Column: Duke men's basketball is on a skid heading into March Madness. But that's not a death sentence

Jeremy Roach put his hood up, draped a white Gatorade towel over his head and snapped black Beats headphones over his ears. He hung his head and scrolled through his phone silently.

Mark Mitchell fielded questions curtly and under soft breath, slumped forward in a fold-up metal chair. Kyle Filipowski lounged back into his locker, his hair ruffled from sweat and a clear plastic bag full of ice coiled around his ankle. Jared McCain — for all his usual exuberance — looked sapped, black stitches traversing his right eyebrow from a pregame head bump with Jaylen Blakes. The locker room was, to drastically undersell it, somber.

A fellow reporter described it to me as a morgue. That’s not far off.

On the back of Duke’s regular-season finale defeat to the Tar Heels and abridged ACC tournament run, the narrative surrounding head coach Jon Scheyer and his Blue Devils grew moldy — fast. Not just about the way Duke plays — which has been an issue the last two games — but in how the players carry themselves and have seemingly made a habit of digging holes early in games before scrambling to climb out of them.

All of this seems like a pretty yucky cocktail heading into the Big Dance. If a team enters March Madness with a (seemingly) poor attitude and a penchant for falling behind, how could anyone put any faith in it to make a run?

I’d say two things. 

One: What I know as well as anyone who has watched even an ounce of March Madness is that this sport can turn itself upside down in an instant. Duke’s issues are real, but not substantially worse than those of the 67 other teams who could end this tournament with a loss.

Two: After Sunday’s bracket reveal, how many teams can you honestly say are peaking themselves? How many instilled confidence coming out of their conference tournaments? For my money, only three — UConn, Iowa State and Auburn. Should the Blue Devils defy odds and take a stab at the national title game, they’ll play — maximum — one of those teams.

Look on Duke’s side of the bracket and you get a Houston team that suffered the worst upset as national No. 1 since the 1980s, a Kentucky squad that routinely concedes points in the triple digits and a Marquette group missing its All-American point guard that just got thumped in the Big East final. Wisconsin is streaky, Texas Tech struggled for rhythm in a stacked Big 12 and one of Florida’s only two centers just broke his leg.

Look at potential Final Four matchups and you get Purdue, Tennessee, Creighton, Kansas and Gonzaga, none of whom won their conference tournament. The Volunteers lost their NCAA No. 1 seed after falling to conference tournament No. 9-seed Mississippi State by almost 20 in the SEC quarterfinals. The Jayhawks and Bluejays both caved before their respective semifinals, while Purdue conceded two buckets inside the final five seconds of regulation and overtime, respectively, to lose to the Badgers. Gonzaga was on the bubble for most of the season.

The actual crop of teams playing A-1 basketball right now is thin, especially within the tournament’s top 16 seeds — the teams Duke would have to hypothetically play and beat on its road to Phoenix.

Yes, the Blue Devils’ two-game skid is concerning. Nobody wants to enter March looking to rebound. But it’s important to consider the bigger picture: Of the eight games the Blue Devils have lost, seven were by five points or fewer. Even when Duke plays poorly by its standards, it’s still competitive, and even a cursory glance at each of those games shows multiple points where the Blue Devils led, tied or were within a possession of doing either. 

On top of that, Filipowski is playing more physically than he has all year and has three 20-plus-point games in his last four. Tyrese Proctor, even with limited production, has played 40 minutes in three straight games. McCain has been one of the conference’s most dangerous players, shooting just under 40% from deep on the season. Mitchell was perfect from three against the Wolfpack and was Duke’s most important player during an 8-1 record between the two games against the Tar Heels. Two-year captain Roach said after the loss that he would be calling the team together for a players-only meeting before Friday’s NCAA opener. Duke fans will hope that brings some groove to the Big Dance. 

If Arizona’s Caleb Love’s miraculous half-court bank rims out, Pittsburgh’s Blake Hinson misses even one three or N.C. State’s magical bubble is even slightly more fragile, the attitude around Duke’s chances in the tournament would likely be quite different. I’m not excusing those losses, or the fine margins that decided those contests, or the fact that the Blue Devils have largely floundered with the game on the line or started sluggishly. I’m certainly not dismissing the fact that this team could really use a Dereck Lively II or that the locker room was an inspiring sight to those weighing the Blue Devils’ postseason odds. All that is fair game.

But if that’s fair game, so are Duke’s strengths. So are the follies of its potential foes.

Andrew Long profile
Andrew Long | Recruitment/Social Chair

Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and recruitment/social chair of The Chronicle's 120th volume. He was previously sports editor for Volume 119.


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