DURHAM, N.C. — Duke made things difficult on Atlantic Coast Conference opponents with its pressure, Iowa State ranked among the Big 12’s best in three defensive categories while Marist held teams to the lowest scoring average in the country.
That could add up to plenty of missed shots and low-scoring games at the Cameron Indoor Stadium to start the NCAA tournament.
“I’m not going to say what’s going to happen scoring-wise,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said Friday. “I just know we have great teams here, great coaches, great programs and you really have got to work hard to impose yourself and impose the way you play. … But I would suspect there will be some pretty good defense played throughout.”
McCallie, a Parade High School All-American at Brunswick High School, is a former UMaine women’s basketball head coach. She guided the Black Bears to six NCAA tourney appearances.
The Blue Devils (29-3) are back at home as the No. 2 seed in the Philadelphia Regional after relying on defense to win both the ACC regular-season and tournament titles for a second straight year. But they’ve got plenty of company when it comes to teams that frustrated opposing offenses: Seventh-seeded Cyclones (22-10) and the 10th-seeded Red Foxes (30-2), who meet in Saturday’s first game. Duke and No. 15 Tennessee-Martin (21-10) play in the second game.
Marist, which has won 26 straight games, allowed just a national-best 48.6 points per game and ranked third by holding opponents to 32.8 percent from the field. Iowa State ranked just outside the top 10 among NCAA tournament teams in both categories (54.4 points, 35.8 percent), while Duke ranked 15th in scoring (54.8) and 17th in field-goal percentage defense (.361) among tournament teams, according to STATS LLC.
Together Duke, Iowa State and Marist combined to hold opponents to about 53 points a game and 35 percent shooting this season. It’s no wonder Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly felt safe predicting his team’s matchup with Marist would be in the 50s or 60s.
“Defensively, they’re like us,” Fennelly said. “I don’t know if they got a lot of credit. If you’re not a fullcourt pressing team where you’re just attacking people all of the time, people don’t think you play good defense.
“They’re going to keep people in front of us. Every time you move, you’re going to get hit and you’re going to have to play through it. … We completely understand what’s ahead of us.”
Marist won a sixth straight Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament almost two weeks ago and held all three opponents to 45 points or fewer. The Red Foxes have also held 19 of 20 opponents to fewer than 60 points, though ninth-year coach Brian Giorgis said his league had a down year offensively. He pointed out that Marist didn’t have quite the same success in wins against NCAA tournament teams Louisville (68 points) and Houston (season-high 70) in December.
“We know it’s a whole different world when you’re stepping up against the Big 12,” Giorgis said. “We’ve got to be at our absolute best.”
The Blue Devils have had plenty of rest after beating rival North Carolina in the ACC tournament final on March 6. Now they’re returning to their home court where they went 15-0 this season and have won 23 straight games overall.
Duke was a No. 2 seed opening at home last year as well, beating Hampton and LSU to reach the regionals before losing late to Butler, costing the Blue Devils a trip to the Final Four.
“With having this time off, we’ve been able to assess how we felt about our defense over the regular season and the ACC tournament,” guard Jasmine Thomas said. “There’s just some things that we want to tighten up and do better going into the NCAA tournament.”
While Duke (17 straight tournament trips), Iowa State (five straight) and Marist (six in a row) have been here before, this is a first for UT Martin. The Skyhawks beat top-seeded Tennessee Tech in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship to get here behind four freshmen starters, led by Heather Butler (19.1 points) and Jasmine Newsome (17.8 points).
“We’re excited and definitely nervous,” Butler said. “We’re just trying to go in there with confidence and you just can’t be intimidated by other teams because we know we’re the underdogs and they’re a No. 2 and we’re a No. 15 seed. But we’ve just got to go in there with a type of focus and go in there ready to battle.”