How Duke basketball responded from its ‘darkest moment’ to the cusp of Final Four

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As N.C. State ascended, finding its way, it caused Duke to hit a low point earlier this month.

Coupled with a home loss to North Carolina, the 74-69 setback to the Wolfpack on March 14 in the ACC Tournament threatened to derail Duke’s season.

“After the two losses, it was probably the darkest time of the year for us,” Duke sophomore guard Tyrese Proctor said. “We were getting a lot of hate from everyone.”

As the two Triangle and ACC rivals meet against Sunday in the NCAA Tournament’s South Regional final at American Airlines Center, with even more on the line than their ACC Tournament quarterfinal game 17 days earlier, the Blue Devils (27-8) have dramatically risen from that dark place.

Photos: Duke defeats Houston in the NCAA basketball tournament Sweet 16

While not as dramatic as the Wolfpack’s magical eight-game winning streak that propelled it to its first Elite Eight since 1986, Duke’s NCAA Tournament run allowed the Blue Devils to become what they thought they always were: one of the nation’s top teams.

“Ultimately, the tournament is about competing,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said. “I mean, that’s really what it comes down to. The teams I’ve been fortunate enough to be on as a player or a coach, be on staff with, the teams that have done the best just competed the best in the tournament when it matters most. And these guys have stepped up to that challenge.”

It took some soul searching and tough conversations to get there.

Team meetings, even among just the players, aren’t rare for Duke. But they had following their ACC Tournament ouster, before the NCAA Tournament began, spawned something special.

Duke’s Jared McCain and Jaylen Blakes hang out in the locker room on Saturday, March 30, 2024, at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. The Blue Devils will face N.C. State in a NCAA Tournament Elite Eight matchup Sunday. Kaitlin McKeown/kmckeown@newsobserver.com
Duke’s Jared McCain and Jaylen Blakes hang out in the locker room on Saturday, March 30, 2024, at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. The Blue Devils will face N.C. State in a NCAA Tournament Elite Eight matchup Sunday. Kaitlin McKeown/kmckeown@newsobserver.com

“It was definitely a good meeting,” Duke senior captain Jeremy Roach said. “Definitely a lot of meaningful words that came out of that meeting. We don’t want to get into all that, but definitely just kind of re-energized us, re-focused us and got us to where we are at right now.”

Where is Duke now? On the precipice of its second Final Four appearance in three seasons.

A team that entered the season back in November ranked among the nation’s top five teams, only to nearly fall out of the rankings in December before entering the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 13, is playing strong basketball offensively and defensively.

In beating Vermont, 64-47, James Madison, 93-55, and Houston, 54-51, the Blue Devils have held all three teams more than 20 points below their season scoring averages. That lock-down defense hasn’t always been present, as the 93-84 and 84-79 regular-season losses to UNC.

But, perhaps because of their frank, real talk in that meeting, Duke’s players believe they are closer than ever and it’s showing on the court.

“The most important thing is that we’re more together,” Duke sophomore forward Mark Mitchell said. “Throughout the season we’ve had some times, we’ve played some games (where) we’ve kind of panicked and things like that. We lost a lot of close games that we probably shouldn’t have. But I think last night shows that we’re in a different place because we’ve been together.”

Duke’s Mark Mitchell, left, and Kyle Filipowski talk with the media in breakout rooms during a press availability at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, Saturday, March 30, 2024. Duke and N.C. State will play Sunday for a trip to the NCAA Tournament Final Four. Ethan Hyman/ehyman@newsobserver.com
Duke’s Mark Mitchell, left, and Kyle Filipowski talk with the media in breakout rooms during a press availability at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, Saturday, March 30, 2024. Duke and N.C. State will play Sunday for a trip to the NCAA Tournament Final Four. Ethan Hyman/ehyman@newsobserver.com

Toppling Houston, the South Region’s top seed that spent time ranked No. 1 nationally this season, represented one of Duke’s best performances in Scheyer’s two seasons as head coach.

While the Blue Devils won the ACC championship last season in Scheyer’s rookie season as head coach, their second-round exit marred their 27-9 campaign. The way Duke entered the NCAA Tournament off back-to-back losses this season dampened enthusiasm over its chances.

The spotlight of playing and coaching in such a high-profile program shines good and bad but it’s all pulled the Blue Devils together this month.

“It’s amazing, man,” McCain said. “We trust each other. We all have confidence in each other. So it’s really cool to just be with my brothers playing for each other, for coach, especially when we see all the hate each other get and then we just kind of give each other confidence to go out there and be us and have fun.”

Duke’s Tyrese Proctor (5) celebrates as time expires in Duke’s 54-51 victory over Houston in their NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, Friday, March 29, 2024. Ethan Hyman/ehyman@newsobserver.com
Duke’s Tyrese Proctor (5) celebrates as time expires in Duke’s 54-51 victory over Houston in their NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas, Friday, March 29, 2024. Ethan Hyman/ehyman@newsobserver.com

N.C. State’s unexpected run has the Wolfpack (25-14) playing the role of the plucky underdog, the lone double-digit seed that advanced past the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend. But the Blue Devils feel they’ve overcome low expectations as well as that two-game losing streak spawned plenty of doubters about their tournament future.

At the same time, though, it pulled the Blue Devils closer than ever.

“They’ve never been a group that makes excuses, which is why I think they’ve gotten better,” Scheyer said. “The last two seasons, they’ve gotten better through the course of the year. They played their best basketball at the end. Last year was the same way, and this year has been the same. And it’s a credit to having the right people and having the right guys.”