Welcome to March, baby.
With a clutch win against rival North Carolina to end the regular season on a high note, Duke clinched the No. 4 seed in the ACC tournament. After enjoying the double-bye to start its slate, the Blue Devils take on the fifth-seeded Panthers Thursday afternoon in Greensboro, N.C., after Pittsburgh defeated Georgia Tech in the second round Wednesday.
Duke is peaking at just the right time. It is riding a six-game win streak following its two early-February losses at Miami and Virginia. Those defeats, and the subsequent controversy in the final seconds against the Cavaliers, were fuel for head coach Jon Scheyer and his squad: Duke has cleaned up its ball handling, tightened its defense and returned to the win column just in time for postseason ball.
No matter what, Duke’s season will end at some point in the next month. Each game matters just that much more. With its conference title hopes and national seeding on the line, here are five things to look for in the ACC tournament.
On a team of freshmen, experience is key. For six of Duke’s eight regular rotation players, five are rookies, about to get their first taste of postseason pressure and the threat of elimination. Though their talent may seem endless at times, nothing can replace simply having been there before. Enter Jeremy Roach. In his two prior seasons with the Blue Devils, the guard has seen both ends of the spectrum — from a trip to the Final Four to missing the tournament altogether, Roach has done it all.
Duke’s captain has led the team all season, navigating his own injuries as the roster around him shifted and adapted. As the freshmen have grown into confident players, Roach has been able to play more to his strengths — Tyrese Proctor has taken over primary point guard responsibilities, allowing Roach to thrive on drives to the basket. Since returning to the starting lineup Jan. 28, he is averaging 15.3 points per game, hitting double digits in 10 out of 11 games and eclipsing 20 points three times. He notched his first-ever double-double against Virginia Tech with 11 assists. The junior is playing the best basketball of his life at just the right time, and his team will need it over the next few weeks.
Staying the course
When graduate transfer Ryan Young was asked Tuesday his advice for the younger players entering the tournament, his answer was simple. The key? “Staying the course and staying poised.”
While the Blue Devils’ progression has by no means been linear, their improvement over the course of the season is striking. Duke's offensive efficiency and ball security have become larger focuses, taking some of the weight off of the defense. The freshmen have also begun to come into their own, now that they have substantial minutes under their belts.
The most effective strategy for Duke, however, has been sticking to its strengths: defense, rebounding and hard-fought basketball.
“We are a defensive team, we are a rebounding team,” said Scheyer. Those strengths kept Duke in the running for the conference title despite its road losses and propelled it through its final six games of its season. Per KenPom, the Blue Devils rank 27th in adjusted defensive efficiency, only allowing 63.8 points per game. They have outrebounded their opponents in all but six games, dominating the boards week in and week out. Duke has found its winning formula — it just needs to stick to it.
“No matter how you ended the regular season, no matter how you did overall, it really has no impact on what you do in the ACC tournament, and you need to address it like a new season,” said Scheyer during Tuesday’s media availability. Regular-season records are in the past. The epic highs and lows, joys and frustrations of the last 31 games are all behind the Blue Devils — which for them, may just be a blessing.
Duke has had its fair share of disappointment this season. From its Champions Classic loss to now-No. 3 Kansas, to its blowout defeat at the hands of now-No. 5 Purdue at the Phil Knight Legacy, to its six road conference losses, heartbreak has been plentiful. However, the penultimate of those dropped games was a turning point. The Blue Devils’ 22-point defeat in Miami just two days after taking down North Carolina in Cameron Indoor Stadium, according to Scheyer, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The players-only meeting before the ensuing Virginia game showed just that.
“The day before the Virginia game, the practice that we had, and guys weren't hanging their heads,” said Scheyer. “There was a seriousness and there was a hunger that I felt that those guys had.”
“After the Miami game, in Miami, was a big jump,” said Proctor. “Obviously, we went down pretty bad and just re-evaluated with the team. I think that that's when it sort of shifted a little bit.”
While those 45 minutes against the Cavaliers did not go as planned, the team learned from its mistakes and stepped up its game. Duke has only averaged 8.7 turnovers while scoring 73 points per game over its six-contest win streak; the question is if it can maintain that momentum.
The first edition of Blue Devils-Panthers was a thriller. Though Duke ultimately came out on top 77-69, it was down 11 after the first half. It had already turned the ball over 12 times while shooting 30.3%. Pittsburgh’s offensive attack had been balanced and, through 20 minutes, nearly unstoppable, as all eight players who had seen the court had contributed to its 43-point total.
It was ACC Rookie of the Year Kyle Filipowski who pulled the Blue Devils out of their first-half funk with his second-half double-double. The 7-foot center scored 16 points and grabbed 11 boards in the final period alone en route to his 28-point day, putting Duke on top for good.
Cameron Indoor Stadium provided the Blue Devils with an extra push all season long. It is an advantage that they will have to be able to win without now.
Just as in any rematch, corrections are of the utmost importance. Duke has already improved its ball security and balanced out its offensive attack. Four of the Blue Devils’ five starters are averaging double digits over the past six games, with the lone holdout being Dereck Lively II, whose mark stands at 7.2 points per game. The Panthers, on the other hand, had a much rockier regular-season finish. They went 3-3 in their last six, dropping contests at Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and Miami.
All grown up
Through 31 games in their first collegiate season, the Blue Devil freshmen have been thrown into the fire. From the program’s first-ever all-rookie starting lineup back in December against Maryland Eastern Shore to Filipowski’s nine ACC Freshman of the Week awards, the young guns have dominated Duke’s narrative. Now, 31 games later, the first-years have started to grow up.
“I don't think any of us feel like we are freshmen in a sense anymore,” said Proctor.
They certainly have not been playing like freshmen, especially on defense. Lively was awarded ACC All-Defensive Team honors, and Mark Mitchell has been an integral part of the effort.
“When he's on defense, literally to guard the one through five. He just gets anybody we have off the ball. He protects the rim. He guards ones, twos, threes, you name it,” said Scheyer of Mitchell.
Proctor has also seen an immense amount of improvement. Since he first arrived in Durham as a wide-eyed 18-year-old, he has grown into one of the most dynamic guards in the ACC, according to his head coach.
“He's grown as much as a player we've ever had as a freshman, from beginning to end of the season,” said Scheyer.
The evolution of the Blue Devils' rookies has followed their trajectory as a team. While their youth might have been their Achilles’ heel a few months ago, it might just be their greatest strength.
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Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.