West Region Reset: Duke will survive a brutal second weekend
Other regions may be in disarray, but the West is one seed away from pure chalk. The only "upset" -- fifth-seeded Arizona over fourth-seeded Texas -- wasn't all that shocking. (Plus,
Forget that place a few miles north where they make movies. All the star power will be in the OC this weekend. Be it Duke's Nolan Smith, San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard, Connecticut's Kemba Walker or Arizona's Derrick Williams, every one of these elite teams is led by an elite player. Duke seemed like the class of the region, especially with guard Kyrie Irving returning from a toe injury that limited him to eight games this season, but the scare No. 8 seed Michigan gave the Blue Devils on Sunday should give the other three teams confidence that the defending national champs can be beaten.
Of the four, only UConn hasn't stared elimination in the face in the final minutes. The Huskies still haven't cooled from the hot streak that began with their five-wins-in-five-days run through the Big East tournament. Does that make the Huskies the favorite? Probably not, with all the firepower headed to Anaheim, but UConn coach Jim Calhoun seems confident in his team's chances.
"This has been an incredible journey with these kids, and I would have said this had things turned out the other way [against Cincinnati on Saturday]," Calhoun said. "We don't want the season to stop. We can't wait out to get out to California and keep playing and keep being with this group."
Fifth-seeded Arizona was a trendy pick to be upset Friday against Memphis, and few gave the Wildcats a chance against Texas on Sunday. That was fine with Arizona players. "Everybody had us losing," Williams said. "And we all took that to heart. You never want to be the underdog, but today we were the underdog, and we wanted to prove that we could beat anybody. We have more games to win. Two down, four more to go." If the Wildcats can turn disrespect into fuel, they'll have plenty in the tank Thursday when they face top-seeded Duke.
The freshman star scored a team-high 14 in 20 minutes in the opener against Hampton. He scored 11 points in 21 minutes against Michigan -- including the game-winner. Sunday, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski admitted he and his staff winged it a bit with Irving this past weekend. "We now know that Kyrie can play and he can play extended minutes, which we didn't know coming in," Krzyzewski said. "We knew he could play. We didn't know how rusty he would be. He played pretty well, and he kept getting better, hit the big shot, and we know that he wants to be there with pressure. That's a big thing." Then Krzyzewski added the understatement of the tourney. "It's a good problem to have," Krzyzewski said, "when you're trying to figure out how to integrate Kyrie Irving into what you're doing."
Walker scored 18 and dished out 12 assists against Bucknell, then came back with 33 points against Cincinnati. Walker is averaging 25.9 points since the start of the Big East tournament, and he remains the biggest threat to get hot and completely take over a game.
It's doubtful Krzyzewski will use much of the four-guards-and-Ryan-Kelly lineup that worked so well vs. Michigan against the Wildcats, who are not overwhelmingly tall but still long and athletic. The key for Duke will be stopping Williams, a 6-foot-8, 241-pound box-score stuffer who blocked a shot in the final seconds to beat Memphis on Friday and who converted a three-point play with 9.6 seconds remaining to beat Texas on Sunday. After going scoreless Sunday, Wildcats guard MoMo Jones is due for a bounceback.
San Diego State will be playing 93 miles from home, which means every member of student section/asylum
That's how many Final Four appearances the teams still alive in the West have compiled. Duke has 15, Arizona has four and Connecticut has three.
It won't be easy, but the Blue Devils have the talent, the leadership and the experience to escape a brutal second weekend of the tournament. Adding Irving to the mix puts Duke over the top.