Vols excited entering their date with college basketball royalty

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes addresses his team following Thursday night's 58-55 NCAA tournament win over Louisiana.

Tennessee's 58-55 topping of Louisiana in Thursday night's NCAA tournament East Region first-round contest earned the Volunteers a date with royalty.

Since the NCAA expanded its postseason extravaganza to 64 teams in 1985, no program has won more championships than the Duke Blue Devils, who have been the last team standing five times. All five crowns transpired under legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski, who handed the reins to associate head coach and former player Jon Scheyer after last season's surge to the Final Four in New Orleans, where Duke was bounced by longtime rival North Carolina.

Duke reached the Final Four on four occasions from 1986-90 before breaking through with consecutive national championships in 1991-92, when star forward Christian Laettner became one of the most decorated and polarizing figures in college hoops history. The Blue Devils, who have been polarizing as a program since the Laettner era, added more national hardware in 2001, 2010 and 2015.

"For me, personally, it's just exciting to be in March Madness," Tennessee sophomore guard Jahmai Mashack said after Thursday's triumph when asked in a news conference if playing Duke adds to the thrill of March. "It doesn't matter who we're playing. We're playing basketball, and it's the game that we love to play.

"We can play anybody on a stage like this, and we're going to be excited."

The fourth-seeded Vols (24-10) and fifth-seeded Blue Devils (27-8) collide Saturday afternoon (2:40 on CBS) at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida.

Tennessee and Duke have met 15 times but never in an NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils hold an 8-7 series lead and did defeat the Vols 78-64 in the 1971 NIT in New York City, but the programs haven't met since Duke's 77-67 triumph at the 2011 Maui Invitational.

"We've beaten two No. 1 seeds and a 2 seed," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said when asked Friday afternoon about the Duke mystique. "We play in a great basketball league, and I think our guys have a lot of respect for the name of Tennessee. We feel like we're a team that can compete with any team in the country and that we belong wherever we play."

Krzyzewski retired with 1,202 career wins — nobody else in Division I history has eclipsed 1,000 — and went 32-7 in his final season, and Scheyer hasn't missed a beat with a squad that won its 10th consecutive game with Thursday right's 74-51 blowout of Oral Roberts. Included in Duke's victory streak was last week's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, where the Blue Devils obliterated the NCAA-bound trio of Pittsburgh, Miami and Virginia by a combined 44 points.

The Blue Devils signed the nation's top recruiting class for the 2022 cycle, and freshmen comprise four of Duke's top five scorers: 7-foot center Kyle Filipowski (first at 15.1 points per game), 6-5 guard Tyrese Proctor (third at 9.2), 6-8 forward Mark Mitchell (fourth at 9.1) and 6-7 forward Dariq Whitehead (fifth at 8.3).

"I haven't seen them a lot this year, but I know they're as hot as any basketball team in the country," Barnes said. "I know that Jon Scheyer has done a great job. They had some injuries early in the year, but they won their conference tournament and beat a good team here.

"What little bit of that game I did see, I thought their defense was outstanding against a team that can really shoot the ball."

Of course, there is the element to Tennessee worrying about Tennessee, given that the Vols somehow built a 30-19 halftime lead on the Ragin' Cajuns despite committing 12 turnovers. Senior guard Santiago Vescovi sat out most of the first half with foul trouble, which added to Tennessee's challenge of overcoming the season-ending loss of point guard Zakai Zeigler.

The Vols improved noticeably in the second half with only six giveaways.

"We turned it over 12 times in some really ridiculous ways," Barnes said. "We can't trip over our own feet, and we can't throw the ball to guys who aren't looking."

Tennessee's 76-73 topping of Ohio State at the 2010 Sweet 16 in St. Louis clinched the program's one and only trip to the Elite Eight, thus making it the most meaningful postseason win in program history. Defeating the Blue Devils would not change that, but it would be a victory over quite the recognizable four-letter word synonymous with this time of year.

"I know our team is very excited to play Duke," Vols senior guard Tyreke Key said. "I think we'll be ready to go."

Odds and ends

Tennessee is 113-100 all-time against current ACC members but just 1-7 against them in NCAA tournament games. ... Barnes on the Blue Devils: "On paper, they're probably the biggest team in the tournament." ... The Vols are 21-0 this season when holding foes to fewer than 60 points. ... Scheyer on Saturday's foe: "Tennessee is as good as anybody I've seen of getting in the paint and playing inside-out. ... The Vols are seeking their ninth Sweet 16 trip in program history.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.