It wasn’t even midway through the first half here on Saturday afternoon that Duke players returned to their benches during a timeout, looking a bit tired and haggard, and received a message from their coaches, which turned out to be The message is done. Last game of the season.
“You have to be strong!” Jay Lucas, the Blue Devils’ assistant coach, shouted into the crowd in an insistent, pleading tone, as if he was trying to channel that power into those in front of him.
“We’ve been tough,” first-year head coach John Shearer said calmly — the intensity in his eyes doing most of the talking. He repeated it again, shaking his head: “We’ve Received To be difficult
Duke’s season-ending 65–52 loss against Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA tournament was largely the topic. Strength. stiffness. Not that the Blue Devils were completely void of those attributes. they fought. They got crushed. In moments, he played with the expected poise. Just not all the time, and not enough to match Tennessee.
All of those numbers could distill Duke’s final game of the season into a single factor — the nine 3-pointers Tennessee made, or the 15 turnovers Duke committed, or the Blue Devils’ seven free throws in one game. Which were sometimes similar. Wrestling Matches — The most important were probably these: 21.8 and 19.
The first of those was the average age of Tennessee’s starting five on Saturday. Duke’s second average. It wasn’t really men versus boys, but rather it was adult men versus people who had just entered adulthood. The Volunteers did not have a starter younger than 20, and their starters included two 22-year-olds and Uros Plavsik, 24. The elder statesman of the team.
With age comes experience and power, and the Volunteers punished the Blue Devils with both. Scheer and his coaching staff felt it from the start – from the very first play, in fact, when an elbow tripped Kyle Filipowski, the Duke freshman forward, after going up for a rebound. Duke’s coaches shouted for a review that did not come and moments later, Filipowski again found himself on the other end of a blow, this one that left him with a cut under his left eye.
For a second or two, Filipowski’s bloodbath resembled Bloody (Eric) Montrose’s at the 1992 Duke-North Carolina game in Chapel Hill. Difference: Montrose was a junior at the time, and accustomed to the drama and intensity of college basketball on the grandest stages. Filipowski, meanwhile, is a freshman playing in just his second NCAA tournament game — after vomiting in his first minute on Thursday night.
“It didn’t affect me, mentally staying in it,” a calm Filipovsky said without looking up. “But you can’t catch a break this whole year.”
He was referring to other instances this season in which he was on the other side of physicality that left him or Duke only as pain. If Mike Krzyzewski were still around, he undoubtedly would have gone on at length about Tennessee’s fate on Saturday, about how the Volunteers were “grown men” — one of Krzyzewski’s pet phrases over the years. His successor, Shearer, put it this way in terms of intensity: it “really felt like a Sweet 16, Elite Eight type of game.”
It did so with an empty seat at the Amway Center, and the Blue Devils and Volunteers trading figurative and literal blows — though Tennessee dealt a lot of them. It didn’t help that Duke played without Mark Mitchell, another freshman who at 6-foot-8 undoubtedly missed time while he treated a knee injury in practice Friday. Mitchell started every game and it would have made a difference if he had started on Saturday.
But Difference? Probably not, against a Tennessee team that resembled coach Rick Barnes’ injury-plagued Clemson teams in the late 1990s—ones that played with all the finesse and aesthetic beauty of a dump truck. Love or hate Barnes’ preferred playing style, at least he’s committed to acting. For decades now his teams have challenged opponents to match their physical prowess, and the Blue Devils just couldn’t.
They were hit in the face, literally, early on and then ended the first half with some of their most unproductive play of the season – a nearly five-minute scoring drought; four consecutive misses from the field; Capture after capture in which he showed his youth. Three times in the second half, Duke cut Tennessee’s lead to four points, but never during the final nine minutes and never less than four. Meanwhile, Tennessee’s Olivier Nkemahoua did mostly what he wanted after halftime, when he scored 23 of his 27 points.
You won’t see Nakamahoa, one of four seniors in the Volunteers’ starting lineup, near the top of any NBA draft projections. He wasn’t a one-and-done or even a two- or three-done. On Saturday, he looked like the old man at the Y, the school kid who may have more natural talent but not yet the understanding of someone who’s been around a while and seen a few things.
That was the game, essentially: Tennessee’s experience and strength versus Duke’s talent and ability. This defeat ended Shearer’s debut season, which had been praised by much.
Duke won the ACC Tournament. It reached a level of defense that a Duke team had not played in years. The Blue Devils entered Saturday on a 10-game winning streak, and became a trendy pick to make Houston and a Final Four spot, if not win the whole thing. In recent times, there has been an almost sense of inevitability surrounding this Duke team, as if it was destined to become something big.
And then it was over. Quickly. That’s March.
On night one you look almost invincible, fully healthy, en route to an easy first round win against Oral Roberts. Two nights later you’re suddenly missing the starter and wondering where it all went wrong. It was not difficult in the least for the Duke to understand it.
For programs of their caliber, the challenge in this environment is always going to be striking a balance between difference-making talent and team building. Duke has been so talented over the years that its best players only last a year. The roster essentially changes annually. Between the Blue Devils and the Volunteers, this Duke team will undoubtedly put more players in the NBA. Tennessee, however, is moving on.
It was old. Difficult. Strong.
Tennessee was in New York City, and the Sweet 16. Duke was coming back to Durham without peeling any memorabilia from his locker room walls the way some losing teams do to commemorate the march. No, these Blue Devils expected the journey to last a little longer. Certainly, he learned some lessons in Saturday’s defeat. The question now is how many of them will stick around to take those lessons forward.