WASHINGTON, D.C. – When the brackets for the 2016 ACC Tournament were announced, it was obvious that Duke’s second-round opponent would be N.C. State.
It’s not that the Wolfpack was an overwhelming favorite to be Wake Forest in the tourney’s first round Tuesday (the two teams did after all split in the regular season) … it was just that when it comes to the ACC Tournament, Duke and N.C. State ALWAYS seem to find each other.
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In fact, the Duke-State matchup is the most-played game in ACC Tournament history. The two Tobacco Road rivals have met on 25 previous occasions, including the last two years in a row. The Blue Devils have a 16-9 edge in tournament play and have dominated lately, winning seven of the last eight matchups.
In fact, Duke has won 22 of the last 23 meetings with State that were not played in Raleigh.
Nevertheless, N.C. State’s players welcomed another shot at Duke.
"It’s great to play Duke again," Cat Barber said. "We’re not scared. We’re going to be ready. We’re going to be ready. I’m going to keep saying that – we’re going to be ready."
N.C. State faces some of the same challenges that confront Duke in this event. The Pack is not a very deep team. Barber played 40 minutes in Tuesday’s 75-72 win over Wake Forest. Six players split 194 minutes between them – seventh man Leonard Freeman, who is badly hobbled by a bum leg, managed just six minutes off the bench.
The opening game of the tournament was amazingly competitive. The two teams were within three points of each other for 37 of the game’s 40 minutes. N.C. State briefly built a seven-point lead in the final minute – thanks to a torrid streak by freshman forward Maverick Rowan (who had three 3-pointers and drew a foul on a fourth 3-pointer in a two-minute span).
Afterwards, N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried, perhaps inspired by the rhetoric of recent Republican debates, told the press that his first-year marksman "has a pair of steel ones down there."
But Wake clawed back, behind a strong performance by freshman Bryant Crawford, a D.C. native, and had three 3-point shots in the final 17 seconds to tie the game.
But none connected, ending a dismal 11-20 season for the Deacs.
N.C. State, which evened its record at 16-16, still has a chance to salvage a winning season with two more tournament wins.
To even think about doing that, the Pack has to get past a Duke team that beat them 88-68 in Raleigh and 88-80 in Durham.
That evokes another bit of history.
The very first Duke-State game in the ACC Tournament was in the semifinals of the very first ACC event in 1954. The Blue Devils had narrowly edged the Pack twice in the regular season. But before the Friday night matchup, Wolfpack coach Everett Case met with several reporters in his office and uttered what became a famous quote: "It’s very hard to beat a good team three times in a season."
True to his prediction, Case’s Pack edged Hal Bradley’s Blue Devils 79-75.
Case’s quote would be repeated endlessly over the years – often by sources that left out a key word from the quote. Remember, Case said it’s hard to beat a "good" team three times.
That raises the question: Is N.C. State a good team?
The answer is that they can be. The Pack beat Miami by 16, beat Pittsburgh by 17 in front of the Oakland Zoo and edged Clemson – three teams that beat Duke.
But N.C. State couldn’t sustain any consistency, losing to the likes of William & Mary and needing a last-second miracle to edge hapless Boston College.
The Pack also lost those two games to Duke. In both games, the Devils were torrid from 3-point range, hitting 10 of 25 in Raleigh and 14 of 28 in Durham.
But Mike Krzyzewski is more concerned with the free throw numbers. When Duke won in Raleigh, the Devils took just 18 shots from the line … in the rematch, Duke hit 24 of 32 free throws.
"We’ve have to get the foul line, which is what we’ve done a lot this season until lately," the Duke coach said last week. "Because we don’t have an inside game. So the 3-point shooting is complimented by free throws.
"That’s who we are."
Duke is also a six-man rotation that might not have the depth to win the four games in four days that it will take to win this tournament. But fatigue and endurance should be in Duke’s favor in Wednesday’s game.
ACC NOTES AND SCENES
-- Duke won the only other ACC Tournament played in the Verizon Center (then known as the MCI Center) in 2005, beating Georgia Tech in the finals as J.J. Redick won MVP honors.
UNC was also the No. 1 seed in 2005, losing to Georgia Tech in the semifinals.
-- Duke might want to avoid the Pack next season – State’s last three ACC Tournament wins over the Blue Devils have come in 1987, 1997 and 2007. In each case, a lower seeded State team beat the favored Devils.
-- Many of the media members and fans driving up from North Carolina to Washington Monday encountered massive traffic problems on I-95, just south of Springfield. The highway was shut down for several hours when an accident weakened an overpass support, forcing traffic to be re-routed through city streets.
I avoided the problem by making the first train trip of my life. The Silver Star took six hours from Raleigh to Washington and arrived at Union Station some 45 minutes late … but was still faster than driving would have been – and I don’t have to pay parking fees for the week!
-- Maryland might be missing this week at the Verizon Arena, but at least one fan of the Terps made it inside. Seated behind the N.C. State, he held up a "Go Terps" sign during timeouts.
Many were surprised that the ACC returned to Washington after Maryland’s departure from the ACC. But the league wanted to retain the nation’s capital as an ACC city … and while nobody will admit it, it was kind of a slap at the Terps to put tournament in their backyard.
Another fan behind the scorer’s table held up a banner proclaiming Gonzaga – not Mark Few’s famous Bulldogs, but a homage to Wake’s Bryant Crawford who played at Gonzaga High School in D.C.
-- Virginia Tech beat writers were upset that VPI coach Buzz Williams lost the ACC coach of the year honors to Miami’s Larranaga (by a close 22-20 vote).
The fact is that Williams’ lifted Virginia Tech from two ACC wins in his first season at Blacksburg to 10 ACC wins in 2016 – that’s the second-best single season improvement in ACC history.
The coach of the year vote should have been tied – Saturday morning I was consulting with a very well-respected writer as to our All-ACC picks. I argued for Williams and he pushed Larranaga.
I can understand that – at that point, Miami was tied for the ACC lead and had a chance to win the title outright or clinch a tie for the title later in the day. But the ‘Canes were playing at Virginia Tech – and that gave me an idea. I proposed to my friend that we make a pack and agree to vote for the winner of that game.
Had Miami won, I would have voted for Larranaga (and I would have felt good about it, since he would have guided his team to the ACC title). But with Virginia Tech winning, that created the eight game improvement for the Hokies and left Miami tied for second place in the league.
My friend agreed to the bet … but he reneged and voted for Larranaga, even after Williams’ Hokies hammered the Canes in the final.
-- Boston College lost to Florida State in Tuesday’s second first-round game, ending what may be the worst season in ACC history.
The Eagles became the first team in league history to lose 19 ACC games and the first without a conference win since Maryland in 1987.
Boston College also lost 25 games total – the most by an ACC basketball team EVER (beating the 24 losses by Jeff Bzdelik’s first Wake Forest team in 2011).
The Eagles also became the first school in ACC history to go through a school year without a win in either football or basketball.