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Duke suffered through two key injuries — Wendell Carter’s Achilles tendon and Trevon Duval’s ankle — in the ACC Tournament semifinals last weekend to come back and nearly get the win over a motivated North Carolina team. But after a sluggish start that saw them make just one basket over the opening eight minutes, the Blue Devils had too big of a hill to climb and ended up on the short end of the 74-69 final score.
Duval’s injury was particularly impactful, as he was the catalyst for the second-half comeback over the Tar Heels in Cameron Indoor Stadium in the regular-season finale March 3 and then led Duke to a blowout win over Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals. But when he went out early in the first half after stepping on a Tar Heel defender’s foot awkwardly, Duke’s offense grew stagnant. As senior Grayson Allen said after dispatching Iona on Thursday in the its NCAA Tournament opener, Duke has two point guards.
For the team, which has arguably the most imposing front line in the sport with freshmen Marvin Bagley III and Carter, to be most successful it needs both Duval and Allen to be at peak performance. On Thursday, after nearly a week of rest, they were.
Duval had 19 points, second only to Bagley’s 22, to go with eight assists in Duke’s 89-67 win. Duval was 7 of 11 from the floor, including a career-best 4 of 5 from 3-point range. Allen had 16 points and nine assists, an NCAA tournament career high.
BIG DANCE UNDERWAY
Duke, seeded No. 2 in the Midwest Region, regrouped after the loss to North Carolina in the ACC Tournament Semifinals and took down Iona with no troubles. Four of Duke’s five starters scored in double figures and Carter, still nursing his Achilles injury, added nine points and right rebounds.
While Iona, the No. 15 seed, is not on the level of Duke by any means, after last year’s debacle against South Carolina, 2014 against Mercer and 2012 against Lehigh, Blue Devils fans were understandably on edge about the round-of-64 matchup. After just a few minutes, however, it was clear that this Duke team was not going to be surprised by a lesser opponent.
Duke’s next opponent, No. 7 Rhode Island, will present a much bigger problem. The tip time is 2:40 p.m. in Pittsburgh and the game will be broadcast by CBS. If the Blue Devils are able to move on to the Sweet 16, it will be the sixth time in the last nine years. By any other program’s expectations, that would be acceptable. But this is Duke, and as they say around Durham, “It’s just different at Duke”.
ROAD TO FINAL FOUR NOT EASY
If Duke makes it past Rhode Island to head to the Midwest Regional semifinals in Omaha, Nebraska, the Blue Devils will likely face some tough opponents to return to the Final Four for the first time since the national championship season of 2015. Potential opponents include top-seeded Kansas and No. 3 Michigan State. Duke beat the Spartans, then ranked No. 2 nationally, 88-81 in the Champions Classic on Nov. 14 in Chicago.
Duke has won the national title five times and only once have the Blue Devils cut down the nets when entered the tournament as less than a No. 1 seed (1991, when they were a 2 seed). If the Blue Devils are going to feel the confetti fall in San Antonio this April, they will have earned it.
RJ Barrett is adding to his trophy collection, with National Player of the Year Awards coming from Naismith, Gatorade, Morgan Wootten and more. Barrett, along with fellow Duke signees Cameron Reddish and Tre Jones, and verbal commit Zion Williamson, were all named to the Naismith Trophy All-American teams and will play at all three (McDonald’s, Jordan Brand, Nike Hoop Summit) of the National High School All-American games.
SPRING FOOTBALL UPCOMING
Duke looks to build on its Quick Lane Bowl-winning 2017 team and catapult into the upper echelon of the ACC standings when the team opens spring practice Wednesday, March 21. Daniel Jones, starting his third year at quarterback, comes back to lead an offense that will be bolstered by veterans at wide receiver, tight end and three offensive line spots, while Duke’s defense should be one of the best in the ACC.
The strength of schedule increases a notch in 2018, with games on the road against Northwestern, Baylor, Clemson, Miami, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. Visitors to Wallace Wade Stadium this fall will be Army, North Carolina Central, Virginia Tech, Virginia, North Carolina and Wake Forest.