TAMPA, Fla. - Duke basketball could really use a lift.The last two months have been among the toughest for the Blue Devil program since Coach Mike Krzyzewski was sidelined in 1995 with back problems. So far in 2007, Duke is 10-8 on the court and has been inundated with bad news - from the end of the team's near-record 199-week streak of being ranked in the AP poll to the four-game losing streak at midseason to the ridiculous national media stampede touched off by Gerald Henderson's unfortunate foul on Tyler Hansbrough.
Consider that Henderson received exactly the same punishment for a foul that even Roy Williams concedes was unintentional as Chris Paul received two years ago for deliberately punching Julius Hodge in the groin. Consider that Henderson received exactly the same punishment as Hodge got in 2002 when he deliberately threw a forearm into the back of Steve Blake's head.
That's not to suggest that Henderson doesn't deserve his suspension, only that the hysteria surrounding the play and its aftermath have been all out of proportion to the actual incident.
But that's what Duke gets for being so dominant for so long. No other program is the focus of so much attention.
For instance, earlier this year when Duke lost four straight games, ESPN ran several segments in its studio show with its talking heads breathlessly wondering if the Devils would miss the NCAA Tournament. At the same time, a UConn team that has been at or near the top of the basketball world since beating Duke in the 1999 title game was undergoing a shocking collapse - falling from No. 12 in the national polls to a spot on the NIT bubble. Even though ESPN broadcast quite a few Connecticut games down the stretch, the Huskies' struggles were treated as a matter of course - you didn't hear Digger Phelps and Tom Brennan gloating over their demise.
Does that sound like paranoia?
Maybe it is. I am rational enough to understand that all the negative attention this winter is the flip side of the extraordinary exposure that Duke gets from ESPN and the national media. When the Blue Devils are doing well, the spotlight is welcome ... when things aren't going as well, it can get a little hot in the glare.
The answer to the problem is to turn the season around and end on a good note.
The first step is to do something positive this week in Tampa. Over the past decade, the Blue Devils have dominated the ACC Tournament, playing in the finals for nine straight years and winning the title in seven of the last eight seasons. Duke's recent 23-1 ACC Tournament record is unprecedented, unless you count the 10-year run that Everett Case put together at N.C. State in two different leagues (20-1 with six titles in the final seven years of the old Southern Conference; 9-0 with three titles in the first three years of the ACC).
The problem for Krzyzewski is that during his run, he hasn't had to win from as far back as a No. 7 seed. His teams have been seeded first five times, second twice and third twice. Of his 10 titles dating back to 1986, Coach K's champs have been the No. 1 seed five times; the No. 2 seed twice; and the No. 3 seed three times.
The only previous time that Duke was a No. 7 seed under Coach K, the Blue Devils were blasted 109-66 by No. 2 seed Virginia in the quarterfinals in Atlanta. Interesting coincidence, but if Duke beats N.C. State in the first round Thursday night, then the Devils will face No. 2 seed Virginia in the quarterfinals.
Actually, the bracket for the ACC Tournament turned out to be a mixed bag for the Blue Devils.
Drawing N.C. State in the opener was unfortunate. The short-handed Pack doesn't have the manpower to win four games in four days, but Sidney Lowe's first N.C. State team can play very well when it's healthy, rested and focused - as evidenced by its victory over North Carolina and its two wins over Virginia Tech.
Duke manhandled the Pack in Raleigh earlier this season, but that was when Lowe was missing senior point guard Engin Atsur. That makes a huge difference - Lowe simply doesn't have enough real ACC players to do without one. What he does have are two very versatile big men in Ben McCauley and Brandon Costner and two physically gifted wings in Gavin Grant and Courtney Fells. With Atsur to handle the ball and set them up, N.C. State is very, very dangerous.
It doesn't help that Duke will be without Henderson for Thursday night's game. While not nearly so devastating to the Devils as Atsur's earlier loss was to N.C. State, it's still a blow - especially since the freshman swingman closed the regular season with his two best games of the year.
Look on the bright side ... if Duke does survive Thursday night, Henderson will be back Friday with fresh legs. For a kid whose playing time this season has been limited by exercise-induced asthma, the enforced rest might prove a blessing.
Duke was fortunate to end up in a bracket with Virginia. The two teams the Blue Devils have had the most trouble with this season - Maryland and North Carolina -- are in the other bracket. The Cavaliers did beat Duke in overtime in their one regular season meeting, but that was in John Paul Jones Arena, where the Cavs were a dazzling 16-1 this season. Away from home, Virginia is a more prosaic 4-8, including 1-2 on neutral floors.
If Duke can survive its opener against N.C. State, you have to like their chances of upsetting No. 2 seed Virginia in the quarterfinals. That would likely lead to a semifinal matchup with one of the two Techs - two teams Duke can play with.
But it's been such a crazy year that it's probably unwise to make any predictions about the games in Tampa.
Mike Krzyzewski likes to say that every team runs its own race. Heading down to Tampa, that's never been more true. Some ACC teams are playing for NCAA seeding. Some are still trying to lock up a bid to the tourney. Two are trying to impress the new NIT selection committee.
Just a couple of observations:
-- The opening game of the ACC Tournament could be one of the most important. Many observers have labeled Thursday's noon matchup between Clemson and FSU as an elimination game.
There's probably some truth in that. It's not that the winner is guaranteed an NCAA bid, but the loser will almost certainly wind up in the NIT. Both teams kept their fading NCAA hopes alive during the last week of the regular season. Clemson rallied to beat Miami in overtime earlier in the week, then won a thrilling game at Virginia Tech, knocking the Hokies out of a share of the ACC regular season title. Florida State rallied from near certain defeat to avoid a disastrous loss at Miami.
Of the two, Clemson (21-9) has a better record and a higher RPI (36), but Florida State (19-11, 47 RPI) may have the better chance to get a bid.
The thing about the Seminoles is that after beating Duke in Durham on Feb. 4, they were 17-6 and rated No. 19 in the RPI. The next time out, point guard Toney Douglas, the team's No. 2 scorer, broke his hand. FSU went 1-5 without him and dropped down to near 50 in the RPI.
But Douglas returned for Saturday's game at Miami and after a rough first half, he scored 13 in the second half, including the game-tying 3-pointer to force overtime. If he can follow up with that a strong performance in a win over Clemson in the tournament, then the selection committee will be obligated to consider how good the team is with Douglas - and will to some degree discount the 1-5 record without him.
Two interesting angles to the Clemson-FSU debate:
-- Last year, Florida State was one of the most prominent teams left out of the field and the one that provoked the loudest debate. The Seminoles themselves screamed loudly about the injustice. Will that work in their favor this season as the committee (with nine of the same 10 members) will lean over backwards to make it up to the 'Noles? Or will the committee show its resentment for the public abuse they suffered at the hands of FSU and ACC commentators by sticking it to the 'Noles again?
One thing is certain. If they leave FSU out this year, the committee can't blame the 'Noles poor schedule. Florida State's non-conference SOS is a reasonable 108 and it's overall SOS is a solid 24th.
-- Will the ACC's 20-win rule die with Clemson?
I mentioned it in last week's column, but it's a fact that since 1985 (when the NCAA expanded to 64 teams), every single ACC team with 20 wins on selection Sunday has gotten a bid - that includes 21 automatic qualifiers and 54 at large teams.
Clemson has 21 wins at the moment, but the Tigers are still not an NCAA lock. With a loss to FSU Thursday, it's almost certain that Clemson will invalidate the 20-win rule. But a Clemson win, while not guaranteeing a bid for the Tigers, would leave FSU at 19 wins and probably outside the NCAA field. If the Tigers did get in, the 20-win rule would live!
-- North Carolina, which tanked the ACC Tournament two years ago winning the ACC regular season title, probably needs to win this season - or at the very least a strong showing - to guarantee a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Of course, it all depends on what the other No. 1 contenders do in their postseason tournaments. Florida, UCLA and Wisconsin have stumbled just as often down the stretch as the Tar Heels. Kansas has been on a hot streak, but that's been against some less-than-stellar competition. Just one of the eight teams the Jayhawks have beaten down the stretch was a top 50 foe (and that was a homecourt win over No. 29 Texas).
The only team guaranteed a No. 1 seed at this point is Ohio State, which has won 14 straight and has suffered just three losses this season - all on the road to other potential No. 1 seeds (UNC, Florida and Wisconsin).
North Carolina might not have to win the ACC Tournament to get a No. 1 seed, but if the Heels go out early and UCLA, Florida, Wisconsin and/or Kansas cut down the nets this weekend, UNC would have to start as a No. 2 seed.
-- It used to be easy to figure out the ACC's NIT candidates.
In the last year or so, the NIT was sold to the NCAA as part of a settlement of a suit brought by the NIT claiming that the NCAA was guilty of monopolistic practices. The new selection process - headed by some very bright basketball minds - is no longer money driven and no longer heavily weighted towards East Coast teams.
In addition, the NCAA cut the NIT field from 40 teams last year to 32 teams this season. That's a huge cut. If that's not enough, the NCAA has guaranteed that any conference regular season champion that loses in its conference tournament and doesn't get an NCAA bid will be invited to play in the NIT.
How is that going to impact the ACC?
Well, it used to be that any ACC team that finished .500 or better overall, would get an NIT bid, almost automatically.
That's no longer the case. League officials simply don't know what it's going to take. The Clemson-FSU loser probably will get an NIT bid. But what about N.C. State, which enters the ACC Tournament at 15-14? And does Wake Forest, 14-15 at the moment, have a chance with two tournament wins?
Nobody's quite sure how those two teams stand. That's why the NIT selection show, which will be televised on ESPN Sunday night soon after the NCAA selection show airs on CBS, will be closely watched in places such as Raleigh and Winston-Salem.
Before we consign the 2007 regular season to the dustbin of history, let's take one last look at the ACC's amazingly unbalanced schedule. Now that all the games are done, we can rank the 12 schedules, based on the ACC won-loss record of the opponents each school played - teams that each team played twice counting twice; teams that each team played once, counting once. And just to avoid corrupting the data, each team's own won-loss record is subtracted from the totals (since the best teams would naturally lower the won-loss record of their opponents and vice versa).
Here's the ACC ranked by schedule strength:
1. N.C. State 127-113
2. Duke 126-114
3. Miami 123-117
(tie) Clemson 123-117
5. Virginia Tech 121-119
6. Florida State 119-121
(tie) Wake 119-121
8. Georgia Tech 118-122
(tie) Maryland 118-122
9. Boston College 116-124
(tie) North Carolina 116-124
12. Virginia 114-126
Interesting that the two top teams in the standings played the two weakest ACC schedules. Of course, since they don't get to play themselves, that hurts their strength of schedule. Still, Virginia's 16 opponents were collectively two games worse than UNC's slate. Duke and Georgia Tech ended up with exactly the same ACC record - while the Jackets played a schedule that was eight games easier.
Of the top teams, Virginia Tech played the toughest schedule - seven games tougher than Virginia.
In view of the wide disparity in ACC schedules, it's hard to buy the coaches' long-time argument that the regular season represents the best way to determine a champion.