ORLANDO, Fla.—Last Saturday, after the Blue Devils earned the right to hang another ACC championship banner in Cameron Indoor Stadium, Tyrese Proctor said, “I don’t think we are freshmen at all anymore. We’ve grown up really quick.” It was true then, and with all they accomplished and how much they grew, it is still true, even in the shadow of a second-round NCAA tournament exit.
But after all was said and done, after No. 4-seed Tennessee landed the last punch against the fifth-seeded Blue Devils with a 65-52 victory Saturday afternoon at the Amway Center, an emotional Dereck Lively II said, when asked how he felt, “Man … freshman year is over. It’s terrible.”
In talking about a group of young men destined for NBA careers which will, for many, cut short a Duke student’s typical four-year residence in Durham, it feels a bit silly to pontificate on the semantics of grade classifications. Still, after playing — and losing — their toughest game of the season against one of the most experienced teams in the NCAA, the Blue Devils had to confront their reality for the first time since rattling off 10 consecutive wins: These guys are just freshmen. And to accomplish more than what they already have, to build even further on an already successful season, is a lot to ask.
Tennessee roughed up the Blue Devils every chance it got, played aggressive defense and wore them out, and Duke struggled to respond. In the first half, the Blue Devils only managed six points in the paint, and 7-foot-1 center Lively attempted zero field goals throughout the game. The game broke open — as much as a final point total of 117 can be considered broken open — in the second half, and Duke made some headway in cracking Tennessee’s paint defense, but only because it had to. No other shots would fall.
Meanwhile, Duke was outrebounded for just the seventh time this season, and Tennessee took advantage of its 12 offensive rebounds to score 12 second-chance points. Outside of Lively and freshman Kyle Filipowski, who seemed shaken up after getting gashed under his eye, no Blue Devils had more than two rebounds, as the Volunteers boxed out Duke and feverishly went after any and all loose balls.
“I think they were focusing on packing the paint, focusing on making sure that, anything in the paint, there was three or four bodies there,” Lively said. “I was able to get some rebounds over two, three people half the time, but being able to go on the offensive end, it started to get a little rough.”
The physicality of the game was only amplified by the fact that Duke was forced to run a short bench after freshman and regular starter Mark Mitchell was ruled out for the game just moments before tipoff. Whitehead, who had averaged about 20 minutes and eight points off the bench prior, was given a five-minute notice to step into the starting five in Mitchell’s place.
To their credit, the Blue Devils stepped up admirably. Whitehead put up eight points in the first half, tying Tennessee senior Santiago Vescovi for the game lead at the time, and Duke as a whole worked hard to fill in the gaping hole left by Mitchell on the defensive end. There was only so much the Blue Devils could do, though.
“That's a huge impact. He’s a starter, he’s our brother, he's always there on offense, he's always there on defense,” Lively said of losing Mitchell. “But … there’s no excuses. Being able to have a man down and still have someone step up and the next person step up, that’s how we play.”
The loss of Mitchell and his length on defense was made even tougher by the knowledge that he likely would have matched up with Tennessee senior Olivier Nkamhoua, who eventually put up 27 points. However, the physical toll on the remaining Blue Devils is what ultimately made Mitchell’s absence insurmountable. Usual bench players Ryan Young and Jacob Grandison played small roles due to the nature of the game. Meanwhile, Roach, while still very much the lifeblood of the team, was limited for most of the second half when he was assessed his fourth foul with 15:02 left in the game.
All this meant that the brunt of a 40-minute game’s physical burden fell on the freshmen. All five Duke starters played more than 33 minutes. Filipowski, Proctor and Lively sat for a combined nine minutes. On Tennessee, Vescovi played 38 minutes, Josiah-Jordan James played 28 and all the rest of the Volunteers’ eight-man rotation played 24 minutes or fewer. By the end of the game, the Blue Devils were simply out of gas by comparison.
Duke committed 15 total turnovers, only eight from Tennessee steals, and ended the game on a 2-of-11 shooting run. The Blue Devils switched to a zone defense midway through the second, in part to protect Roach from fouling out, but the Volunteers capitalized on Duke’s lapses in the new scheme to the tune of six 3-pointers and six made free throws in the final frame alone.
“We went zone — that's not something we do a lot of — but [we were] really trying to protect the paint. Credit them, that's where they hit some threes. They haven't been a great shooting team like that, but they made us pay for that tonight,” Scheyer said.
At first glance, it seems like the odds were simply stacked against Duke. But in reality, Tennessee had plenty of its own adversity to overcome, down its starting point guard among other things. Head coach Rick Barnes and the Volunteers just had an order of magnitude more years of experience to draw from to know how to overcome it.
The important thing for Duke fans to remember is that that experience, those years that make teams grizzled and tough, will come for Scheyer and the Blue Devils. For now, though, Duke is in a state of evolution. In his first year, Scheyer went 27-9 and won an ACC championship, more than earning the right to stick around a bit longer. However, for as much as the Blue Devils have redefined their season outside the shadow of Mike Krzyzewski’s departure and found their own success, this was not just any season: it was the start of a new era of Duke men’s basketball.
And so, as the Blue Devils’ youth finally catches up to them, that season comes to an end. But a handful of Duke’s young guns are likely to return for next season, and they will learn and grow, just as Scheyer will as a coach; they already did as much throughout this season. In the end, though, for a team that represents an era in its infancy, perhaps it is okay that, of all things, its youth ended up its Achilles’ heel.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.