When Duke made its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1955, Duke open ed against Villanova in Madison Square Garden
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The contest was officially described as a "first-round game"
But that was a 13-team tournament and Duke went into it needing just four wins to win the championship. Today, we'd call that game with Villanova a Sweet 16 game.
Mike Krzyzewski's first NCAA game was in 1984. That was a 48-team tournament and Duke was among those teams given a bye. The Devils lost to Washington in what was called a "second-round game." Today, it would be a third-round game.
You can win quite a few bar bets suggesting that Duke did NOT lose first-round games in 2012 and 2014. Technically, those were second-round games.
The problem is that the NCAA keeps expanding the tournament field and that keeps changing the nomenclature of the tournament. For years, the round of 64 games were the openers - and were officially first-round games. Even when the NCAA expanded to 65 teams and played an opening game in Dayton, that was a play-in game and the round of 64 was still the first round.
That changed when the NCAA expanded to 68 teams and started with four games in Dayton. Rather than call those four games play-in games, the NCAA in its wisdom designated the first four games as the new "first round" and decided to label the round of 64 as "the second round."
Thus, Duke's 2014 loss to Lehigh and the Devils' 2014 loss to Lehigh were officially "second round" NCAA games.
Never mind that the second round had long described the round of 32. Nobody ever accused the NCAA of consistency.
I don't mean to confuse anyone. In fact, my purpose is to simplify things. I'm going to be talking about Duke's experience in first round games - and by first round, I mean the round of 64. I don't want to confuse a 1955 Sweet 16 game and a 1986 first-round game and a 2014 second round game.
So forget the NCAA nomenclature for a moment. For this article, on this day, the term first round means the round of 64.
DUKE IN THE FIRST ROUND
The NCAA adopted the modern 64-team tournament in 1985.
From that point on, every team played a first-round game.
Duke's first first-round game came on Mar. 15, 1985, when junior David Henderson led No. 3 seed Duke to a 75-62 over No. 14 seed Pepperdine in Houston.
Since then, Duke has played a first-round game every year (except 1995, when Duke missed the tournament). Coach K has gone 25-4 in first round games. The four losses:
-- 1996: No. 9 Eastern Michigan d. No. 8 Duke, 75-60. Not really much of an upset as 24-win Eastern Michigan actually entered the game as a favorite over a banged-up Duke team that was 18-12. Senior guard Chris Collins was back in the lineup after missing Duke's ACC Tournament loss with an ankle injury, but point guard Steve Wojciechowski was hobbled by an injury he suffered against Maryland in the ACC tourney and was only able to go 3-minutes. Freshman center Taymon Domzalksi was also hobbled by bad knees and only able to go 17 minutes. His time went to 6-7 soccer player Stan Brunson.
That wasn't enough to match up with EMU, led by future NBA point guard Earl Boykins, who led the Eagles with 23 points and five assists.
-- 2007: No. 8 VCU 79, No, 6 Duke 77 - Duke entered NCAA play coming off three straight losses and had just dropped out of the AP top 25 for the first time in more than a decade.
The Devils got wonderful performances from sophomores Josh McRoberts (22 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and five blocked shots) and Greg Paulus (25 points, four assists), but no one else stepped up.
Still the game was up for grabs before VCU guard Eric Maynor drove the length of the court and put up a game-winning 15-foot jumper over freshman Jon Scheyer at the buzzer.
-- 2012: No. 15 Lehigh 75, No. 2 Duke 70 - The worst upset in Duke's NCAA history was endured in the normally friendly Greensboro Coliseum.
A great Duke team - 26-4 at one point - ended the regular season with a lousy performance at home against UNC, then endured the loss of starting forward Ryan Kelly with an injured foot. The Devils were 1-2 without Kelly - barely edging a terrible Virginia Tech team the ACC Tournament quarterfinals.
Duke endured a horrific shooting performance against the Rams, going 6-of-26 from 3-point range, including a combined 3-of-16 performance by Andre Dawkins, Seth Curry and Quinn Cook. Junior center Mason Plumlee scored 19 points on 9-for-9 shooting, but it wasn't enough as Lehigh's C.J. McCullom scored 30 and passed out six assists to send the Devils home early.
-- 2014: No. 14 Mercer 78, No. 3 Duke 71 - The amazing thing about this game is that Duke actually shot very well from 3-point range, hitting 15 of 37 attempts (over 40 percent). Unfortunately, the Devils were a mere 7-of-25 (28.0 percent) from inside the arc and only got to the free throw line 13 times (hitting 12).
Still, the biggest reason for the loss was the same problem the 2014 team displayed all season - lousy defense. The veteran Bears shot almost 56 percent from the floor and got to the foul line 28 times.
Junior Quinn Cook was outstanding in defeat - 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting (7-of-120 from 3), but freshman All-American Jabari Parker bombed with just 14 points (on 4-of-14 shooting).
Beyond those four first round disappointments, Duke has had three close calls in first-round games. Two were portents of disaster to come. One was not.
-- 1986: No. 1 Duke 85, No. 16 Mississippi Valley State 78 - No 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed, but it almost happened in the second tournament to use the 64-team format.
The Deltas Devils had the Blue Devils on the ropes for most of the game. Duke seemed stunned by Lafayette Stribling's aggressive team and by his fullcourt zone press.
The Devils were saved from disaster by senior guard Johnny Dawkins, who single-handedly shredded the MVSU press down the stretch. Johnny D had 27 points to save the day and help Duke avoid a historical embarrassment.
The Duke team would recover from its rough start to reach the national title game before losing a heartbreaker to Louisville in the title game.
-- 1997: No. 2 Duke 71, No. 15 Murray State 58 - Senior Jeff Capel kept Duke afloat in a surprisingly tough first-round game at the Charlotte Coliseum.
Murray State - coached by the same Mark Gottfried who currently coaches N.C. State - stayed with Duke in an exceptionally close game until Capel (25 points) provided Duke with the winning margin.
But that Duke team - which so miraculously won the ACC regular season title -- was already slumping before the Murray State game. Duke had lost three of four games down the stretch, including a stunning loss to No. 8 seed N.C. State in the ACC Tournament semifinals. Less than 48 hours after the narrow win over Murray State, Duke's season would end at the hands of Providence.
-- 2008: No.2 Duke 71, No. 15 Belmont 70 - There were reports - later denied by Coach Krzyzewski - that a number of players were battling the flu as postseason approached. Whether true or not, a team that started 18-1 looked sick late in the season, especially in an ACC Tournament semifinal loss to Clemson.
With one exception, Duke didn't look very healthy against Belmont in the NCAA first round at Washington's Verizon Center. Sophomore wing Gerald Henderson kept Duke close with a 21-point night. With Duke facing defeat in the final seconds, he tipped in the game-winning shot with 11.9 seconds left and senior DeMarcus Nelson preserved the win with a steal in the final seconds.
Henderson's heroics merely staved off elimination for one more round. In the second round, Duke was manhandled by West Virginia.
That's it for Duke's first-round history. The Devils are 3-4 in seven very competitive first-round games … the other 22 first-round games have all been relatively easy wins.
LEHIGH AND MERCER
Coach K told the media Monday that he recently received a letter from a Duke fan, who claimed to be a member of the Duke Class of '59.
"He gave advice," Krzyzewski said. "It was really good. He said, 'What a great team! I love your team'. You know when they say that, the second paragraph is always going to be [critical].
"It's not a bad letter, but then the guys says, 'I hope you say three words to your team.' I'm waiting for the next sentence, thinking what could these magical words be?
"'And they are Belmont, Lehigh and Mercer.'"
Krzyzewski wrote the fan back, acknowledging the letter and agreeing that he also loves this team. He thanked the fan for the advice, then added, "I'm not going to use the three words you said, but I am going to use four other words: Kansas, Michigan, Arizona and Butler.
"Those are the four teams we beat to win the national championship. But I'm not going to use those words either because as much as our guys aren't going to relate to the three that he suggested, they are not going to relate to the four I suggested.
"I am going to use one word: Duke. This is who you are. Let's go for it. Let's be excited. This is your time. Let me get into your moment. You don't get into the moments of Duke teams in the past."
I think Krzyzewski's point is valid. This is not the team that struggled with Belmont or lost to Lehigh. It's a very different team than the one that fell to Mercer a year ago.
Why should Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones or Justise Winslow be haunted by the failures of those Duke teams? Even Quinn Cook, who played in both the Lehigh and Mercer losses, now has a different role. Besides, he played great in the loss to Mercer.
It's all about Duke.
If the Blue Devils come out prepared and passionate in Friday night's opener, they will win easily - as they did in the ACC Tournament opener against N.C. State (which is a much better team than Robert Morris). If they come out flat as they did against Notre Dame last week, the first-round game could be a struggle.
After the Notre Dame loss, Coach Krzyzewski sat on the podium and told the press that his young team had to use the loss as a learning experience - as a reminder that they must come out focused and prepared. Sitting next to him, Okafor vowed to take that message to heart.
Friday night's game with Robert Morris should provide a good test of how well the Blue Devils have assimilated the Notre Dame message.
And after that?
If Lehigh and Mercer have taught us anything, it's to worry about the second round after the first round is over.