Luke DeCock

Coach K, Duke try to avoid NCAA tournament opening-round stumble

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Members of the media mill around Duke forward Rodney Hood (5) in the locker room after the Blue Devils were upset by Mercer 78-71 in their opening game of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the PNC Arena in Raleigh March 21, 2014.
Members of the media mill around Duke forward Rodney Hood (5) in the locker room after the Blue Devils were upset by Mercer 78-71 in their opening game of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the PNC Arena in Raleigh March 21, 2014. cliddy@newsobserver.com

A Duke alum sent Mike Krzyzewski a letter, advising him to tell his team three words: “Belmont, Lehigh and Mercer.” As Krzyzewski recounted Tuesday, he could have responded by throwing some other teams out there (“Kansas, Michigan, Arizona and Butler”), but he won’t remind his team of Duke’s recent opening-game stumbles, nor the program’s great successes.

“Why should they?” Krzyzewski said. “They were never a part of that.”

There’s no reason Duke shouldn’t advance comfortably out of its opening game Friday against Robert Morris or North Florida. The Blue Devils have talent, some experience to go with their precocious freshmen, a long list of road wins against good teams and have lost only once since January.

Still, until Duke actually wins its first game of the NCAA tournament with a team full of freshmen, the Blue Devils will have something to prove.

“The freshmen keep getting better, and we have those years to use as motivation,” Quinn Cook said. “Myself and Marshall (Plumlee, who redshirted in 2012) were here both those years. We know. We won’t talk about it at all. It’s a new team, new year.”

Other than Cook, now a senior, this might be a different group than the team that lost to Lehigh in Greensboro in 2012 or Mercer in Raleigh in 2014, but so many of the circumstances are the same, right down to the in-state venue. (Belmont, a narrow Duke win in 2008, was a different story.)

The 2012 team was dominated by high-scoring freshman guard Austin Rivers, the 2014 team by high-scoring freshman forward Jabari Parker. The 2012 team went 6-for-26 from 3-point range and lost to Lehigh by five, the 2014 team allowed Mercer to shoot 55.6 percent and lost by seven.

(In 2013, with a more veteran team, Duke came within a game of the Final Four, losing to eventual national champion Louisville in Indianapolis.)

“It doesn’t do us any good to talk about it,” Jahlil Okafor said. “Or look back, either. Just focus on what we have now, and it feels like we have a really good shot.”

This group, with Cook’s leadership, Okafor’s inside scoring ability, Justise Winslow’s ability to get to the rim and Tyus Jones’ clutch calm at the point, all of which led to some of the best road wins of any team in the country, certainly seems better equipped to handle the unique and unusual challenges of the NCAA tournament.

Krzyzewski said before the season that one big difference with this team would be Okafor’s ability to protect the rim. That never materialized. For all of the big man’s strengths, and they are many, help defense has yet to emerge as one of them.

But Krzyzewski has also been more tactically flexible with this group, using zone defenses extensively to cover up for man-to-man deficiencies in a way he never really explored in 2012 or 2014. That was one product of a wide-ranging re-assessment of the program conducted last spring by Krzyzewski and his staff. Many changes resulting from that assessment are hidden from public view. The willingness to play zone was perhaps its most visible manifestation.

Either way, Krzyzewski said he believes this team is more prepared for the postseason than its predecessors, right down to the reaction he saw from his team watching the selection show Sunday.

Where in the recent past there might have been a certain coolness about the process, Duke’s participation never being in doubt, Okafor and Jones were dancing around hugging each other.

“That doesn’t happen all the time here,” Krzyzewski said. “People expect it, your birthright, you’re supposed to be picked high, you’re supposed to be in the tournament. To see that level of enthusiasm and excitement, that was great.”

That might be the difference for Duke, which shouldn’t lose this game but has before, under similar circumstances.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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