Duke, UNC play Saturday for Victory Bell, Coastal Division Title

Duke players celebrate with the Victory Bell trophy after their win last October against UNC.

Duke players celebrate with the Victory Bell trophy after their win last October against UNC.

Duke has been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. A VERY long time. With a win on Saturday, the Blue Devils will win the ACC Coastal Division championship and play in their first ACC Championship Game. Only one little problem: they have to go to Kenan Memorial Stadium and knock off a surging North Carolina Tar Heels team that has won 5 straight games. It could be the biggest game Duke has ever played.

They have already surpassed many expectations under head coach David Cutcliffe. Last season they won the Victory Bell Game against UNC for the first time since 2003 and made their first bowl game appearance in more than 20 years. This season has been nothing short of great for Duke: currently the Blue Devils are on a 7 game winning streak, are 9-2 overall, and #24 in the BCS rankings (their first ever BCS appearance).

North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora wants to make sure they don’t celebrate a Coastal Division title, too. According to freshman wide receiver Ryan Switzer, Fedora has played the footage of Duke players spray painting the Victory Bell trophy royal blue after last year’s game nonstop in the locker and weight training rooms at Kenan Stadium. Fedora knows the importance of this victory for his team. “They’re the no. 24 team in the country and they’re on a seven-game winning streak. We’re excited for our seniors playing their last home game in Kenan Stadium so it should be a heck of a football game,” Fedora said Wednesday.

After a disheartening loss to Miami on October 17th, North Carolina has turned its season around quite nicely. The Tar Heels have won five straight games to become bowl eligible at 6-5, and North Carolina’s defense has stepped up nicely. Senior defensive end Kareem Martin currently ranks fifth in the country with 11 sacks. But more impressive for North Carolina has been their improved offense, especially from underclassmen.

Fedora broke out the trick plays once again last Saturday, and Carolina scored on a 56 yard pass off a flea flicker. Throw in a double pass TD from a wide receiver against N.C. State, a reverse pass to a quarterback for a TD against Virginia, and four punt returns in the last three weeks (all by Switzer), and you can see that Carolina is playing with confidence. UNC’s last 23 touchdowns have been scored by freshmen or sophomores, with 11 of those touchdowns coming last week in an 80-20 drubbing of Old Dominion.

UNC freshman WR Ryan Switzer has 4 punt returns for touchdowns (1st in the country) in the last three weeks.

UNC freshman WR Ryan Switzer has 4 punt returns for touchdowns (1st in the country) in the last three weeks.

Both teams will use a dual-quarterback system of sorts. For Duke, both Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette are expected to play. “You definitely have to be aware (of who’s under center) because they don’t do the same things” Fedora said of both Blue Devil signal-callers. Meanwhile, UNC will feature sophomore Marquise Williams, a proven threat passing AND running. There will also be talented receivers on both sides: Duke WR Jamison Crowder has over 1,000 yards receiving this season, and North Carolina TE Eric Ebron is expected to be a first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.

So it’s five straight wins versus seven straight wins. If Duke wins, they win the Coastal Division. If UNC wins, they win a share of the Coastal Division (with Duke, Georgia Tech, Miami, and Virginia Tech – who would win the tiebreaker). There are BCS standings and bowl implications on the line. And of course, the bell. As Dick Vitale would say, this game is going to be “AWESOME BABY!!!”

 

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2013 NCAA Tournament: The Top 16 Teams

final4The last 25 NCAA Tournament Champions have been seeded 1-4, so odds are, one of the sixteen teams with a four seed or better will cut down the nets in the 2013 NCAA Tournament in Atlanta. Here, we analyze each of the 16 top teams in the 2013 field.

 

MIDWEST REGION

#1 Louisville (29-5, Big East Champions)- Led by senior guard Peyton Siva and All-American candidate Russ Smith, the Cardinals again have a #1 seed in the Tournament. Louisville has won ten straight and thirteen of their last fourteen, and their dynamic second half against Syracuse in the Big East Championship could give the Cardinals the extra momentum they need to make it to their second straight Final Four.

#2 Duke (27-5, ACC at-large)- Duke is again primed for a deep NCAA Tournament run this year. Their senior trio of Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly, and Seth Curry provide the Blue Devils with a balanced, dynamic offense and invaluable leadership. Duke defeated four Top-5 teams this season, but lost in the second round of the ACC Tournament to Maryland. Nevertheless, as long as Duke plays consistent, look for the Blue Devils to make the Final Four.

#3 Michigan State (25-8, Big Ten at-large)- If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the NCAA Tournament, it’s to never doubt Tom Izzo. He has coached six teams to Final Fours at Michigan State, and his teams consistently compete well in March. Maybe there’s not as much firepower on this year’s team, but the Spartans could turn some heads.

#4 Saint Louis (27-6, Atlantic 10 Champions)- There was some uncertainty when former coach Rick Majerus announced a leave of absence to care for his health, but the Bilikens surprised many this season. Playing in a difficult Atlantic 10 Conference with Butler and VCU, Saint Louis went 13-3 in conference play and won the A-10 Title on Sunday. Rick Majerus isn’t to see his team play this postseason, but his spirit and memory will certainly motivate Saint Louis in a difficult Midwest Region.

WEST REGION

#1 Gonzaga (31-2, WCC Champions)- Head coach Mark Few has built a perennially strong program at Gonzaga, regarded as the best among mid-major schools. This season was one of the most successful for the Bulldogs, with 31 wins, an undefeated conference record, and multiple wins against power conference schools. Led by 7-foot junior forward Kelly Olynyk, the Bulldogs earned their first number one seed in school history. Look for Gonzaga to go far in this tournament.

#2 Ohio State (26-7, Big Ten Champions)- Ohio State continues its string of successful seasons in 2013 by capturing the Big Ten Championship. Led by juniors DeShaun Thomas and Aaron Craft, the Buckeyes have quietly been a stifling team on the defensive side of the ball. Each of Ohio State’s seven losses were to AP Top-20 teams, so the Buckeyes have faced their fair share of competition. Ohio State gets its first two games in the state of Ohio, but then travels a long way to the West Regional site in Los Angeles.
#3 New Mexico (29-5, Mountain West Champions)- New Mexico is this year’s big mystery in the NCAA Tournament. You can’t argue with a 29-5 record, nor with a 3-0 record against Top-25 teams. They have the second best RPI ranking in college basketball as well. But they didn’t play an overly difficult schedule (their biggest wins are UConn and Cincinnati), and that could hurt them in March.
#4 Kansas State (27-7, Big 12 at-large)- As long as the Wildcats don’t play Kansas (0-3 vs. Kansas), they should be fine this March. Coach Bruce Weber has coached a team to the Final Four (Illinois, 2005) before, and could do it again this year with  veteran leadership in senior guard Rodney McGruder. They will play their first two games close to home in Kansas City, MO.

 

EAST REGION

#1 Indiana (27-6, Big Ten at-large)- Indiana perhaps has the most dynamic player in the nation in guard Victor Oladipo, but also have All-American caliber players in Cody Zeller and Christian Watford. Indiana has a top-five offense in Division I basketball, and is 7-2 against Top-25 foes this year. Indiana has depth, poise, and all the pieces necessary to win a national championship.

#2 Miami (27-6, ACC Champions)- What a season for the Miami Hurricanes! Led by seniors Kenny Kadji and Durand Scott and sophomore Shane Larkin, the Hurricanes won the ACC Championship in 2013, and went 6-1 against Duke, North Carolina, and NC State this year. Jim Larranaga will hope to return to the Final Four once again (he coached George Mason in 2006), and if Miami had any season to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, it’s right now.

#3 Marquette (23-8, Big East at-large)- Marquette has to be one of the most underrated programs in college basketball. They quietly went 14-4 in the Big East this year, earning a share of the conference crown. However, the Golden Eagles have some very bad losses (at Green Bay, Florida by 33) and have a sub-.500 record away from home. But you can’t root against a player with the name Vander Blue, can you?
#4 Syracuse (26-9, Big East at-large)- Syracuse is a team with many puzzling characteristics. Jim Boeheim is one of the best coaches in history, but has led a Syracuse team to the Final Four since 2003. The Orange lost four starters from last season to the NBA, but their 2-3 zone defense still earned them 26 wins this year. There might not be enough offensive power on this Orange squad to make the Final Four, however.

 

SOUTH REGION

#1 Kansas (29-5, Big 12 Champions)- Senior forward Jeff Withey and freshman guard Ben McLemore give the Jayhawks a dangerous one-two punch. But outside those two players, there isn’t much depth for Kansas. But they rank fifth in RPI, and have made the Sweet Sixteen in six of Bill Self’s nine seasons as coach. Lock in Kansas for at least two wins.

#2 Georgetown (25-6, Big East at-large)- They don’t play the most exciting or dynamic style of basketball, but you can’t deny John Thompson III’s system works at Georgetown. The Hoyas are 6-2 against Top-25 teams, and Otto Porter Jr. is one of the best guards in the country. Georgetown is looking for their first Final Four appearance since 2008.

#3 Florida (26-7, SEC at-large)- Four Gators are averaging ten points per game this season, and Billy Donovan has regained control of the SEC with Kentucky struggling this season. Florida is ranked 6th in RPI, and hasn’t left the Top-15 in the AP Poll this year. With depth and great team chemistry, the Gators could make the Final Four in 2013.

#4 Michigan (26-7, Big Ten at-large)- The Wolverines impressed many this season with the best backcourt combination in college basketball (Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.), and even earned a #1 ranking in February.They are 13-1 in non-conference games this year, but only 9-6 away from Ann Arbor. The Wolverines have a tough road to Atlanta, but could make it to the Final Four if Burke and Hardaway step up.

The Curse of #1

Indiana was the latest victim of an upset of a #1 team when they lost to Illinois on February 7. (Photo Source: AP Photo/John Dixon)

Indiana was the latest victim of an upset of a #1 team when they lost to Illinois on February 7. (Photo Source: AP Photo/John Dixon)

The number one ranking in college basketball is something every team strives for. The ranking carries a legacy of elite programs and championship teams. Four teams have held the #1 ranking this season, but nobody seems to stay at the top. In the past month, several teams have had the chance to prove their supremacy, and the result has been a comedy of errors.

Duke held the #1 ranking for four weeks from December 17th to January 13th. On January 12th, the 20th ranked NC State Wolfpack defeated the Blue Devils 84-76 to kick off a crazy month in college basketball. The next week, Louisville (then 15-1) took over the top spot and lost at home in the final seconds to #6 Syracuse five days later. Earlier that week #2 Indiana lost to Wisconsin, so Duke once again took the #1 ranking. Well, that didn’t last long; Duke suffered its worst loss in years to #25 Miami, 90-63.

Enter Michigan. The Wolverines gained the top spot in the AP Poll on January 28th with a 19-1 record. Their reign only lasted five days, as they lost at #3 Indiana 81-73. And to add more fun to the story, #2 Kansas (then 19-1) lost to unranked Oklahoma State, starting a three game skid that continued this past week against TCU and Oklahoma.

Last week, #1 Indiana was shocked by Illinois with a buzzer-beating layup by Illinois’ Tyler Griffey. That gave #2 Florida (then 19-2) an open path to the top spot….which they conveniently blew by losing to unranked Arkansas by 11 points. Ok, how about #3 Michigan? They too lost this week to unranked Wisconsin to drop to 21-3. With #5 Kansas on a free fall out of the Top 5, that left #4 Duke with a chance to regain the top spot. They ALMOST blew it, escaping with a 1 point victory over Boston College last night. And on top of all that fun, #25 Notre Dame beat #11 Louisville 104-101 in FIVE OVERTIMES Saturday night.

That leaves Duke with the likelihood of regaining the top spot in the AP Poll once again. The Blue Devils (currently 21-2)  have no walk in the park this week either. North Carolina (16-7) visits Cameron Indoor Stadium Wednesday night in the Battle of Tobacco Road, and then Duke travels to Maryland (17-7) on Saturday. We could see teams such as Miami (19-3) and Gonzaga (23-2) vault into the top 5 this week.