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Second-seeded Duke men's basketball back to work in NCAA tournament opener against Troy Friday

<p>Freshman Frank Jackson's big shots were a bit overlooked during Duke's ACC tournament run, but the rookie stepped up in the biggest moments.&nbsp;</p>

Freshman Frank Jackson's big shots were a bit overlooked during Duke's ACC tournament run, but the rookie stepped up in the biggest moments. 

Seven days ago, Duke was just at the beginning of an unsuspecting ACC tournament run. The Blue Devils were projected to be a No. 4 seed, just barely hanging onto a spot in Greenville, S.C., for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

What a difference a week makes.

After winning four games in four days to capture the 20th conference tournament title in program history and earning consideration for a No. 1 seed, second-seeded Duke will begin its road to the Final Four with a tussle against No. 15 seed Troy in the NCAA tournament's Round of 64 at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C., at 7:20 p.m. Friday.

The Blue Devils will be a No. 2 seed for the 11th time since seeding began in 1979—their most frequent placement other than the top spot—as they look to build on the four-game winning streak they started last week in Brooklyn.

"When we came here our goal was to win a championship. We knew we could do it," junior Grayson Allen said after Duke topped Notre Dame 75-69 for the title Saturday night. "We knew that even how we finished the regular season, we had a few losses there at the end, but we still felt like we were getting better and improving and that our best basketball hadn’t been played yet. I think we’re seeing things come together. We can play with anybody."

The narratives for the Blue Devils have been the same for much of the season—injuries aplenty, Allen's suspension after a third tripping incident and the absence of Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski for nearly a month following back surgery.

Yet at the Barclays Center last week, all of the Blue Devils' past issues seemed irrelevant.

Freshman Harry Giles, who has still yet to fully emerge as the the top recruit he was once touted as, had a highlight-reel stretch in the second half against North Carolina. Duke (27-8) made a trio of consecutive comebacks against three of the ACC's top four teams—the Blue Devils were down at least eight points in their quarterfinal, semifinal and championship games.

But perhaps most importantly, Allen reemerged for 15.3 points per game in Duke's last three games, shooting better than 45 percent from the field and 8-of-14 from beyond the arc. And that does not even mention freshman Jayson Tatum and ACC tournament MVP Luke Kennard, both of whom maintained the consistency they have shown much of the last month.

With the Blue Devils as the current Las Vegas favorites to bring home the national title, everything seems to finally be clicking—just as Krzyzewski said it eventually would.

"We haven't talked at all about [seeding] because so much has happened. We just said let's talk about us and let's get better," Krzyzewski said. "Even for this tournament, we said, let's just win one game, and okay, we won it. Let's win one game.... And hopefully, we can take that same attitude into the next tournament."

As a reward for pulling off three straight upsets of their own to capture the Sun Belt Conference tournament championship and the league's automatic bid last weekend in New Orleans, the Trojans will open their second-ever NCAA tournament against Duke. Troy (22-14) escaped a title game date with Sun Belt favorite Texas-Arlington after the Mavericks were shockingly blown out in the semifinals.

Although the Trojans are unlikely to be able to match up on the defensive end with the Blue Devils' supreme offensive talent, Troy boasts the 74th-ranked offense according to basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy—ahead of two single-digit seeds in Seton Hall and South Carolina, who will also play in Greenville this weekend.

Jordon Varnado leads the Trojans at 16.5 points and 7.1 rebounds per game and with 52.6 percent shooting this season became the ninth 1,000-point scorer in Troy history. But with little in the way of size—the tallest Trojan is just 6-foot-8—the 18.5-point underdogs very well may have a tough time slowing down Tatum and a Duke attack that is firing on all cylinders.

"[Tatum's] been tremendous the whole year, especially this week and especially in crunch time," freshman guard Frank Jackson said Saturday. "He’s made some huge plays for us. That’s Jayson Tatum. He can give you that spark. He can create plays. He can score the ball. He can do it all."

After the St. Louis native posted a team-high 19 points against the Fighting Irish, expect the Blue Devils to lean heavily on the first-year star throughout the first weekend—but Duke's pod will also feature a pair of experienced teams that will battle later Friday night

If the Blue Devils can advance past Troy, they will match up against either the No. 7 seed Gamecocks or 10th-seeded Marquette Sunday. South Carolina (22-10) is led by SEC Player of the Year and senior Sindarius Thornwell, a projected second-round pick in this year's NBA Draft who averages 21.0 points, 7.2 boards, and almost three assists per game.

The Golden Eagles (19-12)—coached by former Duke player and assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski—are led in scoring by freshman guard Markus Howard, but also have two talented seniors with Jujuan Johnson in the backcourt and 6-foot-11 Luke Fischer down low. Marquette is the top 3-point shooting team in the nation. 

After losing as a No. 2 seed to Lehigh just five years ago and watching 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee knock off Michigan State, 90-81, in the first round last year, though, do not expect the Blue Devils to look past their opening-round contest.

“It’s win or go home," Tatum said after earning first-team all-tournament honors. "Tomorrow is not promised, especially now."

Amrith Ramkumar and Hank Tucker contributed reporting.


Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 

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