Jon Scheyer has been to the NCAA Tournament three times without going as far as he wanted.DURHAM, N.C. – Duke senior guard
The Blue Devils were shocked in the first round by Virginia Commonwealth when Scheyer was a freshman in 2007. They lost in the second round to West Virginia the following year and to Villanova in the East Regional semifinals last year.
But Scheyer said this is the best Duke team he has been on, and he said the Blue Devils are poised to advance deeper in the tournament as a result. The past three Duke teams have lacked depth and power up front, but this one has a huge, four-player low-post rotation with Brian Zoubek, Lance Thomas, Mason Plumlee and Miles Plumlee.
"Brian, first of all, for me, has given just our whole team a lot of confidence," Scheyer said. "And along with him, Lance. And then Miles and Mason coming off the bench. That's just a dynamic for our team we haven't had since I've been here."
Duke (29-5) heads into this season's NCAA tournament opener with accomplishments that have eluded the Blue Devils for a few years. The Blue Devils will meet Arkansas-Pine Bluff, a winner over Winthrop on Tuesday, at 7:25 p.m. Friday in Jacksonville, Fla.
For the first time since 2006, Duke is a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils also won the ACC tournament and the ACC regular-season title (sharing it with Maryland) for the first time in four years.
"We're a better team than the last three tournaments or four," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Since J.J. Redick's senior year (2006), we're the best team since then."
Statistically, improved rebounding is the biggest difference for this Duke team, and that's a credit to the big front line Scheyer was talking about. The Blue Devils lead the ACC and rank 19th in Division I in rebound margin at plus-5.9 per game.
That's the team's best mark since 1998-99, and improvement in that area addresses one of Duke's biggest failures in the past two NCAA tournaments. The Blue Devils were outrebounded 49-34 by Villanova in 2009 and 47-27 by West Virginia in 2008.
Rebounding could be a key in Duke's region this year. No. 2 seed Villanova ranks 27th in the nation in rebound margin (plus-5.2) and No. 3 seed Baylor ranks 13th (plus-6.7).
"It's very big," junior guard Nolan Smith said. "I personally feel like this tournament is about defense and rebounding."
Smith said the veterans on the team try not to think too much about the past tournament exits, but he admitted that those previous disappointments motivate him. Junior forward Kyle Singler said this team is better than those of the past few years because it is experienced.
Duke starts seniors Scheyer, Thomas and Zoubek, plus juniors Singler and Smith.
"We're older," Singler said. "And I think we're overall just better. We have more guys that can contribute."