How Duke basketball turned weakness into strength to beat UNC in the final minute

Duke clung to a two-point lead when its freshman center, Kyle Filipowski, grabbed a key offensive rebound against rival North Carolina.

The play gave the Blue Devils a chance to push the Tar Heels closer toward a loss Saturday night, so Jon Scheyer called timeout.

This immediately put Duke in an unfavorable position, based solely on how the team has performed in Scheyer’s first season as head coach.

Duke’s scoring rate on possessions directly following timeouts is dramatically lower than any the past 10 Blue Devils teams produced under Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski. That fact didn’t have Duke lacking confidence, though, and Jeremy Roach’s driving layup off the play Scheyer called proved pivotal in a 63-57 win against at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“That hasn’t been what we’ve been great at,” Scheyer said. “I think that’s a big growth for our team. That’s a small thing you might not see.”

Analytics mean everything, large or small, about a basketball team or a game can be dissected.

Synergy Sports assigned Duke an “average” rating because the Blue Devils have produced .818 points per possession (shooting 39.4%) when coming out of a timeout. That’s only in the 36th percentile nationally.

Over the past 10 seasons, Duke’s has regularly earned an “excellent” rating by Synergy in such situations. Last season, while going to the Final Four, the Blue Devils produced 1.014 points per possession after timeouts, ranking in the 96th percentile nationally to get an “excellent” grade. Duke shot 48.8% on those possessions.

Even the 2020-21 team that finished 13-11 and is the only Duke team to miss the NCAA tournament since 1995 produced 1.007 points per possession after timeouts to rank in the 96th percentile nationally, also earning an “excellent” grade. That team hit 48.6% of its shots after a timeout.

So, on Saturday night before a raucous Cameron crowd, Scheyer called his team together with Duke leading 59-57. That possession started with 1:02 left when Filipowski rebounded Leaky Black’s missed 3-pointer.

The Blue Devils worked the clock down before Filipowski missed a layup with 38 seconds left. He grabbed his own rebound and Scheyer signaled the timeout.

Scheyer reminded his team, of course, to take care of the ball and avoid a turnover. That’s important because Synergy shows Duke has turned it over on 15.7% of its after-timeout possessions.

Then he called a play that put four players on the four edges of the half-court with one player down low. The idea was to spread out UNC’s defense to expose driving lanes, attacking guard RJ Davis (who had four fouls) and center Armando Bacot.

Duke head coach Jon Scheyer talks with Jeremy Roach (3) and Tyrese Proctor (5) during the first half of Duke’s game against UNC at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023.
Duke head coach Jon Scheyer talks with Jeremy Roach (3) and Tyrese Proctor (5) during the first half of Duke’s game against UNC at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023.

“We wanted to make sure we got it into the right people’s hands,” Scheyer said.

Roach, Duke’s only returning starter from the Final Four team, dribbled past Davis down the lane. Bacot chose not to contest his layup, guarding Filipowski instead, and Roach scored a key basket with 24 seconds left giving his team a 61-57 lead.

“Jeremy and Flip had a good two-man game working,” Scheyer said. “We opened it up and Jeremy got downhill.”

Roach said the Blue Devils counted on UNC’s players failing to communicate defensively so they could find a gap to score.

“We knew they’d kind of mess up on the talking, which they did,” Roach said. “Two guys went to Flip and I got an easy lane. Bacot was kind of looking for the lob and I got an easy lane.”

It was a beautifully executed play that played a major role in Duke winning its third consecutive game. But it wasn’t the only one in the final 30 seconds as Duke succeeded on defense as well.

After Roach’s basket, UNC called a timeout. This put Duke in a strong position analytically as the Blue Devils are tough to score against after timeouts this season. Synergy shows Duke in the 78th percentile nationally, allowing only 0.781 points per possession after timeouts.

The Blue Devils had only committed four fouls in the second half up to that point against UNC so they used two fouls to slow down UNC’s offense. But that allowed the Tar Heels to take the ball out under their own basket, a weakness on Duke’s defense.

The Blue Devils have allowed teams to score .939 points per possession on baseline in-bounds plays, only in the 18th percentile nationally (earning a “below average” grade from Synergy).

But this time, with 13 seconds left, Duke forced Pete Nance into a tough 3-pointer he missed and Roach grabbed the defensive rebound.

“For us to execute that on defense, not just the offensive piece, is big-time growth,” Scheyer said.

It’s a stark example of the growth this freshman-laden Duke team is experiencing. With road games at Miami (18-5, 9-4 ACC) on Monday and Virginia (17-4, 9-3) on Saturday, the Blue Devils will continue to be tested.

Since a 72-64 at conference-leading Clemson (18-6, 10-3) back on Jan. 14, Duke has won four of five games. The Blue Devils appear to be finding another gear.

Turning those plays after timeouts into positives can only help them as the season roars toward March.