It feels like old times again for Rick Barnes. He’s prowling the sideline at the Greensboro Coliseum, matching wits with Mike Krzyzewski and trying to figure out a way to slow down Duke.
The North Carolina native wants to cap his return to Atlantic Coast Conference country by leading his Texas team into some familiar territory, too.
If his seventh-seeded Longhorns are to reach the round of 16 for the sixth time in eight years, they’ll need to knock off one of Barnes’ old nemeses, the No. 2 seed Blue Devils, in the second round of the East Regional.
Barnes, who grew up a 90-minute drive away in Hickory, went 4-5 against Duke in four seasons at Clemson and a quarter-century ago interviewed for a job on Coach K’s staff. He hopes that familiarity with the Blue Devils can somehow translate to the court Saturday night.
“There are some staples in their program that they do—I mean, obviously, every game they come out extremely aggressive to start with,” Barnes said Friday. “They’re going to apply a great deal of pressure in the first four or five minutes of the game and see how you’re going to handle that.”
For the Longhorns (23-11) to spring the upset, they’ll need to handle it better than 15th-seeded Binghamton did.
Fresh off its eighth ACC tournament title in 11 years, Duke (29-6) spoiled the Bearcats’ first tournament appearance by scoring 24 points off their 18 turnovers, and rolled to its most lopsided win in the NCAAs since a 28-point romp over Seton Hall five years ago during its run to its most recent Final Four.
Now comes the next challenge for the Blue Devils: Keeping that momentum flowing well enough to push them into the tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 2006, when they advanced to the regional semifinals for the ninth straight year.
“Coming off a game where we did win pretty big, it’s a confidence-booster for our team,” forward Lance Thomas said. “Everybody is in the mindset believing that we can win. Not thinking about the past. We’ve been playing really well. Very good basketball recently. So just taking that and running with it will be big for us.”
Both teams seem to have turned their seasons around by making changes at point guard.
Duke slipped to 20-5 after a loss at Boston College when Krzyzewski shifted shooting guard Jon Scheyer to the point and started high-energy freshman Elliot Williams at off-guard. The Blue Devils have won nine of 10 since.
Similarly, Texas dropped to .500 in Big 12 play about six weeks ago when Barnes inserted Dogus Balbay into the starting lineup, and promptly reeled off victories in eight of the 12 games that followed—including a late February upset of then-No. 2 Oklahoma and a 76-62 win over Minnesota in the first round, giving the Longhorns a win in their NCAA opener for the fourth straight year.
“He definitely was nervous (Thursday) and it showed up, because we came out and absolutely did not establish what we wanted to do early in the game with our transition and getting him going,” Barnes said. “I’ve told him he’s going to have to shoot the ball some, and he’s capable of doing it.”
While Balbay’s scoring numbers are meager—he’s only taking three shots a game, and averaging three points—his presence frees up one of the tournament’s most dangerous shooters, A.J. Abrams, to get open on the perimeter.
“He reminds me a lot of how J.J. shot,” Krzyzewski said, referring to former Duke star J.J. Redick. “Even his misses are right there.”
Abrams set the school’s NCAA tournament record by hitting eight 3-pointers against the Gophers, and has given low-post-challenged Duke something to worry about besides Dexter Pittman, the Longhorns’ 6-foot-10, 298-pound bruiser who generates plenty of matchup problems for the perimeter-based Blue Devils.
“We just have to basically do everything in our power to try to keep him off the boards,” Thomas said. “Be relentless, going up for the rebounds with two hands, making them run. … We can’t focus on just the post. We have to play an overall game, and we’re going to need everybody.”
In one of those coincidental quirks that seem to pop up every year in the brackets, this Texas-Duke tournament matchup nearly took place three years ago.
Since moving to Texas, Barnes is winless in three tries against the Blue Devils. The most recent meeting came three seasons ago, when Abrams was a freshman and the Longhorns were routed by 30 points in a midseason game at a neutral site by a Duke team led by Redick and Shelden Williams.
Texas was widely expected to get another crack at those Blue Devils in the 2006 regional final in Atlanta. But that meeting didn’t happen—top-seeded Duke was upset in the semifinals by LSU, which is making its first NCAA tournament appearance since then this weekend in Greensboro and is playing North Carolina in another second-round game.