Three points: Whitehead's bench play, Lively's post presence can bring Duke men's basketball past Tennessee

Dereck Lively II reaches up to block a shot in Duke's win against Oral Roberts.
Dereck Lively II reaches up to block a shot in Duke's win against Oral Roberts.

No. 5-seed Duke continues its run in March with a Saturday afternoon bout with No. 4-seed Tennessee. The Blue Zone brings three keys to a win before the second-round tipoff:

One game at a time

Although its 17-game win streak leading into the tournament made Oral Roberts a common pick for a day-one upset, Duke delivered one of its most dominant performances of the season, triumphing by 23 points. Led by junior captain Jeremy Roach’s 23 points on 9-of-17 shooting, the Blue Devils grabbed an early 15-0 lead and never looked back. A whopping six blocks from freshman phenom Dereck Lively II kept the paint protected and Oral Roberts’ shooting percentage at 30.2%.

The Blue Devils seem to be clicking at the right time heading into their round of 32 matchup against Tennessee, who staved off a few late runs from Louisiana to win its opening round game by three points. The Volunteers have the third-best scoring defense in the nation, only allowing 57.9 points per game, and average 38.6 rebounds per game. However, since losing starting point guard Zakai Zeigler to an ACL tear against Arkansas at the end of February, Tennessee has struggled offensively, losing two of its last three games before the tournament. The Volunteers missed him in Thursday’s game, where they shot a dismal 4-of-16 from 3-point range. 

Even as the higher seed, Duke is favored to come out on top in Saturday’s contest. Given Tennessee’s dismal performance in the SEC tournament, bombing out against Missouri, and its offensive problems, it could almost be tempting to see the matchup as a gimme game for Duke. However, the Blue Devils must stay mentally focused and take care of business the right way. In March, anything can happen; by continuing its detail-oriented play, Duke can find lots of success. 

Whitehead’s impact from the bench

After a season of ups, downs and doubts, forward Dariq Whitehead has looked like a top-five recruit these last two weeks. Embracing a role as the sixth man, the 6-foot-7 freshman has provided an efficient offensive boost in his time on the floor. Just last week against Pittsburgh in the ACC tournament quarterfinal, Whitehead scored eight points in 14 minutes on 75% shooting. In his encore performance against Miami in the semifinal, the Newark, N.J., native scored 16 points in 19 minutes on 4-of-8 from the field and 2-of-3 from 3-point range. And although not called upon to score often in his 15 minutes of playing time against Virginia in the final, Whitehead racked up four steals on the defensive end.

Whitehead kept his momentum going Thursday, providing an impressive 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field in his 23 minutes of play. Finishing the game perfect from beyond the arc, Whitehead showed a level of confidence necessary to continue to produce on the big stage. Look for him to continue to find high-percentage looks against the Volunteers.

It’s a block party

Lively has turned Duke’s win streak into an absolute block party. The 7-foot-1 freshman has rejected at least two shots in each of the Blue Devils’ last 10 games, all of which have resulted in victories. His latest effort came Thursday, where Lively swatted six in 29 minutes of action against Oral Roberts. His effort, combined with the rest of the Duke defense, prevented the Golden Eagles from scoring for the first eight minutes of the game. Even 7-foot-5 Arkansas transfer Connor Vanover, one of the few in the tournament with the size to match Lively, could not find offensive production, shooting a measly 2-of-8 from the floor. Lively’s presence in the paint alters games, as teams are fearful of challenging the now-notorious swatter. In order for Duke to continue its strong run of play, Lively will have to be dominant against Tennessee's Olivier Nkamhoua, one of the four Volunteers averaging double-digit points per game with 10.5.


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