GREENVILLE, S.C. — When you’ve done this a while, you get an idea as to which mismatches have a chance to be mildly interesting. North Carolina against Texas Southern, which was 1-versus-16, had no chance. Duke against Troy, which was 2-versus-15, had a sliver of one.
Sure enough, Carolina won by 39 and pulled its starters with 13 1/2 minutes left. (Although Roy Williams, for reasons understandable only to him, put four of them back, albeit briefly.) Duke won by 24 but kept its regulars on the floor until the final 90 seconds.
Carolina and Duke are both really good but good in a different way: Duke has a higher skill level but doesn’t possess Carolina’s size. Duke has to play well to blow somebody out. Carolina can simply go catch its misses. The Tar Heels outrebounded Texas Southern 54-27 and had 29 second-chance points. There was so little mystery to their domination that no reporter could think of a question for the Carolina players brought to the interview room.
“Never seen that before,” Williams said. (Neither had I.)
Had Georgia State held a 15-point lead in last week’s Sun Belt semifinal, the Panthers might well have been the team playing. (Troy, which rallied to win that day and won the tournament the next, is ranked two spots lower than GSU in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.) Troy, you figured, had a puncher’s chance, largely because of its league. The SWAC champ is almost always a 16th seed; the Sun Belt champ can sometimes rise to No. 14, which the Panthers were when they beat Baylor two years ago.
Duke’s lead was only nine with 10 seconds left in the first half, whereupon Grayson Allen — yep, him again — hit a 3-pointer. (Late in the game, Allen would get smacked in the nose by a defender on another trey. Allen’s eyes watered, but nobody else wept.)
Troy cut it to nine again inside 15 minutes. Allen fed Matt Jones for a 3-pointer, then hit one himself. Then Troy guard Kevin Baker was called for a technical, apparently for something he said. (Yeah, I know: Duke gets all the calls and the little guy never does.) The Trojans never drew even cosmetically close again, which isn’t to say Mike Krzyzewski was as pleased as punch with his guys.
Harry Giles, who’d been a big part of the Blue Devils’ ACC tournament run, didn’t play in the second half until Allen got smacked. The heralded freshman big man Marquis Bolden didn’t play at all, sitting at the end of the bench while Antonio Vrankovic, who played a total of two minutes over four games in Brooklyn, worked in both the first and second halves. (Speculation held that Bolden was sick.)
Krzyzewski trotted out a zone, which Bobby Knight disciples are slow to do, and it pretty much worked. Troy was 5-for-23 on treys, and no 15th seed has a prayer if it fails at the sport’s great equalizer. Then again, Duke’s Luke Kennard — the ACC tournament MVP — missed nine of 12 shots.
Duke won big if not quite comfortably, which was inevitable given how hard and how well the Devils had played in New York. They’ll have to be better than this to get to the Final Four, and they surely will be. Carolina looked really good in a game where it would have been hard to look bad. And now bigger games await.