Duke enters 20th consecutive NCAA tournament as South Regional No. 1
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It took a longer-than-usual stretch -- by Duke standards, anyway -- for Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils to get another No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
This one came in unusual fashion, too.
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They open play in their home state Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina, against the North Florida-Robert Morris winner as they begin the pursuit of a fifth NCAA title and 12th Final Four under Krzyzewski -- the all-time winningest men's Division I coach with 1,012 victories.
Led by star freshman big man Jahlil Okafor, these Blue Devils finished a game behind Virginia in the ACC regular-season race, then fell in the ACC Tournament semifinals to eventual champion Notre Dame.
"We've won 29 games and have been one of the best teams in the country with four freshmen and eight guys," Krzyzewski said after the loss to the Irish.
"I like my team. We're ready to go to war in the NCAA Tournament, and we'll take what the consequences are of our efforts. And each team is different, each season is different."
It was Duke's first top seed since 2011, only the second time in 17 years that the Blue Devils went a three-year stretch without one. In the years since the last No. 1, Duke has twice lost its opening-round game -- to Lehigh in 2012 and to Mercer last year -- despite having NBA talents like Jabari Parker and Austin Rivers.
The Blue Devils' top challenger in the South is second-seeded Gonzaga, which itself was in contention for a No. 1 seed for much of the season. And like Duke, the Zags (32-2) get to open in their home state by playing No. 15 seed North Dakota State in Seattle on Friday.
Gonzaga's strength is its strong offense led by Kentucky-transfer Kyle Wiltjer (16.7 points). The Zags shot a national-best 52.4 percent and are in their 17th straight NCAA Tournament appearance, but they haven't made survived the opening weekend of the tournament since reaching the round of 16 in 2009.
SMU's first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1993 is a big deal for a program that fell on the wrong side of the bubble last year. But it also marks the return of Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown to the tournament for the first time since leading Danny Manning and Kansas on that improbable title run in 1988. And in another twist, the sixth-seeded Mustangs' opponent is No. 11 seed UCLA -- which Brown coached to the 1980 NCAA final. "I'm going to enjoy celebrating this championship with our school because it's been a long time," Brown said after his team won Sunday's American Athletic Conference Tournament, "and I'm so thankful to be a part of all this."
LIST OF WHO'S WHO
The list of coaches in the South Region would be impressive if it stopped with Krzyzewski and Brown. But there are prominent names like Gonzaga's Mark Few, Georgetown's John Thompson III, San Diego State's Steve Fisher and St. John's Steve Lavin. Then there's a guy like Davidson's Bob McKillop, who has quietly built a long run of success with the Wildcats that this year featured a surprise run to the Atlantic 10 regular-season title in their first season in the league.
The bottom half of the draw sets up a possible Hawkeye State matchup in the regional semifinals in Houston. Big 12 champion Iowa State (25-8) is the No. 3 seed and looking to surpass last year's run to the Sweet 16, while Iowa (21-11) is the No. 7 seed out of the Big Ten. For the record, Iowa leads the all-time series 43-25, though Iowa State won this year's meeting 90-75 in December.
UAB is in the tournament for the first time since 2011 as the No. 14 seed in the South Region. But for coach Jerod Haase, this is about more than just one team's tournament push. He said it has become "a rallying cry" for a school that has faced criticism from fans and students for dropping its football program. The Blazers open against the Cyclones on Thursday in Louisville, Kentucky.