For Duke basketball, winning ACC title was nice, but Blue Devils focus on larger prize
Among the motivational phrases written in black grease pencil on a white board in Duke’s Greensboro Coliseum locker room last Saturday night was something about nothing that meant everything.
Postseason tournaments lend themselves to the one-game-at-a-time mentality because a team’s next loss drops them out.
No. 12-ranked Duke successfully followed that approach in Greensboro, beating three teams that made the NCAA Tournament on the way to winning the ACC tournament with a 59-49 victory over Virginia last Saturday.
Now in the NCAA Tournament, facing Oral Roberts on Thursday night at Amway Center, the Blue Devils (26-8) have to put that accomplishment in their past and believe their record is indeed 0-0 while seeking to go 1-0 over six consecutive games.
“We realize now that it’s a one-game season,” said Kyle Filipowski, the Duke 7-foot freshman voted the Everett Case Award winner as the ACC tournament’s top player, “and if you don’t win the one game ahead of you, then you’re not going to play another one. Just recognizing that and realizing everything that we’ve done is in the past.”
The Blue Devils celebrated their ACC championship as Saturday night became Sunday morning in Greensboro. They earned the right to hang a new banner in Cameron Indoor Stadium’s already crowded rafters.
Now they have to forget about that, pretend they are 0-0 and go beat talented, tournament-tested Oral Roberts (30-4) squad to continue the fun.
“It’s a matchup, right away, where you know the name, and there’s a respect level there,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said. “Sometimes, even though a team is really good, you may not know them, and you need to do more explaining. There’s such a respect that our guys have for them right away.”
That’s because the Golden Eagles drew national attention two years ago when, as a No. 15 seed, they beat Ohio State and Florida to reach the 2021 NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. There, one year before the nation discovered St. Peter’s because of its tournament run to the Elite Eight, Oral Roberts lost 72-70 to Arkansas.
While East Region No. 5 seed Duke has a nine-game winning streak with wins in 12 of its past 14 games, the 12th-seeded Golden Eagles are on a 17-game winning streak. Their most recent loss was on Jan. 9.
Oral Roberts certainly has Duke’s attention.
“It wasn’t about convincing them of anything other than the game plan of `Here’s how we’re going to beat them,’” Scheyer said. “It’s no different from any of these other games we’ve prepared for, whether it’s in the ACC Tournament or down the stretch here. Really focusing on what we can control and understanding it’s going to be a really confident group and a team that’s really explosive on the offensive end.”
Max Abmas, a third-team All-American guard who averages 22.2 points per game, gives Duke plenty to worry about. The 6-foot Abmas keyed the Sweet 16 run two years ago with 80 points over those three games (26.7 scoring averages) against Big Ten and SEC foes.
Inside, the Golden Eagles will present 7-5 center Connor Vanover to help counter Duke’s two freshmen big men, Filipowski and the 7-1 Dereck Lively.
A second-round matchup against either No. 4 seed Tennessee or No. 13 seed Louisiana looms on Saturday for whomever wins Thursday night.
The Blue Devils can’t think about that now, though. They are striving to be 1-0 on Thursday and see what happens from there.
“I think I think we’ve done it all year,” Duke freshman point guard Tyrese Proctor said. “We’ve taken one game at a time and Scheyer has emphasized it really heavily. You know, every game is a championship game. I think that’s what we did well in the ACC tournament, just making sure every game we didn’t look too far ahead and too far behind.”
That mentality leads into one of the other phrases scribbled in black grease pencil on that white board in Greensboro.
Directly above “0-0” the words “Go get it” were written. Scheyer wants the Blue Devils to play like they have to get the win, not have the opponent give it to them.
“We could definitely get a little cocky and let the foot off the gas because we won our conference tournament,” Filipowski said, “but with all these people still not thinking we are as good as we are, that’s still really good for us, because now we can come out even hotter.”