Duke faces UNC with bigger things in mind
Duke-North Carolina basketball games are among the most anticipated and most watched of any regular-season games across the country.
The ACC Tournament, with all of its games televised nationwide, remains one of the sport’s crown jewels
While preparing and playing in both events, beginning with the game against UNC at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill tonight (9 p.m., ESPN), Duke has work to do with an even bigger event in mind – the NCAA Tournament.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, having led the Blue Devils to four NCAA championships over the past 22 years, carefully treaded the fine line between diminishing two of college basketball’s greatest events and acknowledging the reality of gunning for an NCAA championship on Friday.
Krzyzewski said No. 3-ranked Duke (26-4 overall, 13-4 in ACC) has some “experimenting” to do now that senior forward Ryan Kelly is back on the court after missing 13 games with a right foot injury. The Blue Devils are unbeaten with the 6-11 Kelly this year and are among the national championship contenders.
As great and UNC-Duke and the ACC Tournament are, Krzyzewski said, they will serve as a laboratory as the Blue Devils eye an even bigger prize.
“When does the NCAA Tournament start?” Krzyzewski said when asked when Duke would be done experimenting with different personnel groupings. “Until then. We do have time. This is a huge game. The ACC Tournament is huge. But they don’t match up to the NCAA Tournament.”
Kelly’s return for Duke’s 79-76 win over ACC regular-season champion Miami last Saturday was among the most-important developments on the national college basketball scene. The versatile Kelly scored 36 points while making seven 3-pointers, showing just how important he is to Duke’s national championship hopes.
UNC coach Roy Williams called Kelly’s performance “outrageous” and “unbelievable” given the circumstances.
“Their team changes drastically,” Williams said. “You’ve got Seth (Curry), Mason (Plumlee), Quinn (Cook), Rasheed (Sulaimon) and all those guys who have really played well. Now all of a sudden they’ve got a huge shot of adrenaline here two weeks before the tournament starts who, according to Mike (Krzyzewski), may have been their best team defender, may have been their best talker on the defensive end of the floor. It gives them another rebounder and a guy who will take a charge or block shots. And 36 points in the first game back. That’s mind boggling to me.”
Kelly followed up with 18 points as Duke closed out its home games undefeated with an 85-57 win over Virginia Tech on Tuesday.
The team took a day off Wednesday but spent Thursday and Friday preparing for UNC while also looking at different, and perhaps better, ways to group players with Kelly in the mix.
“We have to learn about our stuff while we’re playing in these big games,” Krzyzewski said. “Duke-UNC. What a great game to play at any time but especially at this time for both teams. To go into a tournament atmosphere in the ACC, Greensboro does such a great job with it, we get some tournament flavor there and hopefully we get some confidence. We may try some things offensively and defensively or with personnel just to take a look at it and go forward.”
Regardless of tonight’s outcome, Duke will be the No. 2 seed, behind Miami, for the ACC Tournament, which begins Thursday at the Greensboro Coliseum. The Blue Devils will play Friday night at 7 p.m.
The idea is for Duke to be at its best the following week when the NCAA Tournament begins. Duke point guard Quinn Cook said the team isn’t far away from that now.
“I don’t think we’re far just because Ryan is so unselfish,” Cook said. “When Ryan came in it just wasn’t about him getting back into rhythm and getting his shots. He got back into rhythm because guys weren’t used to guarding him and he was open and he exploded for 36.”
Still, Krzyzewski didn’t become the NCAA's all-time leader in Division I men’s coaching wins by being complacent. He will use all the time between now and the NCAA Tournament, including tonight against UNC and the ACC Tournament, to fine-tune his team.
“I like my team,” Krzyzewski said. “I think the fact that we have games to play with Ryan in the regular season is going to help us. We have to adapt to new roles. The roles we had without him changed for everybody. But we have this time. We get to experiment a little bit before the NCAA Tournament and see how it goes.”