PHILADELPHIA — A woman in the first row at Wells Fargo Center holds a white sign with the message: “It’s my birthday and I heart Mason.” Inside the heart is #5, the number Duke senior Mason Plumlee wears.
When Albany practices not one woman holds a sign proclaiming her love for Jacob Iati or any other Great Dane. Iati is Albany’s second leading scorer, averaging 12.1 points. He played his freshman season at High Point. He averaged fewer than two points there.
Duke is the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, Albany the 15th seed. Duke and Albany play Friday at 12:15 p.m., and the Blue Devils are favored by 18 points.
When a 15 beats a two the upset is staggering. Lehigh staggered second-seeded Duke in Greensboro last season. The underdogs won 75-70.
Lehigh shot 37 free throws to Duke’s 23. Mountain Hawks refs.
How does a 15-seed hang with the favorite? Make shots. Take lots of free throws. Don’t play scared.
“We can play physical,” says Albany coach Will Brown. “We’re not going to back down from Duke one bit. We’re going to try to be physical with Duke. The problem is…they’re bigger, stronger, more physical, more athletic than us at every position.
“Even their managers are stronger and more physical than our guys.”
Duke’s starters are 6-11, 6-10, 6-4, 6-2 and 6-1. Albany’s are 6-10, 6-6, 6-6, 6-0 and 5-10.
Do the Great Danes invoke Lehigh?
“I think that’s actually a disadvantage for us because I’m sure that Coach K will remind those players and keep that in the back of their minds,” says Iati, a fine shooter out of York, Pa., who left High Point after one season.
Three things to know about the Great Danes: They wear impressive mustard-gold colored high-top shoes with black laces at practice Thursday; they lost seven games this season in the American East Conference; to get to Philadelphia they won successive American East tournament games by one, two and four points.
Will we be shocked if in this, the season of alleged parity, the Great Danes upset Duke?
Of course we will.
If Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is concerned he can remind his players of the Mountain Hawks.
“Well, you know if we keep looking back at our experiences then we would really get overconfident because we’ve won four national championships and been to 11 Final Fours,” Krzyzewski says at a news conference to all the reporters who aren’t familiar with Duke’s basketball success.
“My feeling,” Krzyzewski adds, “is stay in this moment. Whatever happened in the past, good or bad, has happened in the past.”
On Thursday the moment includes a question from a writer working for Sports on Earth.
“Is there sports anywhere else?” Krzyzewski asks him.
If you want to feel good about Duke, attend their public practice Thursday. Seth Curry has missed 75 percent of Duke’s practices with a shin injury, and Ryan Kelly missed 13 games with an injured foot.
They participate fully in Philadelphia and move well. The Blue Devils look fit, fast and fresh.
“I really believe our team is ready to play and excited to be here and determined to be at their best,” says Krzyzewski. “They’ve done some sensational things this year, but there have been bumps with these injuries, and who knows if we would have won anything anyway, whether it be regular season or tournament. “
Adds Krzyzewski: “But we’ll take it – Sports on Earth is going to be mad at me for saying this – one step at a time.
“I know (the cliché) has been used on earth many times.”