Duke spurred on by visions of Greensboro upset loss to Lehigh
The mantra from college basketball coaches to their players when postseason arrives is to play the current game and not think about the next.
Thinking too far ahead can cost you.
Duke returns to an arena tonight where that message was driven home the hard way.
Last March, at the Greensboro Coliseum, the Blue Devils suffered a rare NCAA Tournament embarrassment in their otherwise sterling postseason basketball history. No. 15 seed Lehigh took down Duke, a No. 2 seed, 75-70 to end the Blue Devils’ season abruptly.
Throughout last offseason and in the early stages of this current campaign, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski reminded the players of that defeat often. It was a rallying point.
As Duke returns to Greensboro for its ACC Tournament quarterfinal today (7 p.m., WRAL), the players know first hand what can happen by not focusing on each and every game.
“Last year we weren’t focused at this time of year,” Duke junior guard Tyler Thornton said. “It showed in how we played and how we handled the situations that we were in. This year it’s a totally different mentality. A lot of the guys who are on the team this year went through that last year. Just throughout the year the mindset and approach to our team has been a lot different and been very positive.”
Duke begins ACC Tournament play in a similar position to last year in that the Blue Devils (27-4) are the No. 2 seed. But Duke’s situation is far different.
The Blue Devils lost Ryan Kelly to a right foot injury in practice between the end of the regular season and the start of the ACC Tournament. Without their 6-10 forward, the Blue Devils went 1-2 in the postseason, losing to Florida State in the ACC Tournament semifinals at Atlanta prior to the Lehigh loss six days later.
“We were scrambling to find an identity going into the ACC Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament,” Duke senior center Mason Plumlee said, looking back a year.
This year, Kelly dealt with an injury to the same foot. But after sitting out seven weeks and 13 games, he returned for the final three regular season games. Duke won them all and is 18-0 this season in games in which Kelly has played.
“We have a lot of guys playing at a high level,” Plumlee said. “It’s exciting.”
A year ago, Kelly’s injury a few days prior to the ACC Tournament interrupted important team instruction time for Duke. This year, following the 69-53 win at North Carolina last Saturday, Krzyzewski said the staff has been able to fine-tune some areas of the Blue Devils’ game.
“The good thing is right now, instead of game preparation and focusing on an opponent, we can really look at focusing on us and take a good look,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s what we tried to do since the game on Saturday night as a staff, and you know what do we need to do during these few days of practice that will help us going forward.”
Getting past such an emotional win can be difficult. Duke dominated its rival in a road game to complete a regular-season sweep of the Tar Heels.
But the players and coaches are working on coming back down from that high point to prep for the ACC Tournament.
“As a team with a higher goal, we have to move on,” Duke sophomore point guard Quinn Cook said. “Of course the fans are still celebrating that game. But we could possibly play them again so we just want to move past.
“I’m one of those guys, along with the seniors, to make sure we move on the right path and not be satisfied with a win like that.”
So as Duke returns to Greensboro, the Blue Devils feel like they’ve already gone a long way toward burying last season’s demons. They certainly won’t overlook anyone while making sure they are at their best when it matters most.
“Obviously it’s in the back of a lot of our heads,” Plumlee said. “If we got to the NCAA and (just) win our first game, it’s not a successful season.”
The beginning of a what could be a memorable run through March begins with solid focus tonight — no matter the opponent.