In rodeos, the skill of a cowboy is determined by his ability to withstand the relentless bucking of a riled-up bronco.
In their exhibition match against Fayetteville State Wednesday evening, the seventh-ranked Blue Devils withstood that bucking and then some, finishing as confident 82-45 winners at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The result may not do anything for records, stat sheets or national polling, but for a new-look group hoping to spur another dominant era of basketball in Durham, things really could not have gone much better.
"It was great to be back in Cameron today," head coach Jon Scheyer said after the game. "I thought our guys did a great job of sharing the ball and creating effort and energy ... We're still learning about each other and how to play with one another, but I think it starts with our energy on the defensive end and carried over to our offense, where we shared the ball and we played together."
Duke held nothing back in its pummeling of the Broncos. On one level, it is important to remember that this was an exhibition game against a Division II opponent, but on another, that means the Blue Devils could have put on the brakes. Instead, they floored the gas.
Graduate transfer Ryan Young opened Duke’s scoring account with a powerful put-back, followed closely by a deep 3-pointer from freshman Kyle Filipowski. Those five points were the first in a share-the-wealth performance by the Blue Devils, who had nine different players score by full time.
In addition to its efficiency on offense, Duke’s full-court press and universal defensive effort caused Fayetteville State problems throughout the evening, as the Broncos struggled to get shots off before the clock sounded and forced speculative attempts from beyond the arc. Mark Mitchell was absolutely everywhere on defense, with a couple of early game steals and some consistently excellent transition play emblematic of a holistically dominant performance by the freshman forward.
"That's our goal, always," Mitchell said. "Try to force tough shots, keep them out the paint and just get rebounds. That's what we've been working on the last couple of days."
Throughout both halves, the Blue Devils forced Fayetteville State to a measly 32% shooting from the floor and a 29% clip from downtown.
Mitchell was not just a wall on defense; he unleashed his full athletic arsenal on offense as well. By game’s end, the Kansas City, Kan., native accounted for 15 points and was a migraine for the Broncos, largely due to his physicality and second-chance scoring instinct. From eurosteps and steals to power dribbles and spin moves, Mitchell made a strong case to be the best player on both sides of the floor Wednesday evening.
"Mark is huge for us," Scheyer said. "He really can guard all five positions on the court ... We feel Mark should be as good as any defender in the country. That's how we feel."
Two of the key talking points ahead of tipoff were the lingering injury-induced absences of freshman phenoms and projected starters Dereck Lively II and Dariq Whitehead. While not like-for-like replacements on either end, Filipowski and Young stepped in to complete Scheyer’s starting lineup in their stead and, supplemented with graduate shooting guard Jacob Grandison, proved that even in the absence of its expected superstars, there are ample players capable of stepping in and contributing.
Filipowski looked encouraging with a series of big-time plays early on, including that opening 3-pointer and a series of towering blocks that directly led to points on the other end of the floor, while Young was imposing on the glass, adding 12 points from close to run up Duke’s tally.
Grandison’s maturity was evident in a group of newcomers to Duke. The 24-year-old Illinois transfer impressed with a sharpshooting ability that saw him connect for 17 points—nine from downtown—and the calming presence only a veteran can provide. When Grandison was on the floor, not only were the Blue Devils more threatening but more assured; a welcome sign in a year of such uncertainty.
In the backcourt, Duke fans got their first glance of a possible pairing of junior captain Jeremy Roach and freshman Tyrese Proctor at the guard position. October’s Countdown to Craziness saw the duo on opposite sides of the floor for the blue and white teams, respectively, but in the same shade Wednesday night, the duo shone.
Within Scheyer’s stingy defensive setup, Proctor and Roach consistently blocked any channels inside and hounded the Broncos’ guards. On the offensive end, the duo worked marvelously together, with the former’s crafty passing complementing the latter’s driving. Combined, they accounted for 14 points and 11 assists—by no means their maximum potential, but an effective display nonetheless.
As the second half wound down and Duke’s advantage grew even more insurmountable, Scheyer elected to send in the reserves, allotting substantial time to the likes of Jaden Schutt, Jaylen Blakes, Christian Reeves and Kale Catchings. As was customary of the Blue Devils all night, they played with the same vigor as the starting quintet, diving for loose balls just as eagerly and compressing on defense just as effectively. Blakes alone accounted for 12 points—a welcome sign for the Blue Devils given his predicted position in the point guard pecking order.
"Every day in practice, we push each other," Blakes said. "I think we all bring something that's unique, a unique style. I try to do the best I can [to] bring in a lot of energy coming off the bench, but we really all feed off each other."
As a Monday date with Jacksonville beckons to open Duke’s season in earnest, Scheyer will hope for more of the same from Wednesday. The Blue Devils withstood the first bucking bronco with ease, but as stronger steeds lie in waiting, they will need all the tenacity and ability they showed against Fayetteville State to ensure they stay strong and steady.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.