GREENSBORO - Duke will get its NCAA Tournament assignment tonight.
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But, in the wake of Friday night's first-half meltdown against Notre Dame, a bigger question is whether or not this Blue Devil team is prepared to take on the NCAA challenge … or has prepared itself for an early meltdown as the 2012 and 2014 Duke teams suffered?
It's funny, but after Duke's Thursday night demolition of N.C. State, I wrote:
"It's clear that Duke couldn't be in better shape going into the semifinal round of the ACC Tournament."
I stand by that observation. At the time I wrote it, Duke was healthy, riding a 12-game winning streak and coming off one of its most impressive performances of the season. I would still argue that between the Devils' victory at Virginia and the N.C. State win in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, no team in college basketball played such impressive basketball - not Virginia, not Wisconsin and not even Kentucky (which merely beat up on a bunch of lousy SEC teams).
However, Friday night reminded us that the world can change quickly when it comes to tournament basketball. Duke, perhaps too satiated with its success, was not ready to play against Notre Dame and the fired up Irish made the laid-back Devils pay.
To be honest, you can go back and look at Duke's 12-game winning streak and find a few hiccups. Duke was not at its best at Florida State or at Virginia Tech or at home against Georgia Tech. The Blue Devils won those games because they were just that much better than those opponents.
It illustrates an interesting facet of this team: When it is focused and passionate, it can play with anyone - anywhere. The Devils proved that by winning at Virginia and at Wisconsin - two of the five or six teams still vying for a No. 1 NCAA seed. It was reinforced at North Carolina and at Louisville and at Syracuse. And it was driven home in the two revenge games after losses - the 30-point beatdown of Notre Dame in Cameron and the absolute demolition of N.C. State in Greensboro.
Too bad K can't arrange to open the NCAA Tournament against Miami, which beat Duke back in January - a loss that will go un-avenged. I know the 'Canes are better than whatever opening opponent Duke will get, but I would be confident about a rematch with Miami - more confident than I will be of Duke's early round success.
It's really very simple: Tough games bring out best in this team … easy games (or perceived easy games) bring out worse.
I think that's what happened against Notre Dame Friday night. After the earlier revenge rout in Cameron, the Duke players were confident that they could handle the Irish - too confident. You could see the same attitude among Blue Devil fans - there was even a thread on DBR arguing about who they wanted to meet in the finals. Not that I blame the fans - their cockiness had no impact on the game - but it did reflect the prevailing attitude of the Duke community, including - unfortunately - the players.
That's a function of youth. It's easy to forget that half of the eight-man rotation - and sixty percent of the starting lineup - is made up of freshmen. It's hard for young teams to learn the immediacy of tournament basketball. Friday night, after Duke's loss to Notre Dame, Mike Krzyzewski expressed the hope that his team would learn from this defeat. Jahlil Okafor, sitting beside him at the podium, promised that they would.
Going into the NCAA Tournament, I'll be worried more about the first weekend than the second. And more about the second weekend than the third - the Final Four. As I said, I expect this team to rise to the occasion.
I 'm not really worried about the first game - whether against a No. 15 or No. 16 seed. After last year (and 2012), I think Duke will be ready to take care of business in that one.
No, I'll worry more about the second game. That will be against a good team - someone on the level of N.C. State - that Duke will be widely expected to beat. That game will provide the test to demonstrate whether or not these Blue Devil players have learned their lesson in preparation.
Beyond that round, I'll worry about running into a Cinderella in the Sweet 16, a situation where Duke is expected to make short work of a surprise team in the regional semifinals. I'd rather face a hyped opponent. Any chance Duke could get another rematch with Notre Dame at this point?
From the Elite Eight on, I have no worries about this team. The games are so important and so well covered that I'm confident that the young Duke team will bring "it" ("it" being an indefinable quality that Coach K often talks about). The Devils might get beat by a better team or a near-equal team playing its best game, but I'm actually very confident that when this Duke team brings "it" they are very hard to beat.
That's why I'll be watching the NCAA Tournament selection show Sunday night with interest, but not anxiety.
I honestly don't think it matters very much whether Duke hangs on to its No. 1 seed or drops to a No. 2. I don't think it matters if Duke winds up in the East, the South or the West Regional. Travel shouldn't scare this team - few Duke teams have ever played as well on the road.
The more challenges, the better.
I don't worry about matchups - with one caveat. I don't want to see Duke in Kentucky's region. It's not that I fear the Wildcats. In fact, I'd love nothing better than to see the Blue Devils get to test unbeaten Kentucky in the tournament. But I want it to be in the Final Four, preferably the championship game, and not in a regional finals.
With that in mind, I guess I'd rather see Duke in the South or West regions - the East meets the Midwest (where Kentucky is certain to be) in the national semifinals.
I'd also like to start in Charlotte, but that's just for selfish reasons. I'm sure the team would do just fine in Jacksonville.
In fact, it's entirely possible that Duke could follow the same path to the title as the 2010 team - Jacksonville to Houston to Indianapolis.
But I still think Duke will start in Charlotte. A frantic Duke fan accosted me late Friday night and floated the idea that the NCAA might send North Carolina and Virginia to Charlotte, leaving Duke to go somewhere else.
Even if UNC were to win the ACC title Saturday night (this is written before that game), the 10-loss Tar Heels would not end up seeded as high as Duke. Unless the Selection Committee violates its own rules, the higher seeded Blue Devils would get the geographic preference for Charlotte. In fact, I'm not even sure that Duke will be behind Virginia on the S-curve - the Devils were ranked higher than the Cavs before Friday night when they both lost.
Allow me to raise just one possibility - it's possible that Virginia will get sent to Pittsburgh for the opening round. Patrick Stevens raised that idea when he pointed out that while Charlotte is closer to Charlottesville by road miles (the figure that the NCAA uses), Pittsburgh is actually closer by air miles. At any rate the two sites are very close to equal as far as UVa is concerned.
So while I think it will be Duke and Virginia in Charlotte, I'm not ruling out the possibility that it might be Duke and UNC.
That will add some interest to the Selection Show.
As for the rest, I think Duke fans should accept whatever they are handed with equanimity.
Because, in a very real sense, the tougher path to the title, the better for this team.