OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The ACC is looming large in downtown Omaha earlier than usual this year.
The Atlantic Coast Conference regularly sends a couple baseball teams to the College World Series each June. But the field for the NCAA Midwest Region semifinals at CenturyLink Center, across the street from where the CWS is played, is an anomaly.
Duke, Clemson and Syracuse making it past the first weekend of the tournament means three teams from the same conference will be playing at the same regional site for only the second time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The other occasion was in 1986, when the Southeastern Conference had three teams in Atlanta.
“We obviously always have our blue-blood powerhouses,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, “but if you can get into the tournament, as competitive as our league is, you’re going to have a chance to advance. It’s just the type of teams we play, the quality of coaching, the quality of play. The different styles of play that are in our league make it unique, or more unique than some of the other leagues where I think a lot of the teams play almost the same. All of those things help the teams in our league do well in this tournament.”
No. 2 seed Duke (28-7) advanced after blowing out Iona and Rhode Island. No. 11 seed Syracuse (23-13), the Blue Devils’ opponent Friday night, survived against Arizona State in the First Four before upsetting sixth-seeded TCU and third-seeded Michigan State.
No. 5 seed Clemson (25-9), which plays top-seeded Kansas (29-7) of the Big 12 in the early game Friday, won over New Mexico State before hammering fourth-seeded Auburn by 31 points.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said he never likes to play an opponent in the NCAA Tournament that he had already faced in the regular season — which was the case in 2016 when the Orange beat Virginia to get to the Final Four.
Syracuse will be playing Duke for the second time in a month. The Blue Devils won the first game 60-44 in Durham, North Carolina.
Boeheim said he talked to members of the NCAA selection committee on Thursday about the quirkiness of the regional. He added that with his team being the last to receive an at-large bid, he didn’t voice any complaints.
“Trust me, when I got in I didn’t care where we were going or who we were playing or what day it was,” Boeheim said. “We were happy to be in the tournament this year.”
Duke is one of the top scoring teams in the nation at 85 points a game. Senior Grayson Allen, who played on Duke’s 2015 national championship team, leads a lineup that starts four freshmen, including projected high-first round NBA draft picks in big men Martin Bagley III and Wendell Carter.
Even with one of the most talented teams in the nation, it takes good fortune to survive and make it to the Sweet 16, coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
“Some of it is luck and you’re healthy, you’ve got a matchup that was more conducive to you than the other guy,” he said. “And sometimes, just like for us, we’re playing well. So we’re playing our best basketball.”
Though not as big an underdog as Syracuse, Clemson has been a surprise after finishing 12th in the ACC a year ago. Brownell said he saw potential in his team after early road wins over Florida and Ohio State.
“I told our staff I felt we were good enough to be in the Sweet 16 and maybe more,” Brownell said.
He didn’t necessarily feel that way after Donte Grantham, the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, was lost to a major knee injury in January.
“Maybe that’s why this is even sweeter,” Brownell said. “Our guys have had to overcome significant adversity.”
An upset of Kansas would set up an all-ACC regional final against Duke or Syracuse. Brownell said he hadn’t imagined that possibility because his focus has been on Kansas. He did note that his team’s last regular-season game was at Syracuse, a 55-52 loss, and that it had only been five weeks since a home game against Duke, a 66-57 loss.
“So the preparation in terms of a quick turnaround won’t be as challenging as if it was somebody completely different like it was last week with Auburn,” Brownell said.
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