STATE OF THE NO. 1: Duke
We spent all of last week trying to figure out whether Duke or West Virginia would get the fourth No. 1 seed. The selection committee wasn't worried about whether Duke would be a No. 1, but where the Blue Devils belonged on the No. 1 line. The ACC regular-season and tournament champs wound up the third No. 1 seed, and the Blue Devils' scorching finish put them there.
"In Duke's case, obviously they won 11 of their last 12 games," selection committee chairman Dan Guerrero said Sunday night. "They won their conference championship going through quite a gauntlet that included some great teams. And of course they went through their postseason tournament and won that, as well. The committee felt there was some value in that kind of a season."
Duke certainly has the best top-end talent of any team in the region, if not the entire tournament. The trio of wing Kyle Singler and guards Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith averages 53.6 points a game, and each player embraces his role and doesn't try to overextend himself. Those guys are going to do their jobs; the better question is this:
How will Duke's other five regulars perform in crunch time? The Blue Devils will need rebounds from 7-foot-1 center Brian Zoubek and 6-10 forwards Miles and Mason Plumlee. They'll need three-pointers off the bench from freshman guard Andre Dawkins. They'll need forward Lance Thomas to add to his team-high of 14 charges taken.
If everyone pitches in, the road to Indianapolis doesn't appear as tough for the Blue Devils as it does for the other No. 1 seeds. In fact, Duke's toughest game could come Sunday in Jacksonville, Fla., against Louisville. Coach Rick Pitino's team didn't have the greatest season, but it beat No. 1 seed Syracuse twice and showed flashes of brilliance on several other occasions. Plus, Louisville guard Edgar Sosa is playing in his 17th NCAA tournament. (Or maybe it only seems that way.) If Duke can get past a tough Texas A&M team that would enjoy a home-court advantage in the Sweet 16 and the seeds hold at the bottom of the bracket, a Duke-Villanova bout in the Elite Eight would match two perimeter-oriented teams led by outstanding senior guards (Scheyer and Scottie Reynolds).
BRACKETBUSTER: Notre Dame
Seeded sixth, Notre Dame doesn't fit the traditional definition of a bracket buster, but the average bracket buster wins two stunners and then gets crushed in the Sweet 16. It wouldn't be a stretch to see the Fighting Irish in the Elite Eight. Despite playing without star Luke Harangody for the tail end of the regular season, Notre Dame got hot down the stretch. Harangody returned from his right knee injury and came off the bench in the Big East tournament, and the Irish knocked off Seton Hall and Pittsburgh before losing by two in the semifinals to eventual champ West Virginia. With Harangody's minutes steadily increasing, there is no reason to believe Notre Dame can't beat Old Dominion, Baylor and Villanova.
SUSPECT TEAM: Purdue
Purdue lands in this spot because of plain old bad luck. The Boilermakers looked like a No. 1 seed before they lost star Robbie Hummel to a knee injury on Feb. 24. Purdue is 3-2 since losing Hummel, and the Boilermakers failed to crack 45 in losses to Michigan State and Minnesota.
To make matters worse, Purdue drew a first-round matchup with Siena, which beat Vanderbilt as a No. 13 seed in 2008 and beat Ohio State in last year's first round.
JUICIEST MATCHUP: Richmond vs. St. Mary's
Richmond doesn't look or play like a mid-major, and the Spiders could do some damage -- if they can get past the Gaels. Richmond will force turnovers; the Spiders average 8.4 steals a game, and guard Kevin Anderson and forward Ryan Butler each racked up more than 50 steals this season. But if the Gaels can get the ball across midcourt, they can shoot their way to a win thanks to a 41.4 three-point percentage that ranks fourth in the nation. Guard Matthew Dellavedova leads the Gaels with 70 three-pointers made, but backcourtmate Mickey McConnell has made an astounding 67 of his 130 three-point attempts.
GAME BREAKER: Scottie Reynolds, Villanova
Reynolds proved last year he's at home on the big stage when he broke free, caught an inbound pass and dashed into the lane to hit a runner to beat Pittsburgh and put the Wildcats in the Final Four. But the way the 2009 tournament ended -- getting hammered by North Carolina -- probably still burns for Reynolds, who has the game to lead Villanova to Indianapolis.
BEST PLAYER YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF: Alex Franklin, Siena
Franklin has plenty of quality NCAA tournament experience. As a sophomore, the forward started for the Saints team that upset Vandy. As a junior, he averaged a double-double in a tourney appearance that included a win against Ohio State and a loss to top-seeded Louisville. This season, Franklin leads the Saints with 16.3 points a game. He also averages eight rebounds.
THE PRESURE'S ON: Duke's Big Three
Scheyer, Singler and Smith have a golden opportunity to lead the Blue Devils to the Final Four for the first time since 2004. They have the talent. They have a good draw. Can they get it done?
NUMBER TO PONDER: 3
Texas A&M is one of only three tournament teams -- Texas and Pitt are the others -- to have won at least one game in each of the past four tournaments.
THE PICK: Duke
In spite of the tough potential second-round matchup and the potential road game in the Sweet 16, the Blue Devils are mature enough to handle the pressure that comes with being a No. 1 seed.
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