Duke, Virginia keep focus within

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The possibility remains that the winner of Virginia and Duke in the ACC tournament title game will produce a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Yet neither team wanted any part of that discussion.

Both teams have maintained an edge by keeping their focus within.

Only Quinn Cook readily answered that the Blue Devils were deserving of a top seed if they claim a record 20th ACC tournament title on Sunday. His teammates were all eager to deflect the question after their 75-67 win over NC State in the semifinals.

“You know me coming from Mississippi, I’m not sure how all the seeds and stuff works,” joked Duke forward Rodney Hood. “I’m just happy to be playing for a championship right now.”

The Cavaliers are happy too, they just won’t let anyone know it. Cue the Aretha Franklin sock-it-to-mes. They’re too busy feeling disrespected.

Despite holding the league’s regular-season title and the league’s top seed in the ACC tournament, the Cavs play like they’re still out to prove something. No one can tell them that they already have because it’s what works for them. Virginia has a Jordanesque way of picking out perceived slights.

“We always talk about at the hotels and in our houses, it’s funny because we’re doing well and we’re never on ESPN, we never have our own tab on ESPN,” said Virginia sophomore Justin Anderson. “It’s easy to understand that we’re still the underdog and that’s where we want to be. We don’t have any McDonald’s All-Americans. We don’t have any guys who came out top five in the country. We’re just a bunch of blue-collar guys who want to work together to achieve something great.”

That may be the case, but Duke’s Amile Jefferson promised the Cavs have gotten five-star treatment within the conference.

“I don’t think anyone in our league would overlook them or doubt how good they are,” Jefferson said. “They’re an amazing basketball club -- they won our league. I think they deserve all the respect because they’re a really good team.”

The Cavs claimed their first outright conference title since 1981. Some wondered how legitimate their title was this season because of the league’s unbalanced schedule. Virginia only played the league’s other top four teams once each.

Should they beat the Blue Devils it would be just their second ACC tournament title. They won their first in 1976.

“It’s been a while,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “There’s only one, right? You can ask our [beat] writers that we’ve won one and I get reminded of that quite a bit.”

See what he did there?

Bennett gets reminded of that one title. His pregame speech is practically written for him. If that wasn’t enough, Bennett said he received a text from Wally Walker, who was the team captain on that ‘76 title team whose message said, “We want some company.”

The way Duke players sounded, their regular-season win over the Cavs on Jan. 13 was an eternity ago.

Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon hit a go-ahead 3-pointer that needed a friendly bounce before going in the basket with 22 seconds left. He went so far to call it “irrelevant” in relation to Sunday’s title game. But the win was arguably the turning point for the Blue Devils’ season.

They had just lost road games at Clemson and Notre Dame when returning home to face Virginia. They nearly blew a 13-point lead in the final eight minutes, but held on for a 69-65 win.

“We were coming off being 1-2, a disappointing loss to Clemson,” Cook said. “I think we were fighting for our life.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in his postgame interview against the Cavs that his team should be judged by how it played from that moment forward. Outside of an inexplicable loss at Wake Forest, the Blue Devils have been consistently good since.

Sulaimon said Duke was still trying to find out who it was back then.

“We know everybody’s strengths and weaknesses and we know what we have to do to be successful now,” Sulaimon said. “... We had a tremendous amount of growth since that time, but that was two months ago so I’m pretty sure Virginia has too.”

While that sounds like respect, Virginia probably won’t let it play out that way. Anderson said the loss to Duke, “was the game that definitely crushed my heart.”

Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon added it didn’t matter how much they’ve won, they play better when they find an angle.

“I think so, that’s what we pride ourselves on and that’s how we try to play every game regardless of how far we go in whatever tournament or in the ACC,” Brogdon said. “We try to pride ourselves in having a chip and being hungry every game.”