March Madness: Tennessee uses strong defensive effort to knock Duke from NCAA tournament

Duke entered Saturday’s second-round NCAA tournament game vs. Tennessee on a roll.

The No. 5 seed in the East, the Blue Devils won their final six regular season games, cruised to an ACC tournament championship and then blasted Oral Roberts in the first round.

But Jon Scheyer’s young Blue Devils could not match the strength and physicality of a veteran Tennessee squad.

The Volunteers, the East’s fourth seed, used a ferocious defensive effort and an uncharacteristically strong outside shooting performance to eliminate the overmatched Blue Devils and move on to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2019.

In the 65-52 win in Orlando, Tennessee connected on 42.9% of its 3-point attempts while forcing 15 turnovers and out-manning Duke on the glass. Duke ranks seventh nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (35.3%) but corralled only six of its misses in the loss.

There wasn’t much offense early on, but Tennessee closed out the first half on a 14-2 run to take control of the game. On multiple occasions, Duke looked poised to significantly cut into the lead but Tennessee always responded.

The Vols, playing their fifth game without standout point guard Zakai Zeigler, got timely shooting from Olivier Nkamhoua and Santiago Vescovi, particularly in the second half. Nkamhoua had one of the best games of his career. The senior from Finland posted 27 points in the win, tying his career high. Nkamhoua scored 17 of Tennessee's final 19 points and all but four of his 27 points came in the second half.

Vescovi, meanwhile, had 14 points, five rebounds and five assists. All four of his made field goals came from 3.

Now in the Sweet 16, Tennessee will face the winner of Sunday’s second-round matchup between No. 9 Florida Atlantic and No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Tennessee's veterans overwhelmed Duke's freshmen

Duke typically starts four five-star freshmen and brings a fifth, Dariq Whitehead, off the bench. In this meeting, Mark Mitchell was out with a knee injury. That moved Whitehead into the starting lineup and shortened an already short Duke bench.

Tennessee was able to exploit the youth and lack of depth for Duke. Tennessee has five seniors that play extensive minutes and an array of big men able to bang bodies in the paint. Duke's Kyle Filipowski found that out the hard way. Filipowski leads Duke in scoring and is incredibly skilled for a 7-footer, but he took two hard fouls early on and later took an inadvertent elbow to the face while going for a rebound.

That physical play down low coupled with Tennessee's wing defenders constantly bumping and grabbing Duke's guards made life difficult for the Blue Devils to establish any sort of offensive rhythm. It was all by design.

Tennessee was the more poised team and wanted to turn this game into a street fight. The Vols did just that. Duke could never get comfortable and saw its season end in the round of 32.

Olivier Nkamhoua of the Tennessee Volunteers shoots the ball over Kyle Filipowski of the Duke Blue Devils on March 18, 2023. (Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)
Olivier Nkamhoua of the Tennessee Volunteers shoots the ball over Kyle Filipowski of the Duke Blue Devils on March 18, 2023. (Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images) (Kevin Sabitus via Getty Images)

What should we make of Jon Scheyer's first season?

Scheyer played at Duke and spent nearly a decade as a Blue Devils assistant before being promoted to head coach following the retirement of Mike Krzyzewski. Krzyzewski set an incredibly high bar by winning five national championships and going to four additional Final Fours. Needless to say, Scheyer had tough shoes to fill.

His first year on the job was a mixed bag. Duke dealt with quite a few injuries over the course of the season. It was a bumpy ride at times, but the Blue Devils closed the season with a flourish by winning the ACC tournament.

Duke had a 10-game winning streak entering Saturday's game and looked like a team that could make a deep run. But the Blue Devils ran into a team that could physically overwhelm them. And with a limited rotation, Duke, which finished with a 27-9 record, could just not string enough offense together to give itself a chance to move on.

With the season over, Scheyer and his staff will move into roster construction mode. The Blue Devils have another terrific recruiting class coming in and several of the current freshmen could be out the door to the NBA.

Duke is going to look different next season, but it won't lack for talent.