On Caleb Foster’s breakout night, No. 9 Duke men’s basketball still looks for dependability

Freshman guard Caleb Foster dribbles through Spartan defenders in his breakout performance Tuesday.
Freshman guard Caleb Foster dribbles through Spartan defenders in his breakout performance Tuesday.

CHICAGO—In 29 minutes: 15 points on 60% shooting with a steal.

In 13 minutes: no shots attempted, no rebounds, no assists, no points. 

In 29 minutes: seven makes on eight shot attempts including four 3-pointers, 18 points and the dagger against the No. 18 team in the country. 

“There’s going to be ups and downs throughout the season,” Caleb Foster said after Tuesday night’s win against Michigan State. “So just keep your head up and keep working.”

Foster had a wild ride over his first three collegiate games, going from the first line — a fantastic debut — to the second — nearly invisible against Arizona — to the third — his magnificent output against Michigan State Tuesday. His bounceback performance defined Duke’s 74-65 victory against the Spartans at the latest installment of the Champions Classic. But there is a flip side to this success story.

As the 23rd-ranked freshman in the country entering the season, Foster looked to be an instant contributor as a sixth man or even a starter in a deep backcourt alongside Jeremy Roach, Tyrese Proctor and Jared McCain. He showcased his stuff immediately in Duke’s opener against Dartmouth, surpassing McCain in offensive efficiency, especially while his teammate was sitting on the bench in foul trouble. Proctor reigned supreme in the backcourt with his eight assists. Come Arizona, when Foster all but disappeared, Roach and McCain put on a show, with the former leading the second-half comeback and the latter dishing out five assists while collecting three steals.

You are probably observing a trend. 

Some yet-to-be-understood rule of the universe seems to dictate that only two of the Blue Devil guards can be on at the same time — while Scheyer has opted for three-guard lineups with four prominently in the rotation. The math doesn’t work out. Tuesday night in Chicago, Foster — and alongside him, Proctor — were the beneficiaries of the cosmic switch being flipped in their favor. 

But on the other hand, McCain (zero points) missed all five of his shots. Roach (seven) had his lowest-scoring night since January — 19 games ago. Even Foster at halftime (two) did not look like he was going to be able to step up. And at that point, the Blue Devils’ leading scorer was Mark Mitchell, who had only attempted two shots from the floor but picked up seven points from the charity stripe. As a team, Duke had seven assists to 10 turnovers at the half. It seemed like a miracle that the Blue Devils were winning, let alone holding an 11-point lead at the break

But as Michigan State came roaring back into the game, backed by a raucous Spartan faithful concentrated in one corner of the cavernous United Center, Duke was in desperate need of a response.

“There’s going to be ups and downs,” Scheyer said. “There’s going to be moments where you get knocked back… it’s all about how you respond.”

Sophomore center Kyle Filipowski was going to have to be a part of that equation, given he had scored just five points in the first 20 minutes after back-to-back 25-pieces to open his sophomore season. Ryan Young vacuumed up Mitchell’s second-half minutes as he proved to be a more reliable rebounder (as a bonus, Young finished with an astonishing plus-24 plus/minus). But the Spartans had brought an 11-point deficit down to four in two minutes as five straight Blue Devil threes clanged off the rim at the start of the second half.

With 15:24 to go in a 35-31 game, Foster caught a pass on the left wing, jabbed with his right and took a dribble to his left before letting a 3-point shot fly as he caught Michigan State’s Jeremy Fears Jr. with his hands down. Not even two minutes had passed before he received a dish from Proctor to set up another deep shot from the same spot as Fears collapsed toward Duke’s driving point guard. On the next Blue Devil possession, the Harrisburg, N.C., native showcased his handle and a nifty hop-step through traffic to find himself wide open with a foul-line jumper. Duke was back up by 11. 

When the Blue Devils needed a boost later on in the half, Filipowski slung a pass out of a double team, back to the basket, and Foster hit another. Next Duke possession — Proctor again pulled Foster’s defender toward him before sending the ball Foster’s way, and before the ball was even out of Foster’s hand, the Aussie sophomore knew it was going in. It was automatic. A six-point lead re-grew to 12 with under two minutes to play.

“To have that freedom to kick out and have confidence in our guys to make threes, that’s a big deal,” Young said.

The same player who in the first half threw an errant pass and was called for a travel in a four-minute rotation on the floor had become the catalyst the Blue Devils needed when their not-so-old guard was not quite getting the job done in the scoring department. Foster’s big buckets won Duke the game. In the two Blue Devil wins — and when Foster has been on — he is one of the most efficient scorers in the country, per KenPom’s offensive ratings.

But his emergence as Duke’s second-half hero put a damper on Roach and McCain’s nights. Neither could find any semblance of a rhythm, and McCain only saw the floor for five minutes after the break. Aside from Foster’s 4-for-5 shooting from downtown, the Blue Devils made just two of 17 shots from deep.

So what will Duke have to do in order to get everyone clicking at the same time? Foster and McCain rarely share the floor as Scheyer has opted to keep two of Mitchell, Filipowski and Young on the court essentially at all times, with the exception being scattered minutes for the athletic 6-foot-9 freshman Sean Stewart. 

The rotation has effectively shrunk to seven, with Stewart, TJ Power, Christian Reeves and Jaylen Blakes seeing little action in Duke’s two games against top-25 teams in the young season. Each of the seven primary rotation players are garnering over 18 minutes per game with four topping 25. No other Blue Devil is averaging more than eight. 

It is only a matter of time before we start seeing those seven show up on a more consistent basis. 

So far this season it’s been a see-saw of who is hot and who is not. But the most intrigue has become zeroed in on Duke’s number one. He is averaging 11 points per game but has been kept scoreless once. He scored 18 Tuesday night under the brightest lights, but was held to just two points in the first half. Maybe we will see Scheyer tinker with the rotation over the next few games, allowing Foster to showcase his hot hand out of the gates while allowing McCain to come off the bench to be the spark. 

And it is not just about Foster and McCain. Filipowski, Roach, Mitchell, Young and Proctor have each shown their own volatility. It will matter later on, though, how they handle their respective off-games and who can step up to make the difference. 

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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