When the Duke basketball team headed to Hawaii last November for the Maui Invitational, it was hard to imagine a more exotic place for a basketball tournament. The squad may have outdone itself this year, though, as it heads south to the Bahamas for the second annual Battle 4 Atlantis, which will take place at the Atlantis Paradise Island resort in Nassau Thursday through Saturday.
But it was not the 171-acre resort with more than 3,000 rooms that attracted the No. 5 Blue Devils to the tournament. Nor was it the famed Bridge Suite, a 10-room abode billed as one of the most expensive hotel rooms in the world at $25,000 per night.
Instead, it was the field that the organizers had assembled, including four teams ranked in the AP’s top 20 and the leading vote-getter outside of the top 25.
“They were very aggressive in wanting us to come down and be a part of the field this year,” Duke associate head coach Chris Collins said. “When you look at the field, that was the first draw. To have the collection of eight teams that are going to be down there, all three of the games that we’re going to play are going to be against high-quality opponents, and there’s really no substitute for that experience early in the season in a neutral setting.”
The setting Collins referred to will be as stunning as it is neutral, with games taking place in a 3,900-seat temporary arena that Atlantis constructs within its 60,000-square-foot conference center. Another likely attraction for Duke is the reported $2 million payment to each participant school, which makes the Battle 4 Atlantis one of the richest tournaments in the sport.
Last season, the inaugural eight-team field featured two ranked teams, but neither reached the championship game. Connecticut, then ranked No. 4 in the nation, lost a stunner to Central Florida in the semifinals, and then-No. 22 Florida State dropped its semifinal to Harvard.
The Blue Devils will face an even greater challenge than last year’s favorites. On the other side of this year’s bracket wait No. 2 Louisville and No. 13 Missouri, and No. 19 Memphis is the favorite to face Duke in the semifinals. Even before that, though, Duke will have to take on Minnesota and head coach Tubby Smith, who is five wins from reaching 500 for his career.
“When you talk about coach Smith’s teams at Minnesota, the very first thing you think of is great defense, and this year has been no different,” Collins said. “They’ve been dominant defensively, they’re athletic, they’re physical, and they make their identity on stopping people.”
The Golden Gopher defense has allowed opponents to make just 28.6 percent of their shots, the second-lowest mark in the nation. Minnesota defenders have racked up an astounding 35 blocks in four games, with five players averaging more than a block per game. The team’s athleticism has shown up on the offensive glass as well, where they rank third in the nation with 16.3 offensive boards per game. Collins emphasized Duke’s need to match Minnesota’s physicality. The Golden Gophers have yet to face much tough competition, though.
“They haven’t really been tested in their four games, and they’re going to come in with a lot of confidence,” Collins said.
In addition to the four ranked teams and Minnesota—which was five voting points away from being the No. 25 team in the nation this week—the field features three potential spoilers as well.
Familiar face Johnny Dawkins, who played for Duke in the 1980s and later served as a Blue Devil assistant coach, will bring his Stanford squad to the Bahamas to face Missouri in the first round, and Virginia Commonwealth head coach Shaka Smart, one of the rising stars of college coaching, will face off against Memphis’ Josh Pastner in a battle of the two youngest head coaches in Division I who have taken a team to the NCAA tournament.
Louisville will take on Northern Iowa, which figures to threaten Creighton for the Missouri Valley Conference title.
Preparing for such a frenetic slate of three games in three days with so many difficult potential opponents on the menu has already kept Collins and fellow assistants Steve Wojciechowski and Nate James occupied with scouting.
“All three of us split all the teams, so we all have responsibilities,” Collins said. “We’re all studying a couple teams as of now, and we’re all kind of putting game plans together. So once we figure out who we’re going to play after the first day, one of the assistants... will already have a full scouting report.”
And because Duke plays three games regardless of the outcomes—losers play consolation games rather than being eliminated—there will be no rest for the weary once the staff gets down to one of the most luxurious resorts on Earth.
“You’re up all night, you’re trying to put a simple good game scouting report ready for our guys because there’s little turnaround. You don’t have practice time. You really have to go that next morning and watch film and walk through in the ballroom some of the things you want to do,” Collins said. “Fun will be for the families….We’ll be in bunker mentality.”