In order to earn a spot in the Sweet 16, the Blue Devils will need to do something they have not succeeded in this season.
Duke was awarded the No. 5 seed in the Albany Region of the NCAA tournament during Monday night's selection show on ESPN. For the first time since 1997, the Blue Devils will play in the tournament without being a top-four seed—they did not make the tournament in 2015-16.
Duke will open up play against No. 12 seed Belmont in Athens, Ga., Saturday morning at 11. With a win against the Bruins, the Blue Devils would face the winner of the host No. 4 seed Georgia and No. 13 seed Mercer. The Athens sub-regional is the only one in which all four teams are ranked. The top seed in the Albany Region is Connecticut. If Duke makes it past the first weekend for the first time since 2015, the Blue Devils will likely face off against the Huskies in Albany, N.Y. at the Times Union Center.
“We are very excited. It’s a special thing to be in a winners’ tournament like the NCAA tournament. All the teams are super good—that’s a given—but what’s really nice is we’re going back to Lexie’s home state. Becca’s family is close in Charlotte,” Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “Our fans have a chance to get out to Athens and support our team. Many times, they can send you west or anywhere else. So, we’re very excited and just going to take it one day at a time as we prepare.”
Duke’s opponent, Belmont, enters the meeting having notched 31 wins on the season with only three losses. Two of those teams that beat the Bruins were ranked at the time and sit in the field of 64, with the third team suffering a defeat in its conference championship game.
“Right now, I can’t answer too much about [Belmont],” McCallie said. “I know they’re well-coached. I know that they shoot the three a ton and I know we’re going to watch a lot of film.”
Although McCallie is not previously familiar with Belmont, graduate student Lexie Brown knows a little bit about the team’s Saturday opponent. Brown grew up with Bruin graduate student Kylee Smith and has known her since they were in the sixth grade. After later playing on an AAU team together, Smith and Brown know a lot about each other’s style of play.
Partly as a result of the ACC quarterfinal loss to N.C. State, Duke lost out on hosting the first two rounds. To some teams, the difference of one seed may not be very critical. But for the Blue Devils, that loss could prove costly as they have struggled away from Cameron Indoor Stadium this season. Duke is 6-6 away from home, with losses coming to North Carolina and a few lower-seeded tournament foes. On the other hand, Duke has only lost twice in the past two years at home.
“We just need to come with a different mindset on the road. I think we just come into home games with a little more excitement. There’s a little more energy sometimes here compared to anywhere on the road,” Brown said. “But now it’s tournament time. There’s going to be a lot of energy everywhere we go. We just need to come out, be aggressive and play our game.”
Under head coach Joanne P. McCallie, the Blue Devils have had some success in the tournament in the past, though they still have not reached the Final Four. From 2010-13, Duke made the Elite Eight four straight years, but it has only returned to the Sweet 16 once since then, with upset losses coming in 2014 and 2017.
In nonconference play, the Blue Devils suffered two losses on the road to Villanova and South Carolina on their way to an 11-2 record. Duke also knocked off two ranked opponents in Oregon State and Ohio State at home.
But the road troubles carried over into ACC play, as the team lost the first two matchups of conference play to Miami and Louisville. After the setbacks on the road, Duke went on the win eight of the next nine contests, with the only loss on the road to North Carolina in overtime. However, losses to Notre Dame and Syracuse placed Duke in line for a No. 5 seed in the ACC until it knocked off a top-10 team in Florida State in the last week of the regular.
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In their two meetings, Duke and N.C. State, which earned the fourth seed in the Kansas City Regional, split the series, with the second matchup serving as a likely decider on the ability to earn a coveted spot as a top-16 team in the country. Before the quarterfinal game, Duke’s RPI sat at No. 12 while N.C. State’s rested at No. 20. But after the Blue Devils' loss, they fell to No. 19. Against top-50 RPI teams, Duke finished the year with a record of 5-7.
The Blue Devils will enter the tournament on top of a multitude of statistical categories in the ACC. Duke currently shoots 39.1 percent from 3-point range and served as the top team in field-goal percentage all season long. In addition, the offense accompanies the top defensive team in terms of points allowed per game at 56.3 points allowed on average.
When Duke steps onto the floor Saturday, it will be two weeks since it last played a game. As a result, the Blue Devils should be well-rested and ready to compete for a return to the second weekend.
“Super excited. This is something we’ve been looking forward to all year obviously to make it to the tournament. The seed—we don’t care about that. We’re just excited to be a part of the tournament,” Brown said. “It’s going to be super exciting for the freshman of course to experience their first tournament. Glad we could bring them out for one.”