Riding 9 game-winning streak and ACC Championship, Duke enters March Madness red hot

Photo by: Isaac Janiak Stein

Duke looks unrecognizable compared to just one month ago. 

Forget how the Blue Devils played at the beginning of the season, their play at the beginning of February is night and day to March. And what a time for the team to be clicking.

On February 6, just over a week after their 2-point win over Miami, Duke faced the Hurricanes again, this time in Coral Gables. Instead of the too-close-for-comfort victory from less than two weeks before, Duke got blown out for their biggest loss of the year. 

Their next game wasn’t much better, as Duke lost in overtime to Virginia in Charlottesville after a controversial missed call at the end of regulation. They finished this stretch with a close win against Notre Dame at home that left them at their lowest Kenpom ranking of the season at 42 in the country. 

It was at this point two months ago that Duke flipped their season on its head. Coach Jon Scheyer called their blowout loss to Miami the turning point in the season. Junior Captain Jeremy Roach agreed, saying the long team meeting he called after the loss made the players vulnerable with each other and got everyone on the same page.

It obviously worked, as the team is on a 9-game winning streak going into the NCAA Tournament. A team that was plagued with poor shot selection and bad continuity earlier this season is now playing like a cohesive unit.

From a time when their offensive rebounding and defense seemed like the only bright spot in a sloppy and inexperienced team, those strengths have only grown and anchored Duke. Their offensive rebounding continues to be one of their best assets, except now it’s partnered with a new attacking continuity that they were missing just a month prior.

Star freshman Kyle Filipowski now operates with an elite presence in the paint, with noticeably improved shot selection. 

Duke’s top two recruits – Dereck Lively Jr and Dariq Whitehead – struggled to find their place on the team, especially after they both came off multiple injuries to start the season. 

Lively has been essentially a non-factor on offense all year, and that greatly limited his minutes at the beginning of the season. Around the beginning of February, though, he found his role in a big way against North Carolina. Though he only scored twice, Lively recorded 14 rebounds and a whopping 8 blocks to help put away their rival. From then on, he’s become a formidable shot blocker and contester at the rim. His absence on the offensive end, though disappointing, is offset by his monstrous impact on defense. 

Whitehead has also greatly improved over the Blue Devils’ win streak, emerging as a shooting and scoring threat off the bench. He’s gotten more minutes as he’s developing his outside shot and attacking the basket more. 

And perhaps most significant of all, neither top recruit seems to be frustrated with their roles on the team. On the contrary, both are happy in finding their role and helping their team win.  

For all the growth this Freshman heavy team has had in the last stretch, enough cannot be said about the maturity, leadership, experience, and consistent play of Jeremy Roach. The Junior captain is the only starter Duke returned from last season, and is essentially the only player who played any major minutes last year. Roach’s return from injury in late January was huge for Duke, and the importance of his presence on the floor is clear as day.

Roach sets the pace offensively and facilitates to his younger counterparts. The team is in better continuity and plays smarter basketball when he’s on the floor. His impact is undeniable. 

The Blue Devils entered the ACC tournament coming off a decisive victory at UNC, which essentially booted the Tar Heels from the NCAA tournament. Roach’s experience was essential as Duke stayed calm in the most abrasive environment they played in all year. Over 30,000 screaming fans in baby blue didn’t shake the captain, who recorded 20 points and 7 rebounds. 

Just five days later they trounced Pitt by 26. Everything was clicking.

Their true test came in the semifinals. Miami stood in their way: the game was a test if the Blue Devils had really ‘turned their season around’ since they lost to the Canes. It was a heat check of sorts. Would the momentum hold up?

Duke played their best game to date. Another double double for Filipowski and a strong showing by the Blue Devils set their 8-game winning streak in stone. The team that had delivered them their worst blow of the year and sparked their vulnerable team meeting, their intervention, had fallen. 

The final against Virginia was no different. They held the Cavs to a season-low 17 points at half time, and 23 points from Roach and 20 and 10 from Flip gave Duke their first conference title of the Post-K era.

It’s a poetic and fitting turnaround that showcases how the Blue Devils are entering March Madness not as a brushed aside Freshman clown car, but as a serious contender.

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