ORLANDO – There is no discernible pattern of bloodstains on the fluffy green carpet inside the Duke’s locker room. There are too many smudges to count, at least quickly: a small semicircle of smudges near the center of the room, a larger dot of them near Kyle Filipowski’s dresser. But they, as much silence in the tiny changing 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 opening team—for all his accomplishments, an ACC championship and “one thing considered closed” away from the regular season—didn’t make it out of the first weekend. This, given the team’s 10-game winning streak going into Saturday, can count as nothing but disappointing. On paper, this team had all the makings of a trendy Final Four pick, especially with the friendly frontiers of Madison Square Garden waiting one win away.
“It hurts,” Cher said. “It’s going to be like this for a while.”
Part of that is because, in many ways, Tennessee is the reflection of Duke. According to KenPom, the Blue Devils are ranked first nationally in average length this season; Volunteers, on the other hand, were No. 1 in effective height. Both teams are practicing top 10 defenses and taller than the woods. the difference? Rick Barnes’ starting squad — especially without sophomore guard Zakai Ziegler, who finished the year with a torn ACL — has four seniors. On the other hand, Scheyer starts with four freshmen. Now, that means less and less over the course of the season, but there’s still something to be said for taking on a group of big, giant, grizzled men. “It’s definitely the most physical game we’ve had all season,” said young captain Jeremy Roach. “We felt like we knew it.”
However, knowing it and experiencing it firsthand are two completely different things. Tennessee literally teetered out of the tunnel. Less than a minute into the game, 7-foot-1 Uros Blavsic swung his elbow backwards at Filipowski while grabbing a rebound, immediately starting the charge for the next 39 minutes. Just six minutes later, that intensity escalated to another level, when Filipovski elbowed him under his left eye, causing fat to tear and spurt blood on the hardwood.
By that time, the line between boxing and basketball was blurring. (Fittingly, as the game went on, Duke’s coach José Fonseca had Filipowski’s face present like a certified cutting man in the ring.) It was a fistfight played on the basketball floor, basically.
Whatever could not go wrong for Doc today, he did.
A perfect storm of injuries, flops, huge troubles, and inconsistency that Duke seemed to have weathered…and yet, here we go.
– Brendan Marks (@BrendanRMarks) March 18, 2023
Duke, as Mike Krzyzewski sure told those who surrounded him while watching him on TV, was “fired.” This was particularly the case given the sudden change in lineup at the last second; Freshman forward Mark Mitchell — the 6-foot-8 defensive stopper with a 7-foot wingspan, one of only two starters in every game up to this point along with Filipowski — was instead listed as questionable with a knee injury. Sher said the post game that Mitchell tweaked in practice Friday, but he still went through the warm-up trying to play, before he and the staff jointly determined he didn’t have the right rush. That was five minutes before the tip. “It was a little hectic, right before the game,” Scheer said.
Despite this absence, Duke bounced back from an early gut punch dealt by Tennessee and went 9-0 to go up six midway through the first period. As has been the story of this team all season, it fought and got better, Saturday in real time. But the fols didn’t go willingly, and when Santiago Vescovi—who finished with 14 points and 4 scored in 3 seconds—answered that run with a triple, the momentum swung Tennessee’s way. The rest of the first half was, indeed, a rocky fight, as evidenced by the combined 10 fouls in the first 13 minutes and the massive offenses by both teams. On the break, Duke had as many errors (eight) as baskets made, to go along with his 11 turnovers — and across the break, it went scoreless for two seconds shy of seven minutes.
Subtly, something perhaps more illustrative of just how turbulent Tennessee’s defense is? Duke had about the same number of 2s and 3s in the first half (11), though that wasn’t the team’s winning formula at any point this season.
“They did a great job of not letting us get in on our act, not letting us switch sides of the floor,” said Ryan Young. “To be effective, we are a team that has to move the ball around, put the ball up the post, look at different actions, certainly in the first half – I thought the second half was a bit different – I think we had trouble getting into our natural sets and what we do best. “.
To make matters worse, Roach—who finished with 13 points and committed half of the team’s six points—committed his third personal foul with 5:58 remaining in the first half. So when he picked up his fourth even five minutes into the second half, after tweaking his left ankle, he really put Scheer in trouble.
Here we are, his squad on the mend, dropping his most versatile defender, his experienced captain in bad trouble, and the season slowly ticking by.
“It’s hard when you’re not as aggressive as you want to be,” said Roach. “You’re thinking you’ve got one more foul to give, and knowing those referees, any little touch, you’ll probably get a fifth.”
Partly to protect Roach — and partly because Tennessee was too tough to stop in the paint — Scheyer eventually switched to a 2-3 district, which the team only played on 3.8 percent of its possessions going into Saturday, per Synergy. The first possession she made, resulted in a shot clock violation. success.
Then came Oliver Nakamhua.
When Tennessee beat Texas again on Jan. 5, the 6-foot-9 was the story, finishing with 27 points on 12-of-15 — and since then, he’s been a big game, someone who hit 15 3-pointers. all season. But once Duke moved into the area, he completely took charge, draining three of his four 3-point attempts, varying in depth and frustration. At one point, he scored 13 straight points for Tennessee.
The duke didn’t have an answer for him.
Or, at least nobody played — that answer stuck on the bench, next to assistant coach Emil Jefferson. No matter what splits happen later, Mitchell will be missing out – a perfect Nkamhua defender – what would – if Duke fans can’t stop debating.
He’s our brother,” said freshman Derek Lively II, who became the first player since 1960 to score 10 rebounds and not attempt a shot in an NCAA tournament game. “He’s always there on defense, making sure he gives his best.” His best”.
Instead, Nakamus single-handedly stifled Duke’s return. Despite Proctor’s 14 points in the second half, and Roach battling through injury and horrendous trouble, the Blue Devils couldn’t get the shortstops needed to advance to the Sweet 16. When the buzzer finally sounded, the team – some quiet, some crying – came out to Rocky Top plays in the background by a Tennessee squad, which is an odd kind of end to a short trip to the NCAA Tournament. Mitchell let go of his fist, steps ahead of Lively, who could only stare straight ahead.
In the training room adjacent to the changing room, Mitchell sat at a table—still in his full jersey—behind, head in hands, unopened blue Powerade to his right. For his colleagues, who were left to face the reporters, the truth of what had happened hit the ground running. Dariq Whitehead, who started in place of Mitchell and scored eight points (but didn’t attempt a shot in the second half), was already in tears when the doors opened. When asked how he was feeling, the freshman ward swallowed, choking out the only words he could: “Ah, it hurts a little.” Young, one of the team’s few experienced players, pulled himself together for interviews, but his eyes became glassy once the cameras stopped rolling. Disqualified Jacob Grandison was quiet for a while… until he had to take his shirt off for the last time.
Lively, one of the team’s most emotional players on the outside, summed it all up as well as could be:
“Terrible. You don’t want to go out like this,” he said. “This isn’t where you want to end your story.”
(Top photo of Duke’s Kyle Filipowski: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)