INDIANAPOLIS -- Now that all the double-digit seeds have been eradicated from the bracket -- so long, Dunk City and au revoir, La Salle -- may we have permission to celebrate chalk? The fact that Louisville, the last No. 1 seed remaining, and Duke, a No. 2 that was stronger than at least two of the No. 1s, are meeting Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium is something to cherish. The two best teams left in an upset-ravaged tournament will play in an Elite Eight game that feels, well ... Blue Devils forward Josh Hairston can take it from here:
"For us to play Louisville to go to the Final Four," Hairston said, "feels like a title game. It felt like a title game in the Bahamas, too."
In the Bahamas, Duke-Louisville was a title game of sorts -- the Battle 4 Atlantis final on Nov. 24 -- but the Cardinals were missing center Gorgui Dieng, who'd broken his left wrist less than 24 hours earlier, and they lost 76-71. At full strength, it's a clash worthy of being staged in Atlanta on the season's final Monday night, but it's not worth lamenting that it's happening too soon. In an unpredictable tournament like this one, we will take whatever marquee games we can get, whatever the round.
If Duke survives to Atlanta, it will be the most-tested team in the Final Four, having already beaten Creighton, a former top-10 team, in the Round of 32, and then grinding out a 71-61 win over Big Ten power Michigan State on Friday to up coach Mike Krzyzewski's all-time record against Tom Izzo to 7-1. The Blue Devils would never have survived without the heroics of Seth Curry, of whom Izzo said, "There's no doubt he single-handedly beat us."
Curry, the fifth-year senior who's battled leg injuries so severe that he's barely practiced all season, ran off an endless maze of screens and went off for 29 points on 6-of-9 long-range shooting against Michigan State. The majority of them were scored against highly-touted freshman Gary Harris, who's viewed as a possible first-round pick in the next NBA draft should he declare. Curry is projected to go undrafted, but here the veteran gave the rookie a thorough schooling; after multiple Curry threes that gave Duke an early lead in the second half, Harris turned toward his bench and raised his palms, as if to say,
"Sometimes I was right there, and [Curry] was still hitting them," Harris said. "It's frustrating when you play good defense and he still hits it."
Harris (and Izzo, more forcefully) often pleaded with refs to whistle Curry for pushing off before shots, but it was to no avail. Curry is incredibly crafty at creating space ("He's very wise and he knows how to come off things to get open," Izzo said) and he kept finding windows to get good looks. Curry has been a much more accurate shooter this season when he gets at least four days' rest between games, and in this one, coming five days after Duke's win over Creighton, he looked fresh for 37 minutes, making all seven of his free throws in addition to the treys. He also committed just one turnover. "Seth," Krzyzewski said, "was at a different level than anybody on the court offensively."
Curry's Duke teammates struggled to make jump shots -- especially stretch-four Ryan Kelly, who was 0-of-4 from deep, continuing a cold streak that's seen him shoot 2-of-27 on threes since his 36-point explosion against Miami on March 2. But Kelly had serious value on defense, where he guarded Adreian Payne, who'd been thriving in the tournament, and served as a baseline help-man for Mason Plumlee's battle with Derrick Nix. Payne and Nix each shot 3-of-10 from the field and combined for just 25 points, and Kelly got in three blocks on Nix's backdowns in the post.
"We made it tough around the basket for him," Kelly said of Nix. "We sent double-teams after him, and whenever he turned, he normally had at least a guy or two right there. For anybody, that's tough."
The improbable feat that Kelly and Plumlee pulled off was keeping the Spartans, who destroyed Valparaiso and Memphis on the offensive glass last weekend in Auburn Hills, Mich., from doing the same thing to Duke. Michigan State grabbed just 25 percent of available offensive boards (eight in all), their fourth-lowest percentage of the season. The Spartans pulled down 57.1 percent against Valpo and 37.8 against Memphis.
On Sunday against Louisville, Duke will have to deal with a very different and more high-powered offense, particularly the relentless basket-attacks of Russ Smith, who had a career-high 31 points against Oregon on Friday. He admitted afterwards that he is miserably ill -- "Unfortunately, Russ has infected our entire team with a ridiculous cold," coach Rick Pitino said -- but with two more days' rest, his sickness may not be a huge factor. (One also worries that it may infect the Duke camp by then. While making his way to the court before tip-off on Friday, Krzyzewski stopped to offer a congratulatory handshake to Smith, who was sitting on a golf cart outside his locker room, and had just been coughing all over his hands. Smith, not wanting to be impolite to a Hall-of-Famer, proceeded with the handshake.)
Coach K and Pitino will be meeting on Sunday for the first time in the NCAA tournament since Christian Laettner's epic shot in 1992 -- also in an Elite Eight game. The year prior to that, Duke won the national title in Indianapolis' Hoosier Dome, upsetting UNLV in the Final Four and beating Kansas in the championship. The Blue Devils came to Indy's Lucas Oil Stadium for another title run in 2010, but had to endure Gordon Hayward's half-courter, and all the tension that came with it hanging in the air with the game on the line, before it clanged off and they could cut down the nets. In 2013 they're back at Lucas Oil, for an Elite Eight game that might as well be the national championship game. For whoever emerges, Atlanta will seem easy.