Wait ‘til next year? Not these Blue Devils
Deep inside the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday, Duke’s three amigos sat three abreast answering questions during a press conference.
Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry have been Duke teammates since 2009 when they all arrived on campus.
Today, they’ll begin one last journey together when the No.2-seeded Blue Devils play 15th-seeded Albany in an NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional game (12:15 p.m., WRAL).
They own Duke’s top three scoring averages this season and they share the joyous experience of the 2010 national championship and the heartbreak of last year’s NCAA Tournament flameout to Lehigh.
They know that Duke’s next loss will end their college basketball careers. They intend to do all they can, off and on the court, to prevent that from happening any time soon.
“We need to be the guys that set the tone every game,” Kelly said. “A lot of times you think of the young guys should bring the energy, but the three of us have to be the guys that come out every game and set the tone, and the other guys have to follow.”
Duke’s non-senior starters, sophomore point guard Quinn Cook and freshman guard Rasheed Sulaimon, have been receiving constant reminders.
In practice, Cook said, the older guys are less accepting of a poor play than they would have been in, perhaps, December.
College basketball’s grim reaper lurks around every corner.
“They have one guaranteed game left,” Cook said. “We want to give them six games.”
Plumlee, a second-team all-American who is averaging 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game this season, laughed Thursday at the idea that he, Kelly and Curry are facing adverse pressure.
The Lehigh loss from last year and the loss to Maryland last Friday in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals have spawned fear that Duke has lost its edge.
But Plumlee said he, Curry and Kelly welcome this situation.
“This is our last go-around,” the 6-10 Plumlee said. “But that can’t be pressure because you won’t, I mean, I don’t know. Maybe you guys consider that pressure and whatever. It ... has to bring out the best in us, and we’re looking forward to that.”
Count Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski among those who think the Blue Devils will be at their best in the NCAA Tournament.
Duke played the nation’s toughest schedule this season, going 11-2 against teams in the NCAA Tournament field. The Blue Devils own wins over Louisville, Ohio State and Miami — all seeded either first or second in their regions.
Most importantly to Krzyzewski, Duke has solid senior leadership.
“It’s an exciting time,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m really excited about this tournament. I’m really excited about this team. I really excited about these seniors and our opportunity. That’s the moment I want to be in.”
In practices back in 2009-10, when they were Duke newcomers, Plumlee, Kelly and Curry shared the floor with seniors Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek.
Plumlee and Kelly played in games with them, too. Curry was a practice player only as he sat out that season following his transfer from Liberty.
Thomas, they said, was the strongest and most vocal leader.
But, in the end, those three seniors led Duke to the 2010 NCAA championship.
Plumlee, Kelly and Curry think more about that experience than any stunning loss Duke suffered last year or last week.
“I think the three of us have had a lot of experiences,” Kelly said. “Obviously a lot of people are talking about last year at the end of last year, but we’ve all experienced a national championship, as well. So we know what it takes, and we also have played at a high level throughout our senior years.”
This year, Sulaimon is the fresh-faced freshman working alongside the focused seniors. He sensed a difference in practices and meetings this week as Duke prepped for the NCAA Tournament.
“I see it in each and every one of our seniors’ eyes,” Sulaimon said. “Knowing that any given game you can be eliminated, it just makes you focus in on the game at hand. You can’t take any teams lightly.”
Plumlee isn’t shy about the role he shares with Curry and Kelly. He’s embracing the responsibility with the intention of carrying the Blue Devils all the way to the Final Four in Atlanta.
“You just feel like our example is more important than anything the coaches can say,” Plumlee said. “Us three, we’re more important than anything about this team right now. Our example will be followed. Our sense of urgency has to be felt. We have to set a tone in practice and at the very start of the tournament. We have to get momentum going right away.”