Duke typically is a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament and was viewed as floating under the radar after drawing a No. 5 in this version of March Madness.
But with 10 straight victories and an easy 74-51 first-round victory over 12th-seeded Oral Roberts, perhaps the Blue Devils are primed for a deep run under first-year coach Jon Scheyer.
Duke (27-8) will look to take another step when it faces fourth-seeded Tennessee (24-10) on Saturday in East Region play at Orlando, Fla. A spot in the Sweet 16 awaits the winner.
Volunteers coach Rick Barnes is wary of the Blue Devils.
“I haven’t seen them a lot but I know Jon Scheyer has done a great job,” Barnes said following the Volunteers’ 58-55 first-round win over 13th-seeded Louisiana. “… What little bit I did see, I thought their defense was outstanding against a team that can really shoot the ball. And they’re a team that probably is as hot as any team in the country right now.”
A victory on Saturday would give Scheyer a nice start to his initial NCAA Tournament after replacing legendary Mike Krzyzewski as coach.
In fact, Coach K lost his first NCAA Tournament game with Duke in 1984 (against Washington) in his fourth season at the helm.
Scheyer quickly shut down that comparison.
“Let’s not go down that road,” Scheyer said of the Hall of Famer who won five national titles with the Blue Devils. “He’s done everything you could do. I’m not going down that road.”
Scheyer is trying to pave his own path and junior guard Jeremy Roach was the top surveyor against Oral Roberts.
Roach scored a career-best 23 points for the second straight game and helped fuel the victory with seven points in a game-opening 15-0 burst.
Roach said he heard about the lower projections for the Blue Devils and just shrugged it off. It was easier to do considering Duke won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
“It’s a new season now,” Roach said. “We wanted to lock in on Oral Roberts, and we did a good job and made it as tough as we could for them. Now we’ve got to lock in on Saturday and take it one game at a time.”
Tennessee led by as many as 18 points before having to hold on for a three-point victory over Louisiana.
It looked like it would be a cakewalk when the Volunteers led 48-30 with 12 minutes remaining. But Tennessee’s caliber of play suddenly dropped while the Ragin’ Cajuns made a frantic run.
“We tried to keep them in check as long as we could, but they made the shots,” Barnes said. “We gave them too much space. Even though we got a hand up, it was too late. … At the end of the game, we made enough plays to get it done.”
Tyreke Key led Tennessee with 12 points in a contest that was just the club’s sixth win in the past 13 games.
“Any college basketball player says it’s a dream to play at this stage,” Key said of facing Duke. “That’s why I came back to college, to play in the tournament. Like I said, I know our team is very excited to play Duke, and I think we’ll be ready to go.”
The Volunteers committed 18 turnovers against Louisiana while playing their fourth game since losing point guard Zakai Zeigler for the season with an ACL tear in his left knee.
Duke owns an 8-7 edge in the series, but the teams have met just once since 1980. On that occasion, the Blue Devils beat the Volunteers 77-67 in the 2011 Maui Invitational.
–Field Level Media