Five things to know before No. 4-seed Duke men's basketball tackles NCAA tournament first weekend

Jeremy Roach loads up a shot during Duke's loss to N.C. State.
Jeremy Roach loads up a shot during Duke's loss to N.C. State.

The Blue Devils make a trip to friendly territory for their NCAA tournament opener Friday evening, taking on No. 13-seed Vermont in the first round at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Here are five things to know about Duke's path through the first weekend:

Foster’s return?

Freshman guard Caleb Foster has been out since Duke’s Feb. 24 defeat against Wake Forest with a lower body injury. He was still in a boot in the Blue Devils’ ACC tournament defeat against N.C. State, and there are currently no updates on a timetable for a potential return. His availability is a key for Duke if it wants to make a deep postseason run. 

Nevertheless, his absence has been clearly missed, mostly because the team has not replaced him with another guard off the bench. Foster’s ability to control the pace of the game and drive to the basket makes him a useful asset in March when teams need multiple reliable ball handlers down the stretch. Plus, he can give the backcourt trio of Tyrese Proctor, Jared McCain and Jeremy Roach some valuable rest. 

Head coach Jon Scheyer has opted to replace Foster’s minutes with freshman forwards TJ Power and Sean Stewart. While both have shown flashes of their immense potential, their inability to play consistently has hurt the Blue Devils in the latter stretch of the season. Duke had zero bench points against the Wolfpack, and outside of a late flurry by Power, had only two in a home loss to North Carolina. 

Back-to-back losses

Last season, Duke entered the tournament on a hot streak, with a nine-game winning streak and an ACC Championship title to its name, highlighted by wins against Virginia and Miami. On the contrary, the Blue Devils are on a two-game skid this year, with losses to two Tobacco Road foes. 

However, it is a long season, and these bumps in the road are inevitable for all good teams. In addition, conference championships aren’t always a great predictor of March Madness success, as only four champions since 2010 have won their league. 

Roach noted that he would hold a players only meeting prior to the first round to refocus the team ahead of March Madness. Even though he is in a bit of a shooting slump, his veteran leadership will be essential for leading a team that does not have much NCAA tournament experience. 

Frontcourt excellence

One bright spot in the past two blunders for Duke has been the starting frontcourt of Kyle Filipowski and Mark Mitchell. Filipowski has demonstrated his physicality on the defensive end over the past two games, facing bigger centers in Armando Bacot and DJ Burns Jr. He had 28 points on a remarkable 65% shooting against the Wolfpack, along with 14 boards. The Westtown, N.Y., native was the main source of offense for the Blue Devils and even created it on the defensive end with a steal and score. While this year has certainly been an adjustment for the 7-foot sophomore moving to the five, the Second-Team All American has steadily improved in this role and will be an anchor down low for Duke this weekend. 

Mitchell has had a roller-coaster season, with an inauspicious 1-for-22 start from behind the arc. He turned it around and quickly became a force as a slasher and a focal point of the Blue Devils’ January win streak. But he has the tendency to disappear in some games, including just three points in both the Raleigh meeting against N.C. State and the regular-season finale against the Tar Heels. In the ACC tournament, the Kansas City, Kan., native went back to his aggressive ways, with 18 points and eight boards

With a relatively thin frontcourt, it will be imperative for Filipowsk and Mitchell to provide consistent minutes on both ends of the floor, especially with the prevalence of quality bigs in this year’s tournament. 

Meet the Catamounts

In the first round, Duke will face the American East champion Vermont. The No. 13 seed is on a 10-game winning streak and is a well-coached bunch that will make the Blue Devils work for everything. The Catamounts are primarily a defensive team, relying on forcing tough shots and one-shot possessions, ranking 62nd in the country in defensive rating according to KenPom. Despite the fact that Duke will certainly have a size advantage inside, Vermont does a great job on the defensive glass and the guards also crash the boards.

The Catamounts are led by a formidable backcourt trio — TJ Long, Shamir Bogues and Aaron Deloney — who all average double digits per game. In addition, they have two stretch bigs in Matt Veretto and Nick Fiorillo that can shoot from deep, so the Blue Devils’ need to defend the arc. Both these teams play very slow, so expect this to be a halfcourt battle. The team that executes its sets the best should advance. 

Wide-open region

The South region has many storylines for Duke and frankly, the region is wide open. If the Blue Devils get past Vermont, they will face Wisconsin or James Madison — who is a possible Cinderella in its own right with a 31-3 record. 

Looking ahead, there are some interesting hypothetical matchups. The Blue Devils have recent history with No. 6-seed Texas Tech, as the two matched up in the Sweet 16 of the 2022 NCAA tournament. Duke won 78-73 behind 22 points from Paolo Banchero. In addition, should N.C. State continue its magical run through the tournament, a rematch from the ACC tournament quarterfinals could be in store. Kentucky, the No. 3-seed, is obviously an exciting Blue Blood in its own right with two prolific freshmen, Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard. In any case, this region should be a fun one, and Duke has its work cut out for it. 

Ranjan Jindal profile
Ranjan Jindal | Assistant Blue Zone editor

Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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