Grayson Allen introduced himself to the nation with a 16-point performance in last year's national title game against Wisconsin, helping Duke erase a big second-half deficit to cut down the nets.
What does he have planned for an encore?
The fourth-seeded Blue Devils will open the NCAA tournament against in-state foe and 13th-seeded UNC Wilmington Thursday at 12:15 p.m. at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I. The depth-strapped Blue Devils come in having lost two of their last three, and they face a quick, relentless backcourt that has helped the Seahawks to a plus-3.8 turnover margin.
After fatigue cost Duke a chance to advance further in the ACC tournament and the Blue Devils bowed out with a 84-79 overtime loss to Notre Dame in the quarterfinals, the week between games gave the team a chance to rest and freshen up for the perils of postseason play—both physically and mentally.
“In some respects, it’s good to come into the tournament losing a game that you should have won,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said during his press conference Wednesday afternoon. “The extra rest is good for us…. Our team is healthier than it has been over the last two weeks.”
The Blue Devils (23-10) led by as many as 16 in the second half against the Fighting Irish, but then they lost their shooting legs. Duke missed 16 of its last 18 shots in the second half, and Notre Dame took advantage of severe foul trouble to Marshall Plumlee, Brandon Ingram and Chase Jeter to roar back into the game.
Foul trouble was not the only thing ailing the Blue Devils in that game, though. Krzyzewski also said that junior guard Matt Jones would not have been able to play the following day in a potential semifinal matchup against North Carolina because he was sick and throwing up. Graduate student center Marshall Plumlee suffered a broken nose in the team's second-round win against N.C. State and wore a mask against the Fighting Irish, which affected his ability to crash the glass and shoot free throws.
Things are different now, though—Jones is at full strength and Plumlee has had a full week to adjust to playing with the protective covering.
“I’ve gotten comfortable playing in a mask these last few days of practice and kind of fine-tuning that mask to give me better visibility,” Plumlee said. “The bone that I broke up here is such a small bone that it starts to heal pretty quickly.”
The Blue Devils will face a team like themselves in the Seahawks, who start four guards and are one of the shortest teams in the tournament. UNC-Wilmington (25-7) finished tied for first in the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season standings but defeated regular-season co-champion Hofstra 80-73 in overtime in last week’s conference championship game.
Ten Seahawks play at least 9.5 minute per game, which allows UNC-Wilmington to employ a press defense that forces 15.2 turnovers per game. Duke struggled against full-court pressure briefly in its second meeting against the Wolfpack Feb. 6 and significantly down the stretch of a 71-64 loss at Louisville Feb. 20.
“I’m thankful that we had that kind of game to prepare us for Wilmington,” sophomore guard Grayson Allen said of the loss to the Cardinals. “They play a lot of guys, and the pressure is going to be on the whole game, and it’s going to be the whole length of the court.… We can’t get into a rush.”
Walk-on Chris Flemmings—a redshirt junior who transferred from Division II Barton—creates spacing for the Seahawks, scoring a team-high 16.1 points and grabbing a team-leading 5.9 rebounds per game. Point guard Denzel Ingram joins Flemmings in double-figures, posting 12.5 points and 3.3 assists per contest, and two other players score at least 9.9 points per game.
Defensively, UNC-Wilmington holds opponents to only 33.7 percent shooting from deep, but its high-octane defense leaves them it to committing fouls—a luxury when the Seahawks can go 10 players deep, but a potential flaw for Duke to exploit. UNC-Wilmington commits 23.8 fouls per game—the third-most in the country—and 29 percent of opponents’ points come from the charity stripe.
As a result, Allen and freshman swingman Brandon Ingram could turn down perimeter shots and live at the line by attacking the hoop. The Blue Devils average 17.0 made free throws per game, and a strong offensive showing for Plumlee could help add to that mark.
Seven-footer C.J. Gettys is the only Seahawk starter taller than 6-foot-5, and the redshirt junior averages only 15.7 minutes per game. But UNC-Wilmington’s fast-paced backcourt has allowed the team to get opponents in foul trouble as well, attempting 23.2 free throws per game. Foul trouble plagued the Blue Devils in their loss to the Fighting Irish, and Ingram and Plumlee must find ways to stay on the floor and play smart as the Seahawks try to probe the heart of the Duke defense.
“We’re smaller. I think we may be a little quicker,” UNC-Wilmington head coach Kevin Keatts said Wednesday. “We can spread the floor. We can make shots. We have the ability to…switch some ball screens and hopefully disrupt them a little bit.”
Krzyzewski said that redshirt sophomore transfer Sean Obi has been limited this year due to knee injuries, but that Obi and freshman forward Chase Jeter have impressed him of late in the frontcourt.
With a win, the Blue Devils would play either fifth-seeded Baylor or 12th-seeded Yale Saturday in Providence for the right to advance to the West Regional in Anaheim, Calif.
But Thursday, a young Duke team will look to forget the extra pressures of the Big Dance and the fatigue of the regular season by jumping out to a hot start for the third straight game.
“Whoever this Duke team is, it’s as good as it’s been all season right now [since Amile Jefferson’s injury Dec. 15],” Krzyzewski said. “That’s where you want to be at this time of the year. They’re a good group. They’re a tight group. Let’s go.”
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