Kyle Filipowski sat with his chin resting on folded hands, staring glumly at the ground while a trainer attempted to clean up the cut under his eye. Just moments before, a Tennessee player’s elbow had collided with his face, hitting the 7-foot freshman center hard enough to draw blood.
The elbow happened early, setting the tone for the rest of the game. In Duke’s second-round matchup against No. 4-seed Tennessee, the Blue Devils struggled to keep up with the brutal physicality of the Volunteers, ultimately losing the game by 13 points to fall out of the NCAA tournament. The game drew a total of 28 fouls and kept a low score on both ends, the final number 65-52 — a testament to the strong defensive front put up by both teams.
Tennessee hit Duke hard, and nobody was afraid to say it. The headlines that ran for the game included the Raleigh News & Observer’s “Duke bullied, out-toughed in physical loss to Tennessee” as well as AP News’ “Tennessee beats up Duke.”
In senior captain Jeremy Roach’s own words — from Duke’s preseason media day in September — “they punked us.”
He’s right. A freshman-heavy Duke team struggled to contend with the size and experience rife in that Volunteer roster. On top of that, forward Mark Mitchell — a stalwart defensive presence in last season’s lineup — had to sit out the fight due to injury.
Now, a chip-on-their-shoulders mentality has overtaken the Blue Devils as they prepare for a new season. The sentiment they’re trying to prove? Duke is tough. It’s an older team now, not only one with more experience but also with newfound confidence.
The Blue Devils feel they have every asset necessary to get to the 2024 Final Four in Phoenix, and every reason to win it. They have made their message crystal clear: A national championship is the only option.
Eyes on Cameron
Roach thinks the key to Duke’s success lies largely in its deep backcourt. He, alongside sophomore point guard Tyrese Proctor, leads a team of highly skilled guards, now featuring freshmen Jared McCain and Caleb Foster, the respective No. 3 and No. 4 guards in their class.
“We have the four guards, I would put them up against anybody,” Roach said at ACC Tipoff. Duke’s backcourt, according to the veteran, is the best in the nation — and “it’s not even close.”
Roach isn’t alone in his high hopes for the Blue Devils. The team sits at No. 2 nationally in AP preseason rankings and has seen a number of its players on award watchlists in the last few weeks. Proctor was tabbed to the Bob Cousy award watch list for the best point guard in the nation, Roach’s name is on the Jerry West award watchlist for the country’s best shooting guard, Mitchell found a spot on the Julius Erving award watch list for the best small forward and Filipowski is a Preseason First-Team All-American. The ACC also marked Duke as its preseason favorite.
The early verdict: This team should be pretty good.
Other conference schools know there’s a storm brewing inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, too. At ACC Tipoff, a number of players from various conference foes had Duke on their minds.
“I’m looking forward to playing in Cameron. That’ll be fun,” said Clemson center PJ Hall when asked which ACC matchup he’s most excited for.
“I’m excited to go to Cameron this year,” said Ryan Dunn, a sophomore guard at Virginia.
Does a talented team getting frequent national attention make for a bigger target than in years past? Maybe. But the Blue Devils know this, and have no intention of letting that get in the way of success. Instead, they want to channel confidence into an “attitude” that can squash their opponents.
“People were definitely coming for us last year, no question about it, and I think with that No. 2 [ranking] people are going to be coming at us even more now,” Filipowski said. “But I think we should definitely play with more of an attitude.”
The New York native went on to reference the 2018-19 season, when Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett — both now NBA stars — led the Blue Devil squad. What Filipowski alluded to was the Duke-on-top attitude that Williamson and Barrett carried with them all the way to the Elite Eight. It’s something the team looks to replicate this year.
As former Blue Devil and current ESPN analyst Jay Bilas writes in his 2013 memoir, “Toughness,” “toughness isn’t physical. It has nothing to do with size, physical strength or athleticism. It’s an intangible, an attitude, a philosophy.”
Sure, part of Duke’s determination to win a championship this year means it wants to beef up a little, present a physical presence that can stand its ground a little stronger than last year’s roster did against Tennessee. Nobody wants to get hit in the eye or punched in the throat again. But more importantly, the Blue Devils want to adopt the kind of mental toughness that Bilas preaches in his book.
It’s not that the team thinks it wasn’t tough before. Roach defends Duke’s efforts while also acknowledging that there’s room for an even tougher mindset.
“They just kind of out-manned us and we don’t want that to happen again,” he said at the team’s preseason media day. “We didn’t back down, they just out-manned us.”
The team’s plan for this season involves embracing its tough side and making sure that nothing — and no one — blocks its road to Phoenix. Last year taught Duke that playing the nice guy against mean, tough teams doesn’t necessarily get you very far when it comes to tournament season. It’s a cornerstone of Blue Devil history that many uninvolved with the Cameron Crazie fever see Duke as the ultimate college basketball bully — and this year, it’s trying to bring that attitude back.
“No one felt bad for any of us last year and we’re taking that to heart,” Filipowski said at ACC Tipoff.
Like his players, head coach Jon Scheyer walked away from that fateful Tennessee game feeling like his team had been beaten down and bullied. One of his takeaways from the loss, in keeping with Bilas, was “the toughness you have to have to win different kinds of games.”
That’s the plan, then: More toughness, more “punking” from the Blue Devils. Embracing that on-the-court “bully” character Duke basketball has been known to play.
Ask any ACC basketball player what his goal is for the season and the answer is always the same: A national championship. That’s what everyone, in every college sport, wants to achieve. It didn’t come as much of a surprise, then, when Filipowski said at ACC Tipoff that the “team goal for sure is a national championship.”
This season, though, that answer is more than just words. Filipowski did not hesitate when asked what Duke is looking for: He answered the question assuredly, a look of feisty dedication in his eyes.
“Anybody can talk,” Bilas writes. “Not anybody can be tough.”
There are a couple of things different about this year’s team — things that lead the Blue Devils to believe they can win the national title. Four freshmen have joined the roster as a tight-knit unit, bringing closeness and chemistry to the court. Many of last year’s most productive players have come back to Durham. Scheyer has a year as head coach tucked under his belt. Duke has learned a lesson in toughness from the Volunteers.
The Blue Devils wear blue rubber wristbands with their team catchphrase, “One Vision,” branded in bold block letters to make sure they all stay on the same page. There’s really only one thing that vision could be.
“It’s important that you have a clear view of where you want to go together,” Scheyer said at media day. “That’s what [those] guys came back for. That’s why [those] guys are here. That’s why I’m here. Let’s go for it.”
“There’s no question about it, nothing else,” Filipowski said on winning it all. “This is our year to do that. There are no excuses to not do it.”
On the wall of Duke’s film room hangs a photograph of the basketball court inside State Farm Arena in Phoenix. The Blue Devils walk by that picture every day, determined to see it in person in April.
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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Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.