CHARLOTTE - Duke's relatively easy victory over Robert Morris Friday night in Charlotte was not unexpected.
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The Blue Devils were 22-point favorites and no No. 1 seed has ever lost to a No. 16 seed.
But it was a necessary first step for a Duke team that hopes to go very deep in the 2015 NCAA Tournament - even all the way to the championship. And for a program that has lost its NCAA opener in two of the last three years, it was a gratifying (and soul-comforting) win.
"It's a new year, a new team, a new season," senior Quinn Cook said when asked about opening with a win after playing on two Duke teams that lost their NCAA opener. "We've played in some big time games and we've earned our spot in the NCAA Tournament."
The 85-56 victory was a good start for a team with championship aspirations. Except for the 1986 NCAA opener against Mississippi Valley State, Duke's teams that have struggled in the opener have not gone far. Of course, a first-game blowout is no guarantee of long-term success - the 1993 Blue Devils opened with a 105-70 rout of Southern Illinois, then lost an 82-77 heartbreaker to Jason Kidd and Cal in the next round at the Rosemont Horizon.
But don't buy trouble. Enjoy this win for a few hours and celebrate the joy and looseness with which the young Devils played. Even Jahlil Okafor 's missed showboat dunk early in the second half was evidence of how loose the Devils were. No hangover, either from last week's loss to Notre Dame or the two opening game NCAA losses in 2012 and 2014.
"Especially in this tournament, you want them to be loose," Mike Krzyzewski said, explaining that walking the fine line between looseness and focus is a matter of feel. "I know them well enough. I feel like I can get emotional, funny, serious and they'll respond because of the relationships we've built."
Duke seized control of the game early and seemed to be coasting to a lopsided win, when Robert Morris made a second-half run - scoring 10 straight points to cut a 20-point lead to 10. But Duke answered with a 12-0 run of its own. The first eight belonged to Justise Winslow, who hit a 3-pointer, took a defensive rebound 90 feet for a layup, then took another defensive rebound all the way downcourt and fed fellow freshman Tyus Jones for a wide open 3-pointer.
"He made the biggest play of the game," Krzyzewski said. "When it was down to 10, Robert Morris put themselves into position with double-digit minutes where they could win the game. Justise scored six points [in the game], but those three points were worth … a lot. Then his verve during that time and Jah [Okafor] during that time, all of a sudden with went from 10 to 18 real quick.
"That was the key part of the game."
Indeed, in Virginia's Friday afternoon win over Belmont, something similar happened. The Cavs were up 17 and seemed to be in total control of the game, when the Bruins reeled off a quick spurt that cut the UVa lead to two points.
From that point on, Virginia had to fight for its life.
Duke didn't have to deal with that kind of drama.
The Blue Devils got major contributions from seven of their eight scholarship players: Cook and Okafor each had 20-plus points; Winslow had the key spurt and finished with 11 rebounds and seven assists; Tyus Jones had 10 points, seven assists and just one turnover. Matt Jones didn't put up big numbers, but he played a strong 29 minutes.
And off the bench, Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee combined for 20 points, 16 rebounds and four assists. Plumlee (10 points and 10 rebounds) had the first double-double of his career.
"The last month, Marshall has been consistently good - a mature, veteran player in practice," Krzyzewski said. "He and Amile really did a good job for us. They gave us a huge boost. They were real veterans on offense and defense."
The one scholarship player who didn't make a key contribution was freshman Grayson Allen, but even though he scored just one point, Krzyzewski was delighted to see Allen play for 12 minutes.
"Grayson didn't practice until we got here [Thursday]," Krzyzewski said. "Grayson got 12 minutes tonight and we weren't sure how long he would be able to play. Hopefully, that's a sign of getting him back into really good health."
Duke is likely to need all its pieces going forward. The path will get tougher as the playoffs progress. The Devils won't come out and hit their first seven shots (including four 3-point attempts) very often. The teams coming up - starting with San Diego State Sunday - will be bigger, older and more talented than Robert Morris.
"I hope this gives those freshmen confidence to get that big game under their belt," Cook said. "We'll be back on Sunday.
THE NO. 1 SEEDS
Duke's 29-point victory was the second-best of the four No. 1 seeds.
Villanova beat Lafayette by 41 points. Kentucky beat Hampton by 23 points. And Wisconsin, which was up 23 points late against Coastal Carolina, frittered some of that lead away in the final minutes to win by just 14.
But none of the No. 16s came close to making history by becoming the first No. 16 to upset a No. 1 seed.
While the 2015 Blue Devils are a legit national title contender, just imagine how good Duke will be in 2017-18!
With senior point guard Tyus Jones feeding senior center Jahlil Okafor in the middle and senior forward Justise Winslow creating havoc on the wing, the '18 Devils could be one of the great teams of all time. Chase Jeter, a 6-11 defensive ace, will be a junior sharing the post with Okafor, while senior Grayson Allen and junior Luke Kennard provide firepower on the wing.
Go ahead and pencil the Devils into the 2018 Final Four …
Ah, to dream. Of course, we know that's a pipe dream. There's not a chance in the world that Okafor or Winslow will be in school three years from now (and little chance either will be around next season). And while Tyus Jones might play another year, a four-year stay is most unlikely.
There was a time when fans could count on even the greatest recruit staying four years. But those days are (sadly) long gone.
THE ACC'S FAST START
The ACC is off to an exceptional start to the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
Three ACC teams won Thursday - although all in one possession games.
Three more ACC teams won Friday. And two of the three were thrillers. In fact, the ACC is a mere 1-5 against the point spread (with Duke the only ACC team to cover).
Still, the ACC's 6-0 start is in sharp contrast to the league universally touted as the best in college basketball this season. The Big 12 got off to an 0-3 start Thursday, losing two No. 3 seeds - Iowa State and Baylor (along with No. 11 Texas). No. 1 seed Kansas got the league its first NCAA win Friday with any easy win over New Mexico State, while a few hours later, West Virginia barely survived Bobby Hurley's Buffalo team. The two Oklahoma teams split Friday night, leaving the mighty Big 12 3-4 going into the round of 32.
That's the worst NCAA start of any power conference.
Among the power conferences, the records going into the round of 32 are:
- ACC 6-0
- Pac 12 4-0
- Big East 3-2
- Big Ten 5-2
- SEC 3-3 (counting Ole Miss' play-in victory in Dayton)
- Big 12 3-4
NOTES - Duke improved to 30-4, tying Kentucky with its 14th 30-win season. All of those 30-year win years have come under Krzyzewski, giving him the most 30-win seasons of any coach in NCAA history. … Duke also picked up its 100th NCAA Tournament win, becoming the third school to reach that milestone (after Kentucky and UNC). … Cook finished with 22 points and five assists to hit two significant career milestones - 1,500-plus points and 500 assists. … Duke passed out 28 assists - the most for the team since a 30-assist performance in the opener against Presbyterian. It also set a new NCAA record for the Devils, topping the 27 assists Duke had in a victory over Radford in 1998 … Krzyzewski earned his 83rd NCAA Tournament win, stretching his all-time lead on second-place Dean Smith (65 wins). UNC's current coach, Roy Williams is third with 64 NCAA wins.