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2015 NCAA Tournament: Can Duke Reach Greatness?

This young Duke team has the chance to accomplish great things.

Mar 19, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski during practice before the second round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Mar 19, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski during practice before the second round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE - It's very simple for Duke. Win the next six games and this will be a Blue Devil basketball team for the ages.

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But it's always very simple.

And simple is not the same thing as easy.

Quinn Cook understands that - two of his first three seasons at Duke ended with the team's first NCAA Tournament game.

"Everybody's playing for their life right now," he said Thursday. "Teams are going to play their best basketball. We don't want our season to end yet."

Duke's path to the title got just a bit easier Wednesday night when Robert Morris upset North Florida in Dayton. Now, I want to be clear - Duke could lose to Robert Morris and the Blue Devils would have probably beaten North Florida.

But North Florida - an athletic 3-point shooting team - would have had a better chance of pulling the historic No. 16 vs. No. 1 upset.

That's not a knock on Robert Morris, which enters the game with Duke on a seven-game winning streak. The Colonials are a good 3-point shooting team (not quite as good as North Florida), averaging six made 3-pointers a game at a percentage of 37 percent.

However, Robert Morris is very small - 6-8, 215 freshman Elijah Minnie is the only starter over 6-5 - and haven't had as much experience against power teams as North Florida had. The Colonials lost to North Carolina by 44 in November and to Clemson by seven in December. They also lost to Georgetown by 14.

And, unlike the Mercer team that stunned Duke a year ago, this is not a senior-laden team. The Colonials start two juniors, a sophomore and two freshmen - so they are almost as young as Duke.

Still, this is the NCAA Tournament, where Cinderella is celebrated - especially the first weekend.

Mike Krzyzewski watched Robert Morris beat North Florida and understands the threat they pose.

"They came up with a great comeback," he said. "They handled the pressure of being in a game where they were behind. They came back and beat another good team. They beat another champion. The thing about that game, those were two teams that were champions."

The one thing that doesn't haunt the Duke coach are his team's early losses in two of the last three years.

"I don't like to talk about the past," Krzyzewski said. "I didn't talk about the past when we won national championships. And I'm not going to talk about the past when I've been eliminated before the national championship.

"I think each year is a new year and a new team. These kids do not life in the past, especially a past that is not theirs. Half these kids do not have a past in the NCAA Tournament. It's really important to be in the moment."

Jahlil Okafor insists that he's in the moment. Duke's gifted freshman center was asked about his future in the NBA, but he deflected the question.

"All my focus right now is on the tournament," he said. "When I first decided I wanted to go to Duke University, I always imagined the opportunity to win a national championship."

For that to happen, Duke has to start tonight with a victory over Robert Morris.

DUKE RETURNS TO CHARLOTTE

Duke has a 10-3 record in Charlotte in NCAA play, but that covers three buildings.

The Devils were 2-1 in the old Dome on Independence Boulevard, beating St. Joseph's and losing to NYU in the 1960 East Regionals; edging Rhode Island in the 1978 round of 32.

The Devils were 6-2 in the second Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road, beating Florida and losing to Arkansas in the 1994 Final Four; beating Murray State and losing to Providence in the 1997 opening rounds; beating Florida A&M and Tulsa in the 1999 opening rounds; beating Delaware State and Mississippi State in the 1995 opening rounds.

Those latter two wins were when the Charlotte Coliseum was overrun by UNC fans who turned the NCAA games into a hostile environment for the Blue Devils.

Duke is 2-0 in NCAA play in the Time-Warner Arena, beating Hampton and Michigan in the 2011 opening rounds. Overall, Duke is 4-1 in the Time-Warner Arena - the one loss coming to Clemson in the 2008 ACC Tournament semifinals.

"We've lost and we've won in North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament," Krzyzewski said. "We're a national university. It's not like we have an amazing fan base here to pack everything in."

FOLLOWING PEARL JAM

Easily the best note included in the stat packages for the eight participants in the Charlotte site was Robert Morris' proud proclamation that the Colonials have played in eight arenas that have also hosted Pearl Jam concerts.

That number will climb to nine arenas after tonight's game with Duke.

The Time-Warner Arena in Charlotte hosted Pearl Jam on Oct. 30, 2013. Before the song "Sirens", Eddie Vetter teased the crowd by revealing the score of the World Series game that night between Boston and St. Louis. But while Vetter gave the correct score, he didn't tell the audience which team was winning.

Both Duke as a team and several Blue Devil players are in reach of some significant milestones:

-- Duke will make its second bid for a 30th win this season. That would be the school's 14th 30-win season and would tie Kentucky for the most in NCAA history.

-- Duke is one win away from 100 NCAA Tournament wins. The school enters the Robert Morris game at 99-34 (74.4 percent) in NCAA play. Mike Krzyzewski's personal mark is 82-26 (75.9 percent). That's the most wins of any coach in NCAA history and the best winning percentage of any active coach (with at least 20 NCAA games).

Duke would become the third program with 100 NCAA wins, following Kentucky and North Carolina.

-- Senior Quinn Cook needs 10 points to reach 1,500 points for his career and five assists to get to 500 assists. Should he reach both milestones, he'll become just sixth player in Duke history to finish with 1,500 points and 500 assists, joining Johnny Dawkins, Danny Ferry, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill and Jason Williams.

Cook is also battling Steve Wojciechowski for the school record for career assist to turnover ratio. Entering the Robert Morris game, the two guards were dead even - both at 2.500-to-one assists to turnovers.

-- Tyus Jones is chasing Kahron Ross of Lehigh as the leading freshman assist man in the country. Currently, the two are tied at 5.8 assists a game, although Ross' average is actually better - 5.833 to 5.758.

But Ross' season is over, while Jones has a chance to improve his assist total. With 30 more assists this season, he could catch Jason Williams' freshman assist total - for second place on the career list behind Bobby Hurley.

-- Jahlil Okafor needs two rebounds to pass Mike Gminski and four rebounds to pass Gene Banks on the Duke freshman rebound list. That would move him into second place on the list, behind Jabari Parker, who had 306 rebounds a year ago. Okafor needs 18 more rebounds to tie Parker's number.

Okafor is also climbing the Duke freshman scoring list. He starts NCAA play with 567 points this season - good for third place in Duke history. He needs 15 points to pass Gene Banks for second place and 104 points to pass Jabari Parker for first place.