Mike Krzyzewski made a postgame point that's sure to get through to his players.JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After clinching a trip to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, Duke coach
The top-seeded Blue Devils (31-5) have reached a regional semifinal for the second year in a row. But at this same point in last year's tournament, a Duke team counting on many of the same players crumbled in a 77-54 debacle against Villanova.
Krzyzewski said there's no guarantee this year, either, that Duke will advance past No. 4 seed Purdue in a Friday night basketball game in Houston that's not scheduled to tip off before 9:57 p.m. EDT.
But his confidence in this team rang through loud and clear as he addressed the media from the podium at Veterans Memorial Arena after the Blue Devils defeated California, 68-53.
"We're a better team this year," Krzyzewski said Sunday night. "I don't know if we'll go any further, but this is a better team because it can play total defense, and it doesn't have to rely on that other stuff."
By "that other stuff," Krzyzewski means 3-point shooting. Duke coasted to an easy win Sunday even though it shot an abysmal 3-for-17 from 3-point range, with leading scorer Jon Scheyer held to seven points on a 1-for-11 performance from the field.
The Boilermakers (29-5) present a new challenge as a team that has banded together despite losing second-leading scorer Robbie Hummel to a knee injury on Feb. 24. Purdue edged No. 5 seed Texas A&M 63-61 in overtime in a second-round game Sunday in Spokane, Wash.
But Duke's improvement in two significant areas has given the Blue Devils reason to be optimistic moving forward:
Duke's opponents are shooting 40.2 percent from the field this season, compared with 43.4 percent in 2008-09.
The Blue Devils' rebounding margin (plus-6.1) far exceeds that of last season (plus-2.7). Much of that is the result of the impact of a four-player post rotation that starts with seniors Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas and continues with brothers Miles Plumlee and Mason Plumlee off the bench.
Duke's guards were comfortable pressuring California's perimeter shooters (who were a combined 3-for-12 from 3-point range Sunday) with those imposing forwards behind them. If opposing guards penetrate, they still have to find a way to shoot over Zoubek (7 feet 1) or the Plumlees (both 6-10).
"That's the exciting thing about this team," Duke guard Nolan Smith said. "We might not shoot good every game, but we play defense and play hard, and somebody is going to surprise you."
That's true with the contributions Duke gets on offense now, too. Imagine a Duke post player getting 14 points and 13 rebounds last season, as the Blue Devils got from Zoubek on Sunday. It just wasn't happening a year ago.
Nor were there any highlight-quality reverse alley-oop dunks like the one Miles Plumlee delivered after slipping a ball screen he had set for Smith against California. Those are the kinds of plays that can demoralize an opponent.
Duke will arrive in Houston as part of an eclectic mix of four teams hoping to win two games to advance to the Final Four:
The Blue Devils are the ACC icon looking to return to the Final Four for the first time in six years.
Purdue fills the role of a former favorite with a cause — even Krzyzewski remarked on how sorry he felt for Hummel and the Boilermakers shortly after the injury.
No. 3 seed Baylor has revived itself in the Big 12 under coach Scott Drew, seven years after the shooting death of former player Patrick Dennehy at the hands of teammate Carlos Dotson sparked an NCAA investigation that led to sanctions for the program and the firing of former coach Dave Bliss.
And No. 10 seed Saint Mary's is the mid-major shocker that ousted No. 2 seed Villanova and has a dominating big man, 6-11, 265-pound Omar Samhan.
Though its stories are intriguing, this South Regional field is not as strong as the East Regional field that Duke faced a year ago in Boston. That bracket included Big East powers Villanova and Pittsburgh.
So Duke will be the favorite to go deeper into the tournament than last year.
"This team is better," Krzyzewski said. "It's not a great team, but it's a really — it's an excellent defensive team that hopefully can be a little bit better offensively as we go forward."