The defending national champions finally hit the floor and begin pursuit of yet another title this afternoon, as the Duke Blue Devils challenge the Hampton Pirates in the second round of the NCAA Tournament's West Regional at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte.
Duke, the top seed in the region, is staying close to home for the first couple of games in this year's tournament, which should give the local fan base a chance to cheer on the Blue Devils and head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who are on the verge of greatness once again. A perfect 11-0 as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and 22-2 in their initial games of the tourney over the years, the Blue Devils lost a total of just four games this season and used their 81-67 setback in the regular-season finale against North Carolina as motivation to run through the ACC Tournament unscathed with victories against Maryland, Virginia Tech and the Tar Heels. The good news for the Blue Devils, who are a perfect 8-0 in neutral-site games this season, is that they've never failed to make the Sweet 16 after winning the ACC Tournament and have captured three of their four national titles after finishing the league tourney with a triumph.
Coach K, who actually has a better winning percentage in the NCAA Tournament (.778) than he does in regular season play, already has the most wins of any coach in NCAA Tournament history (77-22), and now needs just two more victories to reach 900 for his career. At this point, the coach also needs just four more victories overall to tie his mentor, Bob Knight, for the most wins in men's NCAA history with 902, so the Blue Devils have plenty of motivation to repeat as national champs, something they accomplished in 1991-92.
As for the Pirates, the 16 seed in the region, they are seeking their first NCAA Tournament win since 2001. Under the direction of second-year head coach Edward Joyner Jr., Hampton was picked to finish third in the MEAC this season after losing its top two scorers from a year ago. But the squad closed the regular season with two straight wins, after bowing in three consecutive outings, and then topped Maryland-Eastern Shore, Norfolk State and Morgan State for the MEAC Tournament title and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament where they have a record of 1-3 over the years.
Even though these two schools are separated by only about 200 miles, this is the first-ever meeting between them on the hardwood. The Pirates are a dismal 1-14 all-time against members of the ACC, their lone triumph coming against North Carolina on the road back in 2001 early in that season.
The winner of this contest heads to the third round on Sunday to match up against the winner of the Tennessee/Michigan game.
Hampton has used a healthy does of defense this season to remain in contention on most nights, limiting foes to 62.0 ppg on 37.9 percent shooting from the floor overall and 31.2 percent behind the three-point line. Averaging just under seven and a half steals per contest, the Pirates forced opponents into almost 16 turnovers per outing. Giving Hampton a huge presence in the paint on defense is Danny Agbelese who led the MEAC with 3.2 blocks per game, his 101 rejections ranking as the fourth-most in school history. Agbelese is also second on the team with 6.1 rpg this year, but he doesn't really factor into the offense all that much with a mere 4.1 ppg. Then again, beyond the top three scorers on the team there is very little contribution coming from the supporting cast, which means Darrion Pellum (17.7 ppg) and Kwame Morgan (16.5 ppg) will feel that much more pressure to keep the Pirates in contention this afternoon. Both Pellum and Morgan are playing more than 33 minutes per game, but they are also shooting no better than 39 percent from the floor, although they have combined to convert 171 of the team's 209 three-point baskets this season.
The talk leading up to this first game of the tournament for the Blue Devils has centered around the availability of guard Kyrie Irving who has been out of action since early in December when he suffered a right toe injury in the second half versus Butler. A favorite to earn national freshman of the year honors, Irving has been working out of late and coach Krzyzewski has not ruled out his return to action, but with the chemistry the other Blue Devils have built up over the last three months there's no reason to rush Irving at this stage. The emergence of Nolan Smith as the ACC Player of the Year is proof that bringing back Irving too early might not be necessary. Smith was one of three players in the nation to average at least 20 points and five assists during the regular season and now through 34 games he is putting up 21.3 ppg, 5.2 apg and also clearing 4.6 rpg which makes him one of the most versatile players in the entire country. The Blue Devils have another all-conference performer in Kyle Singler, who is now producing 17.1 ppg and 6.9 rpg to rank second on the team in both of those categories. Mason Plumlee (7.1 ppg) gives the Blue Devils an even bigger presence on the glass with his 8.5 rpg, his brother Miles chipping in with 4.8 rpg as well.
It has been quite some time since the Blue Devils have been truly challenged as a top seed in their first game of the NCAA Tournament, and while Hampton has had success this year the Pirates don't fully realize what they are getting themselves into this afternoon.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Duke 82, Hampton 63