ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — New look, same expectations for success.
A season removed from reaching the Final Four for a 13th time under Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski, Duke not only is in the NCAA Tournament again but appears to be peaking at the right time with first-year coach Jon Scheyer at the helm.
The fifth-seeded Blue Devils (26-8) face No. 12 seed Oral Roberts (30-4) in the opening round of the East Regional on Thursday night, eager to build on a rich March Madness legacy Krzyzewski fashioned over more than four decades.
“I’ve been fortunate now, I think this is number 12 that I’ve been a part of, and each time it’s so special. It’s something I will never, ever, ever take for granted,” the 35-year-old Scheyer, a former Duke player and assistant who helped Krzyzewski win two of the legendary coach’s five national championships, said Wednesday.
“I just promised myself as I made this transition to being a head coach just to be in the moment fully this whole year,” Scheyer added. “And that’s when things weren’t as good as I wanted them to be, that’s when we are playing great, and that’s in preparation for any game you want to play really well.”
Hampered by injuries for prolonged stretches of the season, the Blue Devils hit their stride late and enter March Madness on a roll after winning the ACC Tournament. They’ve won nine straight games — the third-longest winning streak Duke has ever carried into the NCAA Tournament.
Scheyer has had use of his full complement of players for the past 10 games. The team is 18-1 overall in outings in which the full roster has been available.
Not that it will make a difference against Oral Roberts, the Summit League regular-season and conference tournament champions.
The high-scoring Golden Eagles are led by 6-foot senior guard Max Abmas, who two years ago helped Oral Roberts make a surprising run to the Sweet 16 with wins over Ohio State and Florida, who were seeded second and seventh, respectively.
Duke’s No. 5 seeding is its highest since 2007.
Scheyer is well aware of the mystique regarding 5-12 matchups in the tournament.
“You’re going to see a lot of opinions, predictions. And I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum, where one, they pick you to win the whole thing or they pick you to win where that doesn’t happen, or it’s the opposite where nobody thinks you have a chance,” the Duke coach said.
“It doesn’t matter what’s happened before. Any seed in the history of the tournament has lost. So nobody is safe going into this. You can’t take anything for granted. You have to focus on one game,” Scheyer added. “We know when you get a 12 seed, a lot of the time you have a champion. Oral Roberts, they’re champions of their league. … They haven’t lost since Jan. 9. They’re used to winning.”
Abmas is averaging 22.2 points and Oral Roberts’ only losses this season were on the road at Houston, Saint Mary’s, Utah State and New Mexico. The confident The Golden Eagles were the only team in the nation to go undefeated in conference play.
“Being here a couple of years ago, kind of understanding everything and what comes with it,” helps, Abmas said.
“We’re not complacent,” backcourt mate Issac McBride said. “We want to keep advancing, so we want to do everything it takes to be able to take those steps.”
In Thursday’s only other East Regional matchup, fourth-seeded Tennessee (23-10) faces No. 13 seed Louisiana-Lafayette (26-7), also in Orlando.
The Volunteers struggled down the stretch, especially after losing point guard Zakai Zeigler to a torn ACL in the opening minutes of a win over Arkansas in the final week of regular season. They’ve won nine of 10 previous matchups with the Ragin’ Cajuns, with Louisiana’s lone victory coming in 1985.
Tennessee began the season with high expectations. The Vols are one of two teams in the NCAA field of 68 that has multiple victories over No. 1 seeds. In addition to beating Alabama and Kansas, they also defeated No. 2 seed Texas in January.
After losing two of three entering the tournament, Thursday night is an opportunity for a fresh start.
“I would say a lot of teams have gone through some ups and downs this year, and we’re no different. … But right now, we’ve got to rely on the work, everything that we’ve put into our program,” coach Rick Barnes said. “We believe in it and know that if we come out and compete … at the highest level, we feel like we can give ourselves a chance to win.”
IT’S BEEN AWHILE
Louisiana earned its first berth in March Madness since 2014 by winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. The ragin’ Cajuns finished second in the league during the regular season, and their 26 wins are the second-most they had under coach Bob Marlin.
It’s the school’s seventh appearance in the national championship tournament. It’s lone win was a four-point win over Oklahoma in 1992.
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