Friedlander: Young Blue Devils grew up this season, just not enough get past the NCAA 2nd round
Duke grew up fast in its 1st season under Jon Scheyer.
Just not fast enough to get past the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament.
It only took a few minutes into Saturday’s East Region matchup against Tennessee to realize that despite all the experience and maturity gained during the long grind from November to March, the young Blue Devils were in over their head.
The first indication came when the Volunteers’ hulking big man Uros Plavsic used his 35-pound advantage on Kyle Filipowski to send the Duke freshman crashing to the floor not once, but twice.
Plavisc was called for fouls on both plays.
But the message was clearly sent.
This wasn’t going to be a basketball game. It was going to be a fight. And it turned out to be a battle of men against boys.
To use one of former coach Mike Krzyzewski’s favorite terms, the Blue Devils got knocked back by the hand-to-hand combat that left Filipowski with a cut beneath his left eye and numerous other aches and pains on both sides from players getting hammered virtually anytime they dared attack the rim.
With the added handicap of a pregame injury to freshman forward Mark Mitchell that left them a man down, Duke was never able to find the rhythm that had catapulted it to 10 consecutive wins and an ACC Tournament championship last week.
Nothing the Blue Devils had seen to this point, at least lately, could have prepared them for the hammer Tennessee dropped on them in Orlando. The Vols shot 43% percent from beyond the 3-point arc, including 6-of-11 in the 2nd half, while forcing 15 Duke turnovers to grind out a 65-52 victory.
“Aside from Purdue (early in the season), I’d probably say that Tennessee was the next, if not the most, physical team that we’ve played all year,” said Filipowski, who was clearly rattled by the early physicality and never fully recovered in going 6-of-16 from the floor with 4 of his team’s 15 turnovers in the loss. “That’s no hit on any of the teams we’ve played. That was just saying how physical Tennessee was today.”
@MarchMadnessMBB What in the Sam Hill are the refs doing allowing Tennessee to push, punch, and bully the Duke Blue Devils with NO flagrant 1 or flagrant 2 calls? This Tennessee team is playing dirty!!! pic.twitter.com/uADkOPXHfv
— . (@Mr_Char1955) March 18, 2023
It was exactly the kind of game Vols coach Rick Barnes hoped it would be. He said so in as many words to CBS sideline reporter Lauren Shehadi on his way to the locker room after a 14-2 run that gave his team a 27-21 halftime lead.
While the Blue Devils tried their best to punch back during the 2nd half, Tennessee had an answer for every run they made.
Someone might wanna guard this kid on #Tennessee dude has the last 13 points and #Duke leaving him wide open #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/nT0qg3hWud
— Ace Football Analytics (@js_ace_football) March 18, 2023
The comeback effort got even tougher because of foul trouble that limited the effectiveness of junior point guard Jeremy Roach, the only remaining regular from last year’s Final Four team.
Mitchell’s absence might have been an even bigger factor.
The 6-8 forward suffered what was reported to be a knee injury at practice on Friday. Scheyer said he didn’t learn of his inability to answer the bell until just before game time.
Mitchell is one of Duke’s best defenders and a reliable inside-outside offensive threat who isn’t afraid to throw his body around. His physical presence would have been an asset in helping the Blue Devils adjust to Tennessee’s style of play.
But that’s not the only reason he was missed.
Duke was 19-1 coming into the game with all their scholarship players healthy and available and 8-8 with at least 1 player on the sideline.
Make that 8-9.
“We ran into the wrong team on the wrong day,” Scheyer said. “They outplayed us today and you have to credit them.”
That’s the kind of statement opposing coaches have traditionally made after facing the Blue Devils in the NCAA Tournament.
They won 5 national championships and went to 13 Final Fours during Coach K’s Hall of Fame career in Durham.
But times have changed.
While Scheyer was adequately groomed for the unenviable task of following Krzyzewski, both during his time as a player and assistant at his alma mater, the differences surrounding the program were unmistakable
That was never more evident than Roach’s postgame comments Saturday.
“Obviously we wanted to make it as far as we could, but I mean, it happens,” he said. “It’s March. It’s a 1-game season. I’m just proud of these guys for fighting through everything that we’ve been through, injuries, losses, tough losses. And we just kept battling adversity, staying on the court, so I’m just proud of these people.”
There was plenty to be proud about.
The Blue Devils overcame a rash of injuries, a series of early road losses and the growing pains associated with a rookie coach and a roster dominated by 5 freshmen. They persevered, improved and saved their best basketball for last.
And they’ll have an ACC banner to hang at Cameron Indoor Stadium to show for their effort.
Even with that conference championship, seasons ending in the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament aren’t traditionally considered a success at Duke.
The fact that this oneis shows that for all the progress Scheyer and the Blue Devils made in their 1st year together, there’s still plenty of room left to grow.