Fueled by defense, Duke men's basketball's winding nonconference road pays off against Iowa

Mark Mitchell (17 points) skies for the dunk in the second half of Duke's win over Iowa at Madison Square Garden.
Mark Mitchell (17 points) skies for the dunk in the second half of Duke's win over Iowa at Madison Square Garden.

NEW YORK—In the nine days since Duke hit an early-season low in Portland, Ore., against Purdue, life has only sped up for head coach Jon Scheyer and company. Nonconference play has taken the Blue Devils from coast to coast and back again; now, after hitting a new high note against Iowa at Madison Square Garden, they are visibly reaping the rewards of that gauntlet as it comes to a close.

Building upon a strong foundation set in its win over Ohio State six days prior, No. 15 Duke looked as smooth and sturdy as it has yet in Tuesday night’s 74-62 unraveling of the Hawkeyes. Jeremy Roach and Mark Mitchell provided the necessary firepower and freshman standout Kyle Filipowski added his sixth double-double, but it was the Blue Devils’ defense that paid off most in their last game away from Cameron Indoor Stadium before ACC play begins in earnest Dec. 20.

“We’ve been through a really tough stretch, these last couple of weeks,” Scheyer said after the game. “I’m proud of our guys, just for how they pushed through and beat a really good Iowa team.”

Mitchell was Duke’s second-leading scorer, but he was undoubtedly the leading man in a defensive outing worthy of the arena. Tasked with stopping star forward Kris Murray, who entered averaging 21.0 points per night, Mitchell diverted Iowa’s offense elsewhere and prioritized keeping his man off of the offensive glass. Murray finished with eight points on 3-of-9 shooting and gathered three offensive rebounds, a number Scheyer approved of postgame. Overall, the Hawkeyes' 62 points were a season-low. 

Mitchell, meanwhile, shot 6-of-8 and came within one point of setting a new career-high with 17 points. A standout performance from the freshman, whose role now seems as clear as it has in weeks, should be a particularly welcome sign for Duke. 

“He’s easy, you know? That’s why they call him Easy,” Scheyer said of Mitchell. “Works every single day, and his length … I thought he showed a lot of grit tonight. … I love the fact he embraces who he is, but also continues to expand his game every night.”

Those defensive highlights might have been in vain if not for Roach, who hit three first-half 3-pointers and matched a career-high with 22 points of his own. The junior captain may not need to come into his own in the same manner as his younger teammates, but he seemed to feed off of the improved play of freshman backcourt mate Tyrese Proctor against the Hawkeyes. 

Proctor has had better statistical nights—he posted eight points in 29 minutes Tuesday—but he was crucial alongside Roach in the opening minutes, answering the call when Iowa dared Duke to penetrate off the dribble. That early scoring opened up the floor for the Blue Devils, and Roach’s hot hand was the beneficiary. “When you see your first couple of shots go in,” Roach said, “you know you’re kind of in a rhythm.”

The increased comfort of youngsters such as Proctor and Mitchell is the true payoff of Duke’s recent schedule, which has featured three Big Ten opponents in the last four games. Dariq Whitehead, who made his debut Nov. 18 after preseason surgery to repair his fractured foot, also continues to grow; he scored a career-high eight points Tuesday in one of his most impactful performances as a Blue Devil.

“Dariq, I thought he made a big-time step tonight,” Scheyer said. “… I give him a lot of credit, because it would have been very easy just to wait and sit out, and he wanted to play, and he came back and played during our toughest stretch … and he’ll be better for it, going through this, but I thought you could see tonight how he can impact winning any single given night.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Dereck Lively II’s output was in line with recent performances. The ​​freshman center is a clear defensive talent, but he has yet to live up to expectations on the offensive end. He attempted and made just one shot—an alley-oop from Roach—in a step back from his last two outings of 11 and eight points against Ohio State and Boston College, respectively.

As Lively gets up to speed, graduate center Ryan Young has helped to ease the transition. After some first-half defensive woes Tuesday, Young was once again crucial, blocking three shots, snagging a game-high 11 rebounds and playing his part in keeping Murray away from the offensive glass.

“I think it starts when you have guards that can defend the ball, which we do. And really that one-two punch of Lively and Ryan Young in the frontcourt,” Scheyer said of Duke’s defensive success against Iowa. “Ryan, he’s been well-coached and he’s played college basketball for now five years. He knows everything he’s supposed to do. And Dereck, just his length, he really—forget about the blocks—just his presence down there, he really impacts a lot.”

For all of the good to come out of Duke’s night at The World’s Most Famous Arena, the sense that the Blue Devils can do more, especially on the offensive end, remains. As Scheyer noted after the game, Duke has had little time to practice, but that is about to change: After Saturday’s game against Maryland Eastern Shore, Duke has two games scheduled in the last 21 days of 2022.

The first month-plus of Scheyer’s first season, for all of its successes, has not been without its trials. After Tuesday night, it’s safe to say that having to face those challenges has paid off for Duke, which now has the opportunity to slow down for a time and prepare for whatever challenges undoubtedly await in conference play.

“To me, when I found out I was going to be the head coach at Duke, the two things I always connect to Duke basketball: playing defense and sharing the ball,” Scheyer said. “We’ll continue to emphasize that, but just proud of the effort, proud of the buy-in that our guys have had, and I think we still have a lot of room to grow.”

Jonathan Levitan

Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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