Duke annihilates James Madison, reasserts itself as a national title contender

It was billed as the NCAA tournament’s most intriguing second-round matchup, a tradition-rich but potentially vulnerable blue blood against an accomplished, fearless mid-major.

Yes, Duke vs. James Madison had the makings of a classic. And then the game started.

Duke opened a double-digit lead after barely five minutes. The Blue Devils increased the gap to 20 soon after that. By the final few possessions before halftime, the only drama left was whether Duke freshman Jared McCain would outscore James Madison in the first half by himself.

The final score was Duke 93, James Madison 55, though that was little more than semantics. What mattered more was that the Blue Devils at last displayed the firepower expected from them when they began the season ranked No. 2 in the AP Top 25 poll.

For a 25-win team that claimed a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, Duke has consistently left its fans wanting more this season. It finished second in the ACC. It held a lead in a pair of games against North Carolina for all of 16 seconds. When head coach Jon Scheyer demanded more toughness and intensity, his players responded with a head-scratching ACC quarterfinal loss to an NC State team they had trounced in Raleigh 10 days earlier.

Those results led to Duke flying uncharacteristically under the radar as the NCAA tournament began. The Blue Devils weren’t among oddsmakers’ 10 national title favorites. Most Yahoo bracket users predicted they would fall in the Sweet 16, if not before that.

Duke guard Jared McCain (0) drained eight 3-pointers en route to 30 points in Sunday's win over James Madison in the second round of the NCAA tournament. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)
Duke guard Jared McCain (0) drained eight 3-pointers en route to 30 points in Sunday's win over James Madison in the second round of the NCAA tournament. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

Duke’s dominance against James Madison was a sign that the Blue Devils might be able to exceed those modest expectations — perhaps by a lot. This was a James Madison team that opened the season with a road win at Michigan State, that amassed 31 victories by Selection Sunday, that opened NCAA tournament play on Friday night with a wire-to-wire takedown of Wisconsin.

The day before the game, Scheyer and several of his returning players likened James Madison to the aggressive, physical Tennessee team that knocked Duke out of last year’s NCAA tournament in the Round of 32. As sophomore guard Tyrese Proctor put it, “Two teams that are both physical, try and muck the game up, out-bully you. Playing in that game last year is really going to help us this year.”

Duke stormed out of the starting blocks on Sunday like it was actually playing that Tennessee team. The Blue Devils were the tougher team, the more aggressive team. They outworked James Madison players for 50-50 balls. They outmuscled the Dukes for offensive rebounds and for position on the low block.

When James Madison’s defense left Duke shooters wide open, it was McCain who most often made the Dukes pay. Twenty-two of his game-high 30 points came prior to halftime. He finished 10-for-15 from the floor and 8 of 11 from 3-point range.

Duke advances to the Sweet 16 for the 33rd time in program history but for the first time in Scheyer’s two-year tenure. The Blue Devils will face either top-seeded Houston or ninth-seeded Texas A&M in a South regional semifinal in Dallas.

A year ago, no Research Triangle-area team made the NCAA tournament's second weekend. This year, Duke, North Carolina and NC State are all still alive.

McCain, an ice pack wrapped around his left thigh and a megawatt smile on his face, was asked by CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson about making the Sweet 16.

"Sounds great," McCain said, "but we have more to accomplish."