No. 5-seed Duke men's basketball kicks off NCAA tournament play against No. 12-seed Oral Roberts on Thursday night. The Blue Zone has three keys for the Blue Devils to avoid the upset:
Don’t be cocky
On Nov. 30, the Cameron Crazies filled section 17 to watch Duke beat Ohio State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They were all holding signs spelling out in bold writing, “The Oral Roberts University.”
March Madness did not earn its name for nothing. Just last year, No. 15-seed Saint Peter’s made a wild run through the bracket, going so far as to knock out No. 2-seed Kentucky and No. 3-seed Purdue to play in the Elite Eight. A team that barely made it into the tournament managed to upset the Wildcats and the Boilermakers, both squads that many had circled as contenders for the national title.
This phenom of a team came into national attention just a year after another No. 15 seed — Oral Roberts — pulled a similar trick. The Golden Eagles managed to knock No. 2-seed Ohio State out of the Big Dance in the round of 64, completely blowing up bracket predictions all over the country. Anything can happen in March.
The trick, then, is for the Blue Devils to keep their heads in the game and play the Golden Eagles as if they were a top-seeded team. Laziness on the court can only lead to disaster — Duke needs to play its best basketball if it wants to see another game in the NCAA tournament.
O captain, my captain
Junior captain Jeremy Roach led the way to the Final Four last year and he is Duke’s best chance to see it again. Sure enough, his best movement of the season is coming out now, just in time to tango in the Big Dance. When the Blue Devils squared up against Virginia in the ACC tournament championship game, the St. Paul VI product led the team in scoring, putting up 23 of its 59 points to seal that conference title. Roach was a menace in the Greensboro Coliseum, landing two downtown jumpers, making all seven of his free throws and sending 7-of-12 field goal attempts through the Cavaliers' hoop. With Tyrese Proctor at the point, Roach’s own shooting arm has had room to excel.
On top of regularly contributing double digits to the team score, Roach provides the mindset needed to get through March Madness. The veteran has tournament experience under his belt and knows how to deal with pressure. Indeed, his last efforts for the national title were burdened with the weight that every game might be the last for a legendary coach seeking his sixth national title — this time should be an easy run in comparison. Growth in head coach Jon Scheyer’s young team has recently become startlingly visible — much of that has to do with the effects of a leader like Roach, constantly in his teammates’ corner.
Battle at the stripe
Duke’s season average for free throw points is quite steep, at 13.7 per game. In fact, it’s higher, even, than the team’s scoring margin of just 8.6 points: For Duke, then, the charity stripe comes in handy — even more so considering that the Blue Devils shoot a team mean of 77.0% when it comes to foul shots.
But the same can be said of Oral Roberts, a team that shoots 77.6% from the stripe and averages 12.3 points per game from those baskets. The Golden Eagles have a higher scoring margin than the Blue Devils do, at 14.1, but their foul shots make up an important part of that.
There’s always a chance that something as small as free throw points make all the difference, especially in a close game down the stretch. If that’s the case with Duke’s first round in the tournament, the team will have to be on its A game when it comes to drawing fouls. On the flip side, the Blue Devils will have to play it clean, keeping blocks on the ball and avoiding giving up any precious points if they want to see the round of 32. Given that Duke’s most recent game involved 15 team fouls — enough to put Virginia in the bonus with just more than nine minutes to play — the Blue Devils need to keep their hands to themselves around the Golden Eagles.
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Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.