March Madness is a time for some of the nation’s largest and most hopeful athletes to try to squeeze their enormous feet into a tiny glass slipper.
North Dakota State is headed to Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C. after learning that such a shoe was available in its 78-74 victory against N.C. Central Wednesday night.
Meanwhile, Duke’s own sneaker fiasco seems to have resolved itself. So when the No. 16 seed Bison take on a streaking top-seeded Blue Devil squad in their first-round matchup at 7:10 p.m. Friday, the shoe will be on the other foot. Facing a daunting historical precedent, North Dakota State may have to turn to the Grimm Brothers’ envious stepsisters’ tact of manipulating its way into the footwear in whatever manner possible for inspiration.
Against the reigning ACC champions, the Bison will need to be the sharpest knives in the drawer, because even at their best, a victory will be highly unlikely.
A 16th-seeded team has never beaten the Blue Devils, nor any other team besides last year’s shocker against Virginia, since the NCAA started seeding teams in 1979. The closest anyone has come to defeating a No. 1-seeded Duke was a seven-point Blue Devil victory against Mississippi Valley State in 1986—the first time Duke earned a No. 1 seed.
Dominant Duke teams have fallen short, however. Junior captain Javin DeLaurier vividly remembers the disbelief in the locker room after the Blue Devils’ second-round loss to South Carolina in 2017—a Duke team that included soon-to-be lottery picks in Jayson Tatum and Luke Kennard.
“Knowing that you’re never going to put on a Duke jersey with that group of guys again is a really somber thought,” DeLaurier said.
DeLaurier also hinted at the return of center Marques Bolden, an essential component of the Blue Devil defense, during his media session Wednesday afternoon in Durham. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski confirmed it Thursday afternoon, noting that Bolden will be available but won't start.
After the junior sprained his knee at North Carolina March 9, Krzyzewski turned to 7-foot center Antonio Vrankovic to help plug the hole in the lane, which he accomplished admirably well for a player who had previously played only five minutes per game. Since Bolden has recuperated enough to see the floor Friday against North Dakota State (19-15), it will mark the first time the go-to lineup of Bolden, Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson has played together in more than a month.
Jones, in particular, was instrumental in securing Duke’s 14th No. 1 seed in school history. The point guard put up 44 total points in the Blue Devils’ three ACC tournament games.
Before his offensive breakout in the conference tournament, Jones often appeared visibly meek with the ball.
“Going into the [ACC] tournament, with Zion back, teams were helping even more off of me, so I knew I really needed to step up,” Jones said. “It was just a matter of time before I was able to do that.”
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Jones watched his older brother Tyus’ entire journey through the NCAA tournament to the national championship in person. He was at all of Tyus’ high school practices and most of his AAU practices, as well.
With that experience, Tre will lead his squad into unfamiliar territory.
Duke (29-5) has never faced North Dakota State before. In fact, only one Summit League team has ever played the Blue Devils. Unfortunately for the Bison, they bring nothing spectacular to the table against Duke. The Bison’s two most lethal offensive players—point guard Vinnie Shahid and guard Tyson Ward—will most likely be contained by Jones and Williamson, respectively. Junior guard Jared Samuelson presents a real threat from beyond the arc, nailing 46.5 percent of his attempts from deep.
The Bison could try to exploit their depth and wear out the Blue Devils. Of North Dakota State’s 10 players who have played in at least 20 of its games this season, all of them average double-digit minutes.
This strategy has been tested by many of Duke’s conference and nonconference foes this season, and it has failed each time. But, as DeLaurier knows the slipper becomes surprisingly flexible in the heat of the Big Dance.
“It’s March Madness for a reason,” DeLaurier said. “You see teams that you never think would lose go down all the time. We don’t want to be one of them.”
If the Blue Devils do take down the Bison, they will await the winner of No. 8 seed Virginia Commonwealth vs. ninth-seeded Central Florida, which will tip off approximately 30 minutes following Duke's game in Columbia.