While ESPN has started showing teasers for the Duke vs. Miami matchup on Saturday, Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski shut down any talk of the Hurricanes on the weekly ACC conference call.
The reason? No. 3 ranked Duke (24-3, 11-3 ACC) travels to third-place Virginia (19-8, 9-5) Thursday night.
For the Blue Devils, it’s another trip into a hostile environment – the Cavaliers have won 15 straight home games – to face a team that could use a marquee win for its NCAA tournament hopes.
That has become the norm during Krzyzewski’s tenure.
“The team we’re playing against will use that, especially in the months of February and March. (In) a way, they use you,” Krzyzewski said earlier this month. “You don’t use them, they use you. They get a chance to get a huge win. A resume win. We’re a resume win. We’re not the only ones, and that’s what we live with all the time.
“We’re going to get an opponent’s best shot. And not just a best shot, a hungry shot. It’s a survival shot. It’s a line-in-the-sand shot, a lot of times during February and March. And that can either make you tougher, or it can break you down a little bit because you can get weary going against that.”
So far, Duke has risen to the occasion this month, going 6-1 with the sole loss coming at Maryland after a stretch of three games in six days. The four scorers, Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee, Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook, all are averaging at least 14.5 points per game in February, with Curry leading the way with an average of 19.2 points per contest. Both Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson, Duke’s two freshmen, are coming off career highs against Boston College.
Sulaimon has also continued his development as Duke’s best off-ball defender, taking on some of the best scoring guards in the league, such as Florida State’s Michael Snaer and Virginia Tech’s Erick Green.
“He has exceptional quickness,” Krzyzewski said. “A huge thing for a freshman is to figure out how tough it is to do it game in and game out.
“We’re really pleased with Rasheed. I think he’s had a great year and he happens to be a freshman. He’s had a great year for any player, but as a freshman, it’s been terrific.”
The 6-foot-4 Sulaimon is Duke’s tallest perimeter defender. He will have another challenge Thursday with Virginia’s Joe Harris. The 6-foot-6 junior leads the Cavaliers with an average of 16.6 points per game.
Harris reminds Krzyzewski of one of his all-time great Duke players.
“He reminds me of (Kyle) Singler as far as their toughness,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re a little bit different players, but their toughness. They play every play. He’s terrific. He’s one of the favorite players that I’ve watched, not just in our conference but around the country.”
Harris and the rest of the Cavaliers could use a marquee victory, as they sit on the tournament bubble. USA Today lists Virginia as one of the last four teams in the field, and the Cavaliers are in that position due to terrible early season losses to Delaware (No. 143 in the RPI), George Mason (No. 155), and worst of all, 4-24 Old Dominion (No. 322).
Virginia is No. 69 in the RPI, according to ESPN, and its strength of schedule ranks 142nd, worst in the ACC.
“You don’t sit there and play those games, and say, ‘what does this mean long range?’” head coach Tony Bennett said when asked about the early season losses. “You’re just thankful we’re playing better basketball now.”
The same can be said of the Blue Devils as they prepare to face another desperate team.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley