 12) and Kentucky (No. 13). But the way the SEC Tournament worked out, Arkansas beat 14-16 South Carolina, 19-11 Vanderbilt and 18-13 Mississippi State to get to the finals. The only one of those teams in the NCAA Tournament is a badly slumping Vanderbilt (which lost three of its last five and four of its last seven). When Arkansas finally got to play one of the East powers in the finals of the SEC Tournament, Florida killed them by 20-plus.

Aside from that phantom “run” in the SEC Tournament, there’s little to recommend the Razorbacks. They are a mediocre 5-5 against the top 50 and 11-11 against the top 100. They were 2-8 on the road ... and 4-9 through the heart of the season in January and February.

Purdue might be a worse choice. Unlike Arkansas, the Boilermakers didn’t have a phony tournament run to bolster their slender resume. What we have is one quality win – a homecourt victory over Indiana – a 2-8 record on the road (the two wins coming over RPI 177 Northwestern and RPI 199 Penn State) and a 3-6 record against the top 50.

Now, I’m not going to get into the debate as to which team got screwed worst by the committee – but I’d suggest that Syracuse, Florida State, Drexel, Missouri State and even Clemson ALL had better resumes than the Razorbacks or Boilermakers.

In FSU’s case, the Seminoles finished one game better in the RPI than Purdue, recorded twice as many road wins (including a victory at Duke) had a 5-9 record against the top 50 and, best of all, suffered all 11 losses to teams ranked in the top 55 of the RPI. Arkansas lost to seven teams outside the top 55, including two outside the top 100. Purdue lost to just three outside the top 55 – but two of those were outside the top 135. And, oh yeah, weren’t the Seminoles supposed to get some consideration that they went 1-5 without point guard Toney Douglas, then went 2-1 (with only a loss to UNC) after his return?

Okay, I am getting worked up after all.

Take a deep breath and finish with a couple of other observations: -- The Committee is only required by rule to protect top seeded teams from hostile courts in the first round. Personally, I think that’s unfair – having seen one of Ralph Sampson’s best Virginia teams beaten by UAB in a game played in Birmingham in front of a rapidly pro-Blazer crowd, I think it ’s unfair when that happens in ANY round.

This year’s bracket has set up a nice symmetry involving Texas A&M. As the No. 3 seed in the South, the Aggies are likely to play No. 6 Louisville in the second round – in Lexington, Ky., less than an hour from the Cardinals campus. But before you feel too sorry for the Aggies, check out the next rounds – No. 3 Texas A&M could have a huge homecourt advantage in San Antonio, not far from the school’s College Station campus, in the regional semifinals against No. 2 Memphis or in the finals against No. 1 Ohio State. -- Gary Walters has held two media teleconferences since the selections were announced Sunday night and in both Sunday night’s session and in the repeat Monday, the conversation was dominated by an irate reporter who is upset that Niagara was selected to face Florida A&M in the play-in game Tuesday night in Dayton.

Niagara, which won its last 11 games and won the Metro Atlantic title, is not one of the five lowest RPI teams in the field. At 136, Niagara ranks ahead of North Texas (137), Weber State (143), Central Connecticut State (147), Jackson State 168 and Florida A&M (171). And the Metro Atlantic is merely the 10th lowest ranked conference.

-- The selection committee didn’t do North Carolina any favors. The Tar Heels face a potential roadblock in the second round, when either Marquette or Michigan State will appear, then a much bigger hurdle in the third round, where Texas and Kevin Durant wait as a No. 4 seed. If the Heels are still alive at that point, they could find Big East champ Georgetown waiting in their path.

If that’s not enough, the Heels have been assigned the late start time on Thursday night. Just ask Coach K how he feels about scheduling tip off times after 10 p.m.

-- Once again, I plead with you not to make the mistake so many commentators do when they say “So-and-so is one of the top 64 teams and should be in the tournament.”


A number of spots are reserved for the champions of smaller conferences. Nobody has ever suggested that a Belmont or a Jackson State is one of the nation’s 64/65 best teams. As it stands, there are 31 spots reserved for league champs. Some of those will go to legitimate powers, but at least half and usually more will go to interlopers.

But keep that in mind when you hear a Seth Davis complain that what makes the tournament great is the presence of so many different teams from smaller conferences.

He’s right – except those teams are provided among the 31 automatic bids. The 34 at-large spots belong to the best 34 teams that didn’t win conference championships – the best 34 ... not the best stories, not the cute little guys who don’t get a chance to play the big boys ... the best 34. Along with the conference champion winners from the big conferences, that guarantees the top 40 or so teams in the country this year.

That’s why it’s often true – but irrelevant – when a coach or commentator complains that one of the 64 best teams is left out of the field.