'The biggest differential': Duke men's basketball's offensive plan falls flat, NC State's defense shines in Elite 8 defeat

Jeremy Roach drives under pressure from N.C. State's Jayden Taylor (left) and DJ Burns Jr. (center).
Jeremy Roach drives under pressure from N.C. State's Jayden Taylor (left) and DJ Burns Jr. (center).

DALLAS—N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts received a technical foul with 8:03 remaining in the game, and freshman guard Jared McCain knocked down two free throws to cut the Wolfpack lead to six. Duke had the momentum and a chance to change the trajectory of a game slipping from its grasp. 

Instead, McCain got blocked on a layup and Tyrese Proctor missed a wide-open eight-footer after an offensive rebound. Two plays later, N.C. State guard Michael O’Connell hit a heartwrenching transition 3-pointer after a turnover. The Blue Devils went on a four-minute field-goal drought, characterized by missed opportunities and scattered play. 

“We never had a rhythm on offense … it was probably the most disjointed game that we've had all year,” said head coach Jon Scheyer. “That’s the biggest differential.”

Those four minutes were a microcosm of the game, as Duke looked off balance for the whole afternoon. It felt like the Blue Devils always would creep back in and make it competitive down the stretch, but the offense was so inconsistent that they could never establish a counter to the prowess of N.C. State graduate center DJ Burns Jr. 

The defensive game plan was clear. Don’t double Burns in the post, allowing him to score but limiting his passing ability. In one way, that worked. While his team scored 76 points, this is a little bit misleading as it scored 14 in the last two minutes mainly off of free throws. Burns had a remarkable 29 points but the Wolfpack struggled from distance, and this looked to be similar to Duke’s 79-64 win in Raleigh, where he had 27. 

“When he's able to pass it out of the post, that gets everybody else going,” McCain said. “People who usually maybe aren’t making threes, they usually make a three.”

However, there were a couple key differences. On top of the fact that Burns was more efficient than usual, graduate guard DJ Horne made some incredibly difficult shots and N.C. State was able to score in transition off of Duke misses. The Blue Devils only forced five turnovers and could not help an ailing offense through transition buckets. 

“I thought it was our offense that hurt our defense,” Scheyer said. “I mean, it gives a team life when you miss an open three, you get the rebound, and then you throw to them for a fast-break or give them run-outs. The whole game changes.”

The offense was night and day. The stats speak for themselves, and were remarkably subpar. 

Duke was 32.2% from the field, and this actually increased in the last two minutes when the contest was virtually all locked up as N.C. State did not play as tight defensively to not foul. Aside from three McCain 3-pointers in the last 1:08, the Blue Devils were 2-for-17 from deep. That’s not to take anything away from the incredible game McCain had, but even he shot 8-of-20 from the field, including those threes. 

“The switching made us kind of react a little quicker to stuff and we didn't know what to do after they switched,” McCain said. 

The Wolfpack switched on a lot of the dribble handoffs and screens, which typically creates offensive opportunities. However, it can also lead to isolation as players want to score on perceived mismatches and not swing the ball. For Duke, the players were clearly unsettled and it led to some ill-advised shots, especially in the second half. 

“I think just from switching and stuff [the ball was] not moving side to side, it was kind of sticking,” senior guard Jeremy Roach said. “When they were switching, it kind of took us out of the flow of our offense and our routine.”

N.C. State communicated very well on the pick-and-roll, limiting the effectiveness of the Blue Devils’ forte. Junior center Ben Middlebrooks was tremendous, and the Wolfpack did not skip a beat defensively when he and Burns were in the game together because of his rim-protection and impressive quickness. 

For Duke, Proctor got into foul trouble early so he only played 12 minutes in the first half. This could have played a role in his 0-for-9 shooting output, but he was a complete non-factor. 

Bad shooting games happen, and it is unfortunate for the Blue Devils that it came at the very end of the season. Every player is due an off-day, but the supporting cast typically picks up the slack. This time, Roach was 5-for-13 without a 3-pointer, Kyle Filipowski was 3-of-12 and there were only two bench points, courtesy of a Sean Stewart alley-oop. It’s hard to win shooting like that, especially with a 275-pound offensive juggernaut with the touch of a feather on the other end. 

In the end, this loss wasn’t a question of effort or toughness, but just a really smart defensive plan from a veteran Wolfpack bunch that rattled Duke’s typically steady guards. It’s difficult to look at the big picture after a loss in this fashion, but an Elite Eight appearance is nothing to scoff at, especially with a difficult end to the season and a year filled with adversity. This was a season to remember with an incredible run, and this program is certainly not going anywhere. 

“It’s disappointing … I feel for these guys, but I'm thankful for them and for everything they've done for our program and for Duke,” Scheyer said. “They've been awesome to coach.”


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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