Friedlander: Young Blue Devils 'getting taller' as March gets closer
DURHAM, NC – The NCAA’s NET rating system, as we’ve come to learn, places just as much importance on games at the start of the season as it does on those at the end.
That might be the case from an analytical standpoint.
But anyone who has watched college basketball for any length of time knows that no matter what the computer spits out, the only thing that really matters is how teams are playing come tournament time.
So while “good” wins and “bad” losses in November and December might help determine whether a team gets into the NCAA Tournament field or where it might be seeded in the 68-team bracket, its the growth and development that team has experience since then that will determine how far it advances in March.
And few teams in the ACC, or the nation for that matter, have grown and developed more than Duke.
Consider the Blue Devils a disappointment if you like because they’ve fallen out of the national rankings after starting the season at No. 7.
Go ahead and write them off because they lost to Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, and got blown out by an un-Duke-like 22 points at Miami.
Or that someone other than Mike Krzyzewski is coaching them.
Those early season rankings and high expectations were based more on the name on the front of their blue and white jerseys than the names on the back, only 2 of which are the same as a year ago.
As different as this Duke team is from the one that advanced to the Final Four last season, there’s just as much contrast between the group Jon Scheyer sent onto the court for his head coaching debut in November and the team that faces Virginia Tech at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday.
“It’s growing pains,” said graduate wing Jacob Grandison, a transfer from Illinois in his 1st season with the Blue Devils. “But we’re getting taller.”
The development process has been complicated by injuries to star freshmen Dariq Whitehead and Dereck Lively II, along with junior point guard Jeremy Roach. Of the 28 games Duke has played to date, Scheyer has had all his scholarship players available for only about half.
With the return of Whitehead 4 games ago, the Blue Devils are as healthy and together now as they’ve been all year.
And it shows.
“Having our full team back playing together, I think we’re just finding a groove, finding a niche,” freshman forward Mark Mitchell said. “We’re still figuring out how to play with each other, because we haven’t played that many games all together. That’s where we’re seen our success lately.”
The dramatic growth over the past couple of weeks hasn’t come without a few harsh lessons.
First there was the sobering 81-59 beatdown they suffered at Miami only 2 days after experiencing the highest of highs in an emotional 63-57 win against rival North Carolina at Cameron. Then came the controversial ending at Virginia in which an almost certain victory was taken away by an official’s decision the ACC later admitted was a mistake.
They’ve since turned a corner by sandwiching home wins against bottom-feeders Notre Dame and Louisville around an impressive road blowout of Syracuse.
Somewhere in between, Roach and his fellow veterans called a player’s only meeting to help the team regroup. Unlike the 1 the neighboring Tar Heels had after a similarly lopsided loss at Wake Forest around the same time, Duke’s gathering has produced immediate, positive results.
“It wasn’t a ‘come to Jesus’ conversation. It’s February,” Grandison said, adding that the meeting was simply an opportunity to ensure that “we’re all on the same page.”
More meaningful than the airing of grievances, or the hugs that came afterward, has been the cumulative effects of a healthy Whitehead finding his shooting stroke, a more confident Lively becoming more aggressive in protecting the rim, an early enrolling freshman point guard from Australia (Tyrese Proctor) adjusting to the nuances of the college game and the rest of a young team starting to embrace their roles and playing their best at the right time of the year.
the ball movement 💙💙💙 pic.twitter.com/EhZ2nB0FfO
— Duke Men’s Basketball (@DukeMBB) February 21, 2023
“Knowing how to play together has been the biggest growth for us,” said Scheyer, who has also done his share of growing during a rookie season of on-the-job training. “At the beginning of the year you want to do those things, but you don’t know how individually and the guys around you.
“We’re at the point now where we know the strengths of our team. Our rotation has been more dependable and consistent, and on the defensive end we’ve grown, especially protecting the basket. For our games of late, we’ve done a much better job keeping the ball out of the paint.”
For as far as Duke has come since those all-important NET games in November and December, they still haven’t reached their ceiling as the even more important games of March rapidly approach.
That’s why Scheyer hasn’t even begun concerning himself with the postseason.
“I don’t want to skip ahead to March yet,” he said. “Because we have a lot of business (to take care of) still in February.”
At 20-8 overall (11-6 ACC) with 3 regular season games remaining – Saturday against the Hokies and next week against in-state rivals NC State and UNC – Duke is trending in the right direction with an opportunity to earn a double-bye as a top 4 seed in the upcoming ACC Tournament.
The Blue Devils are a team nobody wants to see on their line in the NCAA Tournament bracket.
Especially if they continue to get taller and reach their full growth potential.