Duke and Virginia Tech took a tense battle to the final seconds on a blustery night in Blacksburg, Va., this past January. The score set at 75 apiece, Hokies guard MJ Collins pulled up for a go-ahead mid-range jumper and sank it with 13.3 seconds to go. As he was heading down the court and toward the rowdy Hokie student section in jubilation.
A fist-pump of excitement caught then-freshman center Kyle Filipowski square in the throat, leaving him doubled over and in immense pain, not to mention wrought with emotion from the ensuing unsuccessful attempt to win the game. He had led the Blue Devils with his career-high 29-point double-double, and in the locker room a choked-up Filipowski reiterated just how much he hated losing.
I have never seen anyone define the mood in a locker room as he did that night.
Heart-crushing and somber, yet imbued with this curiously confident and forward-thinking attitude — especially given the circumstances — is how I would describe it; the last thing he told me that night at Cassell Coliseum was this: “Don’t let the outside noise get to us and we’ll be good.”
With “D-U-K-E” across his chest, it’s understandably hard to avoid the outside noise. And weeks later, when given another chance to take down a conference foe on the road, a missed call saved Virginia from a loss and kept the visiting team’s scoring leader without a point for the first and only time of his still-young career. And as we now know, ignited, the Blue Devils went on a nine-game win streak to slam the door on the regular season and win the conference tournament in Greensboro, N.C.
But just one week after that, an elbow from a Tennessee player going for a rebound caught the freshman star-turned-human punching bag under his left eye. Tough as nails, he returned and tried to lead his team back into the game. It has been a long time since I had seen a Duke player take as much of a physical beating as Filipowski did his freshman year. And little did we know, he had been dealing with nagging discomfort caused by a slightly misshapen joint that required surgery on both hips.
To be able to follow up a roller-coaster season and a brutal tournament loss, one which he referred to as an “eye-opener” (while I’m not sure if he meant that literally, it does work) — which has left him with an objectively neat battle scar — with a first-time surgical procedure and a long summer of rehab is quite admirable. He did it all while contemplating, and ultimately deciding on returning to college as opposed to testing the NBA Draft waters.
Filipowski has said that he was nervous following his arthroscopic procedure in mid-April, sitting, mind wandering through the forest of what-ifs, but found that he was “going how my body was leading me.”
According to head coach Jon Scheyer, he was “way ahead of schedule,” and Filipowski now says he feels an improved range-of-motion, can get into a wider stance and is quicker and more explosive.
“He’s new and improved Flip,” Scheyer said at an August press conference.
“I thought I reached my limit. Now I’m reaching this new unknown world that has just been opened up to me,” Filipowski said at the team’s preseason media day.
For a player who averaged roughly 15 points and nine rebounds per game and won ACC Freshman of the Year, that is quite the statement. We will get to see what new moves he has in his bag, but if anything on the court is an indication that “two-hip Flip” is ready to go for year two, it was his thunderous slam over his freshman teammate Sean Stewart at Countdown to Craziness. Though in just a scrimmage, I could envision that play being set to the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey” in a future highlight reel.
You just have to think his surgeon and physical therapy team are smiling after seeing it.
But during that time he was in pain he made sure to not make any excuses, trying to tough it out and take responsibility when he was a bit off. He had said that he was reluctant to have the procedure done during the lead-in to the 2022-23 season, possibly erasing a good chunk of his freshman year.
Thankfully for Duke, it was an issue which created no barriers to his playing time, as he started in all of the Blue Devils’ 36 games and truly excelled. His frontcourt mate Ryan Young said he couldn’t tell Filipowski was hurt last year. I sure as hell couldn’t.
His procedure and subsequent period of immobility allowed him to sit back and reflect, but the outspoken and self-assured sophomore did not shy away from sharing his inner thoughts.
On the loss to the Volunteers, which he describes as “getting punked,” he said that “their next game after us really showed how tough they were … things always come back to bite you eventually.”
Filipowski summarized the sentiment shared by Duke fans around the country in the most professional way he could. He gets it.
As he quipped about Tennessee’s surprising Sweet 16 loss to eventual Final Four team Florida Atlantic, he got a bit of a laugh from conference media at October’s ACC Tipoff event in Charlotte. He also said that he wants Duke to be “the first to elbow someone in the throat.”
Well, that’s also quite direct. He’s clearly not shy about sharing how he feels and the kind of physicality he wants to exude as he prepares for this season. After all, he will more than likely be tasked with more of a bruiser role in the paint as a de-facto big alongside a possible three-guard lineup. And as reigning ACC champions and retooled with a new crop of five-stars to fill a talented lineup and deep bench, there will be an even bigger target on his back. The story of the season will be how he and his teammates handle it.
“People can think whatever they want about our program and oftentimes it’s an outsider’s perspective that Duke can be soft,” Scheyer said at ACC Tipoff. “Duke has been built on competitiveness, hard work and doing all the dirty work.”
With 18 “good pounds” tacked on to his slender frame, now at nearly 250 pounds, Filipowski provides the preseason No. 2 team a true stretch-five. Last season he became just the third Blue Devil to connect on 30 3-pointers and collect 300 rebounds in a season, the others being eventual top-two draft picks Jabari Parker and Paolo Banchero.
More broadly speaking, he fills a highly coveted stretch-big role, the likes of which Duke has rarely seen since a certain fellow New York native led the Blue Devils to two championships and four Final Fours. Filipowski has embraced the comparisons to Christian Laettner and his “unique” reputation, in his words, while maintaining his own path and desire to win a championship himself.
Yeah, maybe he is the villain. Take into account the added chip on his shoulder from the naysayers stemming from his dismissal from a summer workout a year ago and you can start to see where he’s coming from in terms of wanting to prove himself. But if that comes with him serving as a resource for the Blue Devils, Scheyer and his teammates should lean into it and embrace it.
“No one is going to feel sorry for you,” the preseason All-American said at ACC Tipoff. “You gotta do the dirty work.”
Duke’s opponents will be thirsty for blood while Filipowski has established that he will be unapologetically tough. Badass. Resilient. Unapologetically himself.
“It’s tough out there,” he says. “You either go be a dog or get dogged.”
Editor's note: this piece is one of many in The Chronicle's 2023-24 Duke men's basketball preview. Check out the rest here.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.