Duke basketball’s toughness will again be tested against physical, upset-minded JMU

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Sunday offers a moment of truth for No. 11-ranked Duke, the situation the Blue Devils have had on their minds for the past 52 weeks.

Jon Scheyer’s first season as head coach ended with a thud when Tennessee bullied Duke to post a 65-52 NCAA Tournament second-round win at Orlando.

Pushed around and bruised by the more physical Volunteers, four starters from that game opted to return to school, vowing to be better prepared this season.

Now the Blue Devils prepare for Sunday’s NCAA Tournament second-round game against James Madison, which pushed its way past Wisconsin, 72-61, in Friday night’s first-round game at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.

While No. 12 seed James Madison plays the role of a plucky underdog, the Dukes (32-3) have a record and an aggressive style of play that deserves respect.

No. 4 seeded Duke must prove it’s up to the challenge, something it’s waited a year to show.

“Second round,” Duke all-ACC forward Kyle Filipowski said. “Same position we were in last year with Tennessee coming in and turning us over, bullying us, things like that. So just getting this opportunity tomorrow night, you know, not a lot of people will get this second opportunity like this. So we’re gonna make the most of it.”

JMU knocked Wisconsin off its game early Friday night, taking a 15-4 lead and never trailing again. The Badgers turned the ball over 19 times, rattled by the Dukes’ pressure.

“I thought their physicality caused us to turn the ball over early,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said, “and then I felt we also rushed sometimes when the turnovers were coming because of the physicality. We had some unforced errors where we got sped up, threw the ball away.”

Using mostly three-guard alignments this season, Duke has been a difficult team to turn over. Only 14.4% of Duke possessions end with turnovers, which puts the Blue Devils at No. 31 nationally in that statistic, according to KenPom.com. Duke only had nine turnovers while beating Vermont, 64-47, in Friday night’s first-round game.

Duke’s Ryan Young (15) and Tyrese Proctor (5) dive after a loose ball with Vermont’s Sam Alamutu (2) during the second half of Duke’s 64-47 victory over Vermont in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Friday, March 22, 2024.
Duke’s Ryan Young (15) and Tyrese Proctor (5) dive after a loose ball with Vermont’s Sam Alamutu (2) during the second half of Duke’s 64-47 victory over Vermont in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Friday, March 22, 2024.

Still, the Blue Devils hear their critics, those who question whether this group has the toughness and the compete level needed to keep advancing through the tournament.

“It’s a chance to prove to everybody,” Duke senior guard Jeremy Roach said. “Everybody thinks we don’t have physicality. We don’t have this. We don’t have that. So tomorrow’s game is a huge, like, breakthrough game for us, to show everybody that we can fight.”

The Blue Devils (25-8) have shown mixed results against such opponents this season, most notably two losses to rival North Carolina and the upset loss to N.C. State in the ACC Tournament last week. But Duke also owns neutral-site wins over Michigan State and Baylor this season.

None of that matters now, though. All that matters is how Duke handles what JMU will throw its way with a trip to Dallas for a Sweet 16 game on the line. It’s the hurdle the Blue Devils failed to clear last season.

“I think for our guys, they remember that Tennessee game like it was yesterday,” Scheyer said. “I can mention some other teams we’ve played this year that are really physical and really good, and I’ll put James Madison up there with any of them. Ton of respect for them. But also for our guys. I feel there’s no question we are ready for that, as well.”

The Blue Devils know they need to establish their strength early Sunday to not let the lower-seeded Dukes play with the confidence they showed against Wisconsin.

“JMU is a confident group that’s tough defensively,” Roach said. “Very confident. We have to come out the first four minutes, punch them in the mouth and show them because they definitely think we’re soft.”

Duke’s Kyle Filipowski (30) blocks the shot by Vermont’s TJ Long (20) during Duke’s 64-47 victory over Vermont in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Friday, March 22, 2024.
Duke’s Kyle Filipowski (30) blocks the shot by Vermont’s TJ Long (20) during Duke’s 64-47 victory over Vermont in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., Friday, March 22, 2024.

The Blue Devils played a tremendous defensive game while beating Vermont. The Catamounts were held 25 points below their season scoring average and Scheyer wants Duke to bring that edge defensively in every game.

“You advance in this tournament not by your offense but you advance by your defense,” Scheyer said. “That’s something over that seven-day stretch in between us playing that we put a lot of emphasis on, and our guys took that to heart.”

JMU carries a 14-game winning streak into this game, the second time the Dukes have reeled off 14 consecutive wins this season. They expect to win.

Meanwhile, the Blue Devils expect the fans in attendance for Sunday’s second game at Barclays Center, between Connecticut and Northwestern, to throw their voices behind the Dukes.

“Our guys, by now, we’ve seen it,” Scheyer said. “I think we felt it last night. And in a lot of respects, I think they like it. It’s what comes when you sign up to come to Duke. It just is. And they have handled it really well.

“We lost our first two road games of the season. Since then, we’ve played great away from home, neutral sites. And neutral a lot of times becomes where it can be a little bit of a road game, which has, I think, fueled our group more than anything.”