Duke heads north for tournament’s first weekend

Blue Devils play Iona on Thursday with potential second round game against Oklahoma or Rhode Island

Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski during the first half against the Boston College Eagles at Silvio Conte Forum. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

As one of the nation’s top teams for most of the season, Duke seemed to be a lock to play close to home for the first weekend. A loss to UNC in the ACC Tournament semifinals may have given the Tar Heels the spot in Charlotte, however, sending Duke north.

The Blue Devils, the Midwest’s No. 2 seed, open NCAA Tournament play in Pittsburgh with a Thursday game against the Iona Gaels in the round of 64. The game will tip off at 2:45 p.m. on CBS.

Mike Krzyzewski shrugged off the added travel, however, saying the team was just happy to be there.

“That’s the beauty of it,” he said. “There’s so much excitement. To see the teams get so excited, our team get excited and to get a No. 2-seed. We’re very proud of that. Everyone — well not everyone — will say we wish we would go here. Look, there are a lot of people that wish they were one of the 68 teams. We’ve done this now, for our program, I think, the 34th time, and it never gets old. It’s exciting, and I’m really happy and proud for my team.”

Not that staying in the state would have been any guarantee of success for the Blue Devils. While Duke has started runs to the national title in Greensboro (1992 and 2001) and Charlotte (2015), Duke has also suffered first-round upsets to Mercer — as a three-seed in Raleigh — and Lehigh — as a two-seed in Greensboro—in recent years.

So Duke heads to the state of Pennsylvania for the seventh time. The Blue Devils are 6-0 in previous NCAA games in the state, with all of them coming in Philadelphia.

• First round: Iona is making its third straight trip to the NCAAs after winning the MAAC Tournament. The Gaels were the fourth seed but went on a run in the conference tourney. They are led by second-team All-MAAC guard Rickey McGill, who averaged 13.5 points and 5.6 assists. Iona also features 3-point shooter Schadrac Casimir. The Gaels can score but have a defense that ranks in the 200s. It will take several career nights and a masterful game plan from coach Tim Cluess for the Gaels to hang with Duke.

• Possible second-round matchups: Assuming Duke advances, the Blue Devils will face the winner of No. 7 Rhode Island and No. 10 Oklahoma. URI won the Atlantic 10 regular season but was upset by Davidson in the conference tourney’s title game. In one of those coincidences that always seem to happen in the NCAA second round, the Rams are coached by Dan Hurley, brother of legendary Duke point guard Bobby Hurley. Oklahoma was one of the last at-large teams to make the cut after struggling down the stretch. Should the Sooners advance to play Duke, the game would match two of the best freshmen in the nation: Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and Oklahoma’s Trae Young.

• Possible paths after week one: If chalk holds, Duke will get a Sweet 16 rematch with Michigan State in Omaha. The Blue Devils beat the No. 2 Spartans at the Champion’s Classic in November, and coach Tom Izzo has been Mike Krzyzewski’s punching bag for more than a decade. K has won seven straight against Izzo, dating back to 2005, including wins in the 2013 Sweet 16 and 2015 Final Four. TCU and Bobby Hurley-coached Arizona State are also potential Sweet 16 foes.

At the top of the region are No. 1 Kansas, No. 4 Auburn and No. 5 Clemson. Krzyzewski will not be looking past the Gaels, however.

“That’s the only focus,” he said. “It’s not hard for me, and we’ve already talked to our team about it. You cannot — well, you can look ahead, and then you’ll be looking at a lot of things because you won’t be playing anymore. Each game is a championship game. That’s how I’ve tried to do it.”

Krzyzewski’s senior leader, Grayson Allen, has also learned that lesson. After winning a title as a freshman, Allen has also tasted an early departure, losing to South Carolina in the round of 32 last season.

“You have to have blinders,” Allen said. “You can’t even talk about what’s going to happen next, can’t talk about what’s going to happen in the next round, can’t even think about it. We can’t fill out a bracket, can’t picture playing who, where, what. You have to focus on one game at a time.

“I know that from this being my fourth tournament and from watching Duke teams in the past and other schools,” Allen continued. “It happens every year, when teams get upset. As far as records go, everyone’s 0-0 right now. The tournament does not care at all about what you’ve done before this. All it cares about is winning.”