Blue Devils advance with win over Albany

33The Duke Blue Devils rode the backs of two seniors and in turn advanced to the next round of the NCAA Tournament with a 73-61 victory over Albany. Seth Curry led Duke with leading the way with 26 points and Mason Plumlee added 23 as the Blue Devils earned the right to face Creighton on Sunday.

The senior duo were a combined 19 of 25 from the field on a day when Duke was relatively cold from beyond the three-point stripe going 4 for 11, so their play was vital in the victory which pushed the Blue Devils record to 28-5 on the season.

In a twist of fate, it was the Great Danes who shot lights out from beyond the three-point stripe where they went and efficient 9 of 15. Knocking down 14 of 16 free throws helped their cause as well enabling them to remain in striking distance for most of the game.

It was only natural that Duke Coach Mike Krzyzwski noted the Albany effort applauded them for staying in the game with their intensity. Krzyzewski also noted that a game like this was what his team needed.

The Blue Devils were never able to break away from Albany and that will serve as a lesson to the team that you have to bring the intensity from end to end on every play to advance in the tournament.

Duke was also able to shake the upset residue from a season ago when they lost their opening game to Lehigh, so I expect we'll see a focussed effort on Sunday in a game that is rumored to start as late as 9:40 on the street in Philly.

I would also like to note that Quinn Cook had eleven dimes on the day, a great effort from the sophomore. Anyhow, it's survive and advance and Duke has done so. Please check back in for mor coverage later tonight and tomorrow.

Devils survive, advance

dukealbanytipoffDuke opened its 2013 NCAA Tournament run Friday afternoon with a 73-61 victory over America East conference tournament champion Albany. While the game was never in serious doubt, it was far from easy.

As much as it irritates Duke fans to see every opponent bring its absolute best game against Duke, it rankles the players and coaches even more. But at his post-game press conference, Coach K was quick to point out that it's simply a fact of life when you wear "Duke" on your chest. Expect more of the same from Creighton on Sunday.

The game had a promising enough start for the Blue Devils. On its first possession, Albany only avoided a shot clock violation by flinging a wild heave off the front of the rim. Not long after, Seth Curry hit a three-pointer for the first of his game-high 26 points. Duke's defense looked quite strong early. It appeared the rout might be on.

Credit the Great Danes for not letting it happen.

Albany chose to defend Mason Plumlee in single coverage, opting instead to swarm the Duke perimeter. Mason responded with nine baskets in 11 attempts, for 23 points and 8 rebounds, but for a few minutes Albany's move seemed to flummox Duke's ballhandlers. At the first media timeout, Duke led by just three, 8 to 5.

Soon, however, both offenses seemed to hit their strides. Quinn Cook flitted in and out of the Albany defense and found Plumlee over and over for alley-oop dunks and easy layups. For the game, Cook dished 11 assists against only one turnover, hounded Albany's leading scorer Mike Black into a mere 10 points on 3 for 11 shooting, and earned his coach's praise for being "in complete control of the game."

On defense, Duke began to employ a trapping double team but for the most part Albany had the answer, generally making the extra pass and often finding an open three point shooter. The Danes' nine threes in 15 attempts kept them in the game, along with their 87.5% free throw shooting. On two-point shots, Albany shot a woeful 27% in the contest. With four minutes to go in the opening period, Duke enjoyed its largest lead of the half, 31-18, but the Blue Devils seemed to lose focus for a few minutes and went into halftime with the lead down to nine, 35-26.

After a rare miss by Seth Curry opened the second half, Duke reeled off baskets on seven straight possessions. It became evident Albany couldn't guard the Blue Devil scorers (Duke shot an amazing 58.7% for the game). On the other side of the ball, however, Albany forward Sam Rowley picked up some of the ballhandling duties from Black and the Great Danes more or less matched Duke bucket for bucket. The Duke lead bounced from 11 to 15 for more than eleven minutes, until a Peter Hooley three-pointer brought Albany within ten with 6:11 to play.

The crowd, which had been somewhat anti-Duke but hadn't been so serious about it, woke up at that point. With 4:40 to play, Jacob Iati hit two free throws to bring Albany within eight, and the joint was jumping.

Enter Seth Curry with the play of the game. Cook missed a three attempt and Curry sliced in to grab the long offensive rebound. Taking advantage of an Albany lapse, Curry drove untouched to the basket, hitting the layup and silencing the crowd. After a nice steal by Ryan Kelly on the next possession, Curry hit a jumper and Duke's lead was back up to 12. Duke hit all but one of its free throws down the stretch and held on for a 73-61 victory.

Amile Jefferson played four minutes in his home city and fellow freshman Marshall Plumlee also registered his first NCAA tourney action. The Blue Devils will meet Creighton on Sunday after the Blue Jays edged a very athletic Cincinnati team by the score of 67-63.

More from Philadelphia tomorrow.

Duke Basketball Notebook – March Madness begins

RCP_9020It's time of year again when every team in America (well, those that are still playing) is in the same boat.  You win, you advance or you lose and you go home.  The stark reality of that  makes for a bundle of emotions and nerves.  Thankfully for Duke fans, Coach K is at the helm and this obviously will not be his first dance.  But the road will be a tough one.  BDN starts our tournament coverage today with the latest edition of our Duke Basketball Notebook.

Insanely loaded Midwest

The last thing I wanted to do was whine about the Blue Devils' seeding yesterday, but once the pairings were announced, I was like, "you've got to be kidding me." But it's not worth a lot of time at this point, because there are no words or actions that will change a thing and to get too caught up in it will serve no purpose moving forward. The Midwest field is loaded.  I could point to all the teams and All American players in the region, but you've probably already heard all of that. So let me just say that a Louisville vs Duke matchup, should it happen, is a Final Four quality game at worst. In fact, in my opinion Midwest #3 seed Michigan State could feasibly beat all four of the top seeds in the West Regional on a neutral court and none of them would be an upset. In short, the committee did Duke no favors.  While they claimed to look at a lot of factors in making their seeding and bracketing decisions, is seems their criteria were only loosely applied when it came to Duke. Over the course of this season, Duke faced a brutal schedule.  Yet when at full strength, the Blue Devils lost a single game. Where is the reward for that?  Why should this team have to play a rematch with a Louisville team which is the overall #1 seed, just to get to the Final Four, if Duke gets that far?  Ridiculous.

They're a team to beat ... no, they'll go out fast

I wouldn't give you a wooden nickel for the various talking heads' predictions this time of year. I have never been one to give too much weight to the "What have you done for me lately" bit. I didn't pick N.C. State, the pre-season favorite, to win the ACC as the media did, nor will I make too much over Duke's one untimely loss to Maryland in the ACC Tournament. Now that the parings have been announced, none of the so-called experts are giving Duke a chance, which Coach Krzyzewski may use as a motivator heading to Philly. But before the loss the Maryland, those same talking heads were close to naming Duke one of the teams to beat for all the marbles. Well, guess what? They still are a team to beat and their body of work shows they are capable of beating anybody anywhere.  The fan part of me is loving the Blue Devils flying below the radar in a world which seems to think you're only as good as your last game.

Albany and the next game if you win, forget about the rest

It would not shock me if there were some grumblings within the program when you compare the Midwest bracket to the West, but you can bet that Krzyzewski and company are only focused on Albany and the winner of the Creighton vs. Cincinnati game. First things first for Duke. The Blue Devils should handle Albany and I am not taking them lightly, but I do not expect a Lehigh upset here. The next game will be very competitive and both Creigthon and Cincy offer different challenges, each a stiff one. We'll talk more about that later in the week.

Miscellaneous notes

- Duke has never played Albany in the NCAA Tournament.

- Duke is undefeated at 4-0 in the state of Pennsylvania in NCAA play.

- Duke is 79-24 in th NCAA Tournament under Mike Krzyzewski. This will be the Blue Devils'  37th overall appearance in the tournament.

- Looking for a Duke player to blow up on the offensive end? Don't.  Danny Ferry went for 34 points in 1989 against Seton Hall. Jason Williams also scored 34 against UCLA in 2001 and Bobby Hurley dropped 32 against Cal in 1993.  Duke is 1-2 in those games.

Analysis: The Rocky Road to the Final Four for Duke

Coach K was happy with his teams win and their play to date in the post game.Seven Final Fours in nine years, 1986 to 1994. It's the period that vaulted Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski into the pantheon of the best college coaches, that moved Duke to the top of the teams-people-love-to-hate list, that prompted Duke fans to sport "Welcome to the Duke Invitational" buttons during the first weekend in April. It was a period of unparalleled NCAA tournament success the likes of which may never be seen again.

Which is a bit of a problem, because it has also become the standard against which many commentators and fans compare more recent Duke teams. We hear it every year around this time, at least for the past five years or so -- why does Duke seem to always "underperform" in the NCAA tournament? If you take out 2010, they say, Duke has not only failed to make the Final Four, the team has lost to a lower seeded team every year since 2004.

Well, first of all, of course you can't take out 2010. It happened in all it's wonderful glory. Still, it's hard to deny that in the past nine seasons, Duke's NCAA tournament record looks like an inverse of 1986 to 1994. From 2004 to 2012, Duke missed the Final Four in seven out of nine years.

So, what's the difference? Why did we do so well then and not so well now? As you might guess, theories have abounded. Many Duke fans like the "general awesomeness" theory, or as it is usually phrased, "we're just not as talented now as we were then." This theory has two problems with it. First, to be a meaningful comparison, you'd have to compare how talented the team is compared to the rest of NCAA teams. If the overall team talent level has decreased (due to increased early entry and the rise of the mid-major), then a straight up comparison is meaningless. Second, Duke's overall win/loss records in the two eras don't support this hypothesis. From 1986 to 1994, Duke won 264 games against 59 losses, while from 2004 to 2012, Duke had the same 264 wins but only 57 losses. Almost exactly the same.

That fact leads some to proclaim that Duke's regular season success is the "problem." The talent hasn't been as good but Duke's outstanding win/loss record and amazing recent ACC tournament success has led Duke to be "overseeded" in recent years, leading to disappointment in the Tournament. Or maybe it's the pressure of always playing as the hated favorite, with the entire house in supposedly neutral NCAA tournament venues cheering wildly for our opponent every single game?

Others suggest that Coach K has changed his coaching style, more concerned about winning every game rather than preparing for the NCAAs. He plays tighter rotations now, they say, leading to tired legs and undeveloped benches. The data, however, doesn't really support that theory, either. If you look at how many Duke players played 10+ minutes in non-blowouts (defined as end margins fewer than 20 points) after January 1, the average from 1986 to 1994 was 7.12 and the average from 2004 to 2012 was 7.02. So while the rotations are a bit tighter now than they were then, it's hard to imagine the one game a season where Duke had an eighth guy play 10 minutes would make any sort of a meaningful impact.

Of course it's possible that some or all of the above have truly made a difference. It's also possible, in my opinion probable, that the difference is mostly attributed to factors like poorly timed injuries and fluke performances, or small sample sizes and randomness in a single-elimination tournament.

In other words, luck.

Yes, luck. Things out of Duke's or Coach K's control. Many of these factors have been discussed at length, at least with regard to individual losses -- Ryan Kelly's injury in 2012; Derrick Williams otherworldly performance in 2011; the mysterious flu in 2008. And presumably most of these things had at least some effect on Duke's ability to advance.

NCAA Baylor Duke BasketballI'm going to suggest a different luck factor, one I've rarely seen discussed: Duke's path to the Final Four. Of all the factors, perhaps the most out of Duke's control. I'm not talking about Duke getting a "favorable draw," which has been discussed, ad nauseum, by those who think Duke's 2010 championship was somehow undeserved. No, I'm talking about upsets in earlier rounds, or lack thereof, which ultimately determined which teams Duke played in its tournament runs.

Duke's 1988 team, for example, was not considered a true national power. Top ten, perhaps, but not really a Final Four contender. After beating UNC for the third time that season in the ACC tournament final, Duke earned a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils dispatched 15th seeded Boston University and 7th seeded SMU, but instead of seeing 3rd seeded Syracuse in the Sweet 16, Duke faced an 11th seeded Rhode Island team that had narrowly defeated the much more highly regarded Orangemen. Duke's effort against Rhode Island was spotty, but the team held on to win by a single point before taking out #1 in the country Temple to make the Final Four. Would Duke have played better against Syracuse than they did against Rhode Island? We'll never know, but if not 1988 could have gone down as a Sweet 16 failure rather than a Final Four triumph.

In contrast, Duke's 2006 team held the top spot in the national polls for almost the entire season and entered the NCAAs as the tournament's top seed. Duke cruised by 16th seed Southern and 8th seed George Washington, and awaited its next opponent. The other side of the sub-bracket was a bit more interesting. 12th seeded Texas A&M upset 5th seeded Syracuse and held a two point lead against 4th seeded LSU with mere seconds to play, before LSU's Darrel Mitchell heaved a game-winning three-pointer from just inside the half-court line, giving LSU an improbable 58-57 victory. Of course in the next game, LSU's athletic defenders shut down JJ Redick, defeating Duke 62-54 before going on to beat a Texas team in the Regional final that Duke had beaten by 31 earlier in the season. If Mitchell's shot had rimmed out, would Duke have handled Texas A&M? Would the Devils then repeated their domination over Texas to make the Final Four? Again, none can say, but if not for a miracle at the buzzer maybe 2006 could have been a Final Four trip instead of a Sweet 16 flameout.

Well, one might say, those sort of things happen. It can't explain nine years of tournament domination vs. nine years of mostly early exits.

Or can it?

Obviously not entirely. But the fact is that from 1986 to 1994, in its Sweet 16 game Duke only played the team it was "supposed to" twice -- 1992 (when Duke beat 4th seeded Seton Hall before taking out Kentucky with Christian Laettner's miracle shot) and 1987 (when Duke lost to top seed Indiana). In 1993 3rd seeded Duke lost in the 2nd round (to the 6th seeded Cal team it was "supposed" to play), and the other six seasons involved Sweet 16 games against a #12 (instead of #4), three #11s (instead of #3s), a #7 (instead of #2) and a #6 (instead of #3). Would Coach K's squads have beaten the higher seeded teams the committee expected Duke to play? Maybe, but it sure was a lot easier after all those higher seeds were upset before they could get to Duke.

In contrast, from 2004 to 2012, every Sweet 16 game Duke played was against either the expected seed or one off (e.g., #5 instead of #4). Would those Duke "underachievers" advanced further if they'd been playing #11 or #12 seeds instead of #3 or #4? Again, it's impossible to say, but probaby at least a few of them would have. Interestingly enough, the only Duke team in the later time period that played any games against a seed more than one spot off from chalk was the 2004 team that beat 7th seeded Xavier (instead of #2 Mississippi State or #3 Texas) to reach one of Duke's two Final Fours in the period.

A full table is below:

1986 to 1994

Year Duke seed Expected path Actual Path More than one off Ratio of Actual to Expected
1986 1 16-8-4-2 16-8-12-7 2 out of 4 games 1.43
1987 5 12-4-1 12-13-1 1/3 1.53
1988 2 15-7-3-1 15-7-11-1 1/4 1.31
1989 2 15-7-3-1 15-7-11-1 1/4 1.31
1990 3 14-6-2-1 14-6-7-1 1/4 1.22
1991 2 15-7-3-1 15-7-11-4 2/4 1.42
1992 1 16-8-4-2 16-9-4-2 0/4 1.03
1993 3 14-6 14-6 0/2 1.00
1994 2 15-7-3-1 15-7-6-1 1/4 1.12

2004 to 2012

Year Duke seed Expected path Actual Path More than one off Ratio of Actual to Expected
2004 1 16-8-4-2 16-8-5-7 1 out of 4 games 1.20
2005 1 16-8-4 16-9-5 0/3 1.07
2006 1 16-8-4 16-8-4 0/3 1.00
2007 6 11 11 0/1 1.00
2008 2 15-7 15-7 0/2 1.00
2009 2 15-7-3 15-7-3 0/3 1.00
2010 1 16-8-4-2 16-8-4-3 0/4 1.03
2011 1 16-8-4 16-8-5 0/3 1.04
2012 2 15 15 0/1 1.00

Both time periods included one season (interestingly, the 7th season in the 9 year period in both cases) where Duke played through chalk to win the national championship. Also, in 1987, 5th seeded Duke breezed through an easy path to get to the Sweet 16 and couldn't handle eventual national champion Indiana. Other than those seasons, however, every time the ratio of actual to expected path was above 1.1, Duke made the Final Four and every time it was below 1.1 Duke lost to a lower seeded team. Coincidence? Maybe. It's still a very small sample. But possibly it's a factor in explaining why Duke has seemed to stall in the Sweet 16 in recent years.

What does all this mean for this year's NCAA tournament? Probably nothing. The past doesn't necessarily define the future. But at least it'll give us all one more thing to think about while we watch the final steps of this Duke team's journey.

Oh, and also, Duke fans might want to root for Cincinnati and Valparaiso, just in case.