Although they have not followed the path set by Duke teams in the previous two seasons, the two-time defending national champion Blue Devils are poised to make another postseason run for a third straight title.

With the NCAA tournament gearing up this weekend around the country, No. 5 Duke will take on No. 15 Ohio State Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the first round at Koskinen Stadium. The Blue Devils received the No. 5 seed in their 19th postseason appearance—they won the 2010 title as the No. 5 seed—and have won eight consecutive NCAA tournament games dating back to May 26, 2012, when they lost 16-10 to Maryland in the semifinals.

Despite the two-time reigning champion label, Duke enters the contest against the unseeded Buckeyes without many of its reliable stars from previous championship squads. But as the postseason begins, the new year produces a new opportunity for a different team.

“We lessened their expectations right from the beginning,” Duke head coach John Danowski said. “We told them, ‘Hey, listen. We don’t know that you’re a playoff team.’ We were very honest with them…. Let’s just show up each day and work and see what we could become. I think that they have certainly, at this point, exceeded our expectations that we had in August.”

The Blue Devils (12-5) may not have Jordan Wolf, Brendan Fowler, Josh Dionne or other contributors from previous title runs, but new faces have stepped up to take their place throughout the season. A trio of attackmen—junior Case Matheis, sophomore Jack Bruckner and ACC Rookie of the Year Justin Guterding—combine to average 9.3 points per game, which is seventh among Duke attack units since 2005.

With senior leadership leaving from last season, junior midfielder Myles Jones has stepped up with 39 goals and 36 assists as the nation’s top scoring midfielder. The Huntington, N.Y., native was recently named a Tewaaraton Award finalist—given to the top male and female college lacrosse players each year.

Redshirt freshman Danny Fowler and the Blue Devil defense will have to contain a dangerous Buckeye attack.

Redshirt freshman Danny Fowler has also stepped up in goal with eight straight starts after replacing junior Luke Aaron midseason, and brothers Kyle and Jack Rowe have combined for a 56.8 winning percentage for faceoffs to replace the void left by Brendan Fowler—Danny's older brother.

“We had a lot of guys taking on different roles,” Jones said. “We had a lot of ups and downs in the season that were different from the previous two—different things you have overcome with this team than in the past and we have done that. I think it will be a really good thing for us to take forward.”

As new players fit into their roles for the Blue Devils, Ohio State (11-6) will face a much-improved team from the squad it faced in a preseason scrimmage in Durham Jan. 31. Despite losing 13-6 to No. 13 Johns Hopkins May 2 in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game, the Buckeyes have four wins against top 20 opponents this season.

“They’ve got three great wins,” Danowski said. “You could argue that their three wins are better than any three wins that we have—a win over Denver, a win over Maryland in a really important game for both teams and then a win over Johns Hopkins during the season. Those are three terrific, terrific wins for their program and so they know how to win.”

Ohio State will rely heavily on midfielder Jesse King Saturday to create openings in a much-improved Blue Devil defense. The senior leads the team with 37 goals and 27 assists under the tutelage of former Duke midfielder and current Buckeye assistant coach Brad Ross. If King and junior attackman Carter Brown—who ranks second on the Buckeyes' roster with 31 goals—can slip a few shots past Fowler, they could lead Ohio State to their first postseason win against the Blue Devils in just the two teams’ second NCAA tournament matchup.

“They also have seniors [like King] who again feel that sense of urgency on their side where they want to be successful,” Danowski said. “They’re terrific. They’re well-coached. Brad Ross—one of our former players—is an assistant coach there and so he knows us intimately.”

With four wins separating both squads from hoisting the championship trophy at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, the experience of the season bears heavily on the performance of both squads. Duke enters the game with the strength of ACC competition on their résumé, but the Blue Devils do not expect Ohio State to back down with so much on the line.

“All these playoff games are going to be tight,” Matheis said. “Everyone wants to win really badly, obviously. We expect nothing less than a great competition and a great lacrosse game…. More than anything we’re just really excited to be out here—excited to play playoff lacrosse. It’s the pinnacle of our sport, so it’s just awesome.”

The winner of Saturday’s game will play the winner of No. 4 seed Denver and unseeded Brown in the Denver quarterfinal May 16.

Amrith Ramkumar contributed reporting.