Maybe it’s because he’s young or maybe it’s because he is one of the best players of the country, on the brink of NBA millions. Whatever the reason, Jahlil Okafor had no hesitation verbalizing Duke’s main goal for the NCAA tournament.
“We want to win a national championship,” he said Tuesday. “That is on everybody’s mind, one game at a time.”
Okafor is acting just like coach Mike Krzyzewski wants from all of his players: free from the burden of outside expectations, whether they be based on Duke’s historic accomplishments (which have nothing to do with the 2014-15 team) or what any analysts or experts project.
Duke (29-4) is the No. 1 seed in the South Region, and the Blue Devils’ path to the Final Four looks navigable – and that’s the earliest they could see another team seeded equally.
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It’s easy – or at least easier – for Okafor to speak freely about the team’s goals. Senior Quinn Cook, a veteran of three NCAA tournaments (finishing with a round of 64 loss to Lehigh, an Elite Eight loss to Louisville and a round of 64 loss to Mercer) is a bit more subdued when talking goals.
“We’ve got to win Friday,” he said when asked about team goals. “We got to win Friday to get to Sunday.
“Obviously we look and see who is in our bracket, what potential matchups are coming up, but, as a team, we know we can’t do that. We know we can’t overlook anybody.
“Obviously – and I don’t mean to keep talking about it – obviously I know personally, myself and Marshall (Plumlee), how it goes. We just want to take one game at a time. We’ve done that this year.”
Just for the record, there hasn’t been any talk among players of how any previous years ended – again, it’s just not relevant to this group. What is relevant are games that have happened this season, and Duke’s most recent one represented an outlier from their pattern.
For the final six weeks of the season, the Blue Devils played high-level, high-energy basketball – with one exception. Duke came out flat in its ACC tournament semifinal against Notre Dame, and 16 minutes of “regular” Duke basketball at the end couldn’t make up for the low-energy 24 minutes that came before. As a result, the Blue Devils left Greensboro early with a 74-64 loss.
That performance triggered extensive reflection by the coaching staff.
“It’s never about attitude,” Krzyzewski said. “We have this great group of kids, and they want to play, and, so, what happened?”
Krzyzewski and his staff reviewed nearly every controllable variable. Was it the 10 p.m. start? Was a 20-minute warmup not enough? Before the Blue Devils took the court, they waited just off the court, watching near fans – was that the right move? Or should they have stayed in the locker room, and should there have been music?
“Maybe with a younger group, we should have done a better job with that,” Krzyzewski said. “Instead of blaming them, like, ‘You guys weren’t ready, what the (heck) is wrong with you?’ It’s ‘I know you wanted to be ready. What did we do?’
“How do we control the environment a little bit more than we did? We are probably at fault in some way in helping our team for that night.”
Krzyzewski wants to make sure any potential issues are fixed now, because make no mistake, he has high expectations for this group. That is based on what this group has accomplished and what the coaching staff believes they can achieve.
The players believe it, too.
“We’re a confident group. We believe in coach, and we believe in one another,” guard Tyus Jones said. “We feel that, going into every game, if we take care of business and play how we can play, then we can win.”
With that mindset, Duke should expect to have six games more to go.