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Without a bye, Duke faces tough road in ACCs

DeMarcus Nelson said he is packing for four days.

Unfortunately for Duke, bringing along four days of clothes does not guarantee that the Blue Devils will reach the ACC Tournament's championship game Sunday in their quest for the program's eighth ACC title in nine years. In fact, only one team-N.C. State in 1997-has ever made it to the final game after winning its first three games in the tournament.

This year, Duke has its sights set not only on becoming the second team to reach the tournament's final game after playing on Thursday, but also on becoming the first team to win four straight and take home the crown.

"Each game we prepare hard," Nelson said. "Just like last year we felt like we could win it, this year we feel we can win it."

Since most major conference tournaments began hosting games on four consecutive days, only three teams have won their respective tournaments by winning four straight games-Arkansas won the SEC in 2000, Iowa the Big Ten in 2001 and Syracuse the Big East last season.

"It's tough, but it could be done," sophomore Dave McClure said. "You've seen teams do it in the past-it's something where you need to just go out and play each game. You can't try and save anything for the next game. Each game is the most important game that you play because if you look on, you won't get there."

Before it can begin to think about the later rounds, Duke must focus on N.C. State, which it will face Thursday at 7 p.m. in Tampa, Fla. The Blue Devils defeated the Wolfpack 79-56 Jan. 20 in a one of the team's most balanced efforts of the season. Since that time, the Wolfpack has managed to defeat No. 3 seed Virginia Tech twice as well as No. 1 seed North Carolina, teams that Duke went 0-3 against this season.

The Blue Devils will also be without freshman Gerald Henderson, who was suspended by the ACC for one game after his flagrant foul on the Tar Heels' Tyler Hansbrough.

"We have to take care of the first day," sophomore Greg Paulus said. "It's a little bit different this year because we can't sit back and scout [N.C. State] out.... We'll both be fresh. This is the postseason-you lose, you're done. Nobody knows what's after that."

Duke played itself into the inconvenience of having to play on the tournament's first day by dropping four straight ACC games in the middle of the season and two to finish out the league slate. Picked to finish second in the conference, the Blue Devils finished seventh, struggling offensively for much of the season.

The offense has improved as of late, but in the team's regular-season finale against the Tar Heels, the Blue Devils suffered through an offensive dry spell. It ultimately cost them a shot at winning the game, dropping Duke to 8-8 in the league for the first time since 1996.

Not having a bye in the first round of the ACC Tournament is new territory for Duke, as the Blue Devils have had a bye every year since 1995. But despite the team's recent struggles, Duke is still the dominant program that has played its best basketball in the conference tournament in recent years. The Blue Devils have won 23 of their last 24 tournament games.

Along with Duke's low seed, also new this year is the fact that the tournament is being held in Tampa, Fla. When the Blue Devils come out for pregame warmups Thursday, it will be the first time the team steps onto the court in the St. Pete Times Forum. After the North Carolina loss, Duke bumped back its travel plans and elected not to participate in an open practice and media session in Tampa Wednesday.

In order to have a chance to stay in the Sunshine State until Sunday, the Blue Devils are focused on taking it one game at a time.

"If you start worrying about two days, three days, four games or whatever it may be, it takes away from the first game and teams can sneak up on you," Paulus said. "We haven't even talked past Thursday, we haven't talked about another team, we haven't talked about another day."

Although the team has not talked about it, Nelson hopes his bag will be full of dirty laundry when Duke returns from Tampa.


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