'Poised for the moment': In first NCAA tournament game, Duke men's basketball's freshmen step up

Dariq Whitehead had 13 points in Duke's first-round defeat of Oral Roberts.
Dariq Whitehead had 13 points in Duke's first-round defeat of Oral Roberts.

During the first half of Duke’s Round of 64 game against Oral Roberts, ACC Rookie of the Year and conference tournament MVP Kyle Filipowski was throwing up on the sideline. Nerves and “bad hotel foods” were dubbed the culprit, but one thing was clear: The 19-year-old was feeling the heat. 

“It was a good way to get it out of my system,” said Filipowski after the game. 

The Blue Devils’ seven freshmen — four of whom start and one more who gets significant minutes off the bench — have already played in some big moments this season. The Champions Classic, Phil Knight Legacy, Jimmy V Classic. Even their ACC tournament run and championship win took place in front of 19,116 screaming fans and millions more watching at home. 

But as Duke’s lone returning starter, Jeremy Roach, knows all too well, nothing compares to March Madness. 

“It's do or die right now,” said Roach. 

“Every possession matters, every bucket matters,” he added.

The seven rookies and four transfers got their first taste of the Big Dance in Thursday evening’s 74-51 win at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla. — and they were never fazed. Though Roach led the team in scoring with his second-consecutive 23-point showing, the Blue Devils’ young core stepped up under the brightest of lights.

“This team is poised for the moment,” said freshman forward Mark Mitchell. “Coming to Duke, you play in a lot of different environments and things like that, so it’s not new to us, all the cameras and everything going on.”

Across the tournament, it was a day defined by upsets. No. 4-seed Virginia, which Duke beat just five days earlier in the conference tournament final, kicked things off by falling to No. 13-seed Furman. No. 2-seed Arizona lost to No. 15-seed Princeton, wreaking havoc in the South Region. Entering the 7:10 p.m. matchup, with the Blue Devils only six-point favorites against the Cinderella-favorite Golden Eagles, it seemed like the trend of the day just might continue — for about three minutes. 

“If you watch ESPN you're going to see it, but we try to flush that out,” said Roach on the upset narrative. 

“People are still waiting for us to lose,” said Filipowski.

By the initial media timeout, Duke nursed an 11-0 lead. Four different Blue Devils had scored, including Filipowski. It would be just more than eight minutes before Oral Roberts would get on the board and it already faced a 15-point deficit. It is a narrative Duke has used to its own advantage as of late after being on the receiving end of an opening run against N.C. State back on Jan. 4. The Blue Devils accomplished a similar feat against Pittsburgh to open ACC tournament play, scoring 12 unanswered to start the contest. Though the run took less time off the clock — not even four minutes — both sent the same message: Duke is here to play. 

“Last few games we've done that. Coming out, putting our foot down first and just making our mark early in the game,” said Mitchell.

The five-freshman rotation crew — Tyrese Proctor, Dereck Lively II, Dariq Whitehead, Mitchell and Filipowski — combined for 38 points, 35 rebounds and six steals. All six of the team’s blocks were attributed to 7-foot-1 Lively. Despite a rocky start to the season with a calf injury and illness that kept him limited, the center is now the team’s defensive rock, closing off lanes and locking down the low post. 

“That's really why our team changed,” said Roach on Lively’s development. “... He has really been the backbone of our defense and has been why we've been so hot in the last month and a half.”

Lively’s production cannot be easily measured, but points allowed in the paint is as good of a mark as any. Oral Roberts recorded 22 Thursday night, Virginia 20 five days ago, Miami 26 the day before that. By helping to limit the interior attack and push the ball out to the perimeter, where the backcourt excels, Lively gives his crew just that much more of a shot at winning each possession and ultimately each game.

“He made an impact,” said Proctor about Lively. “Even if he's not blocking shots, his presence is huge.”

The Blue Devils, for better or for worse, are defined by their youth: First-year, 35-year-old head coach Jon Scheyer and four starting freshmen. All season long, the questions have been whether Duke would be mature enough, whether the young guns could step up, whether 18-year-olds could beat 23-year-olds. On Thursday night, they responded with a resounding yes.

“Five of them, it was their first NCAA tournament game,” said Scheyer. “You really couldn't tell.”

Whatever struggles come their way and whatever hardships they encounter in the Round of 32 and potentially beyond, know that the Blue Devils’ youth is not the ultimate culprit. As has been said time and time again, these freshmen aren’t freshmen anymore.

Rachael Kaplan profile
Rachael Kaplan | Sports Managing Editor

Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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