PHILADELPHIA — Albany coach Will Brown said Thursday that Duke was the best team in this NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils didn't approach that rare air Friday against Brown's Great Danes.
No, this isn't some Carolina-blue time warp in which Duke again loses to a No. 15 seed. Albany wasn't Lehigh circa 2012, and the Blue Devils weren't hoisting reckless 3-pointers.
Quite the contrary, in fact. Directed by Quinn Cook and showcasing Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee, Duke's offense defined efficient in this 73-61 victory.
The Blue Devils (28-5) shot 58.7 percent, just shy of their season-best 60.3 and in the neighborhood of their NCAA tournament record of 63.2.
"The job was to win," Plumlee said, "and we got that done. Now with that being said, I think you have to get better throughout the tournament to stay in the tournament. We know that we didn't play perfect. Far from it. And we're going to have to be better the next game if (we) want to win. That's how this tournament works."
Indeed, the Blue Devils will have to defend and rebound much better Sunday if they hope to beat Creighton and All-America forward Doug McDermott, the nation's No. 2 scorer at 23.2 points per game.
The America East's fifth-place team during the regular season, Albany rebounded 10 of its 33 missed shots, far too high a rate. And while the Great Danes shot a miserable 10-for-37 inside the arc, they made 9-of-15 beyond.
Understand that most of those nine were very comfortable looks with minimal Duke resistance.
"We had some miscommunication (on defense) in the second half," Cook said. "We have to understand that up 14 or 20, the game isn't over. I think we let up a little bit. You can't be satisfied."
Duke never trailed and led by as many as 16 points. But unlike, say, Syracuse against Montana on Thursday, the Blue Devils failed to knock out a staggered opponent.
Jacob Iati, who scored a team-high 15 points and made three 3-pointers, drew Albany within 64-56 before an alert Curry recovered a loose ball rebound and hit a subsequent layup, Kelly swiped a pass, and Curry scored from the right baseline.
"The loose ball was probably the biggest play of the game," Iati said. "I thought I was going to get it, and right before I did, Plumlee tipped it a little bit, and then (it) ricocheted off me right to Curry."
Before Curry's effort, the building sensed the improbable: Albany pulling a Lehigh. Duke exiting consecutive NCAA tournaments winless for the first time in program history.
There was a palpable buzz as fans here primarily for Creighton-Cincinnati adopted the underdogs.
"Obviously I'd rather have a game like Syracuse had because then I wouldn't have to get as worked up, and I'm getting to be an old guy, and you don't have to use as much energy," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "But that's not the way it is in this tournament.
"That's why I can't say enough about Albany's team. … They were very prepared for this basketball game, and so we have to beat a tough, experienced, winning, prepared team, which is really good. But going forward, I'm OK if people don't show up against us."
Good as the Great Danes were, they were incapable of guarding Cook, Plumlee and Curry.
A sophomore and among the ACC's most-improved players from last season, Cook had 11 assists, one shy of Quin Snyder's Duke record for the NCAA tournament. As important: He committed only one turnover.
The primary target of his assists was Plumlee, who scored 23 points on 9-of-11 shooting. Curry scored 26 on 10-of-14 shooting, the antithesis of last season, when he endured a 1-for-9 night against Lehigh.
"I look at it as Plumlee did the best Kareem Abdul¿Jabbar imitation I've seen in a long time," Albany coach Will Brown said. "He hit three sky hooks. I haven't even seen somebody attempt that shot in my 12 years at Albany, and he hit three of them."
The lone downside for Duke's offense: Kelly's second consecutive 0-for from beyond the arc. His three misfires Friday make him 2-for-16 since his silly 7-of-9 against Miami last month, his first game back from his right foot injury.
"That's part of the game," Kelly said." I'm not worried about that. I'm confident in my shot, and I feel I'm making the next one."
Albany isn't good enough to make Duke pay for such blemishes. Creighton may be.
"We had to fight like crazy to win today," Krzyzewski said. "And the more you go forward in this tournament, the greater the sense of accomplishment you'll have."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times