When Wendell Moore Jr. decided to play college ball at Duke, an annual trip to the NCAA Tournament seemed a guaranteed part of his college experience, right along with dark blue jerseys, rowdy fans and Nike shoes.
Instead, three years into his Duke career, Moore is preparing for his first trip to March Madness.
In his freshman year, the COVID pandemic wiped out the entire tournament. Last year, the Blue Devils had a once-every-quarter-century down year and were left out of the field.
As a result, Moore, now a junior, enters the first NCAA Tournament game of his career with 878 points scored. Since the tournament expanded to allow multiple teams from a conference in the mid-’70s, only four Blue Devils scored more points before playing in their first NCAA Tourney game: Jim Spanarkel (1,432), Johnny Dawkins (1,143), Mike Gminski (945) and Mark Alarie (938).
Moore, the leader of the Blue Devils, has learned not to take anything for granted over the last three years, and he’s ready to finally take a spin on the Big Dance floor.
“Just pure joy and excitement,” he said. “It’s been a lifelong dream of mine and finally to be able to achieve it in my third year here with this group of guys right here is going to be special.”
Duke tops the list of three North Carolina teams in the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
The Blue Devils received a No. 2 seed in the West Region after winning the ACC regular season and advancing to the championship game of the ACC Tournament. Duke will be playing the last games of coach Mike Krzyzewski’s four-decade career.
Duke will open with Cal State Fullerton, who won the Big West Tournament to earn a No. 15 seed. The Titans are 21-10 and will head east, to Greenville, South Carolina, to face the Blue Devils.
This is Duke’s second trip to Greenville for the NCAAs. The Blue Devils were also a No. 2 in 2017 and beat Troy before falling to South Carolina in the second round. It’s Duke’s first NCAA Tournament game in South Carolina since beating North Dakota State and UCF in Columbia in 2019.
Assuming Duke survives its opener, the Blue Devils face a possible second-round matchup with a familiar face — Michigan State and Hall of Fame head coach Tom Izzo. Krzyzewski and Izzo have met more than a dozen times, with Coach K winning 12 of 15 matchups. The last time, however, Izzo got the edge knocking out the heavily favored Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett Blue Devils in the 2019 Elite Eight.
To take a shot at cutting short Coach K’s farewell tour, Izzo and the No. 7 seed Spartans will need to get past another North Carolina school with a veteran coach. Bob McKillop, in his 33rd year as coach, led Davidson to a 10th seed after receiving an at-large berth following the Wildcats’ loss in the Atlantic 10 title game. Davidson is 27-6 and will face the 22-12 Spartans.
Davidson has won seven of the last nine games and boasts a nonconference upset of Alabama. The Wildcats have an offense that ranks in the nation’s top 15 in most categories, including being the eighth-most accurate shooting team from 3.
The top seed in the region is Gonzaga, which earned the top overall seed in the tournament as well.
The third team from the state to earn a bid is North Carolina, which will be a No. 8 seed in the East. The Tar Heels open in Fort Worth, Texas, against No. 9 Marquette.
This will be UNC’s first tournament game in Fort Worth, which becomes the seventh different Texas city to host a Tar Heels NCAA Tournament game.
“It was really emotional,” first-year UNC coach Hubert Davis said of his first Selection Sunday as coach. “It’s been a great year, and it’s been a long year. Some people think Carolina being in the NCAA Tournament is a given, but it isn’t. I am so proud of what these players have done, they’ve earned the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament. Their commitment to each other and our program has earned them that chance to compete in the NCAA Tournament.”
The winner of UNC-Marquette will face the winner of No. 1 seed Baylor and No. 16 Norfolk State.
Greenville will also feature a clash of two former Tar Heels big men. Auburn, No. 2 in the Midwest, opens with No. 15 Jacksonville State. Auburn features Walker Kessler, who transferred after last season’s freshman year at UNC. Jacksonville State is led by Brandon Huffman, who is in his second year with the school after leaving UNC.
Duke transfers in the field include Alex O’Connell (No. 9 Creighton, opens with San Diego State in the Midwest) and Patrick Tape (No. 10 San Francisco, opens with Murray State in the East). Former Davidson standout Kellan Grady is now with Kentucky, which received a No. 2 seed in the East Region.
After a year without a tournament, last season saw the entire event held in the Indianapolis area in front of empty arenas. This year, the Dance will be Big again as America will once again get the full March Madness experience.
For some, like Moore, it will be a long-awaited first time.