For Duke the tournament starts on Thursday in Providence with UNC-Wilmington.
As we said earlier this week the four North Carolina ACC teams tend to overshadow the other D-1 programs in the state, but at that's partly hype. There are a lot of solid programs in this state - Davidson obviously. UNC-Asheville has a bit of a history. NCCU is a bit down this year but the Eagles have been superb over the last few years. High Point has its moments. Barton won a D-II championship not too long ago. Basketball is deep here. Like Kentucky, Indiana and Kansas, and to lesser extents Utah and Alaska, this is a basketball state.
Other than Davidson and lately NCCU, no one has done much better than UNC-Wilmington. Most memorably when Brad Brownell was there, they came within a last-second three pointer by Drew Nicholas from knocking Maryland off in the first round when the Terps were defending national champions.
The Seahawks appear to have made a similarly wise coaching hire in Kevin Keatts.
Keatts, a former Rick Pitino assistant, has done a great job at Wilmington.
Four years ago Wilmington was 10-20. Three years ago? 9-23.
In Keatts' first year he led Wilmington to an 18-14 record. This year, so far, Wilmington is 25-7, with losses to Georgetown, ECU, Radford, Northeastern, Towson, William & Mary (along with a double OT win and don't forget that like Northeastern, W&M upset NC State this year) and Hofstra.
It won't surprise us at all if Keatts moves on after this season. Lots of places should look at a guy like him, including, if the job opens, Georgia Tech. He's shown plenty.
As for his team, he likes a deep roster and likes to press. This is potentially a big problem for Duke, which as most of you know has a woefully thin roster. As it has been all season, fatigue and fouls are as big a problem for Duke as anyone in a uniform.
Duke has learned to play with these problems as well as can be expected and this team has shown a warrior's instinct. More often than not they've come through but towards the end of the season it all added up. So a good rest has been key for Duke and perhaps most of all for Matt Jones, who has been playing on two sore ankles.
Duke's rotation has been six or seven, depending on how Chase Jeter plays. At the very end of the season he really turned it up and given his athleticism, he could be a big help against the Seahawks.
Wilmington's big three are Chris Flemmings, Denzel Ingram and Craig Ponder.
The 6-1 Ponder is a nice story. He's been through a lot at Wilmington and is ending his career - whenever it ends - on a nice note. Everyone should appreciate guys who hang in there like that. He's averaging 11.1 ppg and 3.1 apg.
Flemmings, 6-5, started at Barton and transferred to Wilmington where he's now a junior. He's a native of Cary who's averaging 16.1 ppg. He's hitting 51.3%. He's also Wilmington's best rebounder at 5.9 per game.
His mom, who lives in Cary, is a huge Duke fan who once hilariously told her son that if Wilmington played Duke she'd pull for Duke.
She's pulling for UNC-W this Thursday obviously and we hope she gets to pull for Duke Saturday.
Denzel Ingram, a 6-0 native of Chapel Hill, is averaging 12.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg and 3.4 apg.
Most of Wilmington's recruiting is in-state (eight guys) although they have kids from West Virginia, Florida, Kentucky, Georgia and Ohio.
Chuck Ogbodo, 6-9, is from Nigeria but went to high school in High Point.
Wilmington has a depth advantage while Duke has the better talent.
Wilmington is also much more experienced. Sign of the times: Coach K confirmed Wednesday that Brandon Ingram will be one-and-done and it was almost under the radar.
However, Wilmington has an advantage that Duke cannot have and has not had for decades: being the motivated underdog.
All those kids from this state grew up seeing Jason Williams, JJ Redick, Jason Williams and lots of other guys.
For Duke, it's an opponent of whom you should be wary because, as Coach K said, Wilmington can absolutely win this game (he warned us about Mercer too, if you remember).
For Wilmington it's an opportunity to reach for greatness, for legend, for something no one at that school will ever forget.
The Seahawks, in other words, are a really good team with great motivation. Duke will have to match an emotional fever pitch to win this game. You might think it's going to be easy.
Don't. Because it probably won't.