If that's the March gear Duke has shifted into, look out, Purdue/everyone
ORLANDO — A month ago, you would’ve been laughed out of the room if you called Duke “scary.”
“Scary” is used to describe top-2 seeds who roll through their conference tournament championship and have legitimate national title aspirations. Scary is used to describe teams with future lottery picks who can take over a game. Scary is used to describe teams who can light up the scoreboard in a moment’s notice.
Duke didn’t really fit the traditional March association with “scary.” But after winning their 10th consecutive game — and doing so by avoiding the ever-scary 12-5 upset by blowing out Oral Roberts — it’s safe to say.
This version of Duke? Scary. Like, mess around and go to another Final Four scary.
You know, like it looked for the last month.
What’s scary about Duke? Well, Duke came into the NCAA Tournament having allowed 62 points per game during that 9-game winning streak with only 1 team having hit 70 points. Oral Roberts, meanwhile, came into Thursday having won 17 in a row with at least 69 points in each game dating back to Nov. 14.
The size and length of Duke, especially with a healthy Dereck Lively, continues to be a game-changer. The free-shooting Oral Roberts fell behind 15-0 after missing its first 11 shots and never recovered. Just 51 points was the damage, a cool 33 points below the season average of 84.2.
Scary teams punch you in the mouth. Duke came out swinging.
It probably wasn’t a good sign for Oral Roberts that Jeremy Roach, who had a game-high 23 points, hit a deep 3 and immediately gave the “I’m feeling it” look to the Duke bench.
Go figure that he actually thought he was “settling,” which was why he started driving at the teeth of 7-5 Connor Vanover in the second half. The captain and lone returning starter from last year’s Final Four squad was, just as he’s been down the stretch, phenomenal. Duke coach Jon Scheyer was asked if Roach played a perfect game.
“Let’s not go that far,” Scheyer said with a smile after his first career NCAA Tournament win.
Between Roach and Dariq Whitehead, who had 13 points off the bench, Duke had more than enough timely shooting amidst those mini scoring droughts. The defense was the constant.
Scheyer’s team fully bought into this approach because it doesn’t have much of a choice a month ago. He’s got McDonald’s All-Americans like Lively and Kyle Filipowski who are totally bought in on the defensive side. Even on a night in which Filipowski, who earned ACC Tournament MVP honors, struggled from the floor with 6 points on 2-of-7 shooting, he found other ways to impact the game. The easy buckets on the inside were few and far between. Vanover’s action was mostly limited to beyond the arc.
Instead of the length of Vanover changing the Duke offense, it was Lively’s prowess that gave Oral Roberts’ inside-out game fits. Lively had 6 blocks, and Oral Roberts coach Paul Mills estimated that he impacted another 6. Hence, why Oral Roberts only had 22 points in the paint and 7 second-chance points.
“Dereck has been on an absolute tear,” Scheyer said of Lively, who worked through a calf injury in the first part of the season. “His rebounding, his blocking shots, he’s been scoring in double digits, too, and he’s the ultimate team player. He’s a guy that doesn’t need the ball in his hands. He’s a really good passer. NBA people see the way he passes on short rolls and the reads he makes, they’re advanced reads. He’s completely changed our team.
“I don’t even think the six blocks he gets enough credit because there’s a few more where they’re either looking or they end up passing out just because of his presence around the basket, and then not to mention the job he does in pick-and-roll. He’s defending up there with (Max) Abmas the whole game, showing in pick-and-roll and then getting back and protecting our basket. I don’t know if there’s anybody else in the country that can do it like that.”
With that size, there’s a world in which Duke eventually gets a matchup with All-American big man Zach Edey. If that happens in a potential Sweet 16 matchup, well, there suddenly aren’t a whole lot more matchups more difficult than one against the vastly improved Duke front court defense.
It’s interesting that the last time Oral Roberts struggled like that was against Houston back in November. The top-seeded Cougars are national championship favorites with the No. 2 scoring defense. Is it crazy to think that Duke’s path to a Final Four could be similar to Houston’s?
“Comparatively to Houston, they’re a great rebounding team. To out-rebound us by 14 is a tribute to them,” Mills said. “They have a great deal of length, and their freshmen have grown up. This was game 35 for those guys, and probably about 20 games in they obviously had a number of injuries. The freshmen, especially that ones that played, become sophomores.
“They’re talented. Houston is really good … Really good Duke team. I can’t really speculate where they’re headed.”
That’s fine. Allow me.
If we’re still judging Duke based on December losses, now might be the time to put an end to that. If this Blue Devils’ team goes home packing anytime soon, it feels like it’ll be because it ran into a team who made a bunch of contested looks. On Thursday night, that wasn’t gonna be Oral Roberts.
Shoot, maybe it wasn’t gonna be anybody. Duke looked that good.