Lehigh and Mercer—two mid-major schools that traumatize Duke fans—are probably prefaced by expletives more often than not. 

The Blue Devils now hope Iona isn’t the next on that list.

Second-seeded Duke will begin its quest for a sixth national championship Thursday at 2:45 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh in the first round of the NCAA tournament against the 15th-seeded Gaels—a team that finished fourth in the MAAC, but made the tournament by snagging the league's automatic bid with a conference tournament title. 

Playing in a third straight NCAA tournament and sporting a roster laden with upperclassmen, Iona certainly has the edge in experience. With those painful memories of falling to a No. 15 seed in 2012 and a 14th-seeded side in 2014 seemingly seared into head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s memory, the Hall of Famer was initially short Wednesday before making it clear that he and his young Blue Devils aren't taking Iona lightly. 

“If you can have 22-, 23-, and 24-year olds playing against 19-year-olds, that can happen,” Krzyzewski said during his press conference on the eve of Duke's opener. “When we lost to Mercer, their team that won together over 90 games together, they were—they have one of the better coaches in the country, and they are 22, 23 years old. They know how to play. And they're tough...right now there's a chance that that can happen at any time.”

But Iona (20-13) isn’t without some key vulnerabilities. First off, it doesn’t have an All-American guard in its lineup like the Mountain Hawks did with C.J. McCollum. Nor does it start five seniors like the Bears. 

One of the worst rebounding teams in the country, the Gaels will have to grapple with a Blue Devil team that is among the best on the boards. If it wants to pull off a shocking upset, Iona will have to rely on its strong 3-point shooting in a high-tempo, four-guard set to keep up with Duke’s offensive juggernaut. 

That plays right into the teeth of Duke’s new zone defense, which has stifled the opposition from beyond the arc. But that doesn’t mean the Gaels are not dangerous. 

“They can really score the ball. They have a lot of guys that can beat you,” senior captain Grayson Allen said. “It's not a team that has a top scorer, a top guy that you have to watch. They have six or seven guys who can go off and be their leading scorer any game, so that makes them a dangerous team, a dangerous team to defend, too.”

With just one rotation player at 6-foot-8, Iona is woefully undersized and shouldn’t be able to compete in the paint against towering bigs Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III. The dynamic post duo combined for 33 points and 22 rebounds in an ACC semifinal loss Friday against North Carolina.

But in that game, the Blue Devil offense sputtered, plagued by turnovers as point guard Trevon Duval didn't score and turned the ball over five times in 30 minutes. Allen and Bagley coughed it up four times each as well. 

Although Duval was dealing with the effects of an ankle injury he suffered early in the game, the freshman floor general says he's now 100 percent healthy. 

Duval will have to get the offense flowing once again, and Duke will need to start making shots from deep. The Blue Devils (26-7) have shot worse than 30 percent from 3-point range in four of their last five games, but could get a reprieve facing a Gael defense that ranks 222nd in 3-point defense and 212th in overall adjusted efficiency, per basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy. 

On the other side of the ball, Duke was able to limit the Tar Heels to just 29.2 percent shooting from deep and less than 40 percent from the floor, but Krzyzewski said communication has been lacking recently. 

“We didn't really talk well in the ACC tournament, and our movement wasn't as good,” Krzyzewski said. “Overall, our communication is just really at a much different level, and, you know, if you're communicating, you have a better chance to be one [unit]. So that's how we got here, and we're a good defensive team.”

The Blue Devils have seen massive improvements on defense this season after switching to the zone, rising all the way to seventh in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. Just over a month ago, that might have been inconceivable—they were gashed for 81 points against St. John's and 82 against North Carolina in consecutive February games. 

Duke is going to have to keep up that momentum if it wants to make a deep run—especially with a team that tends to start four freshmen. Allen hopes he can steady them for their first—and potentially last—tournament. 

“You know, especially with a very young team, everything is a first, and it's your first game on camera, your first true road game, first tournament. Everything's a first, so you have to try to prepare them,” Allen said. “And me being the lone senior and lone captain, it puts a lot on my plate to try to prepare these guys. It makes it easy when they are as good as they are."