'Learning how to win': No. 14 Duke men's basketball leans on veterans, finds triumphant formula against Syracuse

Caleb Foster shoots over a Syracuse defender during Duke's Tuesday win.
Caleb Foster shoots over a Syracuse defender during Duke's Tuesday win.

When the buzzer rang to commence a timeout called by Syracuse head coach Adrian Autry, four Blue Devils — Kyle Filipowski, Jared McCain, Tyrese Proctor and Jeremy Roach — jumped in the air to bump shoulders and cheer. Their airborne exultation could have been on a poster for sale at the Duke campus store: It was “The Brotherhood” at its finest.

Duke played its basketball game against Syracuse Tuesday night as more of a team than it has all season. It was a perfect cliche — new year, new team cohesion, and maybe some renewed hope in a deep postseason run. Thanks to head coach Jon Scheyer’s reliance on his team’s veterans, the Blue Devils kicked off 2024 with an 86-66 home victory.

“I think it was familiarity,” Proctor said. “We played a whole season together last year and [have] been in situations where the game was neck and neck, and I think just having that trust was a really big thing.”

There has never been much doubt about the talents of these Blue Devils, which is why their 9-3 record and punctuating loss to Georgia Tech has been such a frustrating conundrum for their fans since the start of the season. Instead, Duke’s relatively rocky campaign has been the product of something missing in the way of these individually talented players executing like a real team.

Tuesday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium looked, however, something like the Duke team headed for the ACC Championship last season. It looked like the Blue Devils knew what to do with the ball, knew where everyone would be on the court and knew the plan set out by Scheyer. Communication ruled their movements, as Proctor sent messages to his teammates not only by way of practiced hand signs but also by way of covert winks and meaningful nods. In the second half of the game Duke moved — the veterans in particular — to use the classic convention, like a well-oiled machine.

That machine whirred to life right as the second half began. It had been 30 seconds of the second period, and Duke had the ball. Roach found Mitchell, who found McCain to the basket from the arc. The freshman broke the Blue Devils’ 0-for-9 dry run from downtown with a lovely 3-pointer that would become the first of eight deep shots from the Blue Devils, all of which would go in to give the second-half home team a perfect 8-for-8 3-point record.

It was in making those 24 points from outside that the reason for Duke’s success Tuesday night became clear.

Its first three triples came from three near-perfect setups. McCain went first. Then Roach scored a swish from the right corner of the court off of a straight and powerful pass from Mitchell. Moments later, Proctor had the same thing going on, shooting a beautiful ball from downtown thanks to a neat assist from Roach. Duke led 52-47.

“Kickout threes off offensive rebounds where you're ready to shoot … Those are our shots,” Scheyer said. 

Thirteen minutes later, Duke was ahead of Syracuse by a full 20 points, something of a miracle given the Orange’s standing in the ACC compared to that of Georgia Tech.

In the first half of this game, Scheyer played every member of his regular rotation, a full 10 of the team’s 13 viable players. There were advantages to that, in the sense that the Blue Devils were able to test their depth and compare different lineups, featuring vast opportunities for the “Freshman Four” of TJ Power, Sean Stewart, Caleb Foster and McCain. But the second half was the one that ended with a 20-point lead, while the first closed on the paper-thin advantage of just two points in Duke’s favor. Some of that can be attributed to Scheyer’s locker-room pep talk and the consistent improvements the Blue Devils tend to see in their second halves overall. Most of it, however, is thanks to the veterans who took care of the court. Filipowski, Roach, Mitchell and Proctor anchored the rotations on the floor for the latter half of the game, supporting a top-notch performance for McCain while also letting Foster rack up some minutes. Junior Jaylen Blakes did his part as well, adding another veteran talent to the court and earning his stripes with a couple each of points, rebounds and assists as well as characteristic defensive tenacity.

“The second half, I thought we really shared it,” Scheyer said.

Duke’s first three triples made that clear in the way these more seasoned players set up shot opportunities for their teammates and made sure they turned them into points. When the buzzer announced the Blue Devils’ win, the box score tallied a 19-to-11 assist-to-turnover ratio that reflected its offensive efficiency made possible through selflessness, communication and something as simple as good passing. 

“We have to learn how to win together,” Scheyer said. “I thought tonight we took a step in learning how to win.”

For years, Duke fans have been conditioned to focus on freshmen, as the Blue Devils have historically epitomized the “one and done” NCAA-to-NBA pipeline for young basketball players. It’s only natural, then, that excitement about this team’s capabilities has focused somewhat disproportionately on the new guys on the block. If Tuesday night is any indication of the future, however, it’s the veterans who have the ability to make this a memorable winning season.

Even McCain, whose 18 points Tuesday were second only to Mitchell’s 21, needs his older teammates to make him the great shooter he has spent this season proving himself to be. He only had the chance to knock down that inaugural three because of swift ball movement and intelligent looks from both Roach and Mitchell. He has the arm, but every arm needs a shoulder to set it into action.

“It's amazing to be able to play with all these vets,” McCain said. “I mean, they’re pros … They've been here before.”


Sophie Levenson | Sports features editor

Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

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