The three-time national champion Blue Devils, at 28-5, are gunning for an 11th Final Four and their 69th NCAA Tournament victory, tops all-time. West Virginia is in the way, a team with 21 total NCAA berths that has reached just one Final Four, and none in nearly a half century. The seven vs. 15 pairing would seem a historical mismatch, if not physical. But the Mountaineers, spurred by head coach Bob Huggins, aren't hearing any of it.
"I don't think the name means anything," freshman John Flowers said. "We have played teams just as good. As long as we are ready and prepared to play, we will be fine."
That seems to be the de facto response, something built into the Mountaineers by a new coach who adheres to the old ideal that teams have arrived when they are fearless against all foes. It has worked well enough that West Virginia (25-10) has already won more games under Huggins than any first-year coach in school history. It has done so with a mix of physical man defense, outside shooting and a go-to player of late in Joe Alexander. Duke's recipe has been eerily similar. The Blue Devils lack the marquee interior presence they have had in the past with players like Christian Laettner and Carlos Boozer. They don't have a surefire NBA pick, something head coach Mike Krzyzewski has struggled with in the past. And they no longer intimidate teams simply by coming onto the floor.
It adds to a team that is searching for its lost mystique against an up-and-comer attempting to establish one. And while Duke certainly isn't startled by any challenge, West Virginia is only starting to take on a similar mentality. A win here would go a long way toward firming such mindsets.
"I don't think they are an intimidating team at all," Da'Sean Butler said. "They are a great team and people look forward to playing them. I would have loved to have played them last year. But I have confidence and trust in my teammates. You make the most of it and play as hard as you can. You see them all the time, but that doesn't mean anything."
Except that the nation will expect Duke to win. WVU is well aware, and has already fielded far too many questions, according to Darris Nichols, on the subject. He requested one reporter not to inquire about Duke's reputation before he even began the interview. Other writers covered the topic of the tradition, then the experience, then the individual match-ups. Even a good vs. bad angle was raised in reference to Krzyzewski and Huggins, who were both in the Final Four in 1992. The Mountaineers simply shrugged and returned to their Ipods.
"Only if you let it be," Joe Mazzulla said of the professed thought that facing Duke, past and present, must be daunting. "If you let the name on the jersey affect your mentality, it is a disadvantage to you. I don't think there is any reason why any of us would be affected by the name on the jersey."
What's in them shouldn't be all that bad, either, according to most players. "Yeah, it's Duke," Wellington Smith said. "But they don't have Jason Williams, Shane Battier or Carlos Boozer. They don't have all those guys they did have. They have guys I have already played against. It's just another game. We can't let the name of the jersey depict how we play the game. What they are is a team that shoots the three well and plays defense and tries to get you out of things. That's what is important."
Added Mazzulla: "We see that they are vulnerable on rebounding. I think we can go in there and outrebound them. They're a great transition team and we will have to stop the ball in transition and stop dribble penetration for kick-outs."
It's all talk about the game plan, not the plan to be game for just talk. WVU has, after all, advanced to the Sweet 16 in each of its last three NCAA Tournaments and won every outing in the last six in which it faced an ACC team – including a seven vs. two contest versus Wake Forest in the 2005 postseason.
"Being from the Midwest, I've always watched coach Huggins growing up," Jamie Smalligan said. "I knew he was a tough coach, an intense coach, a coach that really wants to win."
He has instilled the same values in his players, who should now be able to withstand such tests. That led Huggins to chop any intimidation talk off at the knees.
"Generally they're more afraid of me than they are of who they're playing," he said.