PITTSBURGH (AP) — The same message comes from Mike Krzyzewski almost daily. While the Hall-of-Fame Duke coach makes an effort to mix it up when talking to his ridiculously young and ridiculously loaded team, the theme never changes.
This moment in the NCAA Tournament is precious. Don’t take it for granted. Especially if it turns out to be the only one you’ll get.
Marvin Bagley III and the rest of his potentially one-and-done teammates appear to be all ears. The Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year poured in 22 points to go with nine rebounds and the second-seeded Blue Devils overwhelmed seventh-seeded Rhode Island 87-62 on Saturday to earn the program’s 26th trip to the Sweet 16.
“After seeing these last couple games, these last few days of basketball, seeing what can happen, we have an idea that this tournament anything can happen,” Bagley said. “We can’t look ahead. We’ve got to worry about now.”
And the rest of the field might need to start worrying about the Blue Devils (28-7), who will play either Michigan State or Syracuse in the Midwest Regional semifinal in Omaha, Nebraska next Friday. Duke shot 57 percent (29 of 51) from the floor, finished with 20 assists and never let the Rams (26-8) in it following a 23-5 burst midway through the first half.
E.C. Matthews led Rhode Island with 21 points but the Rams looked confounded at times by Duke’s much improved zone defense. A weakness during a mini-swoon in late January, the Blue Devils are no longer treating defense like a chore they’re forced to complete before getting the ball back in their hands.
“They played and looked like an NBA team out there,” Rhode Island coach Danny Hurley said.
Pretty much. Of course, the coach is pretty good too. The victory was the 1,099th of Krzyzewski’s career, breaking a tie with late Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt for the most wins by a basketball coach in NCAA history.
“It’s an honor because she was a pioneer in her sport,” Krzyzewski said, adding “someone will have more eventually.”
Maybe but not for a while.
Krzyzewski’s relationship with Hurley dates back to when Krzyzewski recruited Dan’s older brother Bobby to Duke 30 years ago. Krzyzewski praised the Hurley family for their love of the “dignity of work,” an ethos that has helped Dan turn the Rams into a force in the Atlantic 10.
Work ethic is one thing. Talent is another. The Rams have plenty of the former and a fair amount of the latter. When the rapidly maturing Blue Devils are as fully engaged as they were on Saturday, they have a staggering amount of both. The proof came in a clinically efficient opening half in which Duke picked the Rams a part and quashed any chance of an upset
If Grayson Allen, Gary Trent Jr. or Trevon Duval weren’t knocking down 3-pointers then they were getting the ball inside to Bagley or Carter, the program’s “other” potential lottery pick who is dealing with an achy Achilles.
Though Carter winced at least once while trying to set up on the block, when Carter had the ball in his hands, the grimace disappeared. He scored nine of Duke’s first 11 points to establish the Blue Devils’ dominance in the paint and when the backcourt got going, the Rams simply couldn’t keep pace.
“They have the inside game, the 3-point game and then the length of that zone was really — it had us — we were just spooked,” Hurley said.
A Duval 3-pointer gave Duke a 45-28 lead at halftime. As the Rams came out for the second half, junior guard Will Leviton went over to a section of Rhode Island fans and urged them to “get up, I still need you! It’s still a game.”
A pair of Bagley dunks shortly after intermission pushed Duke’s advantage to more than 20 and the Blue Devils were on their way to Omaha.
Hurley has spent the last six seasons painstakingly building the Rams into a perennial power in the A-10. The question now becomes whether he’ll stick around to take it to the next level following a pair of NCAA berths. He acknowledged earlier in the week he understands his name is being floated out for open jobs, including the one in Pittsburgh.
At the moment, he doesn’t particularly care.
“I could care less about what any other school in the country that’s looking for a coach or talks about me on social media, I could give two craps about that,” Hurley said. “My heart and my mind is with this program and these players who just lost a brutal game after having an amazing couple of season.”
Rhode Island: The Rams lose four seniors to graduation, a group that put to together 91 wins over the last four seasons. Yet the cupboard is hardly empty with freshmen guard Fatts Russell and sophomore Jeff Dotwin returning.
Duke: With all the hype surrounding Bagley, it’s easy for Carter to get overlooked. He went 6 for 6 from the field against the Rams and Krzyzewski raved about Carter’s passing, calling it “beautiful basketball.”
The Blue Devils are 14-9 in Sweet 16 games under Krzyzewski.
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