OMAHA, Neb.—When the Blue Devils returned to their locker room in Pittsburgh last Saturday, a smiling Grayson Allen placed a “Duke” nameplate on the far left line of the bracket hung up on the wall.
For years, Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devil teams have never looked at the NCAA tournament as the daunting 64-team, three-week event that other programs might see. Instead, each weekend is its own four-team tournament, a way to focus on the task right in front of them.
So if the first weekend was the Pittsburgh Invitational, now is time for the Omaha Open.
No. 2 seed Duke will begin its two-game quest for its 13th Final Four appearance since 1986 when it takes on 11th-seeded Syracuse in the Sweet 16 Friday night at the CenturyLink Center. The Blue Devils’ contest will tip approximately 30 minutes following the conclusion of the first regional semifinal between top-seeded Kansas and No. 5 seed Clemson, which begins at 7:07 p.m.
But even as the stage gets bigger for Duke and its cast of young stars, the bright lights and extra pressure appear to be little distraction for a group of Blue Devils that is finally firing on all cylinders.
“As a player in the tournament, you have to completely change how you look at the tournament,” Allen said Tuesday at a media session in Durham. “Outside, you look at the whole thing, you make a bracket and look at who’s beating who. Look at, ‘Oh, there’s an upset in this bracket or these teams could match up in the Final Four.’ But when you’re a player, you really can’t do that.
“This year, we’re even looking at it as each game is a two-team tournament, and if we lose, we’re going home—we’re not playing in the next one. It helps you change your focus from this huge broad tournament to focusing in on your next opponent.”
With the group that’s next on the Blue Devils’ plate, there is certainly an element of familiarity. It was less than a month ago that the Orange (23-13) visited Cameron Indoor Stadium in what turned out to be a defensive slugfest.
Although Duke’s offense hit a low water mark that night—its 60 points were the lowest output in any game this season—there was a constant with the dominance of Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. in the paint.
Together, the tandem combined for 35 points and 17 rebounds in the win, and on the season, the pair has averaged about the same.
Against the Syracuse zone, Bagley and Carter will need to work in conjunction with each other if the Blue Devils (28-7) hope to work around the Orange’s extreme length.
“It’s going to very important for us to be in sync,” Carter said Thursday. “When I’m catching it in the middle, I have my role knowing where the shooters are and being able to get it down to Marvin.”
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But for as crucial as the Duke big men will be Friday night, the Blue Devil guards have been the driving force behind the team’s offensive resurgence in the last month.
At least for a period, as Duke transitioned exclusively to a zone defense, its offense slid a bit. The Blue Devils scored just 66 points at Clemson, then 60 against Syracuse, 63 at Virginia Tech and only 25 in the first half against North Carolina before surging late.
Yet the relationship between Allen and freshman floor general Trevon Duval has blossomed in recent weeks. With the two sharing point guard duties, the Duke offense has become dangerous and multidimensional, as both ball-handlers have proven they can generate offense in various ways.
Add in Gary Trent Jr., who seemed to rediscover his shooting touch in Pittsburgh after a few games out of rhythm, and the Blue Devils have a group of five that is as capable of exploding offensively as any team left in the tournament.
“We play off each other very well,” Allen said of Duval. “Tre always has his head up for me for those transition threes, and obviously Gary as well. But with him in transition, there’s more space on the court for him to drive, and he’s very dangerous and does a really good job of attacking.”
The question becomes, however, whether Duke can do what it was unable to accomplish in the teams’ first matchup and find success beyond the 3-point arc.
“The main thing will be just finding the gaps and already be in a position where you can just shoot it right away,” Trent said.
Against any 2-3 zone, that’s easier said than done. Facing a defensive powerhouse like the Orange, who have limited opponents to fewer than 60 points in each of their three NCAA tournament games, it becomes an even tougher task. But this group of Blue Devils appears loose, confident, excited and, as their coach put it Thursday, “ready to cross that next bridge” into the Elite Eight.
“Balance is the key to being a really good offensive team. And for the most part, we’ve had that,” Krzyzewski said Friday. “They’re better. We’re better.... Hopefully we can keep that going.”