Sticking together, growing together help Duke men's basketball's new accomplishment feel not so new

Jeremy Roach and Kyle Filipowski (center) show some emotion in the second half of Duke's ACC tournament win against Virginia.
Jeremy Roach and Kyle Filipowski (center) show some emotion in the second half of Duke's ACC tournament win against Virginia.

GREENSBORO, N.C.—Music blared from the locker room and nothing short of a party was underway late Saturday night at Greensboro Coliseum. 

With its 59-49 win against No. 2-seed Virginia in the ACC tournament championship game, No. 4-seed Duke became kings of the conference for the third time in seven years. However, its capturing of the conference crown still felt like a longshot — even more so considering where this team was in the early portion of the conference season. But perhaps we should have seen it coming this whole time.

The Blue Devils’ nine-game winning streak was set off following the controversial call at the end of regulation in their road loss to the same Cavaliers they faced in the final. Duke had lost back-to-back games in brutal fashion, the first a 22-point loss at Miami, sat at 8-6 in-conference and saw its star freshman Kyle Filipowski held scoreless in a game for the first and only time all year. 

“There's so much motivation for me personally just knowing how I played against them last time, knowing how people still disrespected me and disrespected Coach Scheyer and the rest of the squad,” Filipowski said.

The Westtown, N.Y., native had one of his season-best performances Saturday as he earned a 20-point double-double with three steals and scored or assisted on some of the game’s biggest shots. 

While the criticism Filipowski speaks of comes with the unique privilege of wearing a Duke jersey, some of it was premature assessment of a young team starting to play like a veteran one. The team with a top recruiting class led by a 35-year-old coach was merely undergoing its growing pains early. 

“We went through some adversity but I felt like that, that's actually what made us,” freshman Dariq Whitehead said.

Scheyer reminded Filipowski postgame of where the freshman started in the summer workouts, at which point Scheyer was admittedly worried about Filipowski’s effort. Junior captain Jeremy Roach followed up by retelling how when Filipowski hit a game-winner in an early scrimmage, he said “I’m like that.”

Paralleling the kind of season and final stretch these Blue Devils have had, with wins to bounce back from every conference loss, they might be “like that.” But offering the stabilization to get there that entire way has been Roach, whose play of late surpasses anything we have seen from him before.

The 21-year-old guard may not be the oldest on a team with four graduate transfers, but his leadership helped transform a group of obviously skilled basketball players into a unified team others will have circled on their brackets. 

“Everybody's finding their role, everybody's contributing, whether it's rebounding, blocking shots, playing defense, scoring the ball,” Roach said. 

Roach was held to just four points in the first half but exploded for 19 in the second half of the low-scoring, slow-paced matchup between the top defenses in the conference. Having come off nine- and 13-point outings in the previous two games, Roach played a supporting role as the team shared the wealth and got everyone involved in the scoring in two offense-heavy showdowns.

The ability for Roach to contribute with seven assists in those two is invaluable. Moving the ball and combining for nine double-digit scoring performances prior to the championship, Duke looked nearly unstoppable. But his and the team’s ability to pivot from controlling the pace in high-scoring affairs to adapting to Virginia’s defensive pressure showcased the depth of Scheyer’s toolbox.

Roach connected on a 3-pointer to make it a 14-point game early in the second half, hit a turnaround jumper from the free-throw line and converted an and-one in the win as he and Filipowski combined for 43 of the Blue Devils’ 59 points. His 23 marked a career-high and the finest display of his on-court captainship.

But by helping support the growth of young players like his backcourt mate Tyrese Proctor, the second-least experienced team in the ACC per KenPom was able to grow up throughout the season. The overarching message from the players in the locker room Saturday night: They are not freshmen anymore.

They grew together and stuck together through the ups and downs of the season, combining the winning experience each of them brought when they first stepped on Duke’s campus and transforming it into a winning team mentality. 

Filipowski said it best: “I was playing for a championship, I was playing with these guys, and that means so much more to me than just something that I'm wanting to prove individually.”

He nevertheless took home some hardware as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player after averaging 19.7 points and 7.0 rebounds while shooting 66.7% from the field.

The team’s play of late helped its first-year head coach as well. Their play and cohesiveness provided a boost of confidence for a coach who has exuded it going back to his days playing for the ACC championship trophy.

“Going into tonight's game, I felt confident having our group on the floor,” Scheyer said. “I feel we're going to win. It doesn't mean we're always going to, but that's the way I've been taught. That's the way I've felt since I've been young.”

In spite of the major accomplishments for Scheyer, who became the third head coach to win the ACC title in his first year, Roach and Filipowski made the seemingly unlikely climb to the summit seem like something they were counting on all season, like they had done it before.

“I had a high standard when I came in and that didn’t change, even when the season was going the way we didn't envision it,” Whitehead said. “I still had that same vision of us winning an ACC championship.”

In their heads, it was the plan the whole time. Its real-life manifestation, the path to this point … may not have been.

The whiteboard in the locker room — a backdrop for the postgame celebration — had three bullet points written in all capital letters: “mentally tough, physically tough and go take it,” followed by a pair of exclamation marks. The Blue Devils went out and took it thanks to their mental and physical aggressiveness, and they made the new accomplishment feel not so new thanks to their unified late-season mission.

The Blue Devils, according to Roach, hung their hats on togetherness. 

Tied into those hats now are pieces of a championship.

Micah Hurewitz

Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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