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Houston • If college basketball fans are surprised by Utah's success in the NCAA Tournament, Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak suggested earlier this week, maybe it was because East Coast audiences didn't stay up late enough to watch the Utes.
The Duke Blue Devils weren't surprised perhaps because they were watching.
Getting back home after a long day of practice, class or competition, Duke players unwind by watching whatever game is on. Sometimes that's Utah.
"We're also fans of the game, so yeah, we watch together," senior guard Quinn Cook said. "We know all the players' names. We're all consumers of basketball. We watched them play Arizona. We watched them play Stanford."
It's easy to use the David-and-Goliath scenario for Friday's game, because in many ways Utah's Sweet 16 matchup with Duke in Houston is that. The No. 5 seed Utes (26-8) are looking to make their first Elite Eight since 1998, while the No. 1 seed Blue Devils (31-4) would like to like to make their seventh in the same span.
But closer to the truth: Each team has peered at the other through opposing ends of the looking glass. And while Utah has the sling at the ready, hoping to topple a giant with more blue-chip talent and more recent success in the postseason, there was strong mutual respect threaded throughout Thursday's proceedings as each team prepared for the biggest game of their seasons.
If Utah's experience comes from program building, Duke's comes from program sustaining. The Blue Devils have big goals, but they won't take Utah for granted, so the Utes know they have to be their absolute best to keep their tournament run going.
"I mentioned that to our team: You have to do something to get some people's attention," Krystkowiak said. "I think the longer that you can stay alive and keep the game close, the more that becomes a story line potentially."
How does Utah keep it close is the burning question.
The Blue Devils are annually stocked with some of the country's best talent, and that's true again this year: Behind 5-star recruits Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow each averaging double-digit scoring Duke has been one of the nation's best offensive teams (No. 2 at 1.188 points per possession). Notre Dame went 2-1 against the Blue Devils, but in Duke's one win, it blew out the Irish by 30 points.
One might wonder if Utah's experience, with its core of Delon Wright, Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge, might be an edge. But Duke senior Quinn Cook said the freshmen hardly act as young as they are: They've been battle-tested in dogfights with North Carolina, Virginia and Louisville, and they've learned to survive.
Even the Utes agree: Their veteran status is almost moot.
"We're all at this level and all that sophomore, freshman kind of goes out the window," Taylor said. "Just two teams going head to head, and no matter what grade you really are, you know you're at a position where you can go out there and make opportunities. It's all about making mistakes. The ones who is going to limit their mistakes goes further."
The Utes hope they can force Duke into a few mistakes: Turnovers, fouls, bad shots. Meanwhile, Utah's own game will have to be near flawless, especially on offense. Duke is 2-4 when allowing an opponent to shoot better than 50 percent.
Utah has its own pieces in play: Wright, the All-American point guard who will be one of the biggest guards on the floor; a quality shooter in Taylor; Loveridge and his versatile game; Jakob Poeltl as a rim protector and inside finisher. When asked which was Utah's greatest threat, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski responded: "Yes."
"We know we're going to play against an outstanding team tomorrow night, very efficient team on both ends of the court, very deep," he said. "Larry has done a great job with not just his team but in four short years in his program to get them from 6-25 to where they're one of the Top 10 to 15 teams in the country, I think, is pretty spectacular."
It would look even more spectacular with one more win one that will require all of Utah's best, and very little of its worst.
Duke's been watching, and like any good Goliath, they've prepared for the punches.
"We're not thinking about championships right now," Jones said. "Right now, we're thinking about Utah."
Twitter: @kylegoon Sweet 16 Utah vs. Duke
At NRG Stadium, Houston
Friday, 7:45 p.m.
TV • Ch. 2