Duke guard Luke Kennard (5) drives against Notre Dame guard Steve Vasturia (32) in the first half of Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship game in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Blue Devils tip off their NCAA Tournament on Friday against Troy in Greenville, S.C.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski motions during a timeout in the second half of Saturday’s ACC Tournament championship game in Brooklyn, N.Y.
By Adam Rowe
Special to the Times
Well that was fun. After losing three of four games to close the regular season, Duke needed a couple of wins in the Atlantic Coast Confere Tournament to secure a top-4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Blue Devils doubled that total and left Brooklyn as ACC Champions for the program’s first conference title since 2011. In the process, the Blue Devils became the first No. 5 seed to win the championship and found a steady seven-man rotation to carry them into the only postseason tournament that really matters.
Since an ankle/foot injury in mid-January that caused him to miss the team’s late February loss to Miami, junior guard Grayson Allen hasn’t been the same player he was during Duke’s seven-game win streak. His four-game stretch of double-figure scoring games in late January to early February made Duke a much more difficult team to defend and allowed the Blue Devils to regain their footing after a rough stretch of play leading up to it. Not coincidentally, as Allen started to falter, not having his typical mobility and explosion at the rim or on jumpshots, Duke started to do the same.
Allen played just 12 minutes against Clemson in the ACC Tournament, but bounced back to average 15.3 points per game the rest of the way to give No. 14-ranked Duke the push it needed to beat No. 10 Louisville, No. 6 North Carolina and No. 22 Notre Dame.
After outlasting 12th-seeded Clemson 79-72 in its tournament opener Wednesday, Duke rallied from 12 points down in the second half to top Louisville 81-77 in the quarterfinals Thursday. That set up a rubber match with North Carolina in Friday’s semifinals in Barclays Center.
Once again the Blue Devils stared at a second-half deficit, trailing the top-seeded Tar Heels by as many as 13 points before surging on a decisive run to win 93-83. In Saturday’s championship game, Duke found itself in a familiar position with Notre Dame leading by eight points with 11:35 to play in the game. But freshman forward Jayson Tatum led the charge over the final three minutes and the Blue Devils pulled away for a 75-69 win.
It was the 20th ACC title for Duke, which is the most in conference history, and the 14th under head coach Mike Krzyzewski. Sophomore guard Luke Kennard was voted tournament MVP but Tatum averaged 22 points and 7.5 rebounds in four games.
PEAKING AT THE RIGHT TIME
Duke has three dynamic scorers in Allen, when healthy, along with Kennard and Tatum, in addition to a steadying presence at point guard in freshman Frank Jackson and a solid post player in graduate student Amile Jefferson. Now with freshman Harry Giles coming off the bench as an energy guy to block shots, rebound and pack in the opposition’s defense, Duke has a formidable roster of players who can counter nearly any look teams can throw at them.
Being versatile and flexible is huge in the NCAA Tournament, when you might see a 3-point shooting team one night and then two nights later a plodding team with great post scorers.
Duke is playing some of its best basketball of the season, and even though Coach K is not going deep into his bench, the seven-man group played through exhaustion to win four games in four days in Brooklyn. The NCAA Tournament is much less demanding physically, as teams play two games in three days and then get a week of rest.
TOURNEY TIPS OFF FRIDAY
Duke, the No. 2 seed in the East Regional, opens NCAA Tournament play against the No. 15 Troy Trojans on Friday night at 7:20 in Greenville, South Carolina. The game will be broadcast on TBS. The Blue Devils will be heavy favorites in their opening-round matchup, and should have no trouble moving on. What awaits them in their second-round game will be an interesting scenario, as they’ll either face seventh-seeded South Carolina in what is almost a home game for the Gamecocks or No. 10 Marquette, coached by former Duke guard and assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski.
ROAD TO THE FINAL FOUR
If Duke is able to get out of Greenville, it will head up to New York and face off against the top half of the East Region. The Blue Devils will likely face in the Sweet Sixteen either No. 3 Baylor or No. 6 SMU. After that, they’re likely looking at a matchup against either overall No. 1 seed (and defending national champion) Villanova or fourth-seeded Florida. Win those four games, and they’ll be heading off to Phoenix for the Final Four.
That would be Mike Krzyzewski’s 13th Final Four, most of any coach in college basketball history (he’s currently tied with UCLA legend John Wooden at 12), and the third in the last seven seasons. Get to the national championship game and Coach K would be tied for the most championship game appearances of any coach (he’s currently at nine, one behind Wooden).
FOOTBALL LANDS 5TH COMMIT
On Tuesday morning, Duke Football landed a commitment from class of 2018 four-star defensive lineman Tahj Rice over offers from Louisville, Oregon, USC, Virginia Tech and many more programs. Rice is rated as the No. 10 defensive end in the country and represents a new era of defensive line talent incoming to the program since the hiring of defensive line coach Ben Albert.
Duke’s 2018 recruiting class is now ranked 18th in the country and, while there is a lot of time left until 2018 National Signing Day, the class has started out with some positive momentum.
DECISIONS LOOM FOR DUKE TARGETS
Duke Basketball has three main targets left on its recruiting board in the 2017 recruiting class — five-star point guard Trevon Duval, five-star small forward Kevin Knox and five-start center Mohamed Bamba. All three are expected to make their college decisions in mid-to-late-April after the college basketball season.
The 247Sports Crystal Ball lists Duke as the favorites to land both Duval and Knox, while Bamba is projected to join a loaded front court at Kentucky.
Adam Rowe covers Duke basketball, football and recruiting for 247Sports.com. Check out more of his work at duke.247sports.com.