Duke Now: Blue Devils’ road to the Final Four would run through toughest region

lkeeley@newsobserver.comMarch 16, 2014 

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Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and his Blue Devils will face a tough road to the Final Four in the Midwest Region. .

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

Sunday morning, Michigan, Duke and Louisville were in the conversation for a No. 1 seed.

After Sunday’s selection show, they ended up the No. 2, 3, and 4 seed, respectively, in the Midwest region. And 34-0 Wichita State is the No. 1 seed.

For the second straight year, the Midwest appears to be the region of death, or whatever nickname you prefer for the toughest of the four NCAA tournament regions. Three of those teams rank in basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy’s top seven – No. 2 Louisville, No. 5 Wichita State, and No. 7 Duke.

The No. 3 seed Blue Devils (26-8) will open their tournament run with No. 14 seed Mercer (26-8), the winner of the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament, Friday in Raleigh’s PNC Arena. The Bears beat last year’s Cinderella darling, Florida Gulf Coast, on its home floor to take the conference tournament and automatic bid.

Mercer has never won an NCAA Tournament game and is making its third appearance in the big dance, but its first since 1985. The Bears are led by Atlantic Sun player of the year Langston Hall, a 6-foot-4, 180-pound senior point guard who averages 14.7 points in 31.9 minutes per game (he also holds the conference’s all-time assists record). All five of Mercer’s starters are seniors, with four returners from last season – expect Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski to focus on that fact while leading his young, at times inconsistent team.

The Bears opened the season by losing 76-73 to Texas. Mercer also hosted and beat Seton Hall 77-74 in double overtime on Sept. 16 and traveled to Oklahoma, the No. 5 seed in the West, and lost 96-82 on Dec. 2.

As long as the Blue Devils can avoid taking Mercer lightly – an issue they struggled with in losses to Notre Dame, Clemson and Wake Forest – they will face the winner of Massachusetts vs. the winner of the Iowa-Tennessee play-in game. The heavy-offense, light-on-defense Minutemen, the No. 6 seed, lost the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals 85-77 to George Washington, the No. 9 seed in the East. UMass was one of six Atlantic 10 teams chosen for the field, something Krzyzewski inadvertently predicted Saturday night while trying to stump for the ACC.

“I’ll get in trouble for saying it,” he said after Duke beat N.C. State. “Like the Atlantic 10, they’re a really good conference. I hear people saying there are six teams in there. Come on. I mean, they’re good, but put them in our conference and go through the meat grinder that our conference has to go through.”

Sounds like potential bulletin board material for the Minutemen.

If Duke beats Mercer and if Duke advances to the Sweet 16 and if the rest of the region shakes out nearly as expected (lots of hypotheticals), the Blue Devils are looking at a potential Sweet 16 rematch with Michigan, the team Duke hosted and beat 79-69 on Dec. 3 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

There won’t be much value in the game tape from that matchup – Michigan center Mitch McGary has been out since Dec. 27 recovering from lower back surgery (though “out indefinitely,” he began running on hardwood floors this week and is slated to beginning jumping soon) and Big Ten player of the year Nik Stauskas was hobbled by an ankle injury. That was also the game when Rasheed Sulaimon did not play.

Potential Elite Eight opponents for Duke include No. 1 Wichita State, No. 4 Louisville and No. 8 Kentucky.

In the same Saturday press conference as the Atlantic 10-ACC comparison, Krzyzewski was asked about the possibility of the winner of Duke-Virginia getting a No. 1 seed.

“I don’t think either team will care, because we’re both in, we’ll both get treated very well, I would think, because of the seasons we both have had,” he said.

Sunday night, the committee treated Duke to the opportunity to play in a few high-profile, marquee match-ups.

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