It’s Duke vs. the Big East in Philly

Posted March 24, 2011, at 7:52 p.m.
Last modified March 24, 2011, at 8:34 p.m.

DURHAM, N.C. — This might be as close as Joanne P. McCallie will ever get to coaching in the Big East tournament.

Her Duke team is the lone outsider in a four-team Philadelphia regional field that includes three Big East schools: DePaul, Georgetown and powerhouse Connecticut.

“We’re definitely the outsider,” McCallie said Wednesday. “Nobody is talking about Duke, and nobody has talked about Duke for the entire tournament. In that way, we’ve already been the outsider.”

At least there will be some semblance of neutrality Sunday when the second-seeded Blue Devils (31-3) face No. 3 seed DePaul (29-6). They’re playing the game on Temple’s campus — and not Villanova’s.

McCallie is former Brunswick High basketball star who went on to coach the University of Maine to six NCAA tourney appearances.

And while McCallie insists she can’t afford to take such a broad view of the conference-vs.-conference undertones — “I don’t kind of look at it that wholly,” she said — one of her players expects her team to be overlooked in a Big East lovefest.

“I’m positive that we are another underdog in this round,” center Krystal Thomas said. “I’m sure DePaul’s favored over us, and depending on the next game, the next winner will be favored over us as well. We’ll just continue to prove everyone wrong, continue to go out and do what we know we can do, and continue to win and just play our style of play.”

It’s the first time since 2003 that one conference advanced three teams to the semifinals of the same region. That year, UConn, Notre Dame and then-Big East member Boston College each made it to this stage of the East regional.

Just as then, a upset was necessary to pull off feat. Fifth-seeded Georgetown knocked off No. 4 seed Maryland in the second round on the Terrapins’ home court to reach the round of 16. That earned the Hoyas a third crack at UConn, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.

While the other three teams in Philly this weekend are plenty familiar with each other through the grind of the Big East schedule, the Blue Devils didn’t face either Georgetown or DePaul this season. And they believe that wasn’t the “real” Duke team that lost to UConn by 36 points two months ago.

“You could take it one of two ways. You could be a little nervous about playing a team that you’re familiar with, because they know how to defend you, they know how to score on you,” guard Jasmine Thomas said. “Or you could be more comfortable playing someone that you aren’t familiar with, because (they) have new areas that you can exploit. So I don’t know who has an advantage. I real ly think, at this time of year, no one does. I think anything can happen.”

DePaul might be a little familiar with Duke, though: Coach Doug Bruno and both of Duke’s Thomases were part of the U.S. Under-19 team that in the summer of 2007 won the gold medal at the world championships in Bratislava, Slovakia.

But that was a long time ago, both Thomases said. They hope this is the year the Blue Devils can make it through the tournament’s second weekend and advance to the school’s first Final Four since 2006.

Duke rallied past 10th-seeded Marist 71-66 earlier this week to reach the round of 16 for the fourth time in five years since that Final Four trip, but this is the nook of the bracket where the Blue Devils have stumbled recently. Duke lost in the regional semifinals in both 2007 and ‘08, and was beaten by Baylor in its regional final last year.

The round of 16 “is a huge marker in the NCAA tournament, to get past the first and second games and make it to this next set of games,” Krystal Thomas said. “It means a lot. It’s a very distinguished set of teams that make it this far, and we played a really tough game (against Marist). To be able to move past that and still be playing is a big accomplishment.”

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