ACC Tournament: No. 2 seed Duke still a favorite
By Aaron Beard
GREENSBORO — While fifth-ranked Duke isn’t the top seed in this week’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, the Blue Devils have history of winning regardless of where they’re seeded.
Duke is the No. 2 seed as it tries to win the tournament for the 10th time in 13 years, a run that has pushed the Blue Devils ahead of rival North Carolina for most titles with 18.
“We always thought it was really important, and it is, and prepared as such,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It’s a lot, there’s no question about that. You have to be a little bit lucky. … We were good and probably healthy and we placed a lot of importance on it.”
The emphasis has worked for the Blue Devils (27-4), the highest ranked ACC team in The Associated Press Top 25. Their run has spanned some of Duke’s biggest names like Elton Brand, Jay Williams, Shane Battier and J.J. Redick.
Now, with reigning ACC player of the year Nolan Smith and returning Final Four most outstanding player Kyle Singler, the Blue Devils can erase some of the sting of losing the regular-season title to the Tar Heels in Saturday’s winner-take-all matchup with another strong showing in Greensboro.
“Any tournament situation, every team’s kids are going to go out and play as hard as they can,” Smith said. “But if you’re prepared better than the opponent, then you have a better chance of winning. And our coaching staff just does a great job of staying up all night, waking us up early and having film ready for us to see who we’re getting ready to play. We listen.”
Duke had a record run of five straight titles from 1999-2003, then lost in overtime to Maryland in the 2004 final. The Blue Devils came back to win two more in 2005 and 2006, then won the past two seasons. Five of those nine championships have come as a No. 2 or a No. 3 seed, while the 2001 and 2010 ACC tournament titles helped propel the Blue Devils on NCAA championship runs.
The Blue Devils have remained steady while other teams have risen then fallen away over the years. They’ve beaten six different teams in the final and won the tournament in years when Maryland (2002) and North Carolina (2005, 2009) went on to win national championships.
Duke’s immediate concerns are regrouping after the emotional loss to the Tar Heels as well as Singler’s shaky shooting of late.
“They’ve set the standard which right now a lot of the programs in the ACC are being compared to on a yearly basis,” said Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, whose Seminoles lost to Duke in the 2009 final. “But with all that said, I think anything is capable of happening when you have two ACC teams together.
“Duke’s been able to be more consistent than the rest of us, but not because they haven’t been in some very competitive games. They’ve just had a little bit of an edge and they’ve been able to overcome some of the things the rest of us have not been able to overcome.”
Of course, the Tar Heels will wear an equally glaring bullseye as the No. 1 seed even after spending all season climbing the league standings. North Carolina has won 17 of 19 games since a December loss to Texas on a last-second shot in the Greensboro Coliseum.
“It’s just a slight change of focus knowing that the target’s on our back,” said freshman Harrison Barnes, the ACC rookie of the year. “We’re coming in as the No. 1 seed so everyone’s going to come have it out for us. We have to come ready to play.”
There’s plenty of intrigue behind the top two seeds. Third-seeded Florida State hopes top scorer and rebounder Chris Singleton might return after missing a month with a broken right foot. The next three seeds — Clemson, Boston College and Virginia Tech — are playing to help their chances of making the NCAA tournament.
The NCAA uncertainty has become an annual tradition for the Hokies, who missed the NCAAs the past three seasons. This time, they followed a resume-enhancing upset of Duke by losing to the Eagles and Tigers to close the regular season. Virginia Tech faces Georgia Tech in Thursday’s last first-round game.
“Right now, we’re not playing this game for the bubble talk,” Hokies all-ACC guard Malcolm Delaney said after Wednesday’s practice here. “We’re trying to win a championship. If we don’t get there, then we don’t.”
In addition, there’s are questions about the job security for Miami coach Frank Haith, North Carolina State coach Sidney Lowe and Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt. Their teams are seeded 9, 10 and 11, respectively.
Lowe called the questions “part of the business” and said he wasn’t focused on whether he’s done enough to return for a sixth season.
“You know what, that’s not in my hands,” Lowe said. “That’s in other people’s hands and we’re going to see what we’ll do here. Right now the focus is to try to come into this tournament and try to win.”