It wasn’t until last week that Mike Krzyzewski publicly acknowledged that Duke had earned its spot in the NCAA tournament. He first spoke of this after the loss at Louisville, and then he reiterated it Thursday after the 80-65 win over Florida State.
“We have to do a lot to make the NCAA tournament, and no one ever thinks of that for us because we have done it 20 years in a row,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s almost like someone feels that it is inherited. You have to earn it every year and we did.
“I think we have now done that and we have to keep trying to get better.”
The No. 15 Blue Devils (21-7, 10-5 ACC) are firmly in the field and are playing for seeding at this point (and after Amile Jefferson's broken foot, there were certainly internal fears about this team's ability to get to this point). Their Sunday opponent, Pittsburgh (19-8, 8-7), sits firmly on the NCAA tournament bubble. The Panthers lack a signature win, with their best win to date coming against Notre Dame. As of Saturday evening, the Blue Devils were a 1.5-point road favorite. And it is that point in the season where big game after big game can leave a team emotionally exhausted.
“The emotion that we have had to have for these last five games, they’re tired. And you can tell,” Krzyzewski said after the Florida State win. “And it’s not because of being physically out of shape. They’re giving me everything, I’m telling you, this group, they’re diving for loose balls, they’re such a good group.”
Even Matt Jones, who estimated his left ankle that he sprained Feb. 17 against North Carolina was about 90 percent, was able to gut out 34 minutes. His defense was key in holding Florida State’s freshmen scoring duo Dwayne Bacon and Malik Beasley to just 14 points on 9-of-24 shooting.
While freshman Derryck Thornton has come on strong defensively of late, it’s still Jones that the Blue Devils trust the most on that end of the floor.
“He is always on their best guy,” Krzyzewski said of Jones. “He was on (Virginia’s Malcolm) Brogdon and (Louisville’s Damion) Lee. And one of the reasons, there were a bunch of reasons, but one of the reasons we lost at Louisville, was that Lee got 24 points against us. Here he was 3 for 15 because Matt was on him here.
“He has been overall our best defensive player and we always put him in those types of situations.”
Jones could see time on Pittsburgh’s Jamel Artis, one of the Panthers’ three consistent scoring threats (along with point guard James Robinson and forward Michael Young). The Panthers have size and will likely test the Blue Devils physically. And, given Pitt’s status on the bubble, there will likely be an emotionally taxing test coming Duke’s way as well.