GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) Duke guard Matt Jones believes the challenge of overcoming problems and injuries has helped the Blue Devils evolve into powerhouse team they were projected to be at the start this season.
The second-seeded Blue Devils (27-8) were the preseason No. 1 until a rash of injuries - including a back operation to coach Mike Krzyzewski that kept him off the sidelines for a few weeks - stunted their progression during the regular season. But after four wins in four days to capture the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament has Duke peaking as it heads to its NCAA Tournament opener with 15th-seeded Troy (22-14) in the East region on Friday.
In a later game in Greenville, seventh-seeded South Carolina (22-10) take on No. 10 seed Marquette (19-12).
Two East region games in Tulsa, Oklahoma match third-seeded Baylor (25-7) against No. 14 seed New Mexico State (28-5) and sixth-seeded SMU (29-4) against 11th-seeded Southern Cal, which won its way in with a First Four victory over Providence on Wednesday night.
Given the preseason hype about Duke's freshman group led by Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles, the Blue Devils looked like champions on paper last October. Then came the injuries. Grayson Allen with an ankle, Amile Jefferson with a foot; Tatum and Giles started the season on the injured list. Allen was also suspended indefinitely for tripping opponents - though he sat out only one game.
Then in January, Krzyzewski took a monthlong leave of absence after having operation to alleviate a herniated disc in his back.
''I think for this team it was the pain we felt that really drove us to become better,'' said Jones, the Duke senior. ''I mean pain forces you to grow with coach being out, with guys being injured and every day being so unconventional, we had to learn how to adjust.''
The adjustments took full effect last week in New York when the Blue Devils gritted out the ACC title, topping rival North Carolina 93-83 in the tournament semis.
Krzyzewski put no stock into his team's preseason ranking, saying each team has journey to go through that unfolds over four months.
''Ours was a difficult one because every guy on our team got hurt,'' he said. ''I was out.''
Krzyzewski said with players like Jones, Jefferson and Grayson Allen healthy, the Blue Devils have had a chance to develop chemistry that could take them very far in the NCAA Tournament.
''I like my team a lot. I'm proud of them,'' he said. ''I think they've become men. And that's a good thing.''
Some things to watch in Friday's East region games:
SOUTH CAROLINA'S FUTILITY: The Gamecocks have not won an NCAA Tournament game in 44 years since defeating Texas Tech in an opening game in 1973. They've gone 0-5 ever since, losing opening games in 1974, 1989, 1997, 1998 and 2004. It's one coach Frank Martin would love to wipe away against Marquette. ''To accomplish that I think would soothe a lot of people,'' Martin said. ''It would make a lot of people smile.''
BEAR CLAWS: The Baylor Bears could be the East region's best closers. They've trailed at halftime 10 times this season, yet rallied to win eight of those games. The victories included games where the Bears trailed Louisville by 20 points, West Virginia by eight and Michigan State by three.
DEARTH OF EXPERIENCE: Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski has plenty of NCAA Tournament experience, going three times as Duke's point guard and 15 straight seasons as Blue Devils assistant. His Golden Eagles? Not so much. Only Katin Reinhardt, a graduate transfer who reached the tournament at UNLV and Southern Cal, has ever played an NCAA game. Wojchiechowski is not worried about that, hoping his players enjoy the experience and play like they have throughout the season.
MUSTANGS RETURN: SMU is back in the NCAA Tournament after being banned from postseason play a year ago for multiple violations, including academic fraud and unethical conduct. SMU went 25-5 last season, and improved to 29-4 this season. Sophomore guard Shake Milton isn't looking back. ''It's tough to really think about all of that,'' he said. ''I'm really just focused on trying to play. I'm ready to get out there and get a piece of the NCAA Tournament, see what it's really like.''
MAN OF TROY: Trojans' Devon Walker knows what it's like to go deep in the NCAA Tournament. Walker is a 6-foot-6 transfer from Florida who went the Elite Eight his first year with the Gators, then advanced to the Final Four in 2014. ''It's been a very long journey for me to come here from Florida,'' said Walker, who has helped Troy make its first tourney appearance since 2003. ''I've been through a lot with my knee and losing and expectations and all that type of stuff. So, it hit me all at that moment.''
AP Sports Writer Cliff Brunt contributed to this report from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
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