Despite popular opinion, the selection committee didn't conspire to give Duke the easiest path to the Final Four. Anyone who watched Baylor, Saint Mary's and the newly inspired Purdue play last weekend can attest to that. So the Blue Devils are no lock to cut down nets in Houston. That said, Duke is different this year, and it's not difficult to imagine the Blue Devils cutting down nets in Indianapolis.
So what makes Duke different in 2010? Take it away, coach Mike Krzyzewski. "Past teams, meaning the last few years, those kids achieved as much as they could achieve," Krzyzewski said. "You know, I hate when somebody compares those teams of the last couple years with our national championship teams, and they say they underachieved. Are you kidding me? They won 30, 29 games. But they were limited teams, and they couldn't play the defense that this team can play because we have big guys. That's the difference."
Indeed, the improvement of 7-foot-1 center Brian Zoubek and the bench contributions of the Plumlee brothers, Miles and Mason, have bolstered Duke's defense and allowed the Blue Devils to add another dimension on offense. Also, Zoubek has given the Blue Devils another option when the big three of Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler aren't playing their best. In Sunday's second-round win over Cal, Scheyer missed 10 of his 11 field-goal attempts. Fortunately, Zoubek -- who scores most of his points on putbacks and when he outhustles his man down the floor -- made all six of his shots and added 13 rebounds (six on offense).
And that's what makes Duke dangerous. The big three don't have to dominate for the Blue Devils to win. "This team has so much talent and so much potential," Smith said. "Every game somebody steps up, and that's the exciting thing about this team. We might not shoot good every game, but we play defense and play hard, and any game somebody is going to surprise you."
THE UNDERDOG: Saint Mary's
It almost doesn't seem right to call Saint Mary's an underdog, but considering the resources available to the other three programs left alive in the region, the Gaels are certainly in a different tax bracket. "There were more people at the game for Villanova [Saturday] than we have students at Saint Mary's," Gaels center Omar Samhan said.
But if the past weekend taught us anything, it's that size doesn't matter. By beating Villanova, Saint Mary's proved it can play with any of the other three remaining teams. With Samhan scoring inside and Mickey McConnell and Matt Dellavedova bombing away from the outside, teams will have to pick their poison. Villanova chose to guard the perimeter, and Samhan torched the Wildcats for 32 points.
BURNING QUESTION: Can Purdue keep going?
Most of us wrote off the Boilermakers after star Robbie Hummel went down with a knee injury and Purdue limped through its next few games, but the Boilermakers didn't give up. Instead, they remade themselves into a team capable of winning with the current personnel.
Coach Matt Painter's teams have always played stifling defense, and that certainly has helped the transformation. But the offensive emergence of guard Chris Kramer as an offensive threat during the tournament has helped ease the pain of Hummel's loss and taken some of the scoring burden off JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore. Never was that more evident than Sunday, when Kramer, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, slashed and scored the game-winner in overtime against Texas A&M.
The Boilermakers have the defensive chops to keep Duke from blowing the game open Friday. The question is whether Purdue's new offensive contributor will chip in enough to propel the Boilermakers to the Elite Eight.
GAME BREAKER: Jon Scheyer, Duke
Scheyer had a miserable shooting day against Cal. He's due to bounce back. In fact, Scheyer seemed certain he would find his shooting stroke. "I'll find it in Durham," Scheyer said. "And it'll come with me to Houston."
INTRIGUING MATCHUP: Saint Mary's-Baylor
Not many teams left in the tournament have the personnel to match up as well with Saint Mary's as Baylor. Samhan will face a huge front line that includes 6-10 Ekpe Udoh and 7-0 Josh Lomers, whom teammates affectionately describe as a "monster." The Monster will have to guard the Beast on Friday. Samhan, who has the word tattooed inside his lower lip, looked unstoppable at times during the tournament's first weekend, but neither Richmond nor Villanova had a massive post presence. Of course, throwing a giant on Samhan doesn't necessarily slow him. Against 6-11 Vanderbilt center A.J. Ogilvy in November, Samhan scored 25 points and grabbed 19 rebounds.
Saint Mary's guards will have to chase Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn, who are plenty athletic enough to guard the perimeter on the other end. In spite of its athletic advantage, Baylor will have to take care of the ball. The Bears rank No. 270 in the nation in turnover margin. Fortunately for them, the Gaels rank No. 310 in steals per game.
HOME COOKING: Baylor
Baylor should have a home-court advantage. Waco is only a 186-mile drive from Houston, so Bears fans have an easy trip. Unfortunately, cavernous Reliant Stadium may negate Baylor's advantage somewhat.
NUMBER TO PONDER: 24.5
Purdue has averaged 24.5 more points in its two NCAA tournament games than in its first two games against tourney-bound teams (Michigan State and Minnesota) after Hummel's injury.
THE PICK: Duke
The Blue Devils don't seem capable of getting rattled, be it by Purdue's defense, St. Mary's mania or Baylor's athleticism.
• WINN:With Johnson healthy, 'Cuse will prevail in West• GLOCKNER:OSU will prevail in upset-ridden Midwest• MANDEL:Kentucky's simply better than East opponents