GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Duke and Maryland ended the regular season atop the Atlantic Coast Conference with plenty of separation from the rest of the league. Their last meeting was a tense fight that went to the final minute.
Yet they could have a difficult time setting up another matchup in this week’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Fourth-ranked Duke (26-5, 13-3 ACC) is a good team, but coach Mike Krzyzewski acknowledges this year’s squad hardly has the powerful look of Blue Devils past — no matter how good struggling North Carolina made it look in last weekend’s rivalry romp in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Meanwhile, No. 19 Maryland (23-7, 13-3) didn’t exactly overwhelm the league in the final month even as it caught up to the Blue Devils and shared the regular-season title.
“We have to fight hard, and I’m sure every team in the league will,” said Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez, who was voted ACC player of the year this week. “It’s an even league. Nobody really stands out and is like, ‘This is the best team.’ Every game’s going to be close. It’s going to be so much fun this weekend.”
Duke, the defending champion, earned the top seed and will play the winner of Thursday’s first-round game between Boston College and Virginia on Friday afternoon. Last year’s title was the eighth in 11 years and 17th overall for the Blue Devils, pulling them in a tie with the Tar Heels for most championships in ACC history.
“A lot of times, we’ve been playing our best basketball at the end of the season, which is what you try to gear for,” Krzyzewski said. “Then you put a level of importance on the tournament. Hopefully, it touches the guys so that they use their talents and their experience at this time and not look forward to just the NCAA tournament.”
Maryland enters the tournament with momentum after seven straight victories, though the Terrapins had to work their way through nearly every one of them. They needed a last-second 3-pointer at home to beat NCAA bubble team Georgia Tech, won by four in double-overtime at Virginia Tech and had to rally from 15 down to beat Clemson.
Its “easy” win in that stretch? Rallying from 10 down at halftime to win 67-58 at North Carolina State, the tournament’s No. 11 seed.
Last week, Maryland got several clutch baskets from Vasquez late to beat Duke 79-72 in College Park, Md. Duke won the first meeting by 19 points.
“We obviously would love that opportunity to get another chance at them (in Sunday’s championship),” Duke senior Jon Scheyer said. “But that’s a long ways away. First of all, we need to get there and worry about ourselves. There are six other teams in that side of the bracket. We can’t worry about who comes out.”
Third-seeded Florida State — which lost to Duke in last year’s final — and fourth-seeded Virginia Tech finished three games back of the Blue Devils and Terrapins. That quartet earned a bye into Friday’s quarterfinals, and will face the winner of matchups featuring teams playing for NCAA seeding, postseason invitations or just plain pride.
Wake Forest is the fifth seed, yet lost to North Carolina and N.C. State — both of which managed just five wins. Clemson had a chance to earn the third seed, but lost to the Demon Deacons in Sunday’s season finale to fall to sixth.
Next up is Georgia Tech, which has lost three of four games entering Greensboro to put its NCAA chances in jeopardy. The Yellow Jackets face the Tar Heels with the winner facing the Terrapins the next day.
“There are teams in our league that are good basketball teams that might feel they need to win a game (for NCAAs),” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “Anytime you get in that situation, you have to be ready to play.”
Making matters more difficult for the teams playing in the first-round games is the fact that no team has won four games in four days in the tournament. N.C. State has come the closest, winning three games to reach the finals in 1997 and 2007 before falling in the final each time.
That’s the challenge awaiting the defending national champion Tar Heels, who have their lowest seed ever at 10th. After a miserable season filled with injuries and youthful mistakes, North Carolina knows its NCAA chances are reduced to winning the title.
“We really have no choice but to play as many games as it’s going to take,” senior Deon Thompson said. “If it’s four games, it’s four games.”