GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Mike Krzyzewski got the defensive improvement he wanted to start the NCAA Tournament after some shaky performances down the stretch of his final season.
Duke began the retiring Hall of Famer’s last journey through the brackets with minimal stress, beating Cal State Fullerton 78-61 on Friday night.
“We played better tonight than we have been playing,” Krzyzewski said.
Freshman Paolo Banchero scored 17 points to lead the Blue Devils (29-6), who jumped to a double-digit lead in the first 4 1/2 minutes. Duke led by 10 at halftime and pushed the margin to 20, avoiding the shocking exit that befell another of the sport’s top programs — Kentucky — in a 2-vs.-15 matchup a night earlier.
“I mean, we all watched the game last night,” said Wendell Moore Jr., who had 13 points, six rebounds and six assists. “I mean, obviously we didn’t want it to happen to us as well.”
The West Region’s No. 2 seed had five players score in double figures while playing in its neighboring state, backed by vocal sections of fans eager to be part of what they hope will be Krzyzewski’s six-game run to title No. 6. Next up: a matchup with seventh-seeded Michigan State and its Hall of Fame coach, Tom Izzo.
Krzyzewski was pleased by the way his team used the time leading up to the tournament to regroup and recharge, along with maybe rebuilding some defensive cohesion and communication that had been there earlier this season.
“Their offense really puts you in a tough position to communicate because there’s a lot of dribble exchanges,” Krzyzewski said, adding: “So it’s a big improvement. We’ve been a really good defensive team, but the last four games we were a really bad defensive team.”
Damari Milstead scored 12 points to lead 15th-seeded Titans (21-11), who missed 15 of 18 shots to open the game. The Big West Conference champions finished the game shooting 38%, including 5 for 17 on the 3s needed for any mid-major to take down a big favorite.
“Even in the timeouts, I said to the guys: ‘The shots we’re getting are good shots,’” Titans coach Dedrique Taylor said. “They just weren’t falling. I think at the end of the day, Duke’s size and athleticism and strength — those shots looked a little different today than they did last Saturday” in the Big West Tournament.
Duke has long begun its postseason runs with added attention as a blueblood program with five NCAA titles. There’s extra scrutiny this year with any game potentially being the last for the winningest coach in college basketball history, now with 1,199 victories — down to TV cameras following Krzyzewski walking into the arena hand-in-hand with his wife, Mickie, and the team.
The Blue Devils haven’t looked quite the same of late, potentially weighed down by the enormity of playing through a legend’s final games in a 47-year career. The Blue Devils suffered a dispiriting loss to rival North Carolina in Krzyzewski’s emotional final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium and fell last weekend to Virginia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship game.
But Krzyzewski said he thought his team looked “fresher” in workouts, and the Blue Devils got off to a fast start that backed up their coach.
Cal State Fullerton: The Titans were playing in their fourth NCAA Tournament and first since 2018. Taylor said he had a mature team but acknowledged this stage was “a different animal.” His team didn’t look intimidated, but it couldn’t knock down the open shots it got while struggling to handle Duke’s size and length.
“Just having the opportunity to compete against Duke, for us seniors, there’s no better team we want to play in the NCAA Tournament,” said Titans forward E.J. Anosike, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds. “That alone, playing against Coach K, we gave it our all.”
Duke: Moore had said the team used days leading up to the tournament to work on recovering its defensive edge. There were some positive signs on the stat sheet, namely 10 blocked shots — five by the 7-foot-1 Williams.
The first half featured multiple players slipping and falling on the court. That included Moore, who slipped on a slick spot, got up, then slipped again and ended up in a near split.
That aggravated Moore’s hip and had him exiting early in the second half to slowly pedal an exercise bike a the end of the bench before returning — along with a more intensive effort by staffers to wipe down the court at every stoppage.
“That damn floor was slippery,” Krzyzewski said. “I mean, on both ends. So I don’t know what it was. I know it wasn’t the shoes. Nike called me and wanted me to make sure I didn’t say it was the shoes.”
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