Duke entered Saturday’s second-round NCAA tournament game against Tennessee on a roll.
Fifth seed in the East, the Blue Devils won their final six games of the regular season to capture an ACC Tournament Championship and defeat Oral Roberts in the first round.
But Jon Scheyer’s young Blue Devils couldn’t match the strength and physicality of a veteran Tennessee team.
The Volunteers, the fourth seed from the East, used a fierce defensive effort and an unusually strong outside kicking performance to eliminate the outclassed Blue Devils and move into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2019.
In Orlando’s 65-52 victory, Tennessee hit 42.9% of their 3-point attempts, forcing 15 turnovers and surpassing Duke for the cup. Duke ranks seventh nationally in offensive rebound percentage (35.3%), but has recovered just six of his failures in 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 several occasions, Duke looked poised to significantly cut the lead, but Tennessee always responded.
The Vols, playing their fifth game without standout guard Zakai Zeigler, had timely shots from Olivier Nkamhoua and Santiago Vescovi, particularly in the second half. Nkamhoua had one of the best games of his career. The Finland senior added 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 had 14 points, five rebounds and five assists. All four goals scored came from 3.
Now in the Sweet 16, Tennessee will face Sunday’s second round winner of No. 9 Florida Atlantic and the No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Tennessee seniors outperformed Duke freshmen
Duke typically starts with four five-star rookies and brings in a fifth, Dariq Whitehead, off the bench. At this meeting, Mark Mitchell was out with a knee injury. This put Whitehead in the starting lineup and shortened an already short Duke bench.
Tennessee was able to exploit Duke’s youth and lack of depth. Tennessee has five seniors who play long minutes and a number of big men capable of slamming bodies in the paint. Duke’s Kyle Filipowski found this out the hard way. Filipowski leads Duke in scoring and is incredibly skilled for a 7-footer, but he took two early fouls and then took an inadvertent elbow to the face while trying for a rebound.
That low physical play, coupled with Tennessee quarterbacks constantly bumping and grabbing Duke’s guards, made it difficult for the Blue Devils to establish any kind of offensive rhythm. It was all planned.
Tennessee was the more balanced team and wanted to turn the game into a street fight. The Vols did just that. Duke never felt comfortable and saw his season end in the Round of 16.
What should we make of Jon Scheyer’s first season?
Scheyer played at Duke and spent nearly a decade as an assistant with the Blue Devils before being promoted to head coach following the retirement of Mike Krzyzewski. Krzyzewski set an incredibly high bar by winning five national championships and reaching four additional finals. Needless to say, Scheyer had shoes that were tough to fill.
His first year on the job was a mixed bag. Duke dealt with a few injuries throughout the season. It was a bumpy ride at times, but the Blue Devils ended the season with a flourish by winning the ACC Tournament.
Duke had a 10-game winning streak going into Saturday’s game and looked like a team that could do well. But the Blue Devils found a team that could physically dominate them. And with a limited rotation, Duke, who finished 27-9, just couldn’t line up the offense enough to give himself a chance to move forward.
With the season ending, Scheyer and his team will enter squad-building mode. The Blue Devils have another great recruiting class coming up and several of their current rookies could be out of the NBA.
Duke will be different next season, but he won’t be short of talent.