Spartans prepared for No. 1 Duke on Wednesday
By Rod Daniels
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Mike Dement's attempt to play dumb had the shelf life of milk during a North Carolina snowstorm.
"Who do we play next?" UNCG's coach deadpanned last week.
The coach and his team know, of course, that the Duke Blue Devils – with the season's largest crowd and an ESPNU audience along for the ride – are coming to the Greensboro Coliseum. When you're trying to get your season's first win after 11 defeats, there are about 343 Division I teams you'd rather see than the defending NCAA champions. But it's too late to turn back now, and the Spartans say they have no interest in doing so.
"We're 0-and-so-and-so, but I'm not going to say we can't win that game," freshman forward Aaron Brackett said. "If we play and execute, we just might beat them and send a message across the country."
UNCG has taken its past three opponents – Wake Forest, Clemson and Richmond – down to the final minutes. The Spartans had the ball with less than 10 seconds left and facing a two-point deficit at Wake, and they put forth their best defensive performance of the year against the Spiders, holding the visitors to 37.5 percent field-goal accuracy. Richmond entered at 50 percent through 11 games.
Those are signs of progress in a season with seemingly countless challenges. UNCG is the only Division I team in the land that's scheduled to play a majority of its non-conference games against 2010 NCAA tournament participants. If the players aren't aware of that specific fact, they do know there have been no real breathers. They've played nine teams outside the Southern Conference so far, and none of the nine has a losing record.
"We're frustrated because obviously we're losing," guard Korey Van Dussen said. "In the last three games, we've made steps, but you can only take so many steps. You want to get a win."
The contest with the Blue Devils is the centerpiece of the university's contract with the coliseum, which is in its second year. The deal is designed to give the facility a consistent tenant and an increased identity for the Spartan program, and it's not supposed to be easy.
This will be Duke's second visit to the coliseum against the Spartans as the nation's No. 1 team. On Dec. 31, 2005, the Devils claimed a 102-69 win before a sold-out house. The crowd of 21,124 remains the largest gathering to watch any UNCG sporting event.
The programs have been regular combatants – thanks in some measure to Dement's past service as an assistant to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who believes the game benefits both programs. The Devils, like other ACC visitors Florida State, Virginia Tech and Miami, will be exposed to the coliseum in advance of their conference tournament. The Spartans hope the continuous tests will ultimately prepare them for SoCon play.
"We've played a lot of people who make it difficult to judge how good we are," Dement said.
Beyond the difficulties associated with facing a roster populated with former high school All-Americans, the Spartans have a balancing act. Appreciation of Duke's skill level can only go so far.
"They're the No. 1 team in the country," Brackett said. "They're the defending champions, but I'm going to play them like any other team. I'm aware of what they can do and I'm not going to underestimate them, but, yes, I'm very ready.
"I don't want to get away from my game or let my teammates get away from their games in the heat of the excitement. It's going to be a big crowd. There's going to be a lot of nervousness, jitters, all that."
The Spartans got a couple of days at home before returning to campus on Dec. 26. Dement planned on two or three solid practices in advance of the Devils' arrival.
"We've got to turn the corner at some time," Van Dussen said. "We're going to give Duke our best shot."
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