Final Four Contenders
Duke and Miami are not only the two best teams in the ACC, but they are Final Four contenders as well. However, when asked whom they trusted the least among the teams with title dreams, Andy Katz and Jason King chose the Blue Devils and Hurricanes, respectively. Join the debate here:
The deal with the Devils
Duke is in the Final Four discussion heading into the final few weeks of the regular season -- and there is enough talent on hand to justify that. And hey, it's Coach K.
But I have some reservations about the Blue Devils as a serious national-title contender. Duke has been up for the challenge at home, but since the Ryan Kelly injury, the big games away from Cameron have been a challenge and finishing has been a problem. The Devils, suddenly playing very average defense, were overwhelmed at NC State, had a few miscues at the end of the Maryland loss and of course were blindsided by the Miami onslaught.
There are correctable errors, but Duke is still young in some key spots -- even though Rasheed Sulaimon has played well of late. Mason Plumlee is surrounded by youth in the paint and this group is just not that great on the board. And while there is optimism Kelly will return soon (possibly on senior day), no one knows how effective he will be after the injury. Will opposing defenses need to respect his perimeter shot as much if his lateral quickness isn't 100 percent? How many minutes can he go once he's cleared to return to the court?
These are all unknown variables. The play of Quinn Cook at the point and the shooting of Seth Curry on the wing have been reliable sources of production for Duke. And keep in mind: The Blue Devils have actually overachieved this season. Duke has won more elite games than most projected, and the regular-season run of excellence should be celebrated.
But to expect Duke to get to the Final Four, even with a possible No. 1 seed, probably isn't fair. This team isn't as deep or as talented as the 2010 national title team. Duke shouldn't lose in the first round like last year, but projecting a trip to Atlanta is hard for me to do, making the Blue Devils one of the more vulnerable high seeds on the bracket.
Sounding a Hurricane warning
It's easy to buy into the hype surrounding Miami. I certainly have. How can you not admire a team on pace to win just its second ACC title in school history?
How can you not get excited about a squad that rose to No. 2 in the polls -- its highest ranking ever -- after pasting league foes such as Duke and North Carolina? No one should have any issues if second-year coach Jim Larranaga is named national coach of the year.
Still, I'm not sure I can trust the Hurricanes entering the NCAA tournament. I can easily see this team winning a few games and advancing to the Sweet 16 or even the Elite Eight. But I'm not buying Miami as a Final Four squad. One reason is the postseason experience factor. The Canes have been to the NCAA tournament just once in the past decade (2008), and no one on this roster has ever played in the Big Dance. Even though the senior-laden Hurricanes have proved resilient in some pressure-packed moments this season, there is the chance they could be overwhelmed by the hoopla surrounding their first trip to the tourney. It's natural. Mix in the pressure of living up to what should be a 2- or 3-seed, and Miami could crumble.
I'm also concerned with the lack of star power on this roster. Don't take that the wrong way. Miami has plenty of talent, including a few guys such as Kenny Kadji who will play in the NBA. But Final Four teams usually -- not always, but usually -- feature lottery picks. I'm not sure Miami has a player of that caliber, although Shane Larkin might make me eat those words.
Finally, the elephant in the room is that Miami simply hasn't been playing very well lately. The Hurricanes suffered their first ACC loss of the season Saturday when they were blown out by a mediocre Wake Forest squad. Before that, they escaped with a two-point win over Clemson and a four-point victory over Virginia. Could Miami have reached its peak too early? We'll find out next month.