No. 6 North Carolina At No. 3 Duke
There's a lot on the line in Durham on Saturday night. Bragging rights, for one. The 2012 ACC regular-season title, for another. Ownership of just one more data point in a storied history of back-and-forth acrimony, for a third. The intensity, the anguish, the joy, the victory, the defeat; great rivalries bring all this stuff to the fore, and few pairings in any sport anywhere can match this.
The stakes are specific to the teams, too. For UNC -- particularly for Tyler Zeller, Kendall Marshall, and Harrison Barnes, all of whom contributed to the now-legendary Feb. 8 meltdown -- redemption is on the line. The Tar Heels have lived in their post-disaster reality for nearly a month now, and they'll be driven to wipe the slate clean.
And then there's Duke. The Blue Devils prevailed in the first meeting on Austin Rivers' clutch last-second 3-pointer. On its face, that victory should have given the Blue Devils the perceptive advantage in this rivalry, the ability to say they'd been underrated and overlooked, the chops to enter Saturday night's battle confident, collected, with very little to prove.
Instead, Duke has spent the past month hearing the multitudinous reasons why the Feb. 8 win was a fluke. UNC was better for 37 minutes, especially in the second half. Duke won because the Tar Heels melted down, because Marshall committed uncharacteristic turnovers, because Zeller missed free throws and, fluke of all flukes, even tipped in a Blue Devils shot. (That led to a near-instant Zeller meme. You know the one.)
Plenty of those reasons are valid. UNC was better for most of the 37 minutes that preceded its late collapse, especially the first 17 minutes of the second half. After the game, Coach K readily copped to the idea that -- despite how proud he was of his team for staying together and fighting back and making the big, late plays -- he still thought UNC was the best team in the ACC. At the time, he was right.
UNC was more complete, more athletic, with much better rebounding and defense. The Blue Devils could score in insane bunches, as they'd been doing all season, but they were noticeably and uncharacteristically lacking in other key areas of the game. Case in point: They gave up 1.18 points per trip to the Tar Heels in the first game. They won, of course, but the knocks were obvious and valid. Besides a great offense and an insane final few minutes, what did this Duke team -- which had lost home games to Florida State and Miami in the weeks that preceded it -- really have?
And so, despite the one-game advantage in this 2012 series -- not to mention the seeming psychological edge afforded by that kind of win -- Duke has plenty to prove Saturday night. Since Feb. 8, Duke hasn't allowed more than 1.03 points per trip in any game, and that figure came in an offensively brilliant performance at Florida State. Is that real improvement? The product of mediocre ACC foes? Somewhere in between? Duke's efficiency margin in conference is hardly eye-popping. If there are still doubts about this Blue Devils team, are they well-founded?
Beyond the rivalry, beyond the bragging rights, beyond the ACC title, this is what Duke will put on the line in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday night. As we transition from regular-season basketball to the glories of the NCAA tournament, let's see how fluky Feb. 8 really was.
Watercooler: Finally, March Is Here
Editor's note: Myron Medcalf and Eamonn Brennan got together for their weekly Watercooler chat, discussing Thursday night's results while looking ahead to this weekend's games and the madness of March.
Eamonn Brennan: The greatest month of all the months is upon us, Myron. With it comes the final week of the regular season, bubble crunch time for a wide swath of teams and even less sleep than could be had in January and February. And you know what? Forget sleep. I'm ready. How are you feeling?
Myron Medcalf: I'm with you. I'll sleep in April. I'm ready to go. Excited for the finish. Speaking of the latter: In the middle of the Michigan-Illinois game, I found myself wondering how Illinois has a 7-footer who's a possible lottery pick, some talented weapons around him and size but looks horrible. It's Big Ten tournament title or the NIT for Illinois, right?
EB: Oh, absolutely. After that disastrous late-season slide, the Illini had to beat Michigan and win at Wisconsin this weekend to try to salvage some hope of an at-large bid. Now it's Big Ten tourney title or bust. And news flash, but I'm going to go ahead and predict that Illinois won't win the Big Ten title. The problems that have plagued the Illini all season -- stagnant offense, bad shot selection, underuse of Meyers Leonard, Brandon Paul's chuckfests -- have officially done them in. The same goes for Bruce Weber's tenure at Illinois. That, as they say, is that.
I found myself turning away from Illinois-Michigan to check out a much closer and more competitive game between Florida State and Virginia, which Florida State won, somehow, by draining a well-guarded, last-second 3-pointer.
The shot was great and all, but the most impressive thing? FSU needed a big stop at the end. It got the first, gave up an offensive rebound, then got another to keep the score tied at 60. The Seminoles are still the Seminoles on offense. But as ever, man, do they defend.
MM: They do. That's their bread and butter. In two previous losses to Duke and Miami, the Seminoles didn't have that same defensive bite. But on Thursday night they proved that they can lock down like Alcatraz. Leonard Hamilton will tour the country this summer teaching seminars on the last-second, contested 3-pointer.
Although I give FSU credit for that gutsy win, I think it's time to question its opponent's at-large résumé. Eamonn, you stay up until 4 a.m. to knock out the thorough and essential Bubble Watch. You and others in the Bracketology realm can speak to this issue more eloquently than I can, but what am I missing about Virginia? The Cavs are still living off that win over Michigan, in my opinion. They're like the Chingy of college basketball. Should I be more impressed with their résumé? Am I missing something?
EB: You're not missing a ton. From a strict bubble perspective -- in which we're just talking about wins and losses and computer numbers -- Virginia hardly overwhelms. Now, I think the Cavaliers are better than their record. Five of their seven ACC losses to date have come by a margin of three or fewer points. And they play really good defense, which we've seen all season.
The Cavs will probably get in the tournament, if only because they've got a good-enough RPI and SOS profile and they've mostly handled business against inferior teams in the ACC, which are legion. But I'll admit that the enthusiasm I felt for the Cavaliers early in the year has waned in the latter weeks of February.
MM: Selection Sunday will be interesting. Teams like Virginia and South Florida, which have struggled against the elite in their own conferences. Mid-major leagues (see CAA) pushing for more multiple bids. And then you have the fighters, the teams that might be able to squeeze into the field with a late push. How about Northwestern? As you wrote, why can't that team catch a break? I mean, the Wildcats can't get one bid. Not one? I think there's still time for that program, though. What will it take for Northwestern to make history?
EB: Well, obviously the Wildcats can't lose at Iowa in what promises to be the most hotly anticipated and widely viewed Iowa-Northwestern game of all time. (Not Iowa-Northwestern State. Actually, sorry for bringing that up, Hawkeyes fans. That was mean.) A loss at Iowa would sink the Wildcats, and obviously it depends on what else happens around the bubble, but the bubble is only going to get smaller as the conference tournaments offer up an auto-bid or two that isn't one of the league's obvious at-large candidates. Best advice for the Cats: Beat Iowa, get a win in the Big Ten tournament, then get another. Then we'll see.
To read the rest of The Watercooler chat, click here.
Katz's weekend watch
Noon: West Virginia at South Florida (ESPN3)
Noon: Big South title game (ESPN2)
2 p.m.: Ohio Valley title game (ESPN)
2 p.m.: Georgetown at Marquette (ESPN3)
4 p.m.: Louisville at Syracuse (CBS)
4 p.m.: Vanderbilt at Tennessee (ESPN)
7 p.m.: North Carolina at Duke (ESPN)
7 p.m.: Atlantic Sun title game (ESPN2)
7 p.m.: Baylor at Iowa State (ESPN3)
7 p.m.: San Diego State at TCU (the Mtn.)
9 p.m.: Texas at Kansas (ESPN)
Noon: Kentucky at Florida (CBS)
2 p.m.: Missouri Valley title game (CBS)
4 p.m.: Ohio State at Michigan State (CBS)
6 p.m.: Purdue at Indiana (BTN)
Games to watch
Player to watch
Robbie Hummel, Purdue
The Boilermakers are currently on the right side of the bubble but they would give themselves a huge boost by winning at Indiana. That isn't exactly an easy task. Assembly Hall has swallowed three top-five teams this season and this will be the Hoosiers' last game of a resurgent season. But if anyone is hungry to sew up a bid in March it's Hummel, the twice-injured senior whose career is coming to a close. He has been terrific all season, but especially good lately, averaging 23.6 points and 9.8 rebounds in Purdue's past six games. Not surprisingly, the Boilers have won five of those.
-- Dana O'Neil
I can't wait to see
The temptation in these previews is to look for a game that everybody won't cite, but I'm not even going to try this weekend. I'm looking forward to two things: Michigan State-Ohio State, and Duke-UNC. Four marquee programs, two marquee conference titles on the line, oodles of talent, big-time crowds -- these are the games of the weekend for a reason. Heck, the last time Duke-UNC matched up, we got one of the best games of the season (and, for that matter, in the history of the rivalry). Grab your popcorn, pop open your Twitter feed, sit back and soak it all in.
The last weekend of the season never disappoints, nor will this one. So many great games to choose from -- Ohio State at Michigan State, North Carolina at Duke -- but I'm looking forward to watching some bids being awarded. The Atlantic Sun, Big South, Missouri Valley and Ohio Valley will all crown champions before Sunday night is over, taking up the first few slots on that beautiful bracket.
I'm looking forward to Marquette's regular-season finale against Georgetown in Milwaukee. A victory by the Golden Eagles would give them sole possession of second place in the final Big East conference standings. That would be quite an accomplishment for a team that is playing without injured forwards Chris Otule and Davante Gardner. Coach Buzz Williams' squad could use a momentum boost after Wednesday's 11-point loss to Cincinnati. It was just the second defeat for Marquette in its past 14 games. Georgetown is one game behind Marquette (13-4) in the league standings. If the Hoyas win, as many as four schools (Georgetown, Marquette, South Florida and Notre Dame) could finish tied for second place. Each of those teams is 12-5.
I can't wait to see Kentucky visit Florida on Sunday. The Wildcats are 15-0 in the SEC, and they're on the brink of something no team has achieved for nine seasons: going undefeated in major-conference play. The last team to do that, coincidentally enough, was Kentucky in 2003. It's a pretty big thing, but the host Gators will be in no mood to let history be made on their court. Billy Donovan's team has limped through a 3-4 stretch the past three weeks, but a win over the No. 1 team in the nation would work wonders for this team's psyche. No SEC team launches more 3-pointers than the Gators. If enough of those outside shots fall for Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker and Bradley Beal, maybe -- just maybe -- UF can topple the giant. That'd be a great story. Kentucky going 16-0 would be a great story. I'll be watching.
I can't wait to watch Baylor at Iowa State. There is still a lot on the line for both teams. With a win, Iowa State can finish tied for third in the Big 12 after it was predicted to finish eighth. It's already been a tremendous second season for coach Fred Hoiberg and his Cyclones, but a third-place finish is probably beyond what anyone expected. All the transfers have meshed well (Royce White, Chris Allen, Chris Babb, Anthony Booker) in Hoiberg's up-tempo, 3-point-happy offense. Baylor is looking to continue to build its résumé for the NCAA tourney with a solid road win. Pierre Jackson has been the team's most consistent player throughout the season. Perry Jones III had 18 points and seven rebounds in the first matchup, and he will have to play well for the Bears to not feel any of that Hilton Magic.
I can't wait to see the pair of Saturday games in the Big East. Who could have known that UConn (vs. Pitt) and WVU (at South Florida) would be playing for their seasons in these regular-season finales? The two teams have combined to lose 16 of their last 22 games. Both need wins simply to keep NCAA at-large hopes alive heading to the Big East tournament next week.