When the Duke men’s basketball team began its ACC schedule by losing two of its first three games and surrendering an average of nearly 93 points in those games, Coach Mike Krzyzewski and his players faced questions about whether they were stout enough defensively to be a national championship contender.
Heading into this week’s ACC tournament at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the No. 2 seed Blue Devils have put those doubts to rest after a stretch in which they won four consecutive games by limiting each of those opponents to fewer than 60 points for the first time in the program’s storied history.
The defensive uprising combined with the scoring punch of Marvin Bagley III, voted ACC Player of the Year this season as a freshman, Grayson Allen and Wendell Carter Jr., among others, have Duke squarely in the mix for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and seeking a second straight ACC tournament championship.
Duke (25-6) opens the ACC tournament Thursday, along with the other top four seeds receiving double byes — including No. 1 Virginia (28-2), the conference’s regular season champion. The first round of the tournament is set for Tuesday with three games.
“Apparently we’re one of the top two teams in the conference defensively,” Krzyzewski said recently with a dose of sarcasm. “Remember when you all said we couldn’t play defense, but we could play offense? Now you’re saying we can play defense, but we can’t play offense. So make up your mind.
“If you take out the first three conference games, we’ve played as well as anybody on the defensive end in the conference. I mean, just look at, even with those three games, we’re right there. Virginia would always be one, but we’re two or three in everything.”
According to advanced analytics from kenpom.com, which the NCAA considers in its tournament selection process, Duke ranks 10th nationally out of 351 Division I teams in defensive efficiency and second in offensive efficiency. The Blue Devils are the only school in the top 10 in both categories. The next closest is Michigan State, which ranks ninth in defensive efficiency and 11th in offensive efficiency.
The Cavaliers are first and 39th, respectively, in those metrics, after a regular season that included a 65-63 signature win against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Virginia’s first at the fabled venue since 1995.
The only conference loss this season for Virginia came to Virginia Tech, 61-60, in overtime in Charlottesville, but the Cavaliers still became not only the first school to win 17 ACC games but also to go 9-0 on the road in conference. Duke is the only other school to have an unbeaten ACC road record, going 8-0 in 2011-12.
“A really good accomplishment,” Virginia’s Tony Bennett, announced Sunday as ACC Coach of the Year, said of his team’s road record. “To do it in this league, the parity in this league, there’s not a lot of separation, regardless of record. We know that. We were in some tough situations. It comes down to making plays, but I’m very thankful.”
Virginia has won one ACC tournament championship under Bennett, in 2014, and owns two overall. Last season, the Cavaliers lost in the quarterfinals to Notre Dame, 71-58, also at Barclays Center. In 2016, Virginia advanced to the ACC tournament final in the nation’s capital, losing to North Carolina, 61-57, at Capital One Arena, then known as Verizon Center.
The Tar Heels, the defending national champions, come into the ACC tournament on a two-game losing streak, most recently a 74-64 defeat to archrival Duke on Saturday night in Durham, N.C. North Carolina also lost to Miami, 91-88, when Ja’Quan Newton sank a running 30-footer at the buzzer on senior day in Chapel Hill, N.C.
“We’ve got to move on from it and go back and get better and get ready for Brooklyn and get ready for the tournament,” North Carolina senior guard Joel Berry II said. “It is just as simple as that.”
The losses were North Carolina’s first since a three-game slide in late January that began with an 80-69 defeat to Virginia Tech at Cassell Coliseum.
The Hokies lost two of three to close the regular season, including 69-68 to Miami at Watsco Center on Saturday when freshman guard Chris Lykes made 1 of 2 free throws with three seconds to play and Virginia Tech missed a desperation heave at the buzzer. But sandwiched in between those defeats was a 64-63 victory over Duke, the Blue Devils’ lone loss since Feb. 8.
With victories over Duke, Virginia, Clemson and North Carolina, the Hokies are all but assured a spot in the NCAA tournament field, several bracket projections have suggested, but they could use another quality win in the ACC tournament to reduce their anxiety come Selection Sunday.
Virginia Tech reached the quarterfinals of last season’s ACC tournament, losing to Florida State, 74-68, before securing its first NCAA tournament berth in 10 years.
“We know we’re in the best league in the country,” said Hokies forward Chris Clarke, who scored the decisive basket against the Blue Devils last week. “And we know we’re going to have to win games if we want to go to the [NCAA] tournament.”