GREENSBORO — As Duke prepared to play North Carolina in the regular season finale, Tre Jones talked about the team’s hunger.
“I think it’s at a high for us,” he said. “I think that we know what’s at stake now — obviously not just (Saturday) night — but at this point in the year, we’re in March now. I think we know what March is about, what this time of year is about and we’re ready every single game now.”
The Blue Devils took care of business against their archrival, leading wire to wire and winning by 13. Now Duke heads to Greensboro for the ACC Tournament with the hope of making a return trip a week later.
The Blue Devils, who reversed a late-season skid with back-to-back wins over NC State and North Carolina, are hoping to improve their NCAA seeding with a strong performance in the ACC Tourney. On top of that, Duke is hoping to get assigned to Greensboro for the opening weekend of March Madness.
Greensboro has been the launching pad for four Duke Final Four runs, including two national titles — 1992 and 2001. Duke has also won eight ACC Tournaments in Greensboro, including six since Mike Krzyzewski has been head coach.
“I love Greensboro,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s where I grew up (as a coach). A lot of amazing memories, wins, amazing wins, tough losses, great games. When I think of Greensboro, I think of the ACC and the magnificence of our conference. It’s a showcase. Other venues have been good. I’m not sure any venue showcases our basketball for the ACC as well as Greensboro, because everyone who’s there and the city itself, they embrace it. It’s really like history. They get it. They get it. It’s not just current. There will be a lot of talking about, ‘Remember in 1970. Remember in ’86.’ I re-member ’86. That’s where we won our first ACC championship, and I can remember beating Bobby Cremins’ team, an amazing game, and hugging Johnny (Dawkins), and that was our first ACC Tournament championship, and we’ve won a number of them since then.”
Krzyzewski normally makes a point of not looking backward during a season, focusing instead on what’s immediately in front of his current team. For these Blue Devils, it could be anything from an early exit to a Final Four run.
Duke has plenty of talent, starting with Jones. The sophomore point guard was named the ACC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, a double that has been accomplished only one other time in conference history — by Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon in 2016.
Center Vernon Carey Jr. was named ACC Rookie of the Year, getting the vote on 70 of 75 ballots in a runaway victory.
Beyond those two, however, the Blue Devils have struggled to find a consistent third contributor. Cassius Stanley, also named to the ACC All-Freshman Team, has looked like it at times. He scored 22 and 19 in the two games against North Carolina and 24 against Louisville. His two spectacular dunks on the way to 18 points helped spur a Duke second-half rally against NC State.
He also scored four points — on just five shots — in a loss at NC State, shot 1-of-9 for four points in a loss at Virginia and was in single digits against Miami and twice against Boston College.
Matthew Hurt has the most 3-pointers and the highest accuracy from outside on the team. The freshman has had three 20-point games. He’s also been held scoreless in two of his last three games and seen his minutes dwindle when his shot doesn’t fall early.
Perhaps the most likely third option at this point is former walk-on Justin Robinson, who has be-come an improbable breakout contributor for Duke in the last month of his college career. He’s scored more points in his last three games — 29 — than in any previous season in college.
That included going 4-for-6 from 3-point range on Senior Day against the Tar Heels, a game in which he made his first career start. He also had four blocks, six rebounds and three assists.
“It’s better than Rudy, you know,” Coach K said. “It’s almost like a movie, for crying out loud.”
That movie now opens in Greensboro, which, despite all of Duke’s accomplishments in the past, has not had a pleasant recent history for the Blue Devils. Duke has lost two of its last three ACC Tournament games there and left the city without a title on the last three trips. The last NCAA Tournament game Duke played on the floor was a first-round loss to Lehigh as a 2-seed in 2012. Even in the regular season, Duke’s last trip to the Coliseum was the game against Elon where Grayson Allen lost his team captain position and received a one-game suspension for tripping a player.