CHARLOTTE - The Sweet 16 is merely a way-station on Duke's journey to the national championship, but it's a good place to pause and take stock.
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The Blue Devils coasted through the Charlotte subregional with surprisingly easy victories over Robert Morris and San Diego State. Both games followed remarkably similar tracks - Duke opened up a big early lead, faltered momentarily midway through the second half, then simply blew the game apart with an dominant run.
"We got beat up by a really good team," SDSU coach Steve Fisher said after Duke's 68-49 win. "I thought when we fought to within seven points [at the 12 minute mark] we had a chance. But they didn't let that happen."
Duke (31-4) is headed for Justise Winslow's home town of Houston next weekend to meet Utah in the regional semifinals. Gonzaga and UCLA will also be in the Houston regional - with games Friday and Sunday.
CBS announced game times for next weekend late Sunday night - Duke will face Utah in the second game from Houston Friday night - probably about a 9:45 pm ET start.
I started to post a brief note about how often Duke has reached the Sweet 16, but when I checked my usual sources, I found a number of different answers - the NCAA record book, the ACC record book and the Duke record book all had different totals.
One of the problems is the NCAA's definition of the Sweet 16. Everybody understands that the Sweet 16 refers to the regional semifinals - the round of eight games that determine the Elite Eight. But once upon a time, the NCAA Tournament included less than 16 teams … and for almost two decades after it first expanded, it was less than 32 teams - meaning that some teams started their tournament journey already in the Sweet 16. Heck, when UNC got an NCAA bid in 1946, the White Phantoms were part of an eight-team field. They had to win just one game to get to the Final Four.
The NCAA decided, in its wisdom, to only count teams that had to win their way into the final 16 as Sweet 16 participants.
Thus Duke's 1955, 1963, 1964 and 1966 appearances in the regional semifinals don't count as Sweet 16 appearances, since Duke was seeded into the Sweet 16 in those years. The 1960 appearance, when Vic Bubas' Blue Devils had to beat Princeton in the round of 32 to reach the regional semifinals should count as Duke's first Sweet 16. But looking at the NCAA numbers, I'm not sure they count it.
So how many are there?
Duke counts 28 Sweet 16s, although that number should be 29 after Sunday's win.
Officially, the NCAA recognizes this year's appearance as Duke's 24th Sweet 16 - the second most Sweet 16s recognized by the NCAA. UNC is first, raising its total to 26 Sweet 16s with Saturday's round of 32 victory over Arkansas. Kentucky also has 24 modern era Sweet 16s - but one of those was vacated, so they are officially down to 23.
There is no debate over Mike Krzyzewski's total - his 22 Sweet 16s is the undisputed leader for all coaches in NCAA history.
But Krzyzewski is not counting his Sweet 16 laurels. Sunday, the Duke coach responded with enthusiasm when asked if this was a team that could win the national championship.
"We have a shot because we're still playing," he said. "There are 16 teams left that still have a shot."
Coach K made it clear that this Duke team is in good shape to go deeper in the tournament.
"One, we're healthy. Hopefully we stay healthy. We weren't healthy the last couple of weeks of the regular season.
"We have great attitudes. They guys aren't mentally tired. They are not physically tired. The guys are together and we have talent. We're getting older by experience.
"We got better here. Our defense was really good here. We shared the ball well.
"It's a young group of kids. They've had a great season and they still want to get better. So we've got a chance."
Mathematically, Duke has a one in 16 chance to win it all. But watching the Devils storm into the Sweet 16 with such ease, you have to think their chances are better than that.
ALL HAIL THE ACC
Between 1980 and 2005, the ACC was the best basketball conference in the NCAA - without debate. The ACC averaged more wins and a better tournament winning percentage than another other conference in that span. It produced more champions, more Final Four teams and more Sweet 16 teams than any other conference.
Over the last nine seasons, the ACC hasn't been that good. It has produced two national title teams (UNC in 2009 and Duke in 2010), but it hasn't produced 10 tourney wins in a season and it has produced three Sweet 16 teams in a season just once (2011) in that span.
But it has all changed in 2015.
The ACC got out of the round of 32 with a 6-0 record. Five of the six ACC teams won into the Sweet 16 - only ACC regular season champion Virginia fell short, losing to Michigan State Sunday in Charlotte.
The five Sweet 16 teams is the best total in ACC history and ties the Big East in 2009 as the best in NCAA Tournament history. The ACC actually has a better record this year than the Big East had in 2009 - 11-1 to 11-2 (the Big East got seven bids in '09).
That 11-1 record is the best of any conference so far in this tournament. The Pac 12, which has three Sweet 16 teams, was 7-1 after Sunday's games.
In fact, here's how the power conferences rank going into the regional semifinals (Sweet 16 teams in parenthesis):
1. ACC (5) 11-1
2. Pac 12 (3) 7-1
3. Big Ten (2) 6-5
4. Big 12 (2) 5-5
5. Big East (1) 5-5
6. SEC (1) 4-4
The ACC has lost a No. 2 seed (Virginia), but advanced a No. 1 (Duke), a No. 3 (Notre Dame), two No. 4s (UNC and Louisville) and a No. 8 (N.C. State). The Wolfpack had to upset No. 1 seed Villanova to reach the regional semifinals.
"We respect Villanova, but we've seen good teams before," N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said after his big win. "In fact, we've seen them all year."
Indeed, that may be the secret of the ACC's success. Not only have the ACC teams tested themselves against the powerful teams at the top of the league, but they've been tested in close game after close game by teams up and down the ACC standings.
This is the closest and most competitive ACC season since 1987 - is it any wonder that ACC teams should win close game after close game in the NCAA Tournament?
The ACC has 11 tournament wins at the moment - already the most it has won in one tournament since 2005. It has a real chance to challenge the single season NCAA Tournament record - 18 wins, set by the Big East in 1985 (when the young league put three teams in the Final Four).
It's probably just a pipe dream, but it's still possible the ACC could fill all four spots in the Final Four. The league still has teams alive in all four regions - indeed, N.C. State and Louisville meet Friday night in Syracuse, meaning the ACC is guaranteed at least one team in the Elite Eight (and a 12th NCAA Tournament win).
The ACC has already had the greatest first two weekends in tournament history.
And while getting four Final Four teams is an extreme longshot, the greatest tournament performance by any league in any tournament in NCAA history is a realistic possibility.