Why Duke basketball’s future looks bright, despite an early loss in the NCAA Tournament

Tribune Content Agency

DURHAM, N.C. — Long and lanky, Dereck Lively stretched out in a chair in front of his locker inside Orlando’s Amway Center Saturday night staring ahead, lost in thought.

Still wearing his Duke No. 1 jersey, the 7-1 center was still absorbing the abrupt end to his freshman — and likely only — season with the Blue Devils.

“This isn’t what all came here for,” Lively said after Tennessee ousted Duke, 65-52, in the NCAA Tournament East Region second round. “We came here to get farther than this. I’m just glad me and my brothers are together to this point. I’m sad we didn’t get to where we wanted but it was a great year. We learned a lot. We all grew up.”

That sums up the first season of the rest of Duke’s basketball life, the first season without Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski since the 1979-80 campaign. Former Duke player and assistant coach Jon Scheyer replaced Krzyzewski as head coach, steering the Blue Devils through a season with painful lows, but also joyous highs.

There were painful, one-sided losses — a 75-56 loss to Purdue, a 84-60 pounding at N.C. State, and a 81-59 defeat at Miami, just to name three. Duke fell out of the Associated Press Top 25 in January and didn’t return until March, the kind of slippage not normally associated with the Blue Devils.

Injuries along the way, in preseason, the regular season and the postseason, to Lively, Dariq Whitehead, Jeremy Roach and Mark Mitchell complicated Scheyer’s first season.

Yet, a new banner will be placed in Cameron Indoor Stadium’s rafters to remember this season after Duke won the ACC championship. The Blue Devils went 16-0 at home. They swept rival North Carolina in their two regular-season games, two impactful dents in the Tar Heels’ resume that led to them becoming the first preseason No. 1 team to miss the NCAA Tournament since its 1985 expansion to 64 teams.

Mixed emotions, mixed results

Duke played its best basketball at the end of the season, riding a 10-game winning streak into Saturday’s game with Tennessee.

“We’ve had, really, a great season,” Scheyer said Saturday, “and it’s hard to reflect on all of that right now, in the moment. I’m hurting for these guys. They’ve given us everything you could ask for. They’ve fought through adversity. They’ve stuck together when things weren’t looking as good and came into this game one of the hottest teams in the country. We felt like we were supposed to win this game.”

Finishing with a 27-9 record but not advancing out of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend leaves mixed feelings, of course.

“Just knowing that we were capable of,” Whitehead said. “I feel like we were a Final Four team, a national championship team. So just knowing that we fell short of that goal, it’s gonna forever stick with us.”

But Scheyer certainly maintained Duke’s place as an ACC power with eyes on bigger national prizes. Only Miami and Virginia, both at 15-5, had better regular-season ACC records than Duke’s 14-6. The Blue Devils’ strong finish to the regular season and impressive ACC tournament title made them a Final Four pick among some national pundits.

Duke defense does the trick

The 35-year-old Scheyer did it by setting a foundation of strong, half-court defense backed up by solid rebounding. The Blue Devils finished No. 18 nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings. Teams only made 40.596% of their shots against the Blue Devils, which was No. 29 nationally.

With 7-footers Lively and Kyle Filipowski in the starting lineup, Duke rebounded 35.9% of its missed shots, ranking No. 10 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, according to KenPom.

Duke played its best defense down the stretch. Synergy Sports analytics shows that, over the final 16 games, only once did a team score more than a point per possession in a game against Duke. That was Miami, the ACC’s lone Sweet 16 entrant, when the Blue Devils won 85-78 in the ACC tournament semifinals.

That play is a straight-line result of Scheyer going outside the Duke family to add former Kentucky assistant Jai Lucas to the coaching staff. Lucas spearheaded Duke’s defensive plan this season.

Offensively, Duke wasn’t as good as past seasons, though. The Blue Devils finished No. 198 nationally in 3-point shooting (33.5%) and No. 147 nationally in overall shooting percentage (45.17%).

They turned the ball over on 18.3% of their possessions, ranking No. 191 nationally.

How Scheyer addresses this going forward, both in roster management and game planning, will be important.

Blue Devils look forward

As for the future, Duke has the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class signed and ready to arrive on campus this summer. It’s stacked with athletic forwards, like 6-8, 210-pound Mackenzie Mgbacko (No. 7 in the class); 6-8, 230-pound Sean Stewart (No. 13); and 6-8 TJ Power (No. 20).

In the backcourt, 6-5 Caleb Foster (No. 17) and 6-2 Jared McCain (No. 15) also enter as five-star recruits among the top 20 players in the class.

Ryan Young, the 6-10 graduate student center who played in all 36 games this season after transferring from Northwestern, said he’ll use his final season of eligibility to play for the Blue Devils next season.

Lively and Whitehead, both projected to be first-round picks in the NBA Draft, are the most likely of the freshmen to depart as one-and-done players.

Three other young players have tougher decisions to make, which could very well mean entering the draft pool to get feedback with the option of returning.

Point guard Tyrese Proctor’s play improved as the season progressed, which makes sense given he reclassified to join the Blue Devils a year earlier than planned. Filipowski was the ACC freshman of the year and won the Everett Case Award as the ACC tournament’s top player. Mitchell, a 6-8 forward, started every game of his freshman season until a knee injury kept him out of the Tennessee game.

Junior guard Jeremy Roach was the only starter from Duke’s 2022 Final Four team to stay for this season. He’s not considered a first-round talent by NBA scouts, so he has to decide if he’s done with the college game or if he wants to play one final year for Scheyer.

Asked about what he’d tell his teammates about the offseason following the Tennessee loss, Roach said, “the work never stops.”

“I mean, that’s really it,” he said. “The work never stops, stay the course. Keep your head high. We’ve got to be proud of this season. ACC champs. We had a hell of a season. It’s something to be proud of.”