If the NCAA tournament is a series of challenges to test just how talented, together and tenacious the top teams are, the first game of the regional weekend might be the biggest one. It usually is the first time heavyweights clash, and for Duke, it has been a particular tripping point.
Of the past five Duke teams to make it this far, only one survived – the 2010 national champion, which defeated Purdue on its way to the Final Four in Indianapolis, where this year’s Blue Devils will face Michigan State on Friday.
What was different about that team? Experience, for one.
“I think one of the key things for us was just having three seniors that had been with each other for four years,” said center Brian Zoubek, one of those seniors along with Lance Thomas and Jon Scheyer.
“The other two starters, Kyle (Singler) and Nolan (Smith), were juniors. We were a very tight-knit group and when you hit those points of adversity – and the major first one is that Sweet 16 game – when you hit that point you either take it and move on and keep fighting, which is what we did in 2010, or you can tend to fall apart a little bit.”
For a high seed, the tournament is littered with hurdles – avoiding the upset in the first game before handling a quality opponent in the second, preparing for opponents on 48 hours’ notice, late starts (especially since CBS partnered with Turner, opening up Sunday nights), cross-country travel, increased media responsibilities.
Experience with all of that matters – at least, that’s what Zoubek thought made the difference for Duke in 2010. A year earlier, the Blue Devils had lost to Villanova in Boston, which came after losses to Michigan State in Austin, Texas, in 2005, and Louisiana State in Atlanta in 2006, and before a loss to Arizona in Anaheim, Calif., in 2011.
The Duke players could see Villanova had built toward that game and was at peak sharpness; the Blue Devils made it a point to do the same the next season.
“Our whole career up to that point was a learning experience,” Zoubek said. “We lost in the first round our first year, the second round our second year, the Sweet 16 our third. We felt like we were building toward something. As seniors, we didn’t want our careers to end. We noticed Villanova playing the best basketball of their season and realized we had to build up to that over the course of our season.”
But there’s another aspect, one inherent to all of those Duke teams. In the two regional games in Houston in 2010, Duke went 17-for-38 from 3-point range (44.7 percent). In the other four regional semifinals since 2005, the Blue Devils went a combined 22-for-90 (24.4 percent).
Too often for Duke at this stage, if the 3s don’t fall, the Blue Devils do.
“If Duke is not hitting their 3s, they’re vulnerable,” former Duke coach Bucky Waters said. “If they’re hitting their 3s, they emerge from a phone booth like Superman. They can beat anybody. Anybody.
“But there’s that question, the dependence on the 3-point shot. Whereas Michigan State, there’s no variance in what they do. They’re going to pound you. You just have to put your war paint on. Maybe a tetanus shot and a helmet, too.”
The Blue Devils were a combined 11-for-31 from long distance in NCAA tournament wins against Albany and Creighton, a below-average percentage for them, and with Mason Plumlee’s emergence this season, they have an inside scoring presence many of the previous teams lacked.
They have three senior starters, two who played in 2010, but also start a sophomore and freshman who have never been this far, so experience might be a wash. Given that, it wouldn’t be surprising if Duke’s fate Friday came down to outside shooting.
To go the distance, the Blue Devils likely will have to hit from long distance.