With just three regular game seasons left, and the postseason rapidly approaching, all eyes are on Duke.
The Blue Devils have their middle matchup of their three-game homestand, a date with Virginia Tech, Saturday night. Duke lost the earlier contest between the two, 78-75. In the month since, the Blue Devils have continued their road struggles but remained firm in Cameron Indoor Stadium, most recently topping Louisville in an all-around, balanced team performance. Virginia Tech has been similarly consistent in that it isn’t — most recently it dropped the second game of its Miami series at home, falling 76-70 despite the Hokie backcourt’s best efforts. In the high-pressure rematch, tensions are bound to run wild. Here are five things to watch for Saturday evening.
Duke’s upcoming two-game stretch is a prime opportunity for revenge. Two of the Blue Devils’ six road losses — and arguably two of their most heartbreaking — came at the hands of the Wolfpack and the Hokies in January. First came the 24-point blowout in Raleigh. Nineteen days later, Duke fell in the final 20 seconds to Virginia Tech. That game was the Blue Devils’ chance at redemption following its road loss to Clemson, but they fell just short. Duke trailed 45-38 at the end of the first half but clawed its way back into it via 29 points from Kyle Filipowski. With 15 seconds to play, the game was tied. Then, MJ Collins drained a 2-point jumper, and while celebrating the make, hit Filipowski in the throat. No foul was called and freshman guard Tyrese Proctor missed the 3-point shot on the other end, effectively ending the game the Blue Devils had desperately needed to win.
Now, they are back on their own home turf. Duke is nursing an undefeated home record and just two opponents stand in its way of completing that feat. In their one previous revenge game in Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Blue Devils took care of the Demon Deacons. Now, they need to channel that same energy into Saturday night. The wound may be a month old, but Duke needs to make sure it feels fresh as ever.
During the second half of their Jan. 23 meeting, freshman forward Dariq Whitehead injured his lower leg, an ailment that would sideline him for three weeks. The Newark, N.J., native had put up 10 points on 2-of-2 shooting from three before his exit less than three minutes into the final period. Now, in his fifth game back, Whitehead is nearing full strength and is poised to continue that dominant performance.
Whitehead has quickly emerged as one of Duke’s top shooters. His 40.5% 3-point average ranks him easily first on the team among those with more than seven total attempts—his scoring prowess was sorely missed down the stretch in Blacksburg, Va. This time around, it’s a different story. He is shooting 46.7% from three since his return. Though it has by no means been an easy, seamless return, especially to the starting lineup, Whitehead is on the way back to his pre-injury self.
Battle on the wings
The story of the second half was the battle between Mark Mitchell and Hunter Cattoor. Cattoor, the 11th-leading scorer in the ACC, had Duke’s number in the first half, putting up 12 of his eventual 15-point total. The largest, and most crucial, adjustment made at halftime was by Mitchell. While defending Cattoor in the second half, Mitchell shut him down — the Hokie senior’s sole bucket of the second half was a singular-made 3-pointer accompanied by three misses.
Mitchell’s significance cannot be understated, as evidenced by his performance against the Fighting Irish. Though the entirety of his play against Notre Dame was boiled down to his game-sealing 3-pointer, his first-half play did not match the finished product.
“At halftime I got after him in that game, and I just told him, we need you to be aggressive,” said Scheyer of Mitchell at a media availability Thursday. Aggressive he was; his two threes and both made free throws helped put Duke in position to win.
Proctor at point
Amid junior guard Jeremy Roach’s injury struggles, freshman Tyrese Proctor has largely taken over point guard responsibilities. This game plan was highly successful in the two teams’ last meeting; Proctor had seven of the Blue Devils’ 17 assists, keeping the Duke offense moving and helping to bring it back from its halftime deficit.
Assist-to-turnover ratio has been a huge focus after the Blue Devils’ disastrous two-game, 43 turnover stretch at Miami and Virginia. That starts with Proctor. Ball security has proven to be an issue for the Sydney, Australia, native — he gave the ball up eight times over that road stretch. However, just as the problem area has been identified, it has improved. Proctor had no turnovers in his 12-point, four-rebound and three-assist performance against Louisville Monday night.
“Tyrese is a competitor. He's not afraid of the moment,” said Scheyer. “His creativeness on offense for himself, but also for teammates, has been just a great addition for us.”
Though young, Proctor is fully capable of leading Duke past Virginia Tech, so long as he keeps the ball moving and his head up.
All about defense
In what is sure to be a close, intense matchup, Duke needs to lean on its greatest strength: its defense. Twenty-four of the Blue Devils’ 28 opponents were held below their scoring average. Nine scored a then-season low. Stingy paint defense and consistent 3-point contention has been Duke’s recipe for success thus far, and that is not going to change before Saturday night. However, one area of Duke’s defense is weaker than another: its rim protection.
“You can't give up layups and win big games,” said Scheyer of the paint defense.
While 3-point defense will of course be a priority, the Blue Devils also need to turn their attention inside, and that starts with Dereck Lively II. The freshman is averaging 2.3 blocks per game and has become an integral part of Duke’s defensive game plan. Against a lethal Hokie offense, Lively’s presence will be more important than ever.
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Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.