Luke DeCock

Grayson Allen knows, if his younger teammates do not, how much pressure is off Duke now

Duke's Allen, Carter talk about team leadership before the team heads to Omaha

Duke senior Grayson Allen and freshmen Wendell Carter, Jr. talk about leadership on the team and the upcoming NCAA regional semifinal matchup with ACC foe Syracuse in Omaha on Friday night, March 23, 2018.
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Duke senior Grayson Allen and freshmen Wendell Carter, Jr. talk about leadership on the team and the upcoming NCAA regional semifinal matchup with ACC foe Syracuse in Omaha on Friday night, March 23, 2018.

Grayson Allen knows. His teammates never did. They're too young to realize what it means to get out of the first weekend, to move on. They would only have figured it out when it was too late.

But for the Duke senior, winning the first two games in the NCAA tournament has deep and significant meaning, especially the way the Blue Devils did it: with authority and alacrity.

His senior year will not end like Amile Jefferson's and Matt Jones' did last year, in the second round of the NCAA tournament, or worse, in the first round. For a program that had exited at that stage in three of the previous six years, moving on relieves any pressure of failing to meet expectations.

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The fact that the Blue Devils so easily beat Iona and Rhode Island adds a healthy dose of confidence as well.

“I know how tough those games are,” Allen said. “It's so easy to look ahead, thinking its a 2 vs. 15 or a 2 vs. a 7, it's so easy to think you're just supposed to win and that's not at all how it goes. I twas nice to get past those. We obviously know there's still some pressure on us playing another really good team in the Sweet 16 and the stakes are even higher. I think we're in a good spot.”

Duke senior guard talks about the abruptness of your season ending with a loss in the NCAA Tournament and how he tries to impress that on the freshmen on the team. Allen was talking with reporters Friday, March 16, 2018.

Duke's Marvin Bagley lll tells reporters that he's quickly learned that any game can be your last in his first NCAA Tournament.

If Allen knew going into it what those two games meant, his teammates did not. Nor did they care. The other four starters, all freshmen, played fast and loose and easy, never showing any awe of the situation. Even when Iona got some easy buckets in the first half, Duke came out in the second half and locked everything down. When Rhode Island – a gritty, veteran team – took an 11-10 lead, there was no sense of panic – and an immediate and forceful response.

The Duke Blue Devils men's basketball teams faces a familiar ACC foe as they meet the Syracuse Orange in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament in Omaha, Nebraska on Friday night, March 23, 2018.

The combined margin of victory in those two games – 47 points – was the largest for Duke in consecutive games since January (against Pittsburgh and Wake Forest). And obviously some of that has to do with the quality of opposition in the ACC, but Iona and Rhode Island were both up to ACC standards – not all that much worse than Syracuse, as it turns out.

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There are two concurrent threads here: A veteran who knows just how hard it is to win games like these, and a bunch of talented rookies who didn't really understand and haven't found it particularly difficult.

That's an interesting combination. But that's Duke this season. That's why it took this team so long to hit its stride, finding the right mix of Allen's experience and freshman exuberance. It still hadn't happened in Brooklyn, but it did in Pittsburgh.

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“I thought we played really well and handled what sometimes for a young group can be a very pressure situation,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought they were pretty much at ease and it showed in how we played.”

Duke Blue Devils basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski talks about his team and the NCAA Sweet 16 matchup against ACC foe Syracuse Orange in Omaha Friday night, March 23, 2018.

So Duke heads to Omaha, Neb., where a familiar foe awaits Friday and, potentially another on Sunday if Duke can beat Syracuse and Clemson upsets Kansas. This environment too has become familiar for the Blue Devils. Having made it through the first weekend, things don't change that much from here on out. As far as Duke goes, nothing will have the novelty that last weekend did.

And for Allen, he's playing with house money now. He won an NCAA title as a freshman, then a total of three tournament games over the next two years. As a senior, he successfully shepherded another group of freshmen to the Sweet 16, where they will feel very good about their chances to advance to the Final Four. At the least, they have avoided embarrassment. At the most, they have built a platform for a national title.

Most of the NCAA tournament gets harder from here, but not all of it. For a team like this, some of it will only get easier.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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