They've had three straight subpar showings over the past two weeks. Because of that, the second-seeded Blue Devils' focus is squarely on 15th-seeded Lehigh, and not a possible South regional final rematch with Kentucky — 20 years after Christian Laettner's unforgettable last-second shot beat the Wildcats.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski insisted Tuesday that he hasn't looked beyond his four-team pod that also includes 10th-seeded Xavier and seventh-seeded Notre Dame. Duke (27-6) plays Lehigh (26-7) on Friday night in Greensboro.
"And you may think I'm lying, but I will tell you that I never lie," Krzyzewski said. "I never have, never will. I could not tell you the 16 teams in our region. I know Kentucky's in. I know that Notre Dame and Xavier, because my staff ... you have lead scouts for them in case we win. But I don't look at any of that."
Those subplots stuck out almost immediately once the bracket was revealed on Selection Sunday. Among them:
— An opening game against Lehigh, the school Krzyzewski beat for the first of his Division I-record 927 career wins, a 56-29 victory for his first Army team in November 1975. Quipped Krzyzewski: "I hope it's the same score."
— A possible matchup Sunday with Notre Dame and coach Mike Brey, one of Krzyzewski's assistants at Duke from 1987-95.
— A potential meeting next week with UNLV in the round of 16 would rekindle memories of consecutive early-1990s Final Fours. The Runnin' Rebels blasted Duke by 30 points in the 1990 championship game, and the Blue Devils' win the following year in the semifinals remains one of the most significant victories in school history.
— And, of course, that possible South Regional final rematch with Kentucky on March 25 — three days before the 20th anniversary of Laettner's shot sent Duke back to the Final Four, marked its run to a second straight national title and remains a staple of NCAA tournament highlight reels.
Freshman Austin Rivers admitted he peeked across the bracket to get a feel of what might await the Blue Devils if they advance.
"Just seeing where would we be if we (win) this game and this game," Rivers said. "We have a tough region, but that's fun. I'm looking at the teams ahead of us and I'm excited. Of course, it starts off first with Lehigh, but after them, you just kind of look — just to see, if you do win, who you'd play, and there's a lot of good teams."
Countered guard Seth Curry: "If we don't win these first two games, it doesn't matter who's in our region."
The more pressing issue for the Blue Devils is figuring out how to get back to playing well at both ends of the court, a slump that started when they were embarrassed on their home court by rival North Carolina in the regular-season finale.
It'll certainly help if injured forward Ryan Kelly can get healthy, after a sprained right foot kept him out of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Krzyzewski hopes to have him back on the practice court by Thursday, calling it "a day-to-day thing" and saying he trained in water Monday to work on his movement and conditioning.
"If we were playing water polo, I guess he'd be ready to play," the coach quipped.
Kelly, a 6-foot-11 junior, poses unique matchup problems for opponents. He has 40 3-pointers this season and opposing big men must come to the perimeter to guard him, freeing up space inside. Without him, Duke was unimpressive in a tight quarterfinal win over Virginia Tech and was beaten by eventual champion Florida State in the semifinals.
"We run a lot of our offense through him, so I think he's a guy who can handle the ball, whether it's dribble-handoff stuff or pick-and-pop situations," Curry said. "He's a threat from the 3-point line, so that opens the floor up for guys like me and Austin, who can drive in, and just helps our offense. We don't have that right now
"Hopefully, he can be back. We'll just have to figure out a way to get better."