It wasn’t even midway through the first half here on Saturday afternoon before Duke’s players returned to their bench during a timeout, looking a bit weary and beleaguered, and received a message from their coaches that became the refrain of what turned out to be their final game of the season.
“You gotta be strong!” Jai Lucas, the Blue Devils’ assistant coach, shouted into the huddle in an urging, pleading tone, as if he was trying to will that strength into those before him.
“We’ve got to be tougher,” Jon Scheyer, the first-year head coach, said calmly — the intensity of his eyes doing most of the talking. He repeated it again, shaking his head: “We’ve got to be tougher.”
That was pretty much the theme of Duke’s season-ending 65-52 defeat against Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Strength. Toughness. It wasn’t as if the Blue Devils were completely void of those characteristics. They fought. They grinded. In moments, they played with the requisite grit. Just not all the time, and not with enough of it to match Tennessee.
Of all the numbers that could distill Duke’s final game of the season to a single factor — the nine 3-pointers Tennessee made, or the 15 turnovers Duke committed, or that the Blue Devils shot but seven free throws in a game that sometimes resembled a wrestling match — 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. The second the average of Duke’s. This wasn’t men vs. boys, exactly, but it was grown men vs. ones who’ve just entered into adulthood. The Volunteers didn’t have a starter younger than 20, and their starters included two 22-year-olds and Uros Plavsic, 24. Duke, meanwhile, started four teenagers and Jeremy Roach, the junior guard who, at 21, is something like the team’s elder statesman.
With age comes experience, and strength, and the Volunteers punished the Blue Devils with both. Scheyer and his coaching staff sensed that from the beginning — from the very first play, in fact, when an elbow knocked back Kyle Filipowski, the Duke freshman forward, after he went up for a rebound. Duke’s coaches screamed for a review that didn’t 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 a bleeding Filipowski resembled Bloody (Eric) Montross from the 1992 Duke-North Carolina game in Chapel Hill. The difference: Montross was a junior then, and accustomed to the drama and intensity of college basketball on the grandest of stages. Filipowski, meanwhile, is a freshman who was playing in his second NCAA Tournament game — after vomiting a few minutes into his first, on Thursday night.
“It didn’t affect me, staying into it mentally,” a quiet Filipowski said, without looking up. “But you just can’t catch a break, this whole year.”
He was referencing other instances this season in which he was on the other side of physicality that left him, or Duke, as the only ones in pain. If Mike Krzyzewski were still around, he undoubtedly would’ve gone on for a while on Saturday about Tennessee’s fortitude, about how the Volunteers were “grown men” — one of Krzyewski’s pet phrases over the years. Scheyer, his successor, put it like this, of the intensity: It “really felt like a Sweet 16, Elite Eight kind of game.”
It did, with nary an empty seat at the Amway Center, and with the Blue Devils and Volunteers trading figurative and literal blows — though Tennessee dealt a lot more of them. It didn’t help that Duke played on without Mark Mitchell, another freshman who, at 6-foot-8, was undoubtedly missed while he nursed a knee injury he sustained in practice on Friday. Mitchell had started every game and had he started Saturday it would’ve made a difference.
But the difference? Perhaps not, against a Tennessee team that closely resembled coach Rick Barnes’ bruising Clemson teams of the late 1990s — those that played with all the finesse and aesthetic beauty of a dump truck. Love Barnes’ preferred style of play or disdain it, he has at least remained committed to the act. For decades now his teams have shown up and challenged opponents to match their physicality, and the Blue Devils simply 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 scoring drought of nearly five minutes; four consecutive misses from the field; possession after possession in which they showed their youth. Three times in the second half Duke cut Tennessee’s lead to four points, but never during the final nine minutes and never to fewer than four. Meanwhile, Tennessee’s Olivier Nkamhoua mostly did what he wanted after halftime, when he scored 23 of his 27 points.
You won’t see Nkamhoua, 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-and-done. On Saturday, he looked like the old guy at the Y, schooling kids who might possess more natural talent but don’t yet have the savvy of someone who’s been around for a while and seen some things.
That was the game, essentially: Tennessee’s experience and strength versus Duke’s talent and potential. The loss brought an end to Scheyer’s first season, one in which there was a lot to like.
Duke won the ACC tournament. It reached a level of defense no Duke team had played in years. The Blue Devils entered Saturday on a 10-game winning streak, and became a trendy pick to make it to Houston and the Final Four, if not to win the entire thing. In recent days, there came to be almost a feeling of inevitability around this Duke team, as if it was destined for something larger.
And then it was over. With a quickness. That’s March.
One night you’re looking almost invincible, fully healthy, in an easy first-round win against Oral Roberts. Two nights later you’re suddenly missing a starter and wondering where it all went wrong. At least it wasn’t difficult to understand, for Duke.
For programs of its caliber, the challenge in this environment is always going to be striking the balance between difference-making talent and team-building. For years, Duke has been so talented that its best players stay for only a year. The roster essentially turns over annually. Between the Blue Devils and Volunteers, this Duke team will undoubtedly place more players in the NBA. Tennessee, though, is the one moving on.
It was older. Tougher. Stronger.
Tennessee was on to New York City, and the Sweet 16. Duke was on its way back to Durham, without peeling any of the memorabilia off the walls of its locker room, the way some losing teams do to keep a memory of March. No, these Blue Devils expected the journey to last a while longer. To be sure, they learned some lessons in defeat on Saturday. Now the question becomes how many of them will stick around to carry those lessons forward.