Luke DeCock

DeCock: Indy’s good vibes racing back for Duke

Duke's Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee block a second-half shot by Michigan State's Keith Appling in the Blue DEvils' 71-61 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind. Friday March 29, 2013.
Duke's Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee block a second-half shot by Michigan State's Keith Appling in the Blue DEvils' 71-61 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind. Friday March 29, 2013.

The court was in a different spot, in the end zone instead of on the 50-yard line, but the locker room was the same one and the good feelings came flooding back and never left.

Three years ago, Duke won a national title here. Friday night, two of the players from that team -- and another who sat and watched -- got the Blue Devils the deepest they have been in the NCAA tournament since then.

With a 71-61 win over third-seeded Michigan State, the second-seeded Blue Devils did something they’ve only done once in the past nine years: advanced to a regional final. The last time they did that, in 2010, they won a national title, so that certainly bodes well for Duke.

This is also the first Duke team since then to play with that kind of defensive intensity at this point in the season. From an early second-half timeout, when all of the Duke coaches took turns yelling at the team to ratchet up the intensity defensively, the Blue Devils never let the Spartans have any breathing room.

“Last year, we didn’t feel like we had a great defensive team,” Duke forward Ryan Kelly said. “We took that to heart. We felt like we had something to prove. There have been times this year when we’ve played great defense, and this is certainly the time to do it.”

The opponent in Sunday’s Midwest Regional final, top-seeded Louisville, bodes less well. When Duke beat the Cardinals in the Bahamas earlier this season, Louisville was without big center Gorgui Dieng on a neutral court. This will be a very partisan crowd, and Dieng will be very much a factor.

As always, if the Blue Devils light it up from 3-point range, they’re almost impossibly tough to beat. They always have the weapons to do that. They did it against Michigan State.

While Kelly continues to struggle offensively -- he has yet to make a 3-pointer in the postseason -- Seth Curry more than made up for it against the Spartans. He made six of his first seven 3-point attempts against three different Michigan State defenders on his way to 29 points as Duke went 7-for-18 for the game.

But it was defense that did it for the Blue Devils, especially after the timeout early in the second half. Michigan State’s offense, never particularly efficient, ground completely to a halt. The Spartans had only one field goal in the next 14 minutes.

It was a thorough defensive dissection in every way, and really the last Duke team capable of ratcheting up the defensive intensity like that was the last Duke team to make it this far.

Kelly may not have contributed much offensively, but he ably handled Michigan State’s tag-team of big men, especially with Mason Plumlee in foul trouble, just as he sacrificed offense against Creighton to take on Doug McDermott.

By forcing Adreian Payne or Derrick Nix to the middle when the other was up high and to the baseline when the other was down low, then double-teaming, the Blue Devils had a game plan to take away time and space while neutralizing the Spartans’ advantage on the boards.

“We’ve gotten better defensively all season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “In the tournament, we’ve actually played great defense. Not good defense. Great defense.”

The last time Duke could say that, the Blue Devils won a national title in this very building. Kelly remembers. Plumlee remembers. Curry remembers. They remember that feeling very well.

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