Andrew Carter: Duke's season comes to abrupt end, amid painful lesson on toughness and the perils of youth

Andrew Carter, The Charlotte Observer on

Published in Basketball

ORLANDO, Fla. — It wasn’t even midway through the first half here on Saturday afternoon before Duke’s players returned to their bench during a timeout, looking a bit weary and beleaguered, and received a message from their coaches that became the refrain of what turned out to be their final game of the season.

“You gotta be strong!” Jai Lucas, the Blue Devils’ assistant coach, shouted into the huddle in an urging, pleading tone, as if he was trying to will that strength into those before him.

“We’ve got to be tougher,” Jon Scheyer, the first-year head coach, said calmly — the intensity of his eyes doing most of the talking. He repeated it again, shaking his head: “We’ve got to be tougher.”

That was pretty much the theme of Duke’s season-ending 65-52 defeat against Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Strength. Toughness. It wasn’t as if the Blue Devils were completely void of those characteristics. They fought. They grinded. In moments, they played with the requisite grit. Just not all the time, and not with enough of it to match Tennessee.

Of all the numbers that could distill Duke’s final game of the season to a single factor — the nine 3-pointers Tennessee made, or the 15 turnovers Duke committed, or that the Blue Devils shot but seven free throws in a game that sometimes resembled a wrestling match — the most important were probably these: 21.8 and 19.

The first of those was the average age of Tennessee’s starting five on Saturday. The second the average of Duke’s. This wasn’t men vs. boys, exactly, but it was grown men vs. ones who’ve just entered into adulthood. The Volunteers didn’t have a starter younger than 20, and their starters included two 22-year-olds and Uros Plavsic, 24. Duke, meanwhile, started four teenagers and Jeremy Roach, the junior guard who, at 21, is something like the team’s elder statesman.


With age comes experience, and strength, and the Volunteers punished the Blue Devils with both. Scheyer and his coaching staff sensed that from the beginning — from the very first play, in fact, when an elbow knocked back Kyle Filipowski, the Duke freshman forward, after he went up for a rebound. Duke’s coaches screamed for a review that didn’t come and, moments later, Filipowski again found himself on the other end of a blow, this one that left him with a cut under his left eye.

For a second or two a bleeding Filipowski resembled Bloody (Eric) Montross from the 1992 Duke-North Carolina game in Chapel Hill. The difference: Montross was a junior then, and accustomed to the drama and intensity of college basketball on the grandest of stages. Filipowski, meanwhile, is a freshman who was playing in his second NCAA Tournament game — after vomiting a few minutes into his first, on Thursday night.

“It didn’t affect me, staying into it mentally,” a quiet Filipowski said, without looking up. “But you just can’t catch a break, this whole year.”

He was referencing other instances this season in which he was on the other side of physicality that left him, or Duke, as the only ones in pain. If Mike Krzyzewski were still around, he undoubtedly would’ve gone on for a while on Saturday about Tennessee’s fortitude, about how the Volunteers were “grown men” — one of Krzyewski’s pet phrases over the years. Scheyer, his successor, put it like this, of the intensity: It “really felt like a Sweet 16, Elite Eight kind of game.”


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