Blair Kerkhoff

Blair Kerkhoff: Duke’s loss caps miserable weekend for ACC

South Carolina’s Rakym Felder (4) reacts after making a three-point basket against Duke during the second half in a second-round game of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in Greenville, S.C., Sunday.
South Carolina’s Rakym Felder (4) reacts after making a three-point basket against Duke during the second half in a second-round game of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in Greenville, S.C., Sunday. AP

Whatever malaise the ACC caught on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament Duke got the worst of it.

The Blue Devils, a popular pick for a deep run based on its fast finish, fell to South Carolina 88-81 on Sunday night, capping a miserable opening weekend for the ACC.

The NCAA Tournament opened with nine ACC teams, the most of any conference.

One remains, and North Carolina needed an escape act to get past Arkansas and avoid joining Villanova as the biggest upset victims of the tournament.

Duke had won the ACC Tournament and knocked off Troy in the first round. South Carolina had lost six of its last nine games including a first-game bounce out in the SEC Tournament.

But the Gamecocks pounded Marquette in their first NCAA game, and played remarkably well in the second half. South Carolina, in its first NCAA Tournament since 2004, is headed to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.

It wasn’t just losing. Some of the margins were jaw-dropping.

Xavier knocked off third-seeded Florida State 91-66. The Seminoles were seen as a Final Four sleeper pick because of their size and athleticism.

Fifth-seeded Virginia couldn’t build on their first-round victory over UNC Wilmington and got crushed by Florida.

Miami, Fla., scored the game’s first 10 points against Michigan State before the eighth-seeded Hurricanes fell by 20.

Losses by Notre Dame in the second round, Virginia Tech in the first and Wake Forest in the opening round were closer but added to the totals.

Much more was expected from the conference that otherwise was outstanding this season.

But the emotional components of these games, the pressure of March Madness and even the neutrality of the locations, often lead to surprising results.

The tournament didn’t produce many shocking early results. No team seeded 13th or worse won a game for the first time since 2007. Middle Tennessee State produced the only victory by a No. 12 seed, and odds makers had made them only a slight favorite in its matchup with fifth-seeded Minnesota.

If anything the first weekend was marked by some apparent misses in seeding.

Wisconsin, which eliminated defending champion Villanova, should have been at least a couple of lines better, perhaps trading places with Minnesota on the bracket.

Wichita State at No. 10 played second-seeded Kentucky on even terms before falling on Sunday, and coach Gregg Marshall wasn’t buying any upset bid.

“We thought we were the better team,” Marshall said. “I said in the locker room we believed we were the better team. Regardless of what (others) think, we thought we would and should win the game.”

But Kentucky did, helping the SEC to a solid first weekend. The conference is 7-2 after South Carolina’s upset Duke. The Wildcats, South Carolina and Florida are headed to the Sweet 16 and the SEC is guaranteed a winning record in the tournament.

So is the Big Ten, which entered the weekend with a largely negative perception. Its regular-season champion, Purdue, was seeded fourth. Tournament winner Michigan was seventh.

But the Badgers’ Nigel Hayes put it well on Saturday after the victory.

“You have all types of your ranking systems, statistic, analytics guys,” Hayes said. “The thing is with all those algorithms, they can’t calculate heart, will to win, toughness, desire.

“They can’t put that into a formula to come out with a percentage chance to win, and that’s the things we have.”

One other conference that felt good about the weekend: the Big 12. The league matched last year’s total of three teams in the Sweet 16, when West Virginia, Kansas and Baylor pulled off second-round victories. The Jayhawks head to the Midwest Region final in Kansas City as the top seed and will be favored — by seed — to reach the Final Four.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff