JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP)—Duke refuses to waste time debating whether they deserve their No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Blue Devils also don’t intend to get caught looking past anyone in the South Regional, including first-round opponent Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski and a focused group of players are eager to get started Friday. They say the speedy Golden Lions are all that’s on their radar right now, not criticism of where they’re placed in the bracket.
“It has nothing to do with anything,” Krzyzewski said Thursday, shrugging off a question about whether the Atlantic Coast Conference champions can draw motivation from naysayers who felt Duke (29-5) was not deserving of a top seed.
“I mean, an opinion that I had before the selection is worth as much as an opinion I have after the selection, which is it doesn’t mean anything, and you can’t focus on things like that,” he added. “We have our body of work. … We said before that wherever we’re seeded, wherever we go, let’s play. That hasn’t changed.”
Arkansas-Pine Bluff, coming off a 61-44 play-in victory over Winthrop, is one of two teams in the NCAA tournament for the first time.
The Golden Lions (18-15) are coached by George Ivory, who as a player at Mississippi Valley State was part of a No. 16 seed that gave Duke fits before losing by seven points in the opening round in 1986—the first of 10 trips the Blue Devils have made to the Final Four under Krzyzewski.
Three national titles and 23 NCAA tournament appearances later, the Duke coach’s memory of that game hasn’t faded.
“I remember I was scared,” Krzyzewski recalled, laughing. “They were beating us.”
He then related a story from a meeting the coaches were required to attend Thursday.
“We got there a little bit earlier, so we got a chance to visit for about 20 minutes. I was telling one of the people with me: `I’m 63, and I’ve been scared at different moments in my life, and sometimes you meet the person or go to the place where you were scared before. I said, see this guy right here? He scared me.”’
Pine Bluff would love nothing more than to make him and the Blue Devils sweat.
The Golden Lions, champions of the SWAC Conference, opened the season with 11 consecutive losses while playing each of the games on the road, learning at places such as Kansas State, Missouri, Georgia Tech, Oregon, Oklahoma State, Arizona State and Texas-El Paso.
They think of the experience of facing that type of competition will help them in Friday night’s matchup.
“Anything is possible,” Ivory said, refusing to be drawn into the discussion over Duke’s seeding.
“Any time you get a chance to play against a legend like Coach K and their program, it’s just a great opportunity to learn and watch his style of basketball. … You’ve got some people who hate them. I really like Duke. … We’re just glad to be playing them.”
Duke seniors Jon Scheyer and Lance Thomas said the Blue Devils aren’t taking their opportunity for granted, either.
Krzyzewski has taken Duke to 10 Final Fours, however none of his current players have been there.
The last appearance was 2004. The six years that have followed represents the longest drought the Blue Devils have had in over two decades.
“I think this group of guys, we just scared ourselves two years ago when we were a 2-seed and we had a really close game. We know better than everybody that you have to be ready for every game in this tournament,” Scheyer said. “That’s one thing we’ve talked to the younger guys about a little bit.”
Thomas reiterated the Blue Devils will not look past anyone.
“Considering we haven’t been that far yet, we don’t have any preconceived notions of where we should be. This is a hungry team right now,” Thomas said.
“We’ve been working really hard all year. … We’re not trying to make up for what we did the past three years in this tournament. This is a new team, and we’re just going to take that and keep moving forward.”