In a hard-fought battle against the Hokies Monday, the Blue Devils suffered a casualty. Landing badly on his left leg mid-matchup, freshman forward Dariq Whitehead spent the latter half of the game leaning on crutches and watching from the sideline: a sight threateningly reminiscent of the season’s start, when an injury prevented him from seeing the court until Duke’s fourth game. In a press conference Thursday, however, head coach Jon Scheyer relayed that, fortunately for the Blue Devils, Whitehead’s latest injury would not be season-ending.
Still, the Newark, N.J., native’s absence will leave a 6-foot-7 hole in the team. That space will likely be filled by a rotating lineup consisting of graduate guard Jacob Grandison, center Ryan Young and alternate freshman forward Mark Mitchell, who, between the three of them, average 7.4 points per game—a point short of Whitehead’s own 8.4.
Team captain Jeremy Roach provided his take on how Duke will fill Whitehead’s shoes against Georgia Tech.
“He provides a … big presence on the wing," Roach said in a media availability Thursday. "I know he's gonna be back, working his tail off, but it's just next man up now. The next man has got to step up and do their job.”
Struggles in Atlanta
There to soften the blow of Whitehead’s injury, however, is the unthreatening opponent found in the Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets carry an 8-12 record in head coach Josh Pastner’s sixth year. As of now, Tech rides low on a six-game loss streak, not having pulled out a victory since a Jan. 4 home face-off against Miami. These consecutive losses have included three with a home-court advantage, in which the Yellow Jackets met with ACC rivals Pittsburgh, Syracuse and N.C. State.
For Duke to stretch that streak to seven losses, the team has got to pull out all the stops when it comes to defense. According to Scheyer, “It's just understanding what's required… it's not good enough just to be there. You have to give a lot of resistance and wall up and you're not always gonna have someone to help.”
While Georgia Tech may seem like the low-hanging fruit that Duke needs to secure a conference win, it still is an ACC team with a home-court advantage. Sure, the Yellow Jackets are beatable, but they’re the kind of beatable that is going to take a bit of work.
“The consistency of doing [what’s required] every day is where I want us to get to, and that's what we're working on today, yesterday, tomorrow,” said Scheyer. “And hopefully the next game we put it all together.”
Lively on an upswing
Center and top 2022 recruit Dereck Lively II has, in some ways, not lived up to expectations after taking a late start on the court due to injury. But as the rest of the team adjusts to suit his style with the ball, his steep 7-foot-1 stature starts to pose more of a threat.
“Dereck's activity has been incredible. Two games ago, against Miami, just the way he protected the rim, the way he was blocking shots, running the floor, rebounding,” Scheyer said.
The freshman did indeed play a memorable match against Miami, grabbing 10 boards and putting five blocks on the stat sheet, too. It’s clear that he has found more of a rhythm on the court as of late—Lively has flaunted his athleticism, flexing a larger range of talent than simply dunking every now and then.
Scheyer added, “The activity level and the confidence is what I love to see. I think he's on an upward trajectory right now. And he's in a great spot. He needs to continue to do it in games, but [I’m] really proud of his work ethic and what he's done.”
Back from break
In the midst of conference play, it’s rare to see the Blue Devils take a break as long as this one. Duke has not heard the buzzer sound since Monday night, meaning that Scheyer has had a whole week to prepare his team for another ACC road game. On the bright side, this amount of time allows for further improvement, skill development and mastery of plays.
“There's still a lot more I think we can do and should be doing … The time off just really gives you time to have perspective and prepare your best to go get the next one,” Scheyer said.
But it also means that by the time the Blue Devils reach Atlanta, they will not have faced a real opponent in nearly a full week. The first time the team took that much of a break in its schedule, the result was not pretty: in fact, it was an 11-point loss to an unranked Wake Forest. However, since then, Duke has handily beaten Florida State and escaped Miami after long breaks.
Scheyer said, “The approach of getting the next game, that's been my mindset: What do we need to do to beat Georgia Tech and prepare and have our mindsets ready?”
Then again, the Yellow Jackets are sitting in almost the same boat: their last matchup was Tuesday, and it ended in a cutting 21-point loss to Clemson. Duke, at least, had victory at its fingertips on Monday, only just missing the mark against Virginia Tech with a last-second loss by a slim three-point margin.
Holding out hope
Duke’s game against Georgia Tech on Saturday is one that will speak volumes. The Blue Devils have suffered on the road in every conference game, losing each ACC matchup away from home with the exception of a Boston College game decided in one shot.
But Scheyer, and many Blue Devil fans, have yet to lose hope for the young coach’s inaugural season. The year has been a tough one, plagued by injuries and circumstances that drew talent away from the team. Whitehead has suffered two injuries, Roach was on and off the court as his toe healed and Lively missed preseason scrimmages and the first game of the season, as well as a game to illness. Talent is also freshman-heavy, meaning much of the team’s success rests on the shoulders of young players with minimal experience to their names.
And yet, Duke still has just as much a shot in March Madness as it did before the season began.
“There are ups and downs you can go through with it. But I think the biggest thing for us is having dependability and consistency from each one of our guys,” said Scheyer.
Monday's nail-biter of a game against Virginia Tech proved that the Blue Devils are ready to start winning outside of Durham and ready to take down serious ACC opponents. There remains a decent chance that the bumps in the road which have largely defined the season thus far are just the growing pains that have to come with a new team that has already dealt with key injuries.
“You know, our guys, we've been through a lot together, and I think it's gonna make us really tough down the stretch,” said Scheyer in his conference Thursday. “And we're all getting better… I didn't expect it to be easy, it hasn't been easy. And I know that's never going to change.”
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