Duke is never a Cinderella. It is never an underestimated program. And it has never won a national title under a head coach not named Mike Krzyzewski.
While a No. 5 seed may not be a true Cinderella, at least in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament, the sentiment holds true. This year’s Blue Devil team is a little different than those of years past. Its nonconference struggles translated into six ACC road losses. However, as Duke’s freshmen core matured, the group’s play improved, ultimately leaving it just one win shy of the regular-season conference title. It was a shortcoming the Blue Devils quickly remedied, winning the ACC tournament on three MVP-caliber performances from Kyle Filipowski.
Duke’s postseason continues. Its automatic bid landed it a No. 5 seed in the East Region and a first-round date with No. 12-seed Oral Roberts. If the Blue Devils are to run back last season’s Final Four trip, they need to start with the Golden Eagles. Here are five things to look for when Duke takes on Oral Roberts in the Round of 64.
It’s not easy, replacing a legend. Last spring, Jon Scheyer stepped into the 42-year, five-championship-sized shoes of Krzyzewski. With expectations the weight of a Blue Blood on his shoulders and a nearly entirely new roster and staff, the 35-year-old was not fazed. Through early regressions and at times snail’s pace growth, Scheyer persisted: And it has paid off.
Duke’s season has by no means followed a linear trajectory. Despite its preseason No. 7 ranking, Scheyer’s squad hit its fair share of early bumps. From their Champions Classic loss to Kansas and Phil Knight Legacy trouncing by Purdue to their double-digit defeats at the hands of conference foes like N.C. State and Miami, the Blue Devils spent seven weeks outside of the AP Poll. Duke waited it out, continuing to work and get its players healthy. And though the pieces themselves are young, Scheyer might just have finished his own rookie puzzle.
On Nov. 30 in Cameron Indoor Stadium, Section 17 was dotted with signs saying “The Oral Roberts University.” While the Ohio State Buckeyes on the court that day, the target of the taunts, may not have the visceral memory of their program’s worst performance in recent history, college basketball fans everywhere remember the Golden Eagles’ Cinderella run fondly. In 2021, No. 15-seed Oral Roberts upset No. 2-seed Ohio State to start its Sweet 16 run. Now, the 30-4 Summit League champions are looking to repeat the feat.
While the Golden Eagles still have five players from their 2021 team, one stands out: Max Abmas. As a sophomore he played all 45 minutes of that overtime game, scoring 29 points on 5-of-10 3-point shooting. While Abmas’ 80 points through the three March Madness games were not enough to push Oral Roberts through to the Elite Eight, the miraculous run likely would not have happened without him.
“I'm not sure if you stop Abmas,” said Scheyer in Wednesday’s media availability.
Abmas hasn’t missed a beat since. The senior is averaging 22.2 points per game this season, including five 30-point performances. In his 33 starts, he has drained multiple 3-pointers in 30 of them. The battle on the perimeter between Duke’s premier long-range defense and Abmas’ lights-out shooting just may be what decides this potential upset.
Momentum, momentum, momentum
The Blue Devils are one of the hottest schools in the country right now, boasting a nine-game win streak. After that blowout in Miami and the controversy in Virginia, Duke got itself into shape. Spurred by a 90-minute players-only meeting spearheaded by the team’s veterans, junior captain Jeremy Roach led his team to a 6-0 regular-season finish and ACC championship. The Blue Devils’ lockdown defense has been the headline all year, but their offense has finally started to catch up. Their assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.7 over that nine-game span would rank them third in the nation, a far cry from the lackluster ball security the team displayed in early February.
Oral Roberts is riding its own high. The Golden Eagles have won their last 17 and went undefeated in Summit League play. While its schedule looks vastly different than Duke’s, Oral Roberts has shown tremendous offensive consistency. It has the third-ranked scoring offense in the nation, averaging 84.2 points per game. Behind Abmas’ attack, the Golden Eagles have the potential to overcome the Blue Devils if their shots don’t fall and they revert back to their early-season form.
“Just locking in. It's man-on-man now,” said Roach. “Every team is desperate. We know they're desperate, we're desperate. It's a one-game season, like [Filipowski] said. Everybody has got to go out there and impose their will.”
The Blue Devils’ starting lineup consists of two centers: freshmen Dereck Lively II and Filipowski. Both eclipse the 7-foot mark and both have emerged as stars.
Filipowski’s offensive prowess has propelled the squad all season. The 19-year-old averages 15.4 points per game on 44.6% shooting. He has four 20-point showings since his scoreless afternoon against Virginia Feb. 11 and will no doubt continue to be a main offensive contributor for Duke. Lively’s skill set looks a little different, as the Westtown School product has become an elite shot-blocker and defensive asset.
“Dereck has changed our whole team, it's not just the last nine games,” said Scheyer.
His ability to affect shots and alter possessions has transformed the Blue Devils’ defensive game plan. His 2.3 blocks per game rank him 11th in the nation, but his impact is much greater than that.
Second on that same list, though? Oral Roberts’ Connor Vanover. The senior stands at 7-foot-5 and denies 3.3 attempts per game. His height poses a challenge Duke has only seen once before in Purdue’s 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey. Edey put up 20 points and 12 rebounds in that game, picking apart the Blue Devil defense. While the group is much improved, it will have to limit both Vanover and Abmas to advance.
Stay in the moment
Especially for a program like Duke, fresh off a Final Four run and with an ACC tournament title under its belt, it would be far too easy to take the round of 64 as an easy win and already start thinking ahead. Year after year that mindset proves fatal. We saw it with No. 2-seed Kentucky last year. We saw it with Oral Roberts in 2021 as it beat No. 2-seed Ohio State. As great as the Blue Devils are playing right now, and as plausible as a Final Four run is, they have to stay focused on the task at hand.
“It's a new season,” said Roach in Wednesday’s media availability. “And not to worry about — really not to worry about any other game but what we have to do on Thursday. So just locking in on one game at a time, not looking ahead.”
Leaning on Roach will help. The guard has been here before and is the only one on the Duke roster who truly has. The freshmen have grown, but even an ACC tournament in the Greensboro Coliseum cannot compare to the lights, eyes and weight of March Madness.
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Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.