By AL FEATHERSTON
ATLANTA - Duke's 10-game ACC Tournament winning streak ended Saturday in Philips Arena as Duke couldn't quite cope with Florida State's strength, size and athleticism.
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But Blue Devil coach Mike Krzyzewski didn't sound devastated by his first ACC Tournament loss since the Devils fell to Clemson in the 2008 semifinals in Charlotte.
"It was not an x-and-o game," Krzyzewski said a few moments after the 62-59 loss. "It was an effort game. Both teams were deserving today. If we lose, that's the kind of effort I want for my team. I'm proud of my guys. They played winning basketball.
"We love this tourney. We want to win this thing. It hurts us to lose, but we lost right."
As usual, Krzyzewski's focus had already moved on to the next thing - the NCAA Tournament. For the second straight day, Coach K suggested that Duke would open the NCAA Tournament in Greensboro. Saturday, he conceded it would be as a No. 2 seed - in some region.
"We've played 33 games," the Duke coach said when asked about his "young" team. "We are a veteran team. Our guys have all grown into our roles. The schedule we've played should have nurtured us. We've been in all sorts of games. I like my team. I like our will to win. If we bring that, we've got a chance. That's all I want."
There was good news regarding junior forward Ryan Kelly, who sat out the ACC Tournament with a foot injury. He was in street clothes Friday night, using crutches and wearing a heavy brace on his foot. By Saturday's semifinal, the crutches and foot brace were gone and Kelly was walking normally.
Krzyzewski said it's likely that Kelly would be available for at least limited duty by Duke's NCAA opener FridayÂ -- if, in fact, the Devils are in Greensboro.
Plenty of tickets still remain for that event, but Duke fans should act quickly to get their tickets. The last 6,000 or so available seats are likely to go quickly when North Carolina is also assigned to the site.
Games in Greensboro will be Friday and Sunday. No telling what gametime the Blue Devils will draw Friday, but the two games Sunday are likely to be in the evening. CBS wants the games in prime time, not in the afternoon as in the past.
A MODEST PROPOSAL
If the news coming out of New York is right, next year's ACC Tournament might very well include 14 teams. Reports from the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden indicate that the beleaguered conference is ready to move on after the latest round of re-alignment and is willing to negotiate a reasonable buy-out for future ACC members Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
That means a 14-team bracket for next year's ACC Tournament in Greensboro.
So how would that work?
To start off, one thing is clear - the ACC is committed to the idea that every team in the league has a chance to play in the tournament. That will hold true in the future when the league goes to 16 teams.
The most likely scenario for a 14-team bracket is to start with two play-in games on Wednesday night (11 vs. 14; 12 vs. 13). Then the field is down to 12 and the ACC can use the current Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday bracket.
I guess it works, but, ugh, the prospect of those two terrible games on Wednesday night fill me with dread.
It's already bad enough on Thursday, when we have four games featuring the league's eight weakest teams. I know I'm not the only one that feels that way - the attendance Thursday proves that most of the league's fans share the distaste for second-rate basketball. Less than 7,000 fans were on hand for this year's two Thursday sessions.Â The crowd swelled to a respectable 15,000-plus for Friday's two sessions featuring the league's four best teams. It was only a few hundred short of capacity for Saturday semifinals and the arena had an old-time ACC Tournament feel.
But what kind of crowd would a two-game session featuring the worst four teams in a 14-team league draw? How many would have shown up this year to see the four 4-12 teams fight it out? The Miami-Georgia Tech game - the lowest scoring ACC Tournament game in the shot clock era - was nearly unwatchable as it was.
Still, conference officials wonder if there's any other solution to a 14-team field.
Well, allow me to offer a radical proposal to the ACC's expansion dilemma. It's based on the setup used by English pro soccer leagues.
What we need - for football and basketball - are two seven-team divisions.
One division, made up of the strongest seven teams in the league, will be the Championship Division. The other division will be the Second Division.
Every year, the teams in the Championship Division compete against one another, while the teams in the Second Division play amongst themselves. And every year - just as in English soccer - the bottom team in the Championship Division drops to the Second Division and the top team in the Second Division moves up to the Championship Division.
Consider how the idea would work from the perspective of Duke - which would clearly be a Second Division team in football, but a Championship Division team in basketball.
Now, being relegated to the Second Division might be tough to accept, but consider how it would work for the Blue Devils. Instead of having to compete with such heavyweights as Virginia Tech, Florida State and Clemson, the Devils would have six ACC games against the likes of Wake Forest, Virginia, Boston College and Syracuse. There would be six games on the schedule that Duke could use to schedule opponents that offer a chance for success.
It wouldn't be hard for Duke to win 3-4-5 games outside the league and - when not facing the ACC's seven best teams - the Blue Devils would have a reasonable chance to win enough games from the bottom of the league to make themselves bowl eligible.
Obviously, Duke wouldn't be eligible for the ACC championship in this setup - not at first - but, heck, how much chance do the Devils have to compete for the title in the current setup?
Winning breeds winning - it helps recruiting for one thing. A few 7-8 win seasons in the Second Division and one of these days Duke could move up to the Championship Division and compete for the title.
The teams in the Championship Division would have it tough in a division with no soft touches. Let's face it, teams like Virginia Tech and Florida State feast on the likes of Duke, Wake Forest and Virginia. But with just six conference games, they would have the scheduling flexibility to suit their talent. A team that wants to contend for the national title could add three or four really tough non-league games. A team that is worried about the level of competition in the league would schedule four or five sure non-conference wins and thus secure their bowl trip.
Under this plan, almost every team in the league could schedule itself into bowl contention. It might trample a few rivalries - when old rivals find themselves in different divisions - but the ACC has already demonstrated that it has no regard for historic rivalries, so that shouldn't be a problem. Besides, if, say, Duke and UNC find themselves in different divisions and want to keep playing, they can always schedule each other as one of their six non-conference games.
The split would work much the same in basketball. The seven best programs form a Championship Division and play each other home-and-home. That's 12 conference games - the same as the ACC played in the 1970s after South Carolina's departure and before Georgia Tech's arrival. With just 12 conference games, each team would have plenty of flexibility in scheduling.
One difference between football and basketball - the teams in the Second Division would have a chance to compete for the title. The champion of the Second Division would join the seven Championship Division teams in an eight-team ACC Tournament. Naturally, the best Second Division team moves into the Championship Division for the next year, while the worst Championship Division team would drop down.
That would really help a great program that suffers a nightmare year - such as UNC in 2002 of Duke in 1995. Such a team might drop to the Second Division, but if the fall was really a fluke, the recovery could be quick.
Obviously, teams in the Second Division would have to scramble to get in the NCAA Tournament. But again, they would have a lot of scheduling flexibility with just 12 conference games. In a sense, the ACC's Second Division would be much like a strong mid-major conference. Not having to take three or four losses from the likes of Duke and UNC might actually help teams like Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech improve their resume.
Besides, Virginia Tech has missed the NCAA Tournament in eight of the last nine years under the current format. N.C. State, Miami and Georgia Tech have not done that much better. Trying out my new format couldn't hurt.
Best of all, it would be the kind of innovative idea that has marked the ACC in the past. It would generate end-of-the-year excitement for teams fighting to climb into the Championship Division or avoid falling to the Second Division.
The toughest part of the plan is making the initial division of the league in the two major sports. Once that's done, it becomes self correcting.
I know that my plan has no chance of adoption. No ACC athletic director - or fan base - is going to voluntarily accept Second Division status. But I can't help thinking of the frustration of watching David Cutcliffe struggle to get the Blue Devil program off the ground against a brutal conference schedule (Duke plays FSU, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Miami and Georgia Tech this year) and think my plan would give him a reasonable chance to get things going. And I think the same would apply to Randy Edsall and Mike London in football and to Seth Greenberg and Steve Donahue and Brian Gregory in basketball.
Or maybe I'm just so afraid of a five-day ACC Tournament- and those two nightmare games on Wednesday night - that I'm grasping at straws. What do you think?
Obviously, the ACC is not going to stay at 14 teams forever. At some point in the future, the league will add two more teams and get to 16. Many expect the ACC to add UConn and Rutgers to lock up the Eastern markets.
But what I'm hearing -from what I believe are very good sources - is that the ACC is not going to hurry to reach 16. In fact, I'm told it won't happen until Notre Dame makes a decision to join a conference. If the Irish want to come, the ACC will open their arms and add a 16th team to balance things out.
No telling when Notre Dame decides to give up its independent status in football. And just to avoid any wild speculation, the Irish would have to become a full-time ACC member in all sports. No everything-but-football like Notre dame currently has with the Big East.
DUKE MUST SHOOT TO WIN
It's conventional wisdom - Duke is dependent on its 3-point shooting to win. When the Devils shoot well, they win. When they shoot poorly, they lose.
Well, there is some truth in that observation. But it's not the whole truth.
When you break down Duke's season, there is a sharp division between the team's five best wins - over Michigan State, Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina and Florida State - and its five losses. In those five wins - against five of the best teams in college basketball (and none at home) - the Blue Devils averaged 11.8 3-pointers made and a 45.0 percent accuracy from the 3-point arc.
That's pretty good. The WORST of those five shooting performances in terms of numbers made was 10 (of 21 attempts) against Michigan State in Madison Square Garden. The worst in terms of percentage was 38.9 percent at UNC (14 of 36). But that was also the game with the most made 3-pointers.
In contrast, in its six losses, Duke averaged just 6.5 3-pointers made with an average accuracy of 31.5 percent. But that includes one pretty good 3-point performance - a 10-of-23 night in the home loss to Florida State.
"If we're hitting shots, then we're real good," Krzyzewski said.
The wins over UNC, Kansas, Michigan State, Michigan and Florida State suggest that when Duke is hitting 3-point shots, the Devils can beat anybody. And when they are not shooting well, they can't beat the really good teams.
That much of the conventional wisdom is true.
But Duke has beaten some very solid teams on nights when the 3-point shot was not falling with any frequency or accuracy. Duke beat Virginia on a night when the Devils were 5-of-20 from 3-point range.Â They beat Washington on a 5-of-17 night. They were 8-of-27 in a close win over N.C. State. They beat Davidson on a 5-of-13 night and Colorado State on a 7-of-21 night.
Those are all NCAA teams - or at least strong bubble contenders.
There were some other significant wins on bad shooting nights - for example the last two wins over Virginia Tech (11-of-50 combined), and road wins at Georgia Tech and Maryland (9-of-38 combined).
So while Duke might need its 3-point eye to take down a top 10 or even top 25 opponent, the evidence is that the Devils CAN win on nights when the 3-point shooting is not working. Depending on the matchup, Duke ought to be able to win a couple of NCAA games without its 3-point eye.
But to go beyond the Sweet 16, the Blue Devils will almost certainly need to put some hot 3-point shooting games together.
Looking back at the All-ACC team picked last week, I thought the worst choice of the voters was selecting UNC's Harrison Barnes over UNC's Kendall Marshall for the final spot on the first team.
In fact, I had Marshall as the third player on my first team - ahead of UNC's John Henson and Duke's Austin Rivers. I also had FSU's Michael Snaer ahead of Barnes on my ballot, but both were second-teamers.
I realize the voting doesn't include ACC Tournament play, but in the first two games in Atlanta, Marshall has clearly demonstrated his superiority over his more-celebrated teammate.
Barnes had a nice game in the opener against Maryland with 15 points (on 6-of-13 shooting) and seven rebounds, but it was Marshall who dominated the game with his playmaking ability and some timely shooting. He finished with 12 assists - breaking the ACC's 24-year-old single season assist record - and hit three 3-pointers.
The contrast between the two was even more sharp in the semifinals.
Barnes was, quite frankly, dreadful.
The sophomore star missed nine of 12 shots from the floor and four of 12 free throws. But it was more than the numbers - he took three quick, ill-advised 3-point shots late when State's frontline was in danger of fouling out en masse.
On the other hand, Marshall was superb. He had 12 points (hitting two of four 3-pointers) and passed out 10 more assists. With the game tied in the final seconds, he took Alex Johnson into the lane and banked in the game-winner.
The contrast between their performances was actually a reflection of how they've played all season. Barnes scores a lot - sometimes efficiently â¦ sometimes not. He's not much of a rebounder or a defender and he's a black hole when it comes to passing the ball.
Marshall's scoring is erratic and he's not a great defender either. But his playmaking skill is always there. He's passed out more assists than any player in any single season since the ACC began counting assists in the mid-1970s. He's got the best single-season assist to turnover ratio in ACC history.
He's the reason Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes have been so effective offensively.
On this occasion, the ACC media voters owe Mr. Marshall an apology.