Duke’s NCAA Tournament run ends in stinging loss to Tennessee
ORLANDO, Fla. — There’s no discernible pattern in the bloodstains on the thin green carpet inside Duke’s locker room. There are far too many to count, at least quickly: a small semicircle of spots near the center of the room, a larger blob near Kyle Filipowski’s locker. But they, as much as the silence in this too small locker room, tell the story.
The simple version is this: Duke’s season is over, thanks to a 65-52 loss to No. 4 Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Jon Scheyer’s inaugural team — despite all of its accomplishments, the ACC Tournament Championship and a “matter considered closed” away from a corresponding regular season — was unsuccessful in the first weekend. That, given the team’s 10-game winning streak on Saturday, can only be considered disappointing. On paper, this team had all the makings of a hot pick for the Final Four, especially with the friendly confines of Madison Square Garden awaiting an away win.
Is it close.
“It hurts. It stings,” Scheyer said. “It’s going to be like that for a while.”
That’s partly because, in many ways, Tennessee is a reflection of Duke. According to KenPom, the Blue Devils were No. 1 nationally in average size this season; volunteers, on the other hand, were #1 in effective size. Both teams sport the 10 best defenses and more length than a forest. The difference? Rick Barnes’ team — especially without second-year guard Zakai Zeigler, who finished the year with a torn ACL — starts four seniors. Scheyer, on the other hand, is starting four freshmen. Now, that meant less and less over the course of the season, but there’s still something to be said for going up against a group of gigantic, grizzled old adult men. “It’s definitely the most physical game we’ve had all season,” said junior captain Jeremy Roach. “We felt like we knew that.”
Knowing it and experiencing it firsthand, however, are two entirely different things. And Tennessee came out of the tunnel rocking, literally. Less than a minute into the game, 7-foot-1 center Uros Plavsic returned his elbow to Filipowski while grabbing a rebound, immediately setting the tone for the next 39 minutes. Just six minutes later, that intensity took to another level, when Filipowski grabbed an elbow under his left eye, which left a big laceration and spilled blood all over the hardwood.
By then, the usually clear line between boxing and basketball had blurred. (Appropriately, as the match wore on, Duke trainer Jose Fonseca dealt Filipowski’s face like a certified in-ring cutter.) It was a fight played on a pitch. basketball, basically.
Everything that couldn’t go wrong for Duke today, did.
Perfect storm of injuries, turnovers, reprehensible issues and inconsistencies that Duke seemed to be past…and yet, here we are.
— Brendan Marks (@BrendanRMarks) March 18, 2023
Duke, as Mike Krzyzewski surely told anyone around him as he watched on TV, was “flipped.” This was especially the case given the team’s surprising roster change at the last second; Freshman forward Mark Mitchell – the 6ft 8in defensive stopper with a 7ft wingspan, one of two starters in every game at this point alongside Filipowski – was instead listed as questionable with an injury Knee. Scheyer said after the game that Mitchell modified him in practice on Friday, but still did some warm-ups in an attempt to play, before he and the staff jointly determined he hadn’t. the right burst. It was five minutes before the tip. “It was a bit hectic,” Scheyer said, “right before the game.”
Despite the absence, Duke bounced back from Tennessee’s opening punch and went on a 9-0 run to move up six midway through the first half. As has been the story of this team all season, they fought back and improved on Saturday in real time. But the Vols wouldn’t leave on their own, and when Santiago Vescovi — who finished with 14 points and 4 for 3 — countered that run with a triple, it gave Tennessee some momentum. The rest of the first half, really, was a rock fight, as evidenced by the combined 10 fouls in the first 13 minutes and herky-jerk offenses by both teams. At the break, Duke committed as many fouls (eight) as baskets, to go along with 11 turnovers – and during the intermission he went scoreless for two seconds before seven minutes.
Subtly, something perhaps even more illustrative of Tennessee’s defense disruption? Duke took the same number of 2s and 3s in the first half (11), although that was never the team’s winning formula this season.
“They did a great job of not letting us into our actions, not letting us switch sides,” Ryan Young said. “For us to be effective, we are a team that has to move the ball, put the ball in the post, watch different actions, and certainly in the first half – I thought the second half was a bit different – I think we struggled to hit our normal sets and what we do best.
To make matters worse, Roach – who finished with 13 points and made half of the team’s six 3s – picked up his third personal foul with 5:58 left in the first half. So when he landed his fourth step even five minutes into the second half, having tweaked his left ankle, it really put Scheyer in a bind.
We were there, his team on the ropes, his most versatile defender, his experienced captain at fault, and the season passed slowly.
“It’s tough when you can’t be as aggressive as you want to be,” Roach said. “You think you have one more foul to give, and knowing these referees, at the slightest touch you will probably get your fifth.”
Partly to protect Roach — and partly because Tennessee was too tough to stop in the paint — Scheyer eventually moved to a 2-3 zone, which the team had played on just 3.8% of his possessions entering Saturday, via Synergy. The first possession he made, it resulted in a shot clock violation. Hit.
And then came Olivier Nkamhoua.
When Tennessee beat Texas on Jan. 5, the 6-foot-9 Nkamhoua was history, finishing with 27 points on 12-of-15 shooting — and since then he’s been largely a role player, someone one who hit 15 3-pointers all season. But once Duke moved into the zone, he absolutely took over, draining three of his four 3-point attempts, of varying depth and despondency. At one point, he scored 13 straight points for Tennessee.
Duke had no answer for him.
Or, at least not a player – that answer was stuck on the bench, next to assistant coach Amile Jefferson. No matter what player defections come next, the absence of Mitchell – an ideal Nkamhoua defender unavailable – will be the question if Duke fans can’t stop arguing.
“It’s a huge impact. It’s a starter. He’s our brother,” said rookie Derek Lively II, who became the first player since 1960 to have 10 rebounds and no shot attempts in an NCAA Tournament game. “He’s always there in defence, making sure he gives us his best.”
Instead, Nkamhoua almost single-handedly snuffed out Duke’s comeback. Despite 14 points in the second half from Proctor and Roach struggling with injuries and fouls, the Blue Devils simply couldn’t get the saves needed to move on to the Sweet 16. When the buzzer finally sounded, the team walked out — some stoic, some in tears — to Rocky Top playing in the background by the Tennessee group, an odd sort of finality to a short trip to the NCAA Tournament. Mitchell left with clenched fists, ahead of Lively, who could only stare straight ahead.
In the practice room adjoining the locker room, Mitchell sat on a table—still wearing his full jersey—hunched over with his head in his hands, an unopened blue Powerade to his right. For his teammates, those left facing reporters, the reality of what happened hit in stages. Dariq Whitehead, who started in place of Mitchell and scored eight points (but didn’t attempt a second-half shot), already had tears in his eyes when the doors opened. When asked how he felt, the freshman wing gulped, choking out the only words he could: “Uh, a little hurt.” Young, one of the few experienced players on the team, pulled himself together for interviews but was left with glassy eyes once the cameras stopped rolling. Jacob Grandison, who is no longer eligible, remained calm for a while…until he had to take off his jersey for the last time.
Lively, one of the most emotional players on the team, summed it all up as well as possible:
“Terrible. You don’t want to go out like this,” he said. “That’s not where you want to end your story.”
(Duke’s Kyle Filipowski Top Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)