5 observations from No. 4-seed Duke men's basketball's first half against Houston in Sweet 16

Tyrese Proctor throws a pass in the first half of Duke's Sweet 16 matchup with Houston.
Tyrese Proctor throws a pass in the first half of Duke's Sweet 16 matchup with Houston.

DALLAS—After winning both of its first two games in the NCAA tournament comfortably, No. 4-seed Duke has been forced to scrap in the first half of its Sweet 16 game against No. 1-seed Houston. The Blue Devils head into the locker room narrowly leading 23-22 after one of the most physical periods of basketball this tournament has seen so far:

Home-court advantage

At the start of the night, it was tough to tell whether the red sea in the American Airlines Center was in support of No. 11-seed N.C. State — who pulled off an impressive upset against No. 2-seed Marquette to advance to the Elite Eight in the matchup prior to this one — or the nearby Houston Cougars. By the time both teams took the court for the nightcap, however, it was clear that the Houston faithful made the trip to Dallas in full force. They drowned out Duke fans during pregame warmups and lineup introductions, and they lit up when senior forward J’wan Roberts opened the game’s scoring with a layup inside. Then, their energy peaked when junior forward Ja’Vier Francis caught an alley-oop to punctuate a 6-0 opening run.

The Cougars’ crowd was further spurred on by early Blue Devil mistakes — double teams in the backcourt caused Duke to open the game with back-to-back turnovers. Head coach Jon Scheyer was forced to burn a timeout less than two minutes into the game to help his team regroup, take a deep breath and find the offensive chemistry it had built in its previous two tournament games. However, by the first media timeout, the Blue Devils had picked up two more turnovers and scored just once, a 3-pointer from sophomore center Kyle Filipowski.

Back to basics

After its tumultuous start, Duke settled in on both ends by simplifying its gameplan. First, Scheyer opted to bring in graduate center Ryan Young for sophomore forward Mark Mitchell just more than three minutes into the game in an effort to increase its size inside. This evened out the rebounding margin and allowed the offense to run more smoothly through Filipowski. The Second-Team All-American stared down double teams nearly every time he caught the ball in the post, but was able to make the right decisions and kick the ball to the perimeter or draw fouls. While senior guard Jeremy Roach missed a few early threes, the familiarity of their offensive sets allowed the Blue Devils to breathe a sigh of relief.

As a result, Duke settled in on the defensive end and forced contested jump shots from the Cougars where it had previously surrendered layups. So, while they shot just 30% from the field through the 12-minute media timeout, the Blue Devils trailed by just three.

Playing the matchups

On the other side of things, Houston seemed to focus its offensive efforts on freshman guard Jared McCain. The Sacramento, Calif., native — who scored 30 in Duke’s second-round win against James Madison — was the target of multiple one-on-one isolations early. The Cougars were so bent on pounding the ball inside that they only attempted four threes the entire half. While he surrendered some size early and conceded a few easy looks inside, McCain tightened up his guarding as the half progressed and forced the Cougars to adjust. In one of these isos, the rookie was able to draw an offensive foul on Roberts and quell what had been a raucous crowd. Then, McCain came down on the other end and nailed a triple from the top of the key. 

Shead goes down

Bodies went flying after another McCain three missed and a scrap ensued for the board. However, referees blew the play dead for a player down on the other end of the floor, and he could not be more important to the game. Senior guard Jamal Shead, who led Houston’s early dominance on both sides of the ball, seemed to land awkwardly after a layup attempt contested by Mitchell. He headed to the Cougars’ locker room and did not return for the rest of the half. While his exit did not necessarily hamper Houston’s defensive effort, it certainly weakened its punch. Guards were suddenly able to get to the paint, and bigs were finding more success inside. In the last 6:38 of the first half — the time after Shead came out — Duke outscored Houston 13-6. It even took its first lead of the game when sophomore point guard Tyrese Proctor converted two free throws; a stark contrast to two straight ugly misses at the line from Francis.

Player of the half: Kyle Filipowski

With the rest of the team seemingly gone cold, it was Filipowski who stepped up big-time for Duke. His biggest play came when he caught a grenade at the end of the shoot clock and heaved a one-footed 3-pointer. While the Blue Devils shot 33.3% from behind the arc as a whole, Filipowski finished the half 2-for-3. Just as big was the 7-footer’s presence on the glass — he led the way for Duke with five rebounds, many of which were in traffic and grabbed over multiple Houston crashers. However, Filipowski picked an offensive foul, his second of the half, with just more than five minutes left to play and was forced to sit for the remainder of the period.

Dom Fenoglio | Assistant Blue Zone editor

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


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