Thursday, March 20, 2003

Duke in unusual territory

No. 3 seed in West

By Doug Alden
The Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY - After drawing five straight No. 1 seeds, Duke is in unfamiliar territory this year in the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils are seeded third in the West Region and for the first time since the mid-1990s actually had to make a long trip for the opening round.

"We have been fortunate in being in the tournament a lot over the last, almost 20 years. Wherever they put us, let's just play ball," coach Mike Krzyewski said Wednesday.

The Blue Devils (24-6) open the tournament Thursday night against Colorado State (19-13). It's just the second time in 28 NCAA appearances Duke has been a No. 3 seed and the Blue Devils haven't had to venture far from home for the opening round since 1996, when they were seeded eighth in the Southeast at Indianapolis.

"We've always been a team that has played with no excuses," guard Chris Duhon said. "It's a great adventure for us. We get to see another beautiful city and get to play in front of people who have never seen us play before."

The Rams and Blue Devils play the late game Thursday after Creighton (29-4) plays Central Michigan (24-6). The winners will play each other Saturday.

The early games Thursday at the Huntsman Center were Cincinnati (17-11) against Gonzaga (23-8), and Arizona (25-3) versus Vermont (21-11), which didn't get to Salt Lake City until 11 p.m. Wednesday after being stranded in Denver because of snow.

Duke's seeding could have been lower had the Blue Devils not rallied to beat North Carolina State on Sunday in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Still, Duke is stuck in what's widely considered to be the most difficult region. The West is stocked with top-seeded Arizona, No. 2 Kansas and Illinois.

Krzyewski noted that the other three regions have plenty of talent, too, and shouldn't be overshadowed by the West.

"For us, if we don't beat Colorado State, we won't be in the tournament. So you don't know what's going to happen," he said. "It's a great tournament. We're happy to be out west."

The Rams are in the tournament after winning the Mountain West Conference tournament. Colorado State had lost seven straight during one stretch late in the season, but lately have been winning close games they had been losing.

The Rams rallied from a five-point deficit in the final minute to beat Utah 66-65 on a last second shot in the same arena exactly two weeks before Thursday's game.

"Certainly it helps us to be here a couple of weeks ago and to have a big win over the Utes," Colorado State coach Dale Layer said. "But I don't know that it outweighs the eight high school All-Americans they have."

Creighton, which had never been seeded higher than 10th, is the No. 6 seed and in the region and in the tournament for a fifth straight year. But the Bluejays have never made it past the second round during their postseason run.

A possible second-round meeting with the Blue Devils would be daunting, but the Bluejays weren't looking at it that way Wednesday.

"At this time, you want to take everybody serious no matter what the seeding is," Creighton guard Larry House said. "Being a sixth seed is nice, but there really is no difference because Central Michigan can come out and pop us if we don't play."

The Chippewas are in the tournament for the first time since 1987 and just the fourth time overall. They won the title in the Mid-American Conference, which has a history of shaking up office pools with early surprises.

Just last year, MAC champion Kent State advanced to the round of 16 as a No. 10th seed.

"I heard the thing 'mid-major.' I think you throw that out. I think we're all Division I, right?" Central Michigan coach Jay Smith said. "We're Division I like Duke's Division I and that's the way we're going to come out and play."

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