In the teams’ Jan. 4 bout, N.C. State whooped the Blue Devils 84-60 in Duke’s worst loss of the season. Two weeks prior, Duke had fallen to Wake Forest and 10 days later, it would suffer another blow at the hands of Clemson. The only thing to take from a performance defined by turnovers and a breakdown of the team’s game plan was that the Blue Devils had serious questions to answer. Amidst lineup churn and glaring deficiencies, could Duke become a true postseason challenger by March?
On the last day of February, first-year head coach Jon Scheyer and the Blue Devils may have finally answered that question. They earned their fifth-straight win after an intense battle with N.C. State, extending their longest win streak of the season. Ultimately, the Wolfpack fell 71-67 at the hands of a cohesive Duke team identity, one that wasn’t there the last time the two played, and the Blue Devils’ potential postseason opponents likely have their name circled in red because of it.
“There's a lot on the line … so to win this, I thought, was great preparation for what's to come in March,” head coach Jon Scheyer said after the game. “They're really together… And it doesn't stop. The growth continues. We need to be better Saturday than we were tonight and so on and so forth for the postseason.”
Since Duke’s controversial loss at Virginia, a clear vision of the Blue Devils has emerged. And when the gears are all turning, Duke has looked nearly unbeatable. It annihilated Syracuse in front of the season’s largest on-campus crowd yet. It welcomed Virginia Tech to Cameron Indoor Stadium for a grudge match that Duke won so handily it looked easy. In spite of sharpshooter Dane Goodwin dropping 25 points on 84.6% shooting, the Blue Devils edged out Notre Dame to stay perfect at home.
Each of those games posed a unique challenge for Duke as it embarked on its hero’s journey. However, playing their best basketball of the season by far, the Blue Devils had not had to figure out how to win when they weren’t feeling it. When N.C. State came to town, they did.
Shots refused to fall, with only two Blue Devils having more than one made field goal in the first half. Even as finishing improved over the course of the game — Duke shot a respectable 41.8% by the game’s close — that came on a low volume of shots, as N.C. State’s defense kept Duke from getting quality looks at the basket, and ultimately the Blue Devils made just 23 field goals, their fourth-fewest this season. Distance shooting was a complete non-factor as the Blue Devils shot an abysmal 2-of-19 from three, and DJ Burns Jr. required a double-team after he gave Dereck Lively II all he could handle in the post, to say nothing of Jarkel Joiner’s 26 points.
The list goes on; for such a triumphant game — Duke clinched its first perfect home record in nine years — there were still things to harp on. So how did the Blue Devils get it done? Everyone played their role and they fell back on their calling cards: sharing the ball and defense.
“We really, one, give ourselves the ability to offensive rebound, miss shots, and then two, we get to play our set defense which has been really strong down the stretch here,” graduate center Ryan Young said. “So I think sharing the ball and taking care of it is something that's really gelled our group together. We get open shots, we score more and we play more together.”
“I think we're right where we want to be … And it means everything. You want to be playing your best basketball right now,” he said.
Junior captain Jeremy Roach and freshman Tyrese Proctor turned in star performances in the backcourt, as Roach routinely cracked through the Wolfpack and drove to the basket for 20 points while Proctor quarterbacked the offense and effectively neutralized preseason All-ACC First Team selection Terquavion Smith in his defensive matchup.
Meanwhile, Kyle Filipowski corralled 14 rebounds and Lively showed why he is considered one of the best pure defenders in the country. The team as a whole flexed its developing maturity and chemistry as four starters hit double-digit points. Finally, when the offense stalled out, Duke found a way to get to the line. It amassed 23 points off 29 free throws; N.C. State went 7-of-8 from the line.
All this shows a team figuring it out just in the nick of time.
“After [the Feb. 6 loss at] Miami, we came to a realization of who we are, what we need to do, and why we're here. We're not just here for the ride, not just here for the Duke jerseys, but we're really here to try to be great and try to win championships and play our tails off,” Roach said. “I think that's the biggest factor of us peaking at the right moment right now.”
Succeeding in March is as much about having the hot hand as it is about having a complete team, and on the last day of February, Duke appeared to have both. Tuesday may not have been Duke’s prettiest game, but it could be the most telling, even with another Tobacco Road rival still on the docket.
Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a basketball team in a single-elimination tournament is only as capable as its worst game. If the Blue Devils can still win while not playing their best, and against a tough opponent at that, they may have the makings of a dangerous tournament team. In showing how high they have raised their floor, the Blue Devils showed how high they have raised their ceiling.
“I think in the ACC tournament, we feel like we're as good as any team in the tournament … We'll just take it one game at a time,” Young said. “In a program like this, the goal is always to hang another banner.”
On Jan. 4, that may have still been true, but it felt like a pipe dream. Now, it feels a little more realistic. There isn’t a team these Blue Devils can’t beat, but they have to keep building on the progress they have made. After these past five games, and after this win against N.C. State, there is a compelling reason to believe they will.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.