Duke opens NCAAs vs. similar opponent

Oral Roberts does many of the same things as the Blue Devils

Freshman Kyle Filipowski and Duke are playing their best basketball of the season at the right time as the Blue Devils prepare for their first-round game Thursday against Oral Roberts in Orlando. (Jacob Kupferman / AP Photo)

For the first time since March 1980, Duke heads to the NCAA Tournament with someone other than Mike Krzyzewski coaching the team.

Coach K’s legendary career ended in last year’s Final Four, and now Jon Scheyer has coached the Blue Devils to an ACC Tournament title and the fifth seed in the East region. Duke will open play Thursday in Orlando against 12th-seeded Oral Roberts. The Blue Devils will be looking to avoid the upset that so many 5-12 matchups have produced in recent years.

Previewing the game, it can be tough to tell which team you’re looking at, let alone which team will emerge with the win.

Pick the team that’s among the hottest in the nation:

That could be Duke, who has won nine straight games and appears to be a different team now that it is over a rash of injuries that sidelined Jeremy Roach, Dereck Lively and Dariq Whitehead at times during the season.

“There hasn’t been a season that I’ve been a part of, whether it’s as a player or as a coach, that hasn’t had those ups and downs,” said Scheyer. “It’s a matter of the timing of them and the circumstances. I think for us, it was hard just to get the continuity. And so not only are each of these guys growing every single day, every single week as players, but then when you don’t have — when you have certain guys out, it’s hard to build as a team. So these guys just stuck with it.”

Of course, Oral Roberts enters the game on a 17-game winning streak, dating back to the second week in January.

Take the team with the veteran guard who’s a March Madness hero:

That certainly sounds like Roach, the Blue Devils junior who had several second-half outbursts during Duke’s run to the Final Four last season. He hit key shots against Texas Tech and Michigan State to help lift the Blue Devils to wins. He appears to be ready to do it again, based on his scoring outburst at the end of the ACC Championship Game to help keep Virginia at bay.

“Jeremy has pulled through for us so many times throughout the season late in the game,” said freshman Kyle Filipowski. “Just seeing how well it’s worked, all of us have our full confidence in Jeremy and whatever Coach Scheyer calls, too, for him.”

Or is it Oral Roberts senior Max Abmas, who scored 29 points against second-seeded Ohio State in 2021 to lead 15th-seeded Oral Roberts to a huge upset win, then sent his team to the Sweet 16 with 26 points against Florida?

“We got to experience what it was like to play at the highest level and to win games in the tournament,” Abmas told the media. “We understand what it takes.”

This year, he leads Oral Roberts in scoring at 22.2 points per game, assists at 4.0 per night and has hit 55 more 3-pointers than anyone else on the team.

Pick the team with the dominant big man:

Duke has a couple of choices here. Lively finished second in the ACC in blocked shots as a freshman and has been a presence at the rim on defense all season. He’s also developed offensively as the year went on.

Then there’s Filipowski, who led the team in scoring and rebounds and was the ACC Rookie of the Year as well as MVP of the ACC Tournament. Graduate transfer Ryan Young also comes off the bench to provide physical minutes in the post.

Then again, the biggest player on the floor will be wearing an Oral Roberts jersey. Arkansas transfer Connor Vanover won the Summit League Defensive Player of the Year Award as well as the Newcomer of the Year Award after leading the league in blocks, leading the team in rebounding at 7.1 and scoring 12.2 points per game.

Take the team dominant on one side of the floor:

Scheyer has pointed out that Duke has been one of the top teams in the country on defense since February, when everyone got healthy. The Blue Devils are No. 22 in defensive efficiency, No. 21 in effective shooting defense and No. 20 in 3-point defense. They defend without fouling and are dominant on the boards.

All of which makes the Blue Devils a tough matchup for Oral Roberts, which is the seventh-best shooting team in the nation. They are No. 35 in offensive efficiency, No. 34 in 3-point shooting and No. 10 in free throws and interior scoring. They also don’t turn the ball over.

So it all comes down to:

The difference might be made on the other end of the floor. Can Oral Roberts defend Duke? They are one of the best shot-blocking and interior defending teams in the country, but do they have enough to answer for all of Duke’s weapons?

“For us, I think it starts with our defensive intensity,” said Scheyer. “We’ve hung our hat on playing defense all year round. Same thing controlling the boards and rebounding. And then what we’ve had, especially as of late, is just understanding our roles, playing really together on offense, the connectivity that we have. And I love the confidence that we have on that end of the floor.

“And we need to do both in order to win in the tournament.”