RALEIGH — Virginia and Duke could cross paths again this week in the NCAA tournament, but it would be in the hallways of PNC Arena, not on the court.
Both are headed to Raleigh to open NCAA men’s basketball play on Friday – the Cavaliers as the No. 1 seed in the East Regional and Duke the No. 3 seed in the Midwest. It’s a bus trip for both, and Virginia should have good vibes in the place, having whipped N.C. State by 31 points on the Wolfpack’s home floor this season.
The Cavaliers’ first assignment as ACC champions will be Coastal Carolina while the Blue Devils face Mercer. The other East game has No. 8 seed Memphis playing No. 9 George Washington, and the second Midwest matchup will be No. 6 seed UMass against the winner of the Wednesday play-in game between Tennessee and Iowa.
Virginia guard Joe Harris had no sooner helped cut down the nets Sunday in Greensboro after beating Duke than he was thinking about the NCAAs.
“We can always talk about how we’ll celebrate our season, our careers and all that later on at some point because we still have a lot of unfinished business,” Harris said after the game.
Mercer (26-6) played its way into the NCAA field by winning the Atlantic Sun title. If the conference sounds familiar, it should. It’s the same one Florida Gulf Coast won last season before fast becoming one of the best stories of the NCAA tournament.
Then there’s the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. The “Chants” are coached by Cliff Ellis, the beach music lover who’s in his seventh season at Coastal and once led Clemson to the 1990 ACC regular-season title with the likes of Elden Campbell and Dale Davis.
Yes, that Cliff Ellis.
As for the Chants (21-12), seeded 16th in the East, they’re in the NCAAs for the first time since 1993 after winning the Big South tournament.
“This is the shining moment,” Ellis said Sunday at a news conference in Conway, S.C. “This is that shining moment because it’s the NCAA tournament.”
Warren Gillis, a 6-foot-3 junior from Philadelphia, was named the Big South tournament MVP after scoring 22 points in the title game against Winthrop. Another junior, Josh Cameron, teams with Gillis in the backcourt and had 19 points in the 76-61 victory.
The Cavaliers like to control tempo and don’t have many defensive breakdowns. They proved that in winning both the ACC’s regular-season race and the tournament title and could be too much for the Chants to handle.
“You want to play good ball now heading into the NCAA Tournament,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said Sunday.
The Cavaliers are doing that. There’s also the push that comes from winning the ACC title.
But the Memphis-George Washington survivor in the 8-9 game could make for an interesting opponent in the next round.
Tigers coach Josh Pastner has Memphis (23-9) in the NCAA tournament for a fourth straight season. The Tigers lost three of their past five games, but knocked off Louisville 72-66 in Memphis – a good way to start the month of March – and have scoring balance paced by senior guard Joe Jackson’s 14.3 points a game.
Memphis will face a GW team that’s 24-8 and in the NCAAs for the first time since 2007. The Colonials also were the team that knocked UMass out of the Atlantic 10 tournament but didn’t keep them out of the NCAAs.
The Minutemen (24-8), seeded sixth in the Midwest, are making their first NCAA appearance since 1998. In mid-January, UMass was 16-1 and ranked 12th nationally. Anything seemed possible, but there have been some struggles since then in an 8-7 finish.
Chaz Williams may be one of the most dynamic players in Raleigh this week. The 5-9 senior from Brooklyn has averaged 15.8 points and seven assists a game and has been named first-team all-Atlantic 10 three times.
Tennessee and Iowa are just hoping to be in Raleigh later in the week after the play-in game in Dayton, Ohio. They’d like nothing better than to be bumping into the Wahoos and Devils in those PNC Arena hallways.