Duke played its best game of the season vs. James Madison, but wants to be even better vs. No. 1 seed Houston

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NEW YORK — The first six days of the men’s NCAA Tournament gave us some thrills and big upsets as expected, but take a look around. It’s a mighty chalky Sweet 16 overall. Only one double-digit seed (NC State) has broken through to the regional semifinals. There isn’t a team from a mid-major conference still standing. 

Beyond the dominant performances from top seeds UConn (which looks nearly unbeatable, frankly), Purdue and North Carolina, we also watched the rest of the No. 1 and 2 seeds make it through to the regional semifinals for just the fifth time since the tourney expanded; 2024 joins ’89, ’95, ’09, ’19 as the only years where zero of the teams on the top two seed lines were felled in the first and second rounds.

The dominance we saw play out across the country was prominently on display at Barclays Center over the past few days. Two schools got out with 2-0 records and the right to keep moving deeper into this blessed event. They’re both blue bloods. The first: No. 1 overall seed Connecticut. The Huskies obliterated Wagner 91-52 on Friday and then got past No. 9 seed Northwestern on Sunday to the tune of a 75-58 dusting.

Duke, the 4-seed in the South, is the bigger story coming out of Brooklyn, however. The Blue Devils were never threatened vs. No. 13 seed Vermont on Friday. On Sunday, No. 12 seed James Madison was a trendy upset choice. JMU blitzed Wisconsin. Could it pull off a second straight upset?

Not. A. Chance. 

“I don’t know if we expected this, but I just thought our guys came out with such a great competitiveness and they were obviously ready to play,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said. “Not just ready to play. You have to be ready to compete in these games, and everybody that was on the floor I felt had that.”

Duke broke out to a 24-9 lead midway through the first half … and it was done. James Madison was playing from behind as soon as its star, Terrence Edwards, picked up his second foul less than two minutes into the game. Duke’s 93-55 evisceration of an outstanding JMU team (which finishes 32-4) was a throwback to some Blue Devils teams of old. This group isn’t just peaking at the right time — it absolutely played its best game of the season on Sunday. 

It was hard to see Duke capable of this turn, but that’s the mark of a good coaching staff and a mature team. Duke looks older now than it did even three weeks ago. Scheyer told me that the extra days provided to the group after getting kicked out of the ACC Tournament quarterfinals by NC State (still in this thing!) did the team a lot of good. 

“This game can humble you. I don’t care if you’re a coach, if you’re a player,” Scheyer also said at the postgame press conference. “Our last regular season game, the ACC Tournament game, you have to have great humility to understand what you have to do better. Clearly all of us had to do something better, and you know, there’s no replicating the work you need to put in. The silver lining in that was, it gave us a week to work on ourselves, to look in the mirror, to not listen to what people may think or were done.” 

Scheyer’s been on his group privately and publicly about their overall reluctance to dig in and compete consistently over 40 minutes. Or, even beyond that, to show want-to and commitment to excellence game over game over game. Now, when it matters most, Duke has found its way to winning without leaving a trace of doubt. Sure, it beat two teams that were 12- and 13-seeds, but the tournament is kill or be killed. Duke feasted. Remember, Scheyer fell short last year, his first season on the job, when Duke was punked by Tennessee in the second round. 

“None of us forgot about what happened with Tennessee in the second round. I think that just added a little bit more fire to us, to the returning guys,” sophomore center Kyle Filipowski said. “I think we learned our lesson playing last year. We didn’t want to repeat that at all.”

Blue Devils freshman Jared McCain made sure that wasn’t an option vs. James Madison. Ne set the Duke record for 3s in an NCAA Tournament game. That also cracked the nation’s longest winning streak, ending JMU’s run of 14 in a row.

“It’s the best feeling in the world when you know the work that you put in is showing up on the court, especially in such a big game like this, to go to the Sweet 16,” McCain said. 

That’s exactly what Duke is doing. 

Duke is into its 29th all-time Sweet 16 appearance (second most in history to North Carolina’s 31) and it did it by landing its third-largest win by margin (38) in the second round or later in the tournament. Not just that, but Duke’s 38-point beatdown of Northwestern was the fifth-largest second round margin of victory in the event’s history. There’s even more: McCain set a school record by sinking eight 3-pointers to total 30 points, plus five boards. You want to know the list of Duke players to get 30 points and five rebounds in the NCAA Tournament in the past 35 years? Christian Laettner, Zion Williamson and Jared McCain. That’s the list.

There’s some concern about Jeremy Roach’s pinky, which was dislocated, but no chance he won’t be a go for Duke’s huge battle that awaits vs. No. 1 seed Houston on Friday in the South’s regional semifinal in Dallas. The Cougars were taken to overtime by upset-minded Texas A&M, which nearly pulled off an all-time comeback (A&M already owns the biggest comeback in NCAA history, in the 2016 tournament vs. Northern Iowa) late Sunday in Memphis.

Houston hung on. It’s such a tough team. Through the first two games of the tournament, Duke’s looked tougher. It looked like the team that was ranked No. 2 in the preseason poll back in October. The jump in competition is going to be massive. Duke will be an underdog for the first time in weeks. 

If Scheyer is right and his backcourt of McCain, Roach and Tyrese Proctor are playing as together as they have all season, Duke can beat Houston. If Scheyer’s right that this team has finally bought in to all the things that require the fullest effort and unrelenting toughness, then Duke has a shot. 

The one piece we haven’t seen come together is Duke playing at an A-level with Filipowski taking over a game. McCain’s shooting, Proctor’s playmaking, Roach’s leadership — they’re all crucial. If Duke is going to get out of Dallas, Filipowski is the final piece. And he’s about to get the toughest test of his season vs. Houston’s physical frontcourt. A huge battle of wills awaits Friday night.

If Houston plays like it did vs. A&M and Duke can replicate its Brooklyn form, Duke will win and get to the Elite Eight. We’ll have to wait four days to find out. Scheyer had been asking his team to find an edge for months; it heads into the regional semis looking its sharpest all season.

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