While Kyle Filipowski took an unhindered but unintentional blow to the neck Monday night, Duke mbasketball absorbed another cruel blow to its season.
No, the 78-75 loss to Virginia Tech wasn’t a knockout punch, even if it felt like it. Nor has it changed the Blue Devils’ postseason trajectory. Not even a little. Despite another road defeat, this time to an ACC foe that entered the week on a seven-game losing streak with one conference win — an 80-72 victory over UNC on Dec. 4 — Duke (14-6, 4- 4 ACC) only fell from No. 29 to 31 in the NET, and in ESPN’s Bracketology, it remained a solid fifth-seed for the NCAA Tournament.
But Monday’s defeat continued to reveal some harsh truths about Jon Scheyer’s first team, and with the ACC Tournament and March Madness fast approaching, the 35-year-old rookie coach is running out of time.
There are some things Scheyer can’t control—injuries for one.
Duke started the season without a healthy Dariq Whitehead and Dereck Lively II. In late November, junior captain Jeremy Roach suffered a toe injury that kept him out for three games in January. Against Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils may have lost Whitehead for good.
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After a slow start, the 6-foot, 220-pound forward had become one of the team’s most consistent offensive threats, scoring at least 10 points in six of the last eight games. He exited Monday’s game with 10 points and a calf injury that required help from teammates to carry him to the team’s locker room. Whitehead returned to the field on crutches. His status for Saturday’s game in Atlanta against Georgia Tech remains in doubt.
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Regardless of the injury, Duke failed to make its first NCAA Tournament dry run. The Blue Devils had just two days to prepare for the trip to Blacksburg after a 68-66 win against No. 17 Miami. They came out swinging against the Hokies, scoring the game’s first seven points, but turnovers and an inability to close halves cost them again.
Duke went 3-of-11 in the final 6:39 of the first half and ballooned to a 45-38 lead at halftime. With the score tied at 67 after Ryan Young’s put-back layup with 7:07 left in the second half, the Blue Devils hit just two of their final 10 shots. It was a similar story in a loss to Clemson, and even worse against NC State, where Duke missed its first 13 shots and fell behind 18-0.
This is really not a strong shooting team. According to KenPom, Duke’s offense ranks 267thth in 3-point percentage and hitting less than 50% of 2s.
That won’t cut it, though Filipowski, a walking double-double, continues to emerge as a top contender for ACC freshman of the year. He finished with 29 points and 10 rebounds against the Hokies. Tyrese Proctor and Whitehead were the only two others in double figures with 10 points each.
The casual hit he took from Virginia Tech’s MJ Collins as Collins was celebrating his eventual game-winning jumper with 13.6 seconds left? Yes, it made him throw up in the ensuing cluster. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t going anywhere.
“Yeah, he elbowed me right in the Adam’s apple and I couldn’t breathe for a minute,” Filipowski said after the game. “So I just needed to throw up and I was good.”
It’s that toughness that inspires confidence in what this team can be: a defensive, offensive-rebounding trailblazer that ranks second nationally in average height with the ability to drive the lane and score quickly in bunches.
It wouldn’t hurt for Scheyer to show his own toughness. Short of the Filipowski incident — NCAA rules say it should have been called a flagrant 1 — the emotion and outrage was synonymous with the Coach K era at Duke. Scheyer has chosen to remain the most composed on the bench this season, especially with officials.
“It’s about navigating the game, it’s not about going into panic mode,” Scheyer said earlier this month after Duke’s embarrassing 84-60 loss to NC State in Raleigh. “It’s about winning the next possession and the possession after that. That’s where my mind goes.”
But the composure Scheyer has tried to implement appears to be lost when his team leaves the confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke is 10-0 at home, 3-2 in neutral-site games and 1-4 – almost 0-5 – in road games this season.
Scheyer will have to ask for more from his team: more consistent shooting from Tyrese Proctor and Jacob Grandison and increased production from Lively, who played 14 minutes and took three shots against Virginia Tech. If Whitehead is out for an extended period of time, even more will be put on Roach, and Jaylen Blakes will be asked to play a bigger role off the bench.
“Believe them (VT), I know it was an important game for them. It was an important game for us. Hate it for our guys, we want to learn from it, continue to grow,” Scheyer said Monday. “Long way to go.”
Yes, there is still a long way to go this season. Well, in a way. But is there enough time to turn things around?