Dan's Road Trip: Fight night
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – For most of the past few decades the most frightening four letters in the NCAA basketball tournament were D-U-K-E.
Find your favorite team squared up against the Blue Devils and odds were good you were losing. Duke has reached 10 Final Fours and captured three national titles under coach Mike Krzyzewski. Maybe even more telling, there have been no major upsets and this team always seems to make the Sweet Sixteen at least.
It's been the closest thing we've seen since the ultimate college hoops closer – John Wooden's four letter U-C-L-A juggernaut that was hardly worth showing up to play against.
But here comes the year there is little reason to fear the Blue Devils. Duke is 22-9, a seventh seed in the ACC tournament and when they reach the NCAAs they'll be neither a high seed nor an unstoppable power. Duke could even be one and done.
Not since the mid-to-late 1990s has Krzyzewski fielded a team with such a limit of pure talent. Granted, this is by Duke's standard. Most teams in America would be quite pleased with 22-9 and the Blue Devils' roster. But in Duke historic terms this team lacks a game-breaking scorer, depth, great athletic ability and experience.
Krzyzewski wasn't pulling punches about it Sunday.
"Carolina is better than we are," he said. "Maryland is better than we are."
He could have gone on but was just mentioning recent losses. Krzyzewski isn't giving in, of course. He believes that a brutal run of schedule has hidden improvements by his team and seems to hope that it will fare better against some fresh, non-ACC opponents.
"We've played a hell of a schedule, especially in February," he said. "Hopefully you improve against that (schedule). I think we have it's just not reflective in the conference record."
Perhaps. Or perhaps not. We'll see in March. But one thing is certain, no one should fear the Blue Devils on Selection Sunday the way they used to. This season at least, this is just another pretty good but hardly great team.
First, the decision by Krzyzewski to defend Henderson and refuse (thus far) to increase his suspension from one game while arguing that the referees shouldn't have made a potential rash decision to rule it a flagrant foul and trigger a one-game suspension. This comes from William Douglas of Frederick, Md.
Here's K's quote last year on Jim Larranaga suspending one of his own players (in the CAA tournament) for hitting another player:
"It sends chills through my entire body to hear what Jim did. Honestly, if he was here right now, I'd give him a big hug. We need more coaches to have the courage to step up in situations like this and say to our kids, 'That's wrong; I'm not making excuses for you.' If I were in the same situation, I hope I'd be gutsy enough and strong enough to do the same thing, but I can't swear to you that I would. If a big-name coach did something like that, people would be fitting him for sainthood by tomorrow."
The second concerns CBS analyst Billy Packer who repeatedly said the foul was not flagrant on the air. Everyone is entitled their own view of it – and Billy has a lot of views on everything – but it was interesting to watch both CBS and, at least Sunday night, ESPN (both broadcast partners with ABC) cover the event.
Packer said it was nothing. ESPN News chose to run the most complimentary quotes from Krzyzewski and UNC coach Roy Williams, not the far more interesting and telling exchange about whether Hansbrough should have been in the game. This looked a lot like a whitewash.
And so Stanley from Enid, Okla. offers:
Watching the Duke-Carolina game Sunday on CBS with Billy Packer doing the color reminded me of something Bones McKinney (Packer's coach at Wake Forest in the 1960's) said in 1972: "I never wanted Billy to inbound the ball because he only wanted to throw it to himself."
• Speaking of Packer (and broadcast partner Jim Nantz) CBS completely wimped out not sending the duo to the Missouri Valley title game Sunday. Their comments last year ripping the NCAA Selection Committee for choosing teams from the Valley and the Colonial Athletic Association rather than the big conferences were both foolish and ill-informed. Neither had any idea how good those leagues were and they proved it with deep runs in the tourney, highlighted by George Mason’s trip to the Final Four.
• Virginia Military, which lost to Winthrop on Saturday in the Big South title game, is my new favorite program. Ever heard of a team that is No. 1 in nation in offense (102.2 points per game) and No. 325 in defense (99.9)? Talk about a players' coach, who wouldn't want to run and gun for Duggar Baucom?
Sure the Keydets wound up 14-19 and if they could ever figure out how to be even moderately below average defensively they might never lose, but they sure are having a good time.
They had offensive outings this year that read off like wrestling weight classes – 125, 135, 144 and 156. In the ultimate basketball culture clash they even hung 68 on Princeton, albeit while giving up 73.
Of course, this is a team that lost three games that they scored 111 or more points.
This season VMI set the NCAA record for most three-pointers attempted and made and, with their daring defensive style, set the record for most steals per game with a mind-bending 15.1. Just take a second to consider that number.
The truth is they committed to the offense in part because of a lack of depth and injuries. And the way they played down the stretch, VMI showed they were much, much better than their record.
"We made this with seven scholarship players, three walk-ons, a football player and a manager," Baucom said.
If they had beaten Winthrop and secured the automatic bid, I was prepared to write a column declaring them the most dangerous 16 seed of all time.
No 16 has ever beaten a one seed, but with a five-out offense (no post play) the possibility for a hot three-point shooting night is always there. And if VMI gets hot, they can beat anyone.
Baucom is a smart coach and, as recruiting improves, this is clearly a program to watch. Usually while enjoying every second of it.
• Winthrop is going to lose a bunch of talented seniors next year but the cupboard will hardly be bare. Coach Gregg Marshall has stacked this place with talent, so no one is too concerned.
"We'll have big shoes to fill," junior Torrell Martin said. "But fortunately everyone on our team has big feet."
• Roy Williams had the Tar Heels cut down one of the Smith Center nets after winning a share of the ACC title Sunday. Since UNC tied with Virginia they left the other one hanging.
"If Virginia wants to drive down here and clip the other net they can," he joked.
• I avoided the interstate on Sunday while driving from Rock Hill, S.C. to Chapel Hill, N.C., which allowed for a tremendously enjoyable drive through rolling hills and farm land on a perfect sunny day in the South. It doesn't get much better than that.
• And in case you were wondering whether Rock Hill can rock, you should have seen Coach Marshall's two victory parties at local establishments – Thursday's Too and Scandals. Winthrop might not be a high major program, but the Eagles fans can go as strong as anyone.
• As for "The Jerome," the Drexel loss in the CAA was almost as crushing to me as it was for Bruiser Flint. A George Mason upset Monday (few, if any, will score points on that one) might save me, though. I'm feeling good, however, about picking Wright State in the Horizon on Tuesday. Butler is struggling a bit and the Nutter Center in Dayton will be wild with long-suffering Wright State fans.
• Meanwhile, my mother has refused to return from New York to see my father, who holed up all weekend watching so much wall-to-wall hoop he might now believe Doug Gottlieb is a member of the family. Of course, she should have known this was coming. Back in the day he asked her to marry him en route to the NIT finals. What a romantic.
• Campaign stops Tuesday: Dayton, Ohio.
- Mike Krzyzewski
- Billy Packer