- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Here’s a quick rundown of what to look for in Friday’s evening games in Greensboro.
No. 15 Lehigh (26-7) vs. No. 2 Duke (27-6), 7:15 p.m. ET
If there’s one constant in the NCAA tournament -- other than Duke and North Carolina playing really close to home -- it’s the Blue Devils winning their opening-round games.
Under coach Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils have won 25 of their 27 opening-round games and they’ve taken most of them by lopsided scores. Duke won 14 of the past 15 by an average of 26.9 points, including an 87-45 rout of No. 16 seed Hampton in the 2011 NCAA tournament.
“At Duke, our coaches are great at preparing us for games,” Blue Devils forward Miles Plumlee said. “Regardless of the opponent, we respect each and every one, and we’re just ready to play the game.”
Krzyzewski and his assistant coaches are working a little harder to prepare the Blue Devils for Friday night’s South Region second-round game against No. 15 seed Lehigh at Greensboro Coliseum.
The Blue Devils will probably be without starting forward Ryan Kelly, the team’s third-leading scorer (11.8 points per game) and rebounder (5.4), for the third consecutive game. Kelly, a 6-foot-10 junior from Raleigh, N.C., still hasn’t fully recovered from a sprained right ankle he suffered in practice March 6.
Without Kelly in the ACC tournament, the Blue Devils defeated Virginia Tech 60-56 and lost to Florida State 62-59 in the semifinals at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
“He will not be able to play like any type of rotation minutes,” Krzyzewski said. “In other words, you’re not going to see a Plumlee go out and Kelly come in. He might be available for some spot duty and we’ll know more about that [Friday]. Like an end-of-game situation, end of half or some type of specialty thing, but no more than that for this game.”
Kelly has become especially valuable because he’s a big man who shoots 40.8 percent on 3-pointers.
“It’s not a shooter,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s the fact that he’s a big guy who can shoot. We can put another shooter out there, but then we’re real small. So it does have an impact because you might get a few more open looks or a little bit more time to shoot the ball. There’s more space. There are a variety of things that happen as a result of him being out there.”
Kelly’s injury has also left Duke’s bench even thinner. Against the Seminoles, only three Duke reserves combined to play 47 minutes and were outscored 18-9 by their FSU counterparts.
“They would all love Ryan to be able to play,” Krzyzewski said. “But we’re fine. You play with who you got and you play; there’s no excuses for anything. Our guys are ready to go. We love to have Ryan because when he comes into ballgames, he’s different than the other two [big men, brothers Miles and Mason Plumlee]. It makes the other team have to adjust more during the course of a game.”
Who to watch:
Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum: The junior was the country’s sixth-leading scorer with 21.9 points per game. He was named MVP of the Patriot League tournament, scoring 29 points with five assists and three steals in the Mountain Hawks’ 82-77 victory over Bucknell in the championship game.
Duke’s Miles Plumlee: With Kelly sidelined with a sprained ankle, Miles Plumlee -- the oldest of three Plumlee brothers from Warsaw, Ind. -- will have to shoulder an even bigger load. The 6-foot-10 forward scored nine points on 3-for-6 shooting in the FSU loss. He was Duke’s leading rebounder over the past nine games, averaging 10.8 boards.
Duke’s Austin Rivers: Rivers, a freshman from Winter Park, Fla., and son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, was sensational in his first season, leading the Blue Devils with 15.4 points per game. He was named ACC Rookie of the Year and is adept at driving to the basket for points, or kicking the ball back out to his teammates for open shots on the perimeter.
What to watch: Duke’s shooting. The Blue Devils tend to live or die by the perimeter shooting and they struggled in their last three games, making only 16 of 67 3-point attempts (23.8 percent). Rivers made only 3 of 20 3-point attempts in his past four games. Top reserve Andre Dawkins, a career 40.4 percent shooter on 3-pointers, was 1-for-12 in the past five games, after a 6-for-9 performance in a 74-66 victory at FSU on Feb. 23. If the Blue Devils are going to advance beyond this weekend, Rivers, Dawkins and guard Seth Curry are going to have to heat up again.
No. 10 Xavier (21-12) vs. No. 7 Notre Dame (22-11), 9:45 p.m. ET
About the time Xavier was trading punches with Cincinnati in the most frightening moment of the college basketball season, Notre Dame was just beginning to fight through its own troubles.
In mid-January, neither team looked like an NCAA tournament contender. On Friday night, the Fighting Irish and Musketeers will play in a South Region second-round game at Greensboro Coliseum.
“I don’t know if some people seem to have memories of elephants, that they don’t want to ever forget that,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “But for our kids it is a chance to go out on the biggest stage of college basketball and advance. And I truly believe that the only games that people remember are the ones you play in March.”
For a while, it seemed like neither the Fighting Irish nor Musketeers would be playing in March.
The Musketeers, who were ranked No. 8 in the country when they routed the Bearcats 76-53 on Dec. 10, lost five of six games after four of their players were suspended for their roles in an ugly brawl in the closing minutes of the Crosstown Shootout. After an 85-72 loss at Temple on Feb. 11, Xavier was 16-9 overall, 7-4 in the A-10.
“If I was being very, very honest, it was extremely difficult,” Mack said. “I don’t think there’s a manual for a coach, for a program, for your players, in how you respond. But the one thing I never questioned about our kids is their desire to compete and want to get better. We stepped in a lot of venues where we heard about the incident, but Xavier basketball is much bigger than 10 bad minutes on a Saturday. This program has done so much good for so many years that we can define ourselves with who we truly are.”
Xavier senior center Kenny Frease, whose face was left bloodied from the fight, said the aftermath of the brawl seemed to bring the Musketeers closer together.
“It was difficult just because of the pressure that was put on us from the outside world,” Frease said. “I think that as a team we always knew that if we were able to come together that we would be where we are today. And in the locker room it really brought us closer together just having gone through that type of adversity. The adversity that you’re going to see in the NCAA tournament, we have been through all that. We have been through a lot more than that. So I think that as a team we’ll be ready for anything we see.”
The Fighting Irish had their share of adversity, too. Notre Dame started 4-2, but then lost senior forward Tim Abromaitis to a season-ending knee injury in practice Nov. 25. Without him, the Irish lost six of their next 13 games and were 11-8 after a 65-58 loss at Rutgers on Jan. 16.
“I feel like it was two different seasons almost before Tim got hurt, and the way we prepared, and the way we game planned and stuff,” Notre Dame guard Scott Martin said. “And then after Tim, we kind of had to figure things out again and regroup and go from there. So I think it was just a lot of hard work and dedication out of us that paid off.”
After the loss at Rutgers, Notre Dame won nine consecutive Big East games (the longest conference winning streak in school history), including a 67-58 upset of then-No. 1 Syracuse on Jan. 21.
“You have to have great, great leadership,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “I don’t know if I have been more proud of a captain like Scott Martin. Because his partner in leading was supposed to be Tim Abromaitis and he kind of lost him. So for him to lead through a crisis early in the season, I think really helped us. And we had our young guys we committed to them and got them playing time. They needed to play, they needed to get reps. Even if we’re losing games, they needed to get in there and get reps and I think they grew from that.”
Both teams will find out how much they’ve matured Friday night.
Who to watch:
Xavier’s Tu Holloway: Holloway, a senior, led the Musketeers in scoring (17 points per game) and assists (5.1) and was the only Atlantic 10 player in the top five in both scoring and assists. He also leads Xavier in steals (1.5) and foul shooting (86.6 percent). Holloway averaged 19.7 points and 5 rebounds in three Atlantic 10 tournament games.
Notre Dame’s Jack Cooley: Cooley, a bruising 248-pound forward, averaged 12.4 points and 9 rebounds. Cooley, from Glenview, Ill., had a career-high 27 points with 17 rebounds in a 75-69 victory over Providence on March 2, one of his seven double-doubles in the past 10 games.
Xavier’s Mark Lyons: A junior guard from Schenectady, N.Y., Lyons averaged 15.5 points with 2.7 assists. A third-team All-Atlantic-10 selection, Lyons is a potent 3-point shooter, making 39.6 percent of his attempts.
What to watch: Defense. Notre Dame turned its season around with defense, limiting opponents to only 59.2 points per game, which was second-fewest in the Big East. Notre Dame held its opponents to 60 points or fewer in 15 games, including 11 against conference foes. Five opponents were held to fewer than 50 points by the Irish.