March Madness: Tennessee uses strong defensive efforts to knock Duke out of NCAA tournament

Duke entered Saturday’s NCAA Tournament second-round game against Tennessee with a throw.

The Blue Devils, No. 5 in the East, won their last six regular season games, headed to an ACC Tournament Championship and then beat Oral Roberts in the first round.

But Jon Scheyer’s young Blue Devils couldn’t match the strength and physicality of a veteran Tennessee squad.

The East’s fourth seed, the Volunteers, used a ferocious defensive effort and unusually strong outside shot performance to eliminate the overwhelmed Blue Devils and make their way back into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2019.

In the 65-52 win in Orlando, Tennessee hit on 42.9% of their 3-point attempts while forcing 15 turnovers and passing Duke on the glass. Duke ranks seventh nationally for offensive rebound percentage (35.3%), but has only six of his misses penned in the loss.

There wasn’t much offense early on, but Tennessee ended the first half on a 14-2 run to take control of the game. On several occasions, Duke seemed poised to take a significant lead, but Tennessee always responded.

The Vols, playing their fifth game without standout point guard Zakai Zeigler, got timely shots from Olivier Nkamhoua and Santiago Vescovi, especially in the second half. Nkamhoua had one of the best games of his career. The senior from Finland scored 27 points in the win, building on his career high. Nkamhoua scored 17 of Tennessee’s last 19 points and all but four of his 27 points came in the second half.

Vescovi, on the other hand, had 14 points, five rebounds and five assists. All four of his field goals came from 3.

Now in the Sweet 16, Tennessee meets Sunday’s second-round winner between No. 9 Florida Atlantic and No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Tennessee’s veterans overwhelmed Duke’s freshmen

Duke typically starts with four five-star rookies and benches a fifth, Dariq Whitehead. Mark Mitchell missed that meeting with a knee injury. That put Whitehead on the starting lineup and shortened an already short Duke bench.

The story goes on

Tennessee was able to take advantage of Duke’s youth and lack of depth. Tennessee has five seniors playing long minutes and a number of big men capable of pounding 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 hard fouls early on and later accidentally hit an elbow in the face while aiming for a rebound.

That low-level physical play, coupled with Tennessee’s wingbacks constantly jostling and grabbing Duke’s guards, made it difficult for the Blue Devils to find any offensive rhythm. It was all intentional.

Tennessee was the more balanced team and wanted to turn this game into a street fight. The Vols did just that. Duke could never settle down and saw his season finish in the round of 16.

Tennessee Volunteers’ Olivier Nkamhoua kicks the ball over Duke Blue Devils’ Kyle Filipowski on March 18, 2023. (Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

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 Mike Krzyzewski’s retirement. Krzyzewski has set the bar incredibly high by winning five national championships and making four more Final Fours. Needless to say, Scheyer had tough shoes to fill.

His first year on the job was a mixed bag. Duke suffered a number of injuries throughout the season. It was a bumpy ride at times, but the Blue Devils ended the season on a high by winning the ACC tournament.

Duke was on a 10-game winning streak Saturday and looked like a team that could make a deep run. But the Blue Devils faced a team that could physically overpower them. And with a limited rotation, Duke, who finished with a 27-9 record, just couldn’t string together enough offense to give himself a chance to continue.

After the season, Scheyer and his staff will switch to rostering mode. The Blue Devils have another great recruiting class, and some of the current freshmen could be stepping out the door into the NBA.

Duke will look different next season, but he won’t be lacking in talent.


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