What is wrong with Duke men's basketball and can Jon Scheyer fix it before NCAA tournament?
While Kyle Filipowski was taking an unobstructed yet unintended strike to the throat on Monday night, Duke men's basketball was absorbing another vicious body blow to its season.
No, the 78-75 loss to Virginia Tech was not a knockout punch, even if it felt like it. Nor has it changed the Blue Devils’ postseason trajectory. Not even a little bit. 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 dropped from No. 29 to 31 in the NET, and in ESPN’s Bracketology, remained a firm fifth-seed for the NCAA Tournament.
But Monday’s defeat continued to expose some hard truths about Jon Scheyer’s first team, and with the ACC Tournament and March Madness quickly approaching, the 35-year-old rookie coach is running out of time.
There are some things that 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.
After a slow start, the 6-foot-7, 220-pound forward had become one of the team’s most consistent offensive threats, scoring at least 10 points in six of the past eight games. He exited Monday's game with 10 points and a lower leg injury that prompted help from teammates to carry him to the team’s locker room. Whitehead returned to the court on crutches. His status for Saturday’s game in Atlanta against Georgia Tech remains in question.
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Regardless of the injury, Duke failed its first NCAA Tournament dry run. The Blue Devils had only 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 on-ball turnovers and an inability to close out halves cost them again.
Duke went 3-of-11 in the final 6:39 of the first half and saw a close game balloon to a 45-38 halftime deficit. 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 only two of their last 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 trailed 18-0.
Truly, this is not a strong shooting team. According to KenPom, Duke's offense ranks 267th in 3-point percentage and hits less than 50% of its 2s.
That won’t cut it, even as Filipowski, a walking double-double, continues to emerge as a top candidate for ACC freshman of the year. He finished with 29 points and 10 rebounds against the Hokies. Tyrese Proctor and Whitehead were the only other two in double figures with 10 points apiece.
The accidental punch he took from Virginia Tech’s MJ Collins as Collins celebrated his eventual game-winning jumper with 13.6 seconds left? Yeah, it made him throw up in the ensuing huddle. Didn’t matter. He wasn’t going anywhere.
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“Yeah, he just elbowed me right in my Adam’s apple, and I couldn’t breathe for a minute,” Filipowski said postgame. “So, I just needed to throw up and I was good.”
It’s that toughness that inspires confidence in what this team could be: a defensive-minded, offensive-rebounding juggernaut that is second nationally in average height with the ability to run the court and score quickly in bunches.
It wouldn't hurt for Scheyer to show some toughness of his own. Missing from the Filipowski incident – NCAA rules state it should’ve been called a flagrant 1 – was the emotion and outrage synonymous with the Coach K era at Duke. Scheyer has chosen to remain mostly composed on the bench this season, particularly toward 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 possession after that. That’s where my mind goes.”
But the composure Scheyer has tried to implement seems 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 – nearly 0-5 – in road games this season.
Scheyer must 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 gone for an extended period, even more will be put on Roach, and Jaylen Blakes will be asked to play a bigger role off the bench.
“Credit them (VT), I know it was an important game for them. It was an important game for us. Hate it for our guys, we’ll learn from it, keep growing,” Scheyer said Monday. “Long way to go.”
Yes, there’s still a long way to go this season. Well, kind of. But is there enough time to turn things around?
This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: Can Jon Scheyer fix Duke basketball before March Madness?