A lot of Duke fans will take tonight's game with Virginia Tech for granted. After all, the Hokies are the ACC's last place team - 9-17 overall, No. 235 in the RPI (the worst in the ACC) and No. 183 in Pomeroy. Virginia Tech has lost 12 of the last 13 games overall and has at least two and maybe three potential starters out with injuries.
I'm sure the Syracuse faithful were equally confident a week ago when 6-19 (at the time) Boston College came into the Carrier Dome. How did that turn out?
There are at least two reasons for a modicum of concern for the Blue Devils as they attempt to dispose of the last-place Hokies:
-- First, Virginia Tech has played better over the last week or so. Between a close homecourt loss to Wake Forest on Jan. 22 and a trip to Tallahassee on Feb. 5, the Hokies lost four games by at least 20 points.
But the next time out, Virginia Tech stunned Pittsburgh on its home court with a terrific game. The Panthers finally prevailed in double overtime, but VPI made the No. 22 team in the nation (at that time) fight to salvage the win on its home court. James Johnson's young team then defeated Miami at home - not the greatest feat in basketball history, but something neither UNC, Florida State nor Georgia Tech could accomplish. The next time out, Virginia Tech took Virginia - supposedly the hottest team in the ACC - to the wire, leading most of the way before losing 57-53. A hard-fought loss to N.C. State followed.
Okay, Virginia Tech is merely 1-3 over that stretch, but that record includes two close losses to two very good teams - one at home and one on the road.
Johnson's team has been hurt by a series of crippling injuries - transfer guard Adam Smith, who was the team's No. 2 scorer early, has been out a month with an injured leg. Freshman guard Ben Emelogu - so impressive that he was elected captain before ever playing a college game for the Hokies - has been out with an ankle injury. Senior center Cadarian Raines has been in and out of the lineup with a variety of problems. Veteran power forward C.J. Barksdale and young big man Marshall Wood have also been battling injuries.
The Virginia Tech coach said that his team turned around when he made the decision to slow things down and to switch to a zone defense. That's not the way Johnson wants to play, but with his team's youth and injury situation, it was a necessary adjustment.
It's worked reasonably well because freshman point guard Devin Wilson has blossomed into an outstanding player. He has passed out 27 assists over the last four games and scored in double figures every time. More importantly, his ballhandling has allowed the Hokies to control tempo.
The wild card for Virginia Tech is senior forward Jarrell Eddie, who may be the most erratic player in the ACC. The veteran sharpshooter is averaging just 10.5 ppg in ACC play, while shooting 28.8 percent (31.3 on 3-pointers). But he can go off as he did against Michigan State (23 points) or in an early season win over Miami (24 points).
Johnson said Monday that Smith and Emelogu were definitely out of the Duke game. Barksdale and Wood will play at less than 100 percent. Raines is a question mark.
-- More than Virginia Tech, Mike Krzyzewski is worried about Duke.
This will be his team's fifth game in 11 days, a streak that started with an emotional home game with Maryland, continued with a trip to Georgia Tech, then a trip to North Carolina and most recently a thrilling victory over Syracuse Saturday night.
Virginia Tech is the one game in the streak that has the least built-in emotion. Is it possible the Duke players could have left it all on the court Saturday night and have nothing left for the last-place Hokies?
"There is a fear," Krzyzewski said Monday. "You just don't keep going through emotional experiences. It takes a toll."
This is the last hurdle in Duke's toughest schedule stretch of the season. Once tonight's game is over, the Blue Devils will have eight days to rest and refit before a March 5 game at Wake Forest, followed by the March 8 finale against North Carolina. Krzyzewski said that he'll give his players most of the remainder of this week to rest and to catch up on their academic work.
"We start next Monday like it's a normal week," he said.
Rarely does my opinion about a player or a coach change as quickly as my view of Jim Boeheim did Saturday night.
To explain why I went from admiration to distain so quickly, go back to the first Duke-Syracuse game in the Carrier Dome. That one also ended on a controversial call - with Duke down one in overtime, Rodney Hood drove for the basket and elevated for a slam dunk that would have given the Devils the lead with 10 seconds left.
It was obvious - both to the naked eye and even more clearly on replay - that Hood was fouled by Rakeem Christmas on the play. But the ref on the spot swallowed his whistle, Hood missed the dunk and Syracuse hung on to win, 91-89.
Did Krzyzewski run out on the court, waving his arms like a madman and shouting obscenities at the refs? Did he get kicked out of the game? Did he use the postgame press conference to make light of his behavior … except to add with all seriousness, "That was the worse call of the year"?
No, he maintained his decorum on the bench and when asked about the no-call that robbed his team of a chance to win in the Dome, he dodged the question - explaining that he didn't want to turn the focus on one play or one call and to detract from what was a great college basketball game.
By refusing to make an issue of the bad no-call that cost his team a chance to win, Krzyzewski allowed his buddy to glory in one of the biggest victories in his career.
Boeheim returned the favor by turning the end of Saturday night's game into a debate about the block-charge call that set him off. Nobody was talking about Duke winning a terrific college basketball game … it was all about Boeheim and that one controversial call.
Was it a bad call or the right call?
Frankly, I don't know. I've watched it dozens of times in slow motion and stop-action replay and I'm still not sure. I've talked and listened to dozens of men I respect - both former coaches and former refs - and their opinions are split.
I honestly don't know if Tony Greene made the right call or not.
But I do know this - it wasn't the worst call of the year … or of the week … or even of that game (after watching the replay, I'd nominate Jamie Luckie's phantom flagrant foul of Andre Dawkins in the first half).
Greene's block/charge call was a 50/50 call that went Duke's way.
Maybe that's what set Boeheim off. He and his team have been treated with kid gloves by the ACC officials this season. The Orange have been given the benefit of the doubt down the stretch in game after game.
Start with the first Duke game, when the foul against Hood was ignored (we won't even get into the Christmas flops that fouled out Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson).
N.C. State had Syracuse beat in the Dome when T.J. Warren, ahead of the pack on a breakaway, is fouled from behind by Trevor Cooney. Warren finished with a basket to put State up three with 14 seconds left … and with the free throw could stretch the margin to four … but wait, the call is that the foul was before Warren started his shooting motion. Since N.C. State is not in the one-and-one, the Pack has to inbounds. Freshman Cat Barber turns the ball over under pressure, Syracuse scores on the fast break and survives a scare from N.C. State.
Late in the Boston College game, freshman Tyler Ennis throws a pass wildly out of bounds. Amazingly, the refs give the ball back to Syracuse. They go to check it on a TV monitor and it's clear that Ennis' pass sails inches over the fingers of a leaping defender. The refs don't see it that way and give the ball back to Syracuse. Thanks to that gift, the home team was able to force overtime (although they would lose in the extra five minutes).
I'm not suggesting that the refs are in Boeheim's pocket or even that the balance of close calls over the course of the ACC season is in their favor -- merely that he and his team have benefited from a succession of bad and 50/50 calls at the end of games this season.
And now one close call goes against him and Boeheim goes berserk?
Did he think he deserves every call?
Just one more comment about officiating. Duke haters have for years used the Blue Devils' favorable free throw differential to suggest that Duke gets all the calls. Who can forget Billy Packer whining about Duke making more free throws than their opponents had attempted during the Final Four in 2001 (ignoring the fact that Arizona had an even greatest FT differential in its favor).
Well, you won't hear anybody talk about FT differential this season. As of Monday afternoon, the 15 teams ranked this way in ACC play:
1. Pitt plus 77
2. Virginia plus 59
3. Clemson plus 41
4. Syracuse plus 38
5. Miami plus 28
6. Wake Forest plus 22
7. Duke plus 2
8. Virginia Tech even
9. UNC minus 1
10. Florida State minus 4
11. Boston College minus 11
12. Georgia Tech minus 40
13. N.C. State minus 60
14. Notre Dame minus 65
15. Maryland minus 86
Obviously, this list should be adjusted for tempo, but the two fastest tempo teams in the league (Duke and UNC) are right in the middle, so their position won't change a lot. Oddly, several slow tempo teams have the best differential (Virginia, Clemson and Miami).
I would suggest that one thing jumps out at me from this list. Maryland fans have been crying all season that the ACC is screwing them as they head out the door … and, as of Monday night, the numbers support that. However, watching Syracuse at Maryland Monday night, I saw that the Terps had a plus 21 FT differential in that one game, so maybe it's too early to jump to conclusions.
I suppose that paranoid N.C. State fans - a large number are convinced that they have long gotten the shaft from ACC officials - will look at this list and see evidence that their delusions are based on fact. But they should also be aware that a year ago, N.C. State had the BEST FT differential in the ACC (plus 89). By contrast, the favored Blues (in the minds of conspiracy theorists) were at plus seven (Duke) and plus 69 (UNC).
FINISHING UP THE REGULAR SEASON
No matter what happens against Virginia Tech, Duke is not going to win the ACC regular season title.
I know that's not a mathematical certainty … but look at Virginia's remaining schedule and see if you can find three more losses (that's what it would take to give Duke a share of the title).
By the same reasoning, Pitt's loss to Florida State Sunday virtually assured the Blue Devils of a top four seed in the ACC Tournament (and a bye into Friday's quarterfinals). Again, it's not a mathematical certainty, but it's unlikely that Duke will lose twice more while either Pitt or Clemson wins out.
Duke can reasonably dream of winning out to close the regular season - although the finale against UNC in Cameron will be a battle. What would a 3-0 finish do for the Blue Devils?
First, it would guarantee Duke no worse than the No. 3 seed in the ACC Tournament. It could be the No. 2 seed if Syracuse loses twice more (and that's possible with games at Virginia and at FSU).
Second, it would set Duke up for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. It would keep the chances of a No. 1 seed alive, although I believe Duke would need to win the ACC Tournament to make that a real possibility (and even then, it wouldn't be a lock).
Third, it would almost certainly be enough to lock up a subregional pod in Raleigh, where Duke could start its NCAA journey 22 miles from home.
But I'm also sure than Krzyzewski's view would be simpler. He's not worried about seeds and NCAA sites. His mantra this time of year is that he wants to go into the tournament healthy and playing well.
Not everybody has the luxury.
At least four ACC teams are still trying to build their resume to get an NCAA bid:
-- Pittsburgh has gone from a lock to a bubble team by losing five of seven games (and winning those two in overtime and double overtime). The Panthers (20-7, 8-6, No. 44 RPI) are still on the right side of the bubble - probably. But three of the team's last four games are on the road and two of the final four are against teams fighting to get on the bubble.
If the slide continues, Pitt will be in trouble.
-- Clemson revived its chances with two wins last week, climbing from 78 to 67 in the RPI. That's still not enough to overcome the Tigers' terrible non-conference strength of schedule (269), but if Clemson (17-9, 8-6 ACC) can win at slumping Wake Forest tonight, the Tigers finish up with three straight games at home, including the finale against Pitt.
Clemson is not in the NCAA field as of today, but closing the regular season with a six-game winning streak, which is possible, would make the Tigers a 21-win team and a viable NCAA candidate, depending on a win or two in Greensboro.
-- Florida State (16-11, 7-8) pulled back into contention with its victory Sunday at Pittsburgh. The 'Noles climbed from 61 to 56 in the RPI. They have better non-conference credentials than Clemson (good wins over UMass and VCU; close losses at Florida and to Michigan in Puerto Rico).
The Seminoles also have work to do. They have to win two winnable games coming up (Georgia Tech and at Boston College), then finish with a game in Tallahassee against Syracuse. They almost have to win all three - then do some damage in Greensboro - to make a case.
-- N.C. State (17-10, 7-7 ACC) could have put itself on the right side of the bubble with a win at Syracuse, but they let that one get away.
Now it's going to be tough and if the Pack has any NCAA hopes at all, it's got to start Wednesday night when UNC visits Raleigh. Win that one, win at Pittsburgh (why not? everybody else is winning there), take care of business at home against Miami and Boston College and Mark Gottfried's team will head to Greensboro firmly on the bubble.
That's not a great place to be, but it's better than being eliminated before the ACC Tournament - and that's the case for seven ACC teams. One more regular season loss and it's hard to see Clemson, FSU or N.C. State getting consideration. Pitt could probably survive maybe two more losses, but any more than that would leave the Panthers scrambling.