In college basketball, there is no higher authority than Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history with 954 career victories.
So when he starts talking about the near-miraculous return to the lineup of Ryan Kelly earlier this month against Miami, you know he’s a serious believer.
He’s also a firm believer that his second-seeded Blue Devils are well prepared for the University at Albany, and that’s bad news for upset-minded Great Danes, who square off with Duke in the NCAA tournament Midwest Regional today at 12:15 at the Wells Fargo Center. The game will be broadcast on CBS (Ch. 6).
“His first game back was like divine intervention,” said Krzyzewski about Kelly, who despite being out of the lineup for two months, poured in 36 points to lead the Blue Devils to a 79-76 victory on March 2. Since he’s been back in the lineup, Kelly, a 6-foot-11 senior forward, is averaging 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists. Duke, 27-5 overall, is 18-1 with Kelly in the lineup.
“It couldn’t have happened, what he did,” Krzyzewski said. “Since then, he’s been trying to get in shape. He looks more fluid right now. It’s easier to adjust to him than to adjust without him.
“We had great chemistry in our first 15 games. When he was out, the court got smaller for everyone, because Ryan was able to spread the court with his three-pointers.”
Duke’s deep and talented lineup is much more than Kelly, however. Center Mason Plumlee, also 6-11, produces 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, while senior guard Seth Curry (17.0 ppg), son of former NBA three-point specialist Del Curry, 6-1 sophomore guard Quinn Cook (12.4 ppg) and 6-4 freshman guard Rasheed Sulaimon (11.5 ppg) are also scoring threats.
“I believe in my team; I love my team,” said Krzyzewski. “My team has done some sensational things this year. Now, we have a chance to do some things [in the tournament]. I hope we play great [today] and are worthy of winning.”
Krzyzewski was asked if last year’s loss to 15th-seeded Lehigh was used as motivation for this year’s team.
“If we keep looking back, we’d also have to look back to the four national championships and 11
Final Fours we’ve played in,” he said. “There is no need to go back to good or bad experiences. The best thing is to stay in the moment.”
Plumlee agreed. “We have more motivation than that [last year’s upset loss],” he said. “We were a different team with different players.”
Despite the disparity in talent level, the Blue Devils won’t take 24-10 UAlbany lightly.
“We know they are a championship team,” said Plumlee. “They’ve got good guards. We know we need to play physical, and we’re excited to play them.”
“[Mike] Black is as good a player as there is in that conference,” said Krzyzewski. “[Jacob] Iati can blow a game apart with his three-point shooting. They also have some toughness with players like Sam Rowley and the other Australians. We want to play harder than them. We respect them. They are not here because they are a fluke. They’ve won some close games, and their coaching staff has been here before.”
UAlbany head coach Will Brown understands that almost nobody gives his team any chance at all of beating Duke.
“Coach K is the greatest coach in our business today,” Brown said. “I’ve had migraines all week watching film on Duke. They are the most efficient team in the country, and they can score from all five positions. It’s tough to simulate Duke in practice. You can’t dare one guy to beat you on that team.”
Brown was asked about UAlbany’s lack of size, especially in the backcourt, with the 6-0 Black and the 5-10 Iati going up against Curry, Cook and Sulaimon.
“We can grind teams out in the America East Conference, but Duke is bigger and stronger. Even their managers are bigger and stronger than our guys,” Brown said. “Sure, we have a size disadvantage, but how big you are has nothing to do with how tough you are.”
Brown said the Danes must avoid being knocked out early.
“We can play very well and still not win the game,” he said. “We have to make shots early and feel good about ourselves. We have two seniors in the backcourt who are veterans. They are two kids who are fearless. These are guys who can make plays. We have to control the tempo. If the game is in the 80s, we’re in trouble.”
“We’ve played bigger teams before, like Ohio State and Washington,” said Black. “Size doesn’t matter. Most of the teams in our own conference were bigger than us. We came here to win.”
“We respect Duke, but we are not going to roll over,” said Iati. “We are pretty confident in our own guys. We know nobody in the country expects us to win, or even make it a game. We can play relaxed.”
“Our team does a good job of blocking out external factors,” said Rowley. “The games against Washington and Ohio State gave us confidence. Duke’s players are just like us. They are just kids.”