PHILADELPHIA The last time Duke entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed was last year and the Blue Devils didn’t last too long.
They lost to 15th-seeded Lehigh in the second round, a stunning upset that will have an effect on both Duke and this year’s 15th-seeded opponent, the University at Albany.
“Well, Lehigh didn’t do us any favors, that’s for sure,” Albany coach Will Brown said Thursday, a day before the Blue Devils and Great Danes meet in the second round of the Midwest Regional. “I think the one thing with your kids is if you look back at the NCAA tournament, a 16 seed has never beaten a 1. A 15 has beaten a 2. So when you talk to your kids about that and you look them in the eye and you’re preaching, they believe you because it’s happened.”
Lehigh’s 75-70 win last season was the sixth time a No. 2 seed went down to a 15.
“If we keep looking back at our experiences, then we would really get overconfident because we’ve won four national championships and been to 11 Final Fours,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “There’s no need to go back to good or bad experiences because not all these guys were involved in that.
“The best thing to do is to be involved in this experience, and we’re not reminding the seniors that they’ve won a national championship when they were freshmen. We’re not talking about what we did last year because it’s a totally different team.
My feeling is stay in this moment. Whatever happened in the past, good or bad, has happened in the past.”
There’s been a lot more NCAA past for Duke than Albany (24-10), the America East Conference champions.
Duke is 96-32 as it enters its 36th NCAA tournament and the Blue Devils have been either a No. 1 or 2 seed the last six years in a row, nine of the last 10 and 15 of the past 17.
The Great Danes are making their third appearance in the tournament — all since 2006 — and they have been a 16, a 13 and this year’s No. 15. The first two losses were to Connecticut — a game Albany led by 12 points in the second half — and Virginia.
“I think it’s just coming in with the mentality to play relaxed,” said Jacob Iati, a graduate student who was second on the Great Danes in scoring with a 12.1 average. “We don’t have any pressure on us. Nobody in the country expects us to win or even make it a game. That makes it easier to relax and play loose. ... They’re supposed to win, we’re not, so we’re going to come in and play as hard as we can and we need to play extremely well to be in the game and have a chance to win, but we’re going to come out and give it our all.”
So will the Blue Devils.
“We’ve been focusing the last few days on them, their offense and what we feel we can do with our offense against them,” said forward Ryan Kelly, one of the Duke seniors who have spent their entire college career ranked in the Top Ten. “So we’re excited to play and we’re ready to play.”
Kelly has been the key for Duke this season. The Blue Devils are 17-1 with the 3-point-shooting power forward in the lineup. He missed 13 games with an injury to his right foot. He returned against Miami on March 2 and had a career-high 36 points, including going 7 of 9 from 3-point range.
“I think we have adjusted to him real easy. It’s who is he now,” Krzyzewski said. “His first game back, it was like divine intervention. It was like, I’m Catholic, and we got holy water from Fatima and just doused him with it, and all of a sudden — that couldn’t happen, what he did. It couldn’t happen, what he did.
“So since then it’s more of a reality of, hey, this is a guy who’s in November shape, getting in shape, playing with guys who are in shape to play in March. So I think he’s had to push it up, and he’s had a great week. He looks more fluid right now, and he feels as healthy as he’s been in 2½ months.”
Duke and Albany have met once, on Dec.17, 2007 at Cameron Indoor Stadium with the Blue Devils winning 111-70, the most points the Great Danes have allowed in their Division I history.
“We’re pretty confident in our school and we know how hard we worked to get here,” Iati said. “We’re going to come out as hard as we can and play to win. We’re not going to roll over and be scared just because of the name on the front of the jersey. We know how good Duke is. We respect them. They have a lot of great players, NBA players on their team, we understand that. But we’re not just going to roll over. If we’re going to do that, there’s no point in coming.”
The winner of this game faces the winner of the game between No. 7 Creighton and No. 10 Cincinnati on Sunday.