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Al Featherston's ACC Tournament Preview!

On Monday night, Jerry Palm's projected NCAA field didn't include South Carolina. By Tuesday morning, the Gamecocks were in.

Pretty amazing recovery for a team that didn't play a game in the interval between Palm's two mock brackets!

The fact is, South Carolina's elevation should have reminded us of a point that too many self-proclaimed bracketologist forget - nothing happens in a vacuum. Sometimes we focus so closely on what our favorite bubble team is doing that we forget that its fate will be determined not just by what it does, but what similar bubble teams around the country are doing.

Jerry Palm, who runs, is the best of the nation's bracketologist (marginally better than ESPN's Joe Lunardi). Last year, he predicted all 34 at large teams ... the year before, he got 33 of 34.

I mention this because I want to explain that I respect his opinion on this subject more than all the ESPN talking heads put together. Palm has said that this is the weakest crop of bubble teams in many, many years. Not that there aren't plenty of teams on the bubble, it's just that so many of them have so many flaws. He's changed the title of his "Last Four teams in" to read: "Should be in the NIT."

I bring this up because of the NCAA implications of Thursday's ACC first-round games - specifically the Miami-Virginia Tech game at noon and the Maryland-N.C. State game at 7 p.m.

Three of those four teams can be described as bubble teams: Miami (18-11, No. 54 RPI); Maryland (18-12, No. 67 RPI) and even Virginia Tech (17-13, No. 62 RPI). None is playing like a team that wants to make the NCAA. Miami did win three of its final four down the regular season stretch (two wins and a loss against the ACC's three worst teams), but before that tiny spurt, the Hurricanes had lost three straight and six of seven. Maryland had a great win Feb. 21 when the Terps upset UNC in College Park, but since then, they lost three of four to close the season. Virginia Tech lost six of seven games heading into the ACC Tournament.

Now, in a normal year, all three would have a lot of work to do to qualify as an NCAA at-large team. The Miami/Virginia Tech winner would need to beat top-seeded North Carolina in the quarterfinals to even talk about a bid. Maryland would have to beat N.C. State in the first round, then upset second-seeded Wake in the quarters to make a case.

But, remember, nothing happens in a vacuum.

The other teams contending for the final spots in the field have been almost equally inept. From Florida to St. Mary's to South Carolina to Minnesota to Providence to Arizona to Creighton to Davidson to Penn State to Texas A&M - none have done anything that screams "pick me." Formerly ranked teams such as Kentucky and Notre Dame should be dead, but the bubble is so weak that a strong tournament run could put any of them in the field.

In this bubbletastic world, it's POSSIBLE that Miami or Virginia Tech winner (especially Miami, which has a significantly better resume) and Maryland (which does have great wins over UNC and Michigan State) could end up the field with just a Thursday win. Don't take any bets - it will depend on how the other bubble teams across the nation fare.

St. Mary's didn't help its case with a dreadful performance against Gonzaga Monday night. Siena took itself out of the bubble conversation by winning the MAAC. But the level of the bubble is so low that A LOT of teams remain in contention.

We're used to a certain level of accomplishment even for the last few bubble teams in the field. I'm not saying that Maryland, Miami and/or Virginia Tech have achieved that level of accomplishment ... but it may not matter this year.

PS -- Palm updated his bracket earlier today. South Carolina is out again (again without playing) ... Creighton, which ended its season last Saturday with a 24-point loss to Illinois State, is back in - for now.


At the top of the bracket, the ACC's best six teams are playing for seeding. UNC has probably locked up a No. 1 seed and a spot in Greensboro for the first/second round games.

Another ACC team will host a pod in Greensboro, almost certainly either Duke or Wake Forest. The two teams have very similar resumes at the moment. It's close enough that Saturday's semifinal matchup (if it occurs) could be the deciding factor.

Whichever one reaches the ACC finals (again assuming that one of them does) is in line for a No.2 NCAA seed ... the other is a likely No. 3. If both fall short of the title game, both are probably No. 3 seeds. I doubt that winning the ACC title would elevate either Duke or Wake to a No. 1 seed.

That doesn't mean the ACC Tournament title isn't worth winning in its own right. It's worth remembering that the tournament winner is the ACC's official champion - and isn't a league championship worth winning?

It's kind of funny. The tournament, which originated in Atlanta as the Southern Conference Tournament, was invented because that league was so big that there was no way to set up a fair and balanced regular season schedule.

When the ACC split off from the 17-team Southern Conference in 1954, it was an eight-team league. Starting in 1955, every team played every other team home and home - a perfectly balanced 14-game schedule.

Very early in the league's history, coaches starting arguing that the league ought to honor the regular season champion instead of the tournament champion. They had a reasonable point - a two-month round-robin schedule was a fairer way to determine a champion than a three-day round of Basketball Russian Roulette.

But the tournament was too profitable to kill and for decades, coaches had to put up with the tournament champion earning the league title over the team that was better over the course of the season.

Then came expansion.

Suddenly, we're back to where we were before 1955 - the league is too big for everybody to play everybody home and home. So we get situations like this year - North Carolina won the title, despite playing just six games against the other five first-division teams (Duke twice; Wake, FSU, Clemson and BC once each) with five games against games against the three bottom teams. Wake Forest, which tied Duke for second, played seven first-division opponents (Duke and Clemson twice; UNC, FSU and BC once) and five games against the bottom three.

Duke played eight games against first-division teams (UNC, Wake and FSU twice; Clemson and BC once - both on the road) and just three against the bottom three.

How would the final standings have looked if the schedule were balanced? What would Duke's record be against UNC's schedule?

Hmm, let's see - we'll count two losses to UNC (since UNC did beat Duke twice) and one loss to Wake (both Duke and UNC lost in Winston-Salem). UNC did beat the Clemson team that beat Duke, but the UNC-Clemson game was in Chapel Hill; Duke's loss was in Littlejohn. Would Duke have gone 0-1 vs. Clemson if the game were in Durham? And while both Duke and UNC lost to Boston College, the Devils lost on the road, while UNC lost at home. Maryland beat the Heels in College Park, but a few days later, Duke followed the Heels into their lair and beaten them.

So we're looking at three almost certain ACC losses against UNC's schedule ... plus games in Cameron against Clemson and BC that would determine whether Duke finished 13-3, 12-4 or 11-5.

The point is, we can't know what Duke and Wake and UNC would have done against the same schedule. The post-expansion regular season is no longer the ultimate test of the ACC's best team.

So the ACC has come full circle - after all the debate and all the controversy, the ACC Tournament is once again the fairest way to determine a champion.


Duke will start the ACC Tournament as the No. 3 seed.

Despite the inconvenience of playing the late game in the quarterfinals, the Blue Devils have actually fared pretty well in the No. 3 spot. Here's how it breaks down by seed:

No. 1 seed: eight titles in 16 tournaments - 1963, 1964, 1966, 1986, 1992, 1999, 2000, 2006. Lost in the finals four times - 1965, 1991, 1998, 2004. Lost in the semifinals three times - 1954, 1958 and 1994. Lost in the quarterfinals once - 1997.

No. 2 seed: three titles in 12 tournaments - 1978, 2001 and 2002. Lost in the finals five times - 1955, 1961, 1967, 1979, 1989. Lost in the semifinals four times - 1962, 1968, 1990, 2008.

No. 3 seed: three titles in eight tournaments - 1988, 2003 and 2005. Lost in the finals once - 1969. Lost in the semifinals once - 1959. Lost in the quarterfinals three times - 1957, 1971, 1987.

No. 4 seed: One title in nine tournaments - 1960. Lost in the finals once - 1984. Lost in the semifinals three times - 1956, 1972, 1985. Lost in the quarterfinals four times - 1970, 1973, 1993, 1996

No. 5 seed: No titles in one tournament. Lost in quarterfinals 1981.

No. 6 seed: One title in four tournaments - 1980. Lost in quarterfinals - 1975, 1977, 1982.

No. 7 seed: No titles in four tournaments. Lost in quarterfinals - 1974, 1976, 1983, 2007.

No. 8 seed: Duke has never been the No. 8 seed

No. 9 seed: No titles in one tournament. Lost in quarterfinals - 1995 (after winning play-in game.

No. 10-11-12 seeds: Duke has never been lower than the No. 9 seed.

Obviously, Duke's best result is as the No. 1 seed (which stands to reason). And the Blue Devils have never lost short of the semifinals as the No. 2 seed. Overall, Duke is 27-1 in quarterfinal games as the No. 1 and No. 2 seed.

But the Devils have won a better percentage of titles as the No. 3 seed than as No. 2. In eight previous tournaments as the No. 3 seed, Duke is just 5-3 in quarterfinal games, but is 12-5 overall with three titles from that spot.

There's no evidence that playing in the late game hurts later in the tournament. In fact, Duke's No. 3 seed record in the semifinals (4-1) and in the finals (3-1) is better than its record in the first round (5-3). History suggests that the real danger is Friday night.

One little oddity about Duke's history as the No. 3 seed: in each of its four title game runs from that spot, the Devils opened with a quarterfinal victory over Virginia. It just so happens that Boston College and Virginia will meet in the first round Thursday to determine Duke's Friday night opponent.

So if the Cavs upset the Eagles, consider it a good sign that the Devils are going to make another title game run out of the No. 3 spot.


One of the silliest stories make the rounds in the days leading up to the ACC Tournament is a debate about Duke's "fatigue." Supposedly, because Duke's starters played a lot of minutes against UNC, that led to tired legs, which led to missed shots in the second half. It's also been suggested that Duke's "short bench" will handicap the team in postseason.


I'd use a stronger world, but this is supposed to be a family website.

For the record, Duke has one starter who ranks among the ACC leaders in minutes played this season - Jon Scheyer, who is seventh in the league (behind such weak-legged fainters as Toney Douglas, Greivis Vasquez, Ty Rice and Malcolm Delaney). And, by the way, how tired did Scheyer's legs look when he was going 7-for-7 from the field against the Tar Heels?

Kyle Singler is also averaging 31 minutes a game, but he doesn't rank in the ACC top 10 in minutes played. Nobody else in Duke's starting lineup is averaging 30 minutes a game.

In fact, UNC's starters average more minutes than Duke's starters. So do Wake's starters, although the Deacs' big three are averaging about a minute less a game than Duke's big three. Big difference (that's sarcasm). Florida State's starters average a fraction less than Duke's - although Douglas averages more than three minutes a game more than Scheyer.

Are his legs wearing out?

And while Duke didn't shoot that well in the second half against UNC, what about one game earlier, when the Devils scored 50 second-half points on Florida State and improved their shooting percentage by 15 points after the break? Against Maryland, three Duke starters played 37 minutes, yet somehow the Devils shot 56.6 percent in the second half after hitting just 34.4 percent in the first 20 minutes. Where were the tired legs in College Park?

And how about the game against Wake Forest in Durham? Duke's five starters played between 31 and 37 minutes in that game ... yet the Devils increased an excellent first-half percentage of 52.8 percent to 56.0 percent in the second half.

Where were the tired legs in that 101-91 race?

The whole topic represents the demented ramblings of amateurs who don't know what they're talking about. Duke starters played far more minutes in 2001, when the Devils won their final 10 games to claim the national title. Five Duke starters averaged more than 30 minutes a game in the national championship year 1992. Even in 1999, the deepest Duke team in recent memory, the two starting guards averaged 31 minutes a game, while frontcourt standouts Elton Brand and Chris Carrawell were right at 29 minutes each - indeed, the distribution of minutes in 1999 looks very similar to the minutes the starters have played in 2009.

It's true that sometimes young players hit a physical wall at the end of their first long college season. That certainly happened to Kyle Singler a year ago, when he averaged 28.6 minutes a game as a freshman. But older players - not just at Duke, but throughout the ACC - routinely average 28-32 minutes a game without ill effects.

The player most in danger of fatigue this season is freshman Elliot Williams. But he spent most of the season on the bench. Only in the last six games has he played starter minutes. In an interview earlier this week, he boasted of how fresh he was ... how much he loved finally getting to play 30 minutes a game.

Duke may or may not do well in postseason this season, but if the results aren't what Blue Devil fans want, don't blame tired legs.

And the next time you hear someone blather on about Duke's "tired legs" remember, just because you stick a self-proclaimed Duke hater behind a mike and give him a radio show doesn't make him an expert.

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