With ten minutes left in the second half, the Carolina buzz began.
It's hard to determine exactly why the Tar Heel fans were so different from their Duke counterparts in Greensboro. While the latter seemed to watch games in a state of anxiety, their relieved outbursts coming mostly after the team's success, the Carolina faithful took a more active role. Maybe it was a matter of necessity; for the third straight game, Carolina found themselves down by double digits late in the second half. Or maybe they just understood their own power. Against Miami and Clemson, the growing hum at the very start of the tidal wave seemed to spark some dormant energy in the players. It was like the fans created the comeback, rather than reacting to it.
But their groundswell didn't emerge from a vacuum; they needed something, a seed of hope to build on. It didn't have to be a stunning reversal; a small token would do, a brief flare of life. So when Harrison Barnes scored five points in 40 seconds, cutting Duke's lead to single digits for the first time since the 11:18 mark of the first half, the roar began. The formula began to play out. The clock went under 6:00, the Carolina five shouted themselves awake, and the stadium came to the verge of eruption. It was like watching a single organism, all parts working in unison, employing every function of its evolved form in the task of survival.
And then Nolan Smith beat Kendall Marshall for the umpteenth time, found his way into the lane, and threw a beautiful across-the-body pass to Seth Curry on the wing. When the shot fell, so did the shoulders of the tireless powder blue supporters. For the first time in three days, the fans lost their heart. The players lost their legs.
Slowly, but steadily, you could hear the mounting chant: "Let's...go...Duke!"
You couldn't have scripted a better game. In a winner-take-all rubber match between the two best teams in the ACC, the Devils played their best game of the season since Kyrie went down. The puffed chests of Carolina nation, swelled to absurd degrees after the win in the Dean Dome, have been emphatically deflated. For another year, there can be no debate about the best team in the ACC.
In a season marked by unbalanced play from Duke, the contributions came from all sides. Miles Plumlee scored 9 points on 4-4 shooting, grabbed 7 boards, and took an absolutely critical charge when Carolina's threat began in the second half. Andre Dawkins started the game on fire, hitting three from deep to spring Duke to its early lead. Ryan Kelly played a beautifully consistent game, hitting on 4 of 7 and nailing the three that iced the game for good. Mason Plumlee cleaned up on the glass and contained the prolific Zeller-Henson combo. Kyle Singler bottled up Harrison Barnes, a guy coming off a 40-point performance against Clemson. Josh Hairston celebrated to an extreme and impressive degree for a guy who played for less than a minute. DukeBluePlanet had a great tweet after the game about the non-seniors:
"Dre, Mason, Miles, Seth, Ryan: 18-26 FG, 7-11 3pt in this game."
And Nolan Smith was Nolan Smith. 20 points, 10 assists. My favorite Dukie of all time ended his ACC career as a champion. His incredible defense on Kendall Marshall cut the head off the Carolina beast, reducing the Heels to a stagnant version of their explosive offense.
It was nothing less than a perfect game. And I guarantee you this: the Carolina players and all their fans are spending Monday morning wishing one of those incredible comebacks against Miami and Clemson hadn't panned out. Now they'll go and lose sometime before the Final Four, and no matter what happens in April, the lingering image for their summer will be of Nolan Smith and the Dukies celebrating in Greensboro.
The verdict is in, and I'm afraid it must be said:
That accomplished, it wouldn't be sporting if we didn't tip our cap. Winning that game against Clemson would not have been half as satisfying, and that owes everything to Carolina's great year and the tragedy at the Dean Dome. And even though I firmly believe Duke is the better team, and we won despite not getting a single call in the second half and playing a semi-road game, I know the conditions were not ideal for Carolina. They dug their own hole, but two energy-sapping comebacks don't exactly leave a team in ideal shape to withstand a force like Duke. Looking back, it's hard to imagine the thread of this game unspooling differently, though none of us felt that way at the time. And today, though the result may seem inevitable, it's no less triumphant. It feels really, really good to be a Duke fan.
Let's take a quick look at the Four Factors:
The Heels just couldn't shoot. Everything that fell in the Dean Dome clanged in Greensboro, and Duke's slightly-below-average offensive efficiency (110.3 yesterday, 114.9 on the year) was boosted by an excellent 57.8% effective field goal rating. Shooting has been the Achilles heel of the Tar...Heels...all year, and they'd only survived the first two rounds of the ACC because they got very, very hot at the end of the game. Play with fire long enough, though, and you'll get burned.
If we're going to complain about anything, it's the second-chance points. UNC had 20 to Duke's 12, a product of the significant offensive rebound rate you see in the chart. Mason Plumlee had a weak stretch in the second half where Henson and others out-fought him for rebounds and had easy put-backs. That kind of lapse can be bloody murder in a close NCAA game, and it was our one area of glaring weakness.
The foul disparity is interesting, too, but I think it's mostly the product of highly aggressive defense by Duke (spearheaded by Nolan's brilliance on Marshall) and the incredibly poor refereeing throughout. When confronted by the bleating sheep who say Duke gets every call, we have yet another contradicting example. But with Karl Hess on the floor, you had to know it was coming. The climax of the whole thing came when Kyle Singler got slapped on the arm on a put-back and the refs turned away. I hate to say it, but the entire ACC Tournament was marked by a staggering incompetence in the official ranks. Bad refereeing usually affects both teams in a more-or-less equal way, but there's always the danger of a statistical anomaly that hurts one side to a disproportionate degree. We saw that yesterday.
Didn't matter, though. Nothing was going to slow the Dukies. It was our year.
Let's talk brackets!
Despite Joe Lunardi's blather about how Duke should be a #2 seed (see you next year, Joe!), we got the deserved 1-spot in the west. At first glance, I started salivating at our draw. I'd been hoping for SDSU as the 2-seed, but I assumed we'd get Notre Dame. When that came up, I envisioned a clear path. Then I thought about it some more, and wait a second...
Texas as a 4-seed?
That is absolutely friggin' brutal. Not only are they the best 4-seed, by a sight...they're probably better than all the 3-seeds too. I'd certainly put them above BYU and UConn (the former totally screwed, the latter a great pick to drop early after a grueling Big East run), and you could make the argument that they're more dangerous than Syracuse and Louisville too.
Then I realized that our region plays in San Diego, giving the Aztecs a possible home game in the Elite 8, and suddenly it seemed like maybe we had one of the toughest paths possible. Luke Winn echoed that idea in his post-bracket analysis (like everything else he writes, it's fantastic), calling the West "the most difficult region."
Then I looked at the KenPom profile of Texas and really started sweating. As we've known for some time, they have the #1 defense in the country. They rebound very well, they can shoot threes, and they can score in the paint. The only true negative is that their coach is Rick Barnes. In true Barnes fashion, they've had a tough end to the year, dropping 4 of their last 7 (Colorado away, Nebraska away, Kansas State home, Kansas semi-away). But we shouldn't forget that two weeks ago people were talking about them as a 1. And now they're a 4??? Ugh.
On paper, Texas and San Diego State are tough, tough match-ups. This could be the second straight year that we have to face a hostile crowd in the Elite 8. If either or both teams get knocked off early, we might have a nice path to the Final 4. If not, we better be ready for the grind.
I'll be filling out and posting my bracket region by region as the week goes along, but here are some quick thoughts about everything else:
*There's no way Ohio State gets out of the east. No way in hell. They're the classic overrated Big 10 team who plays too many close games and will get burned by their lack of firepower.
*Speaking of the East, Syracuse must be the happiest team in America. Their zone could absolutely kill UNC, a 2-seed with shooting problems, and their big men can bang with Ohio State all day long. It's easy to see the Orange in the Final Four. Knowing Boeheim, though, they'll probably lose focus and fall to Xavier in the second round.
*As I mentioned above, UConn will be going out early. I don't know who's going to beat them, but it's bound to happen. It reminds me of the great tournament run Syracuse made in Gerry McNamara's senior season; they won four straight games in dramatic fashion, took the title, and had nothing in the tank for the first round. Texas A&M blew them out. UConn relies heavily on Kemba Walker, and if his legs aren't there come Thursday, it's sayonara time. I'm thinking real hard about picking Bucknell.
*FSU over Notre Dame??? Anyone??? Tough perimeter defense? Singleton's back? Tempting? No?
*Every white person in America over the age of 45 is going to pick Princeton over Kentucky.
*Two 6-seeds from the Big East, St. John's and Cincinnati, have nice paths to the Elite 8.
*Penn State has all the makings of the annoying Big 10 team who beats SDSU in a miserable second-round game by a 54-51 type score.
*I know Butler doesn't have a ton of talent this season, but if Brad Stevens doesn't at least give Pitt a scare in round 2, I'll be real surprised.
*It's pretty absurd that Virginia Tech and Colorado didn't make it. Here's the committee chair trying to explain why VCU and UAB made it in. I'm no Seth Greenberg fan, but I feel for him today. This was the year they actually deserved to make the field. They beat Duke, and they won a huge game against FSU to make the ACC semifinals. That should have been enough. UAB and VCU play in the early games Tuesday and Wednesday, and you know the committee is just praying that one of them wins. If not, they'll look even more stupid.
*That being said, people need to get used to the committee messing up. They've been messing up since I was a kid, and they'll continue to mess up for as long as they exist. That's the nature of the process. And the hard truth is this: no teams with the potential to win a national title are left out. I don't think that justifies their exclusion, and I know that just being in the tourney is worth quite a bit to these schools, but I do think it's worth mentioning. Virginia Tech and Colorado each lost games they should have won, and they put themselves in the position where a committee could screw them. If their seasons had been more successful, they wouldn't be on the brink. That's the way it goes.
*A few weeks ago in my sports writing class, my teacher and one of the other students predicted that Dick Vitale would be ranting and raving about someone's exclusion on Selection Sunday, but that he wouldn't say which team should have been left off. To his credit, this year he pinpointed UAB and VCU as undeserving:
What a beautiful man. And he wasn't alone in his criticism. Everybody and anybody who commands camera time took issue, some more harshly than others. Jay Bilas had the money quote: "Sometimes, I wonder if the committee knows the ball is round."
*I hate to say it, but the dastardly move of putting semi-important games on Tuesday and Wednesday is going to work on me. Whereas I'd usually been content to ignore whatever 16-seed play-in game happened before the main action, now we've got Clemson and USC playing possible upset games. This was done expressly to get people watching, and at least in my case it's going to be effective. Crap.
That'll do for today. I'm so, so psyched about yesterday's win. Nothing could be better. We're officially in the midst of the best time of year. I can't wait for Thursday.
Last, but definitely not least, I'd like to thank everyone who read and commented on yesterday's post about the state of sports writing. I was sort of hesitant to let that one go, but now I'm glad I did.
I'll leave you with a girlfriend story. We were watching the post-game interviews on the coach, and they announced the all-tournament team. I pointed out that Nolan and Kyle both made the five. She looked a little puzzled.
"When do they get to play together?" she asked.
It is utterly unfair for me to post that story, since she's still learning about sports and it's only logical to expect a "team" to compete together at some point, but I think she knew by my reaction that it was going to happen anyway. See you tomorrow.