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Duke Blue Devils vs. UNCW Seahawks preview: NCAA tournament opening game

By The Sports Xchange   |   March 16, 2016 at 5:23 PM
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PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- About 160 miles separate North Carolina-Wilmington and Duke University, but the distance between the basketball programs is far greater.

Duke, defending national champion, is fourth all-time in wins in NCAA history and 16 times the Blue Devils' season ended in the Final Four.

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UNC-Wilmington has four previous NCAA Tournament appearances. Duke has five national titles.

UNC-Wilmington owns one all-time NCAA Tournament win (in 2002). Duke has only missed the NCAA Tournament once since 1984 (in 1995).

The programs meet Thursday in the opening game of the NCAA Tournament in Providence, R.I.

"I've told everybody that I was excited for about 30 minutes," UNCW coach Kevin Keatts said. "And then once everything calmed down, and I got back to my office and realized -- because when you hear your name called, you don't know who you're playing because all you do is you see your name. And then I realized we were going to play against Mike Krzyzewski and Duke, then it was a reality check."

Keatts said he feels like his team is ahead of schedule with three 20-loss season preceding his arrival. His strengths are a four-guard backcourt featuring Denzel Ingram and Chris Flemmings and decent depth, at least compared to the six- or seven-man rotation Duke is accustomed to employing this season.

Working against Keatts, at least for the initial tip-off on Thursday afternoon, is convincing his awestruck players not to focus on the David-vs.-Goliath nature of the matchup.

Duke sounded schooled on its opening-round opponent and as a No. 4 seed, the Blue Devils want to avoid the trappings of glancing ahead to Saturday. Coach Mike Krzyzewski told his players the opponent is dangerous, much like it was when Duke lost in the first round in 2014 and 2012.

"You wouldn't be a so-called mid-major or someone from a one-bid league unless you've won a lot, unless you're good, unless you're together, unless you're well-coached," Krzyzewski said. "Those are all the things that Wilmington has. They're right there. I mean, they're right there. And then that team can beat you. The realization is that sometimes they have and sometimes they haven't. We advanced a lot more than we haven't. It's pretty obvious. But can they beat us? They can definitely beat us."

Flemmings, the team's top scorer at 16.1 points per game, said his mom has always been a Duke fan and he remembers her passionately pulling for the 1990s teams that featured Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and other household names the built Duke's lore.

Last March, Flemmings watched the NCAA Tournament with his mom and they were together when Duke cut down the nets in Indianapolis.

"Of course she was excited, so it was kind of tough because I always like to go against her just in general," Flemmings said.

Keatts was a Louisville assistant in 2013 when the Cardinals beat Duke in Indianapolis. In that game, Louisville used a size and length advantage to force mistakes.

"The personnel is so much different. I mean, you look at us, we're probably one of the smallest teams in the whole tournament," said Keatts, who said he was in touch this week about ways to defend Duke star Brandon Ingram, a player Louisville saw during ACC play.

Brandon Ingram has carried Duke for stretches of conference season and was especially impactful in February. Ingram averaged 16.8 points and 6.8 rebounds this season. He had eight points at Louisville on Feb. 20.

Ingram was one of the top recruits in the country and Krzyzewski said Thursday there was no doubt his future was in the NBA, following one-and-done McDonald's All-Americans Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor.

"He's in a good place. He's in a really good place," Krzyzewski said. "He's having fun, and he's a beautiful kid to coach. He's what I call a no-maintenance guy. There's never couch time. There's never you have your mind on other things -- he loves playing basketball. He loves being coached, and he loves being at Duke."

Keatts' players -- including seven newcomers and four freshmen -- did not have invitations to Duke. On Thursday, it's part of their motivation to defeat the Blue Devils.

"The biggest thing is: stay focused and understand that you're task is obviously to come out and play as best you can, have as much fun as you can in this tournament, and have an opportunity to try to beat Duke," Keatts said.

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