Tuesday night was a great night for Duke Basketball. Not only did Duke beat a really good team in NC State, the Devils delivered the first undefeated home season since 2014. And they did it in Jon Scheyer’s rookie season as head coach. And it’s also the first time that a first-year ACC head coach has gone undefeated at home. And all of that is cool. But that’s not the big takeaway.
Well, actually there are two things to focus on here: individual and collective improvement. Obviously they’re tied together.
First is just Duke’s improvement and maturation. You could see it individually in Tyrese Proctor, Dereck Lively, Kyle Filipowski, Jeremy Roach, Mark Mitchell, Dariq Whitehead, Ryan Young and Jacob Grandison.
Proctor’s is in many ways the most impressive. He’s gone from reticent to arrogant, and we mean that as a compliment. He tied Terquavion Smith in knots Tuesday, holding him to eight points, and most of those were late (Smith’s frustration was quite visible too). This comes after his stellar turn against Virginia Tech, where senior Hunter Cattoor only got four shots in 38 minutes.
It’s not even just the effectiveness. It’s the intensity he’s applying to defense. The guy is really busting it. We thought Duke would improve, we thought Proctor would improve. We didn’t think he’d improve this much this fast.
The confidence is showing up on offense now. He’s not as effective as he will be, but when he shoots, he expects it to go in. You couldn’t really say that earlier.
And he’s become a highly effective penetrator too.
Lively established his defensive prowess some time ago. No one really doubts that at this point. But he’s also improved in some other key areas.
First, he’s not fouling as much and certainly not getting dumb ones very often anymore. Second, he used to get stripped a lot because he just wasn’t strong enough to resist that. Now when he gets a board, he holds on to it. He shot 6-6 Tuesday, grabbed seven rebounds and had three blocks. That’s a pretty great night.
Filipowski’s challenge is a bit different.
He started off great and became a target for ACC defenses. Virginia shut him out from the floor and Virginia Tech limited him to 3-7. NC State held him to 2-11. He’s going to get banged up, as we’ve seen. But he’s shooting his free throws well and still rebounding: he got 14 against the Pack.
Roach has really turned it up. His toe injury, which we thought might have been chronic, may have been a blessing in disguise: it forced everyone to step up, not least of all Proctor, who is now running the point primarily, allowing Roach to penetrate. And he did that brilliantly against NC State Tuesday night. He blew by State’s defenders - and State is a really sound defensive team - like they were nothing. He’s proving to be an outstanding leader.
Mitchell has been solid all season, but lately he’s really been hitting his stride. He’s taking advantage of his length and getting shots near the lane that are very hard to stop. We’ve been calling him Maximum Mark Mitchell when he plays like that. He’s kind of a quiet player and you don’t necessarily notice what he’s doing, but if he was doing it wrong you’d sure as hell notice. Watching him move from competent to outstanding has been fun.
Whitehead has struggled with two injuries this season, but he dramatically improved his three point shooting while he was out and it’s paying off. That’s an area where Duke could still improve and he’s the most likely guy to step up. Well, he already has and he can do more. We’ve only seen the surface of his game.
Young and Grandison have been very valuable players. We used to think that Young was a bit of a liability on defense, but last night he bumped with State’s massive DJ Burns on relatively even terms and in the last few games, he’s really surprised us with his shot blocking. Didn’t see that coming. He’s also a tough rebounder and a guy who can get a few baskets inside when it doesn’t look like he can. He’s not exactly a leaper, but he manages to get shots off when it doesn’t really look possible.
And, like Grandison, he’s a stabilizer.
You may have noticed that at times, Scheyer sends those two in to calm the team down. Neither one is an NBA player or anything - Young is too limited athletically, and Grandison is not quick enough and not nearly strong enough - but they understand the game and their roles. Both of them are invaluable.
Collectively, the team has matured. This is most obvious in turnovers. Look at those since the Miami blowout:
- Miami - 21
- Virginia - 22
- Notre Dame - 8
- Syracuse - 14
- Louisville - 6
- Virginia Tech - 9
- NC State - 10
That’s a rather significant improvement, let alone from the early part of the season, where Duke would have bundles of turnovers that seemingly bred and multiplied. These guys know each other and trust each other now.
The other key area where Duke has gotten better is in winning time.
The Blue Devils are still young of course, but earlier in the season, they lost their composure occasionally and didn’t really know what to do in the clutch. This was made worse by Roach’s injury, since he was Duke’s only returning starter and the only returning upperclassman too.
Duke still struggles at the end of games offensively, but now it’s more of a bend but don’t break kind of struggle.
You don’t want to engage in what-ifs too much, but in this case, it’s worth it.
First, if the officials hadn’t blown the call at the end of the Virginia game, Duke could easily be tied for second place in the ACC.
We’re not as sure about the Virginia Tech game, but one of Duke’s best players was essentially assaulted at the very end of the game and went to the bench and vomited. To be clear, we don’t think Michael Collins punched Filipowski on purpose, but nonetheless, the Hokies gained a significant advantage. And there’s a reasonable chance that this team - the one we see now - would have won at Wake Forest and Clemson.
Most of that is really what-if territory, but the end of the UVA game was horribly mishandled.
In this bracket, UNC, Miami and NC State are all on the bottom half. Duke would still have to deal with the winner of the Tech Bowl and then Clemson, should they advance and then most likely Pitt. No one is easy in March, but even so, you couldn’t ask for a much better scenario.