After failing to advance past the first round of the NCAA tournament the last two years, few gave this young Duke team much thought in the preseason.

Sixteen games later, however, the Blue Devils have defied early expectations and are looking to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since their last title run in 2014.

Duke will travel to Homewood Field in Baltimore, Md., to take on No. 6 seed Johns Hopkins Saturday afternoon at 2:30 in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils squeezed into the tournament as the last team picked by the selection committee, extending their streak of consecutive appearances in the sport’s marquee event to 11. 

“We thought we were a .500 team coming into the year with so many young people,” Duke head coach John Danowski said. “I don’t think we really thought about the tournament. It was kind of living one day at a time, one practice at a time, one game at a time. We never discussed it as coaches, because we just thought the team was so young.”

The Blue Devils (12-4) find themselves in unfamiliar territory entering Saturday’s game on the road, as it will be just the fourth time out of 21 NCAA tournament appearances that Duke enters unseeded. The Blue Devils were upset in Durham in the first round of the ACC Tournament by Notre Dame and only assured themselves a spot in the 16-team field after dismantling then-No. 20 Boston University last week in an 18-8 clinic that was effectively over before the end of the first half.

In the Blue Jays, Duke will meet another storied program in the annals of college lacrosse. Johns Hopkins has appeared in every NCAA tournament since 1972, by far the longest streak in the sport, and are first in overall tournament appearances and victories as well. The Blue Jays hold the edge in the all-time series between the two teams and beat the Blue Devils in two national championship games a decade ago, but Duke won the two most recent meetings, both of which also came in the NCAA tournament.

Johns Hopkins is 44-4 all time at home in the tournament and 7-1 at Homewood Field this season, with its only loss coming in overtime to Syracuse.

“[They have] good players, patience, [they’re] smart, skilled, [have] high IQ,” Danowski said. “They’re all on the same page. They have some guys who have been in the program for a few years. The combination of all those things makes them extremely dangerous.”

One of the most reassuring sights for Blue Devil fans during last week’s drubbing of the overmatched Terriers was the return of the offensive chemistry they had grown accustomed to seeing that went missing in Duke’s 7-6 loss to the Fighting Irish in the ACC semifinals. The Blue Devils, who averaged 12.8 goals per game this season, jumped out to a 7-3 lead after the first quarter and a 12-4 lead at halftime, a notable change after Notre Dame stymied them for the better part of three quarters the week before.

“We’ve been steadily improving the entire year. That’s what coach emphasized all year,” junior attackman Justin Guterding said. "Maybe we were not great in February, but we just keep improving day by day. We’ve worked so hard to get a road win like this, and we think we deserve it.”

Guterding became just the sixth player in program history to eclipse 80 points in a season with a game-high seven against Boston University. He complements classmate Jack Bruckner as two-thirds of Duke’s potent attack—Bruckner’s streak of 54 straight games with a point ranks second among Division I players. Bruckner also has the most tournament experience on the team, with 11 goals and three assists in six career NCAA tournament games.

Thanks primarily to Bruckner's emergence as a natural scorer, Guterding has dished out a career-high 38 assists so far this season.

“[Justin] is one of those thoroughbreds that wants to be a great player," Danowski said. "The nature of our game, the nature of who we have—he’s a lefty, other guys are righties—the pieces just kind of fit. Those guys can feed off one another, and that makes for a nice synergy when guys can play like that.”

Although Duke boasts the 10th-best scoring offense in the nation, its No. 7 scoring defense is even better and will be crucial in slowing down a Blue Jay offense that averages 12.0 goals per game. Johns Hopkins (8-5) is led by Kyle Marr and Shack Stankwich, who each have 45 points for the 13th-ranked scoring offense in the country. The Blue Jays’ bread and butter is their man-up offense, ranked first nationally and led by Patrick Fraser, who leads the country with eight man-up goals.

The Blue Devils, however, boast an effective man-down defense with nearly a 70 percent success rate. They will be hoping to continue that trend Saturday to keep Johns Hopkins off the board, and the Blue Jays are just 1-5 when scoring fewer than 10 goals.

“It’s an easy answer [to stop Johns Hopkins’ man-up offense]: not commit any fouls,” Danowski said. “That would be number one, and number two, pray a little bit that they miss their shots. They’re very talented, they have great skilled players, very well-coached, and they’re hitting on a 60 percent, rate which is just fantastic.”

Duke will be looking to set the tone early and get ahead, as it did against Boston University. The Blue Jays have dropped their past two games entering the tournament and did not play well in the first quarter of either one.

“We need to come out flying," Guterding said. "We need to come out running, running our offense, getting it down the side and attacking. That’s what we did last week against Boston, and it showed. We’re an athletic team and we can run, so we want to show that on Saturday.”

For Guterding, Saturday represents an opportunity to reverse a disappointing pattern in recent years and pick up his first NCAA tournament win.

“Our [junior] class, we haven’t won anything," Guterding said. "Seventy-five percent of our team hasn’t won a playoff game. The leaders on the team are really pushing to get back to where we belong.”

Hank Tucker contributed reporting.