The late Jim Valvano was one of the best tournament coaches I ever saw.
Obviously, his 1983 NCAA championship run with the Cardiac Pack is the stuff of legends. But it was more than that – Valvano consistently maxed his team’s chances at tournament time.
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Look at these numbers – in 10 seasons at N.C. State, his teams were barely over .500 in regular season ACC play (.507), but he was .529 in ACC Tournament play, winning two titles (as a No. 4 and No. 6 seed) and a phenomenal .700 in NCAA play!
Jimmy V was a master at focusing on the game – and the moment -- at hand. Survive and advance was his tournament motto.
And it worked.
But there was one instance when Valvano forgot his own tournament philosophy – and it cost him. In 1988, his 24-7 team (second in the ACC regular season) was seeded No. 3 in the Midwest Regional. That was no problem.
However, Valvano looked at his bracket and saw that N.C. State faced a potential second-round game against No. 6 Kansas in Lincoln, Neb. (a reasonable drive for Kansas fans).
You might not understand how distasteful that potential matchup was to Valvano and N.C. State. Kansas for Valvano was like … well, like Michigan State for Tony Bennett … like Kentucky for Dave Odom’s best Wake Forest teams … like UNC or Duke for Tom Izzo.
N.C. State was 0-4 against Kansas between 1986 and 1988, including a loss in the 1986 Midwest Regional championship game (in Kansas City, no less) and a homecourt loss to the Jayhawks earlier in the 1988 season
Valvano also knew that Kansas, which featured a veteran team headed by national player of the year Danny Manning, was woefully underseeded. At his pre-NCAA press conference at Reynolds Coliseum before leaving for Lincoln, Valvano did almost nothing except complain about the unfairness of having to face Kansas again in the second round.
But Valvano forgot one thing – his first game was not against Kansas, but against No. 14 seed Murray State. And, not surprisingly, considering his pre-tourney focus on the Jayhawks, N.C. State lost to the Racers in the first round. He never got to face Kansas in the first place.
I think that situation is one of the great cautionary tales that coaches, teams and fans should remember as they look at their bracket and plot their NCAA futures.
By the way, Valvano’s complaints about Kansas’ seeding proved right on the money as the Jayhawks stormed through the tournament to claim the 1988 NCAA championship.
Mike Krzyzewski is also one of the best tournament coaches I’ve ever seen.
His teams don’t often have a chance to overachieve, since they are usually seeded very highly. Still, his five NCAA titles, his 11 regional championships and his 13 ACC Tournament championships certainly testify to his success as a tournament coach.
Just for the record, Krzyzewski is .711 in ACC regular season play, .713 in ACC Tournament play and .772 in NCAA Tournament play.
At least that’s the number going into this year’s NCAA Tournament. Perhaps the greatest testament to Coach K’s prowess as a tournament coach is that unless he reaches the Final Four, his NCAA winning percentage will drop – even an Elite Eight appearance would fall short of his average NCAA performance.
Early in his career – back when Krzyzewski was leading Duke to seven Final Fours in a nine-season span – the Duke coach told the media that his approach to NCAA play was a slight variation on Valvano’s theme. Instead of taking it one game at a time, his philosophy was to treat every NCAA weekend as a mini-tournament – four teams, playing three games in a three-day span to determine a "champion".
Coach K never wanted his players to look ahead – even to the next opponent in the mini-tournament. But he and his staff had to prepare his team to play and win both games. Do that, then he’d worry about the next weekend’s mini-tournament.
Using that approach, this weekend’s task is simple. Forget about repeating as national champion. Forget about a potential Sweet 16 matchup with No. 1 seed Oregon in Anaheim.
Concentrate instead on the Providence mini-tournament and the four contenders there (with their seeds):
1. Duke (23-10)
2. Baylor (22-11)
3. Yale (22-6)
4. UNC Wilmington (25-7)
Duke would have preferred a Friday/Sunday site to Providence, where the games are Thursday/Saturday. An extra day’s rest would have helped. But Krzyzewski has to be delighted with his game-one start time – 12:15 p.m. Thursday. That will provide at least 48 hours cushion between game one and a potential game two on Saturday.
In the past, Duke has been asked to play a late Thursday game, then come back early Saturday and play again. That would have been tougher for this year’s Duke team.
The Duke academic schedule also offers Krzyzewski one huge advantage. The team is on spring break this week, meaning that his players will be able to concentrate entirely on basketball for a week.
It’s kind of the UNC experience – no classes, just hoops.
When K looks at the Providence field, he’ll see one familiar opponent – No. 3 seeded Yale came to Cameron in December and lost to Duke, 80-61. That was a far more competitive game than indicated by the final score … plus Duke had Amile Jefferson for that game.
Duke has not faced UNC Wilmington since 1982 – when K’s worst Blue Devil team edged the Seahawks in overtime in Cameron.
You might remember UNC Wilmington from 2002 or 2003, when the Seahawks suffered two excruciating NCAA Tournament losses, blowing a 19-point lead in a loss to Southern Cal in 2002 and falling to Maryland’s defending national champs in 2003 on a Drew Nicholas shot at the buzzer.
This Wilmington team is coached by Kevin Keatts, a product of Rick Pitino’s staff at Louisville. He was on the bench in Indianapolis when the Cards knocked off Duke in the 2013 regional championship game.
Not surprisingly, the Seahawks play a pressing style – much like Louisville plays. But Wilmington is not quite as uptempo as you might think – just 87th nationally in adjusted tempo. They do defend the 3-pointer well (11th best in Division 1), but they also foul a lot and give up a lot of points inside – one reason their adjusted defensive rating is 104th nationally, according to Pomeroy.
Wilmington shared the Colonial Athletic Conference title with Hofstra, then beat Hofstra in the CAA Tournament title game to earn its NCAA bid. The Colonial, normally one of the nation’s weakest leagues, was much better this season (ninth nationally, according to Pomeroy; 10th in the RPI).
Wilmington faced one team from a major conference this season and that happens to be the one common opponent with Duke. The Seahawks lost 87-82 to Georgetown in December, not long after Duke (with Jefferson) edged the Hoyas, 86-84.
Duke’s Thursday opponent has not beaten a top 50 opponent this season – indeed, the Seahawks have not FACED a top 50 opponent.
In many ways, the team Duke will face first in the NCAA Tournament will look like the Blue Devils. Although Keatts has a number of big men, he has elected to go small – usually playing three guards and four perimeter players around one big. The key player for the Seahawks is 6-5 Chris Flemmings, a transfer from Division II Barton College. The backcourt is a bit small, but both Denzel Ingram (a transfer from UNC Charlotte) and veteran point guard Jordon Talley are quick, athletic players.
Pomeroy gives Duke a 72 percent chance of beating UNC Wilmington, predicting an 81-75 score.
That seems reasonable, but no one who saw Duke upset by Lehigh and Mercer is going to take any game lightly. Wilmington doesn’t really resemble either of those those two earlier Duke-killers – Lehigh had the best player on the floor in Greensboro four years ago, future pro C.J. McCollum (who is currently averaging over 20 points a game for the Trail Blazers); Mercer featured a very experienced group of players who had played together for several years.
UNC Wilmington is certainly a team Duke must respect, but not fear.
THE BATTLE FOR CONFERENCE SUPREMACY
If Duke does face Baylor Saturday in the championship game of the Providence mini-tournament, it could play into a larger battle – the battle for conference superiority.
For the last two years, ESPN and the national media have portrayed the Big 12 as the strongest conference in college basketball. Even last season’s NCAA Tournament flop – the Big 12 was a dismal 5-7 with just two Sweet 16 teams and nothing beyond that – didn’t chance the narrative. ESPN’s chief basketball writer just picked three Big 12 teams to reach the Final Four.
Meanwhile, the ACC is coming off one of the great NCAA performances of all time – all six NCAA entries won their first game, five reached the Sweet 16, three reached the Elite Eight and Duke won the national championship – an overall NCAA record of 17-5.
The ACC got seven bids Sunday – matching the best in ACC history. But the Big 12, Big Ten and Pac 10 also got seven bids each. The fifth BCS conference – the SEC – got just three bids and one of them was in the play-in game.
So the combat for conference supremacy is pretty clearly defined. That will make head-to-head confrontations between the four heavyweights especially important.
The ACC has just one or two heavyweight bouts in the first round: No. 10 Pittsburgh faces No. 7 Wisconsin (Big Ten) in St. Louis.; No. 6 Notre Dame could face No. 11 Michigan (Big Ten) in Brooklyn, if the Wolverines survive their play-in game with Tulsa.
In the second round, there are five potential heavyweight bouts for the ACC:
-- No. 1 North Carolina could face No. 8 Southern Cal (Pac 10) in Raleigh
-- No. 1 Virginia could face No. 8 Texas Tech (Big 12) in Raleigh
-- No. 10 Syracuse could face No. 2 Michigan State (Big Ten) in St. Louis
-- No. 3 Miami could face No. 6 Arizona (Pac 10) or No. 11 Vanderbilt (SEC) in Providence.
And the big one:
No. 4 Duke could face No. 5 Baylor (Big 12) in Providence.
Blue Devils fans will remember knocking off Baylor in Houston to earn a trip to the 2010 Final Four. That was a better Baylor team, although it was a better Duke team too.
How will Duke fare in a second-round matchup with this Baylor team … 48 hours or so after facing UNC Wilmington?
The Bears finished fifth in the Big 12, but were 0-7 against the league’s top three teams (Kansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia). They did sweep Iowa State and won two of three from Texas.
Baylor is very big up front, anchored by 6-8, 275-poind senior Rico Gathers. But the team’s best player is a slightly more slender 6-8 senior – Taurean Prince.
The Bears prefer a slow tempo, but their strength up front will present Duke a problem.
But I’m banking on my belief that the ACC – and not the Big 12 – is the best conference in America. If the Blue Devils have to get past Baylor (it could be Yale) to reach the Anaheim mini-tournament, I like their chances.
-- Watching the ESPN Selection Show Sunday night reminds me of what a terrible job CBS does with college basketball.
The network’s studio anchor desk is a joke. Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith might be a great NBA team, but neither has even an average fan’s knowledge of college basketball – watching Barkley struggle with the touch screens was just a another example of their ineptitude.
But "reporters" Seth Davis and Doug Gottlieb are also embarrassments – although, to be fair, Gottlieb told Dave Glenn last month that neither he nor Davis even pretend to be journalists … they are basically gossip columnists, posing as basketball experts.
What a shame that college basketball’s big moment every year is pre-empted by those lame CBS clowns.
-- The final count is in and Duke played 14 NCAA teams this season.
Duke beat six NCAA-bound teams – No. 1 seed UNC, No. 1 seed Virginia, No. 5 Indiana, No. 10 VCU, No. 12 Yale, and No. 14 Buffalo.
Duke lost to eight NCAA-bound teams – No. 1 UNC, No. 3 Miami, No. 3 Utah, No. 4 Kentucky, No. 6 Notre Dame – twice, No. 10 Pittsburgh and No. 10 Syracuse.
The Devils also went 1-1 against Louisville, which is on self-imposed probation, but is clearly an NCAA-quality team.
That means Duke lost to one real non-NCAA team – at Clemson in January.
-- The ACC put three teams in the NIT field, giving the league a record 10 postseason teams.
All three will open at home – No. 3 seed Virginia Tech against Princeton; No. 4 seed Florida State against Davidson; and No. 4 Georgia Tech against Houston (the one academy battle the ACC school could win).
Surprising that Clemson, which tied Virginia Tech for seventh in the ACC and finished ahead of Florida State and Georgia Tech, got left out, especially after Clemson coach Brad Brownell lobbied for an NIT bid after losing in the ACC Tournament to Georgia Tech.
Still, the NIT Selection Committee had a tough job – with 15 regular season champions losing in their tournaments (any regular season conference champ without an NCAA bid gets an NIT bid automatically) that left just 17 at-large bids in the 32-team field.
Probably the most surprising NIT omission was LSU and Ben Simmons. But that was the school’s choice – athletic director Joe Alleva turned down the bid. That program is in a shambles at the moment … the late-season suspension of Simmons was the first sign of trouble and the Tigers’ shameful performance in the SEC Tournament semifinals was just another indication of internal trouble.
BTW: Props to Matt Schick, who hoisted the NIT bracket show with a shot as CBS’s bloated NCAA show: "Good news, our bracket has not been leaked on-line and we’re only going to make you wait 30 minutes to see our field."
-- Personally, I appreciate the NCAA Selection Committee’s work with one small caveat.
I was glad to see that bubble team St. Mary’s missed (if you want an at large bid as a mid-major from one of the worst conferences in America, play somebody in the non-conference) and that Wichita State got in (early season injuries impacted their record). I have mixed feelings about leaving Monmouth out —they did do well against an ambitious non-conference schedule, but they also had three of the worst losses by anybody in the field.
My only small quibble was the selection of Syracuse as an at large team. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Orange deserved to be in the field based on their resume. Pomeroy rated Syracuse 41st nationally – ahead of at least 10 at large teams.
My complaint is with the explanation that Selection Committee Chairman Joe Castiglione gave CBS:
"I’ve said from Day One that we treat player availability and coach availability the same," he said.
Well, that’s fine in theory. But there is a difference between giving a team a break for missing a key player with an injury (such as Wichita State losing several games without Fred VanVleet) and a school struggling because its coach was suspended.
That’s supposed to be a punishment, not an excuse to lose. Taking Boeheim’s absence into account when seeding the ‘Cuse makes a joke of the NCAA’s punishment.
On the other hand, I did appreciate and agree with much of what Castiglione said about including Syracuse.
"In case of Syracuse, you look at what they did," he said. "Five top-50 wins, three of those came away from home, eight top 100 wins overall. We noticed the neutral site sin over UConn, which won its league championship today. The neutral site win over Texas A&M and obviously the win over Duke."
Other than that, very few complaints. Oh, maybe if I were doing it, I’d have flip-flopped No. 1 Virginia and No. 2 Michigan State in the Midwest, because I’d like to reward a team that won its conference in a close head-to-head with a team that lost its tourney finals.
But that’s really no big deal.
One final word: Some of my UNC friends (and, yes, I do have UNC friends) are crying about their potential Sweet 16 matchup against Kentucky. They should be sending the selection Committee gifts for shipping Villanova to the South Regional and giving them Xavier as the No. 2 seed in their region.
Not only is Villanova clearly the better team (they finished two games ahead of Xavier in the Big East, went farther in the Big East tournament, ranked 10 spots higher in Pomeroy, ranked higher in the RPI and ranked higher in this week’s two polls), but if Villanova stays in the East (as they should have), UNC could have ended up playing a Philly school in Philadelphia for the right to go the Final Four,
Instead, Kansas – the No. 1 seed in the entire tournament – draws the better No. 2 than UNC … but at least the Jayhawks won’t have to play them in Philadelphia.
So quit complaining Tar Heels – you dodged a potential bullet.
Overall, I like the committee’s work.
And I’m looking forward to see how it plays out.