Five wins in five days. That’s what Duke will likely have to accomplish in order to receive what was once a routine invite to the Big Dance. Seems tough, right?
The Blue Devils, fresh off a 3-game losing streak to close out a regular season with more twists and turns than a snake pit, enter the ACC Tournament in nearby Greensboro, N.C., as the No. 10 seed. Adding to the uncharted waters for the program is the fact that Duke will take the court on the Tuesday of Championship Week for the first time. Don’t tell that to the Blue Devils, though, as their confidence has seemingly not wavered despite recent struggles.
“We’re definitely built for it,” freshman guard DJ Steward said. “It’s just us coming together and just staying together at this time, working hard these next couple days and just staying focused, staying locked in and just playing together. We all have to stay together as one and just work hard, work our butts off.”
If there’s one thing that may work in the Blue Devils’ favor, it’s the positive mojo that comes with playing in historic Greensboro Coliseum. Of the 26 ACC Tournaments hosted by the Gate City, Duke has hoisted the trophy eight times.
“Greensboro is a very special place for me and our program, and for college basketball,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “You know the ACC Tournament, that’s the one that got it all started. To do well in it, to win it, we’ve won it a number of times, it’s been an honor to do it there.”
While there is certainly some nostalgia in the air this week, Duke’s attention is firmly on the task at hand. To even sniff the conference crown, the Blue Devils must first take care of business against Boston College Tuesday. The Eagles, who enter with a 4-15 record and an interim head coach in Scott Spinelli, may seem undaunting at first glance. However, keep in mind that back in January, Boston College raced out to a 43-35 halftime lead and were a Wendell Moore Jr. fadeaway jumper removed from stunning the Blue Devils in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Reading between the lines, Duke has set aside the magnitude of all 14 other ACC teams being in attendance in Greensboro. As of right now, its preparation is fully directed towards the Eagles.
“I think in order to win, you can’t look at the tournament as a whole, you just have to play your next opponent, and that’s it, and then win,” Krzyzewski said. “And then try to win again, you know if you try to look at the whole thing, it can become daunting.”
If the Blue Devils are indeed able to get past the Eagles, their path to a surprising run at the title becomes extremely challenging starting Wednesday. Louisville awaits the winner of the Duke-Boston College matchup, and as evidenced by two gut wrenching losses at the beaks of the Cardinals this season, the Blue Devils would have their hands full with Carlik Jones, David Johnson and the rest of Chris Mack’s crew.
In the event that Duke picks up its first win over Louisville since the magical comeback at the KFC Yum! Center in 2019, the next team on the itinerary would be the No. 2 seed Florida State. Led by M.J. Walker in the scoring column, the Seminoles are athletic, deep and well-coached, like most Leonard Hamilton clubs. As an added bonus, freshman wunderkind Scottie Barnes, who averages 10.3 points, 4.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds per contest, brings energy and some transition flavor to the table.
The winner of a Duke-Florida State quarterfinal would face the winner of a likely Virginia Tech-North Carolina quarterfinal in the semifinals Friday. The Blue Devils had trouble slowing down the Hokies’ batch of sharpshooters in a 74-67 loss earlier this year, and their struggles with the Tar Heels on the interior have been well documented. While a victory over Florida State would be impressive, neither Virginia Tech nor North Carolina presents a particularly favorable matchup for Duke.
Based on the quality of the competition in their side of the bracket, it may appear as though the Blue Devils are destined for a fairly quick exit this week. Even if Duke were to reach Saturday’s title game, top-seeded Virginia or even Georgia Tech and ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright could be waiting. Despite that, the Blue Devils maintain an admirable amount of self-belief in the face of an uphill climb, something that will serve them well in their quest to capture a 22nd ACC tournament title.
“Well, I think now the biggest thing is to just believe in ourselves, I mean that’s the biggest thing,” freshman center Mark Williams said. “Everyone is going to be doubting us, but at this point it’s us versus everybody. As I said, it’s a new season, the ACC Tournament, and we’re going to take it one game at a time and go from there.”
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.