Duke will face similar opponent in Blue Jays
At 9:40 p.m. on Sunday, No. 6 Duke (28-5) will take on No. 22 Creighton (28-7) in what’s technically known as the third round of the NCAA Tournament. At stake is the right to advance to the Sweet 16, which Duke has not done since 2011.
It’s sort of foreign territory for Duke, a program known for unprecedented NCAA Tournament success. From 1998-2010, Duke went to at least the Sweet 16 12 out of 14 times. After winning it all in 2010, Duke hasn’t advanced past the Sweet 16 since.
They will be facing a Creighton team that’s eager to prove it belongs. The Blue Jays are from the Missouri Valley Conference, and they’ve been one of the nation’s more consistent teams for years now. The Blue Jays boast one of the most efficient and lethal offenses in the country.
Creighton is 9-1 against BCS conference teams in the last two seasons. Its only loss was to North Carolina in last year’s NCAA Tournament and Creighton doesn’t want to do that again.
“I think we realized (after last year’s UNC game) that we had to get better defensively as a unit if we were going to get back to that opportunity and hopefully take advantage and to our credit, we have,” Creighton guard Grant Gibbs said.
“I think we’re a lot more sound defensively than we were last year. We’ve won some games this year because of our defense. Obviously, we’re going to hang our hat on what we can do offensively, but we had to bring our defense up to get back to this opportunity.”
Creighton’s Doug McDermott has been one of the nation’s leading scorers the last two seasons, and the junior is averaging 23.2 points per game on nearly 56 percent shooting. At 6-foot-8, he has a versatile skill set as a great rebounder, at 7.6 boards per game, and an outstanding three-point shooter, at 49.7 percent.
McDermott is the type of player Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski is very familiar with - a forward, or "stretch-four," who changes the way teams have to defend. Krzyzewski is as big a fan of McDermott as you’ll find.
“McDermott is such a beautiful player. He’s really one of the best offensive players I’ve seen in the last decade in college basketball,” Krzyzewski said. “If you just put one of those highlighters on him and watched him the entire time, he’s so difficult to defend because you don’t know exactly what he’s going to do and he’s making his shot before he gets the ball.”
Duke senior forward Ryan Kelly, a stretch-four himself, is familiar with defending great players. He and his teammates compared McDermott’s skills to those of Ohio State’s DeShaun Thomas, who Kelly held to 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting and two rebounds earlier this season in late November.
Defending McDermott - and the entire Creighton offense - will have to be a team effort, though. Duke is going to have to stay focused for all 40 minutes defensively, something all the players said didn’t happen against Albany.
Creighton sets a lot of screens and hopes to tire out an opposing defense until it makes a mistake, said Quinn Cook.
“They want us to let up and get tired of playing defense. So we can’t do that. We’ve got to stay attached to everybody," Cook said.
But this is just one more step for a determined Duke team with a group of three seniors (Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Kelly), two of whom were around for the 2010 NCAA Championship run. None of them want their careers to be over but all of them know anything can happen in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve experienced it firsthand, everything from winning it all to losing in the first round to Lehigh a year ago.
“Whenever you have a team that’s used to wining, they’re going to have a chance no matter who they play because they believe they’re winners,” Plumlee said. “You don’t have teams that just roll over and die in the tournament. They’re going to fight until the end, and when you (face) teams like that, anything can happen.”