No. 17 Duke heads to New York City facing a stern test to win the school’s first ACC tournament since 2011.
The Blue Devils’ 90-83 loss at North Carolina on Saturday night left them with the tournament’s No. 5 seed, meaning they’ll start play in Wednesday’s second round at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
To keep their ACC championship drought from reaching six consecutive seasons, the Blue Devils must win four games in four days – a tall order in a league as stacked as the ACC.
Seeds six through nine – Virginia, Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Miami – face similar challenges.
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Though Duke (23-8) has lost three of four games entering the postseason, the players haven’t lost confidence.
“Our next game is our biggest game for us, and it happens to be the tournament,” Duke sophomore guard Luke Kennard said. “If we continue to win, that’s the ultimate goal. We have to play back-to-back-to-back days, and we have to take care of our bodies, but at the same time we can’t take any games lightly. No matter who we play we can’t take any plays off.”
No. 12 seed Clemson and No. 13 seed N.C State open the ACC tournament on Tuesday at noon. The winner advances to play Duke on Wednesday at 2 p.m.
If Duke wins on Wednesday, it would face fourth-seeded Louisville in Thursday’s quarterfinals. Should the seeds hold up into Friday’s semifinals, the top-seeded Tar Heels would await Duke.
For a program that once needed to have a standing order ready for ACC championship banners to hang in Cameron Indoor Stadium, this is a tough situation. When Duke won the 2011 ACC tournament, it was the school’s seventh league championship in 10 years.
No ACC team has won four games in the conference tournament. Barring an impressive run of four wins in four days in Brooklyn, the stretch without an ACC title will grow for Duke.
The ACC championship is tougher to win nowadays. Duke hasn’t won it since the league expanded to 15 teams with the addition of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Louisville.
The lack of an ACC title could also be a byproduct of Duke’s reliance on one-and-done type star players in recent years. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski talks constantly about the need to form a cohesive group with a shortened time window.
Following the loss to UNC on Saturday night, he talked of the ACC tournament as another chance for his group to get better for the NCAA tournament.
“We are getting better,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve got to keep going. We’ll try to do a great job up in Brooklyn and then be ready for the big tournament the week after.”
As angry as Duke’s players were in 2015 when they lost to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament semifinals, no one was complaining when they reeled off six straight wins to claim the NCAA championship.
Duke’s seniors, including Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones will be playing in their final ACC tournament this week. They’ve never won one.
Last year in Washington, D.C., Duke was again the No. 5 seed. After beating N.C. State in the second round, the Blue Devils built a 16-point second-half lead over Notre Dame in the quarterfinals. But Duke’s shots stopped falling, perhaps due to fatigue, and the Irish rallied to win 84-79 in overtime.
“You can’t look ahead because obviously any game in the ACC is tough,” Jones said Saturday night. “We have to win the first game. Then if we do that we can look ahead to the next game and we can do what needs to be done.”
Duke junior guard Grayson Allen has seen Notre Dame end both of his ACC tournaments. The scene of him exhausted and limping off the court last March after scoring 27 points difficult loss epitomized that game.
Duke will need depth to pull off a run to this year’s ACC final. Allen has been coming off the bench lately due to a left ankle injury, with freshman Frank Jackson taking over the starting job. Jackson would certainly be a weapon off the bench that could be a factor this week.
“Everyone is 0-0 now, the thing for us is we have to get ready to play,” Allen said Saturday night. “I thought we did good, we competed (at UNC), and we have to carry that over to the tournament. The tournament is going to be a grind, but you don’t play the next day if you don’t win. For us we’re just going to go all out on our first game on Wednesday and see where it goes from there.”