For long stretches this felt like old times, same as it ever was, at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday night. It was hot. It was loud. Duke poured it on early against a worthy opponent in a marquee nonconference game and held on late, just like we’ve seen countless times before.
New head coach, several new players, a completely new team. Same old, same old.
Being in Cameron on Wednesday was “a special experience,” Duke first-year coach Jon Scheyer said afterward, and at times it was one that had to remind him of some of the loudest nights he experienced when he played here more than a decade ago.
Underneath the Blue Devils’ victory was an unfamiliar urgency, especially this early into a new season. Duke, which at times looked about as good as it has thus far under Scheyer, needed this kind of show-up-and-earn-it 81-72 victory against Ohio State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
So did the beleaguered conference to which the Blue Devils belong. Yes, it’s early. Yes, this was only the last day of November. Yes, we’re a long ways from March.
No time to panic. And yet ... have you seen the ACC so far?
“Since I’ve been in college, they’ve said the ACC is down every year,” Duke point guard Jeremy Roach said, smiling, setting up his defense of the league, “and we’re always one of the last teams left in the tournament. So I wouldn’t say the ACC is weak. Every team from top to bottom can hoop with any team in the country.”
Well, maybe almost every team. Roach, a junior, is correct in saying that the league has been down since his time in it. This season, though, Duke and the league’s other perceived best teams — we’re looking at you, Virginia and North Carolina — will have their work cut out to carry the rest of the conference.
Louisville might just be the ACC’s worst team in decades (entering Wednesday it was 185th nationally according to kenpom.com, just ahead of Purdue Fort Wayne and Montana State). Florida State suddenly has fallen into the abyss. Boston College lost to a school called Tarleton State, which Google says is in Stephensville, Texas, which Google also says is sort of near Fort Worth.
What else? Oh, yes. Syracuse lost to Colgate and Bryant. Notre Dame lost to St. Bonaventure. Wake Forest lost to Loyola Marymount. And it’s not like the league’s standard-bearers have played all that well, either, what with North Carolina starting the season in a slumber, No. 3 Virginia barely beating unranked Michigan on Tuesday night and Duke going cold in an ugly loss against Purdue on Sunday in the Phil Knight Legacy tournament in Portland.
The Blue Devils returned home in need of the sort of performance they delivered Wednesday night, when they led by 10 at halftime and held off the pesky Buckeyes throughout the second half. That Duke had to work for it makes it all the more satisfying for Scheyer and his young team. Duke grew up, to a degree that remains to be seen, over the span of a 40 muggy minutes inside Cameron.
There was Roach, providing steady leadership if not the best of shooting nights (3-for-9 from the field) during a team-high 34 minutes. There was freshman Kyle Filipowski, with a team-high 16 points and seven rebounds. There was Duke, overall, gutting out a victory without its best stuff in the second half, winning the kind of game that Scheyer hopes will build character and confidence.
The ACC, meanwhile, avoided further embarrassment. Not that a Duke loss would’ve been all that embarrassing, in a vacuum, but it would’ve underscored the growing perception that the ACC continues to regress. The league fought a perception problem for months last year, only to redeem itself during the NCAA tournament, when Duke and UNC reached the Final Four and Miami, as a No. 10 seed, reached the Elite Eight.
So far, it looks as though the conference is going to be right back in the same position, fighting for respect and for NCAA tournament bids come March. Those who thought last season was about as bad as a regular season as it could ever be for the ACC, who believed it to be a one-time glitch in the matrix, will be disappointed to be introduced to Last Year: Part II. Otherwise known as “now.”
There was a time when the ACC was the best, baddest basketball conference on the block. Now we’re in a time when every shocking nonconference loss makes the one that came before seem a little less surprising. Bellarmine, Stetson, Wright State, Troy, Appalachian State, and on and on (thank you, Louisville and Florida State). This year’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge, then, took on more important significance.
For a long time, the ACC dominated this event. It won it outright the first 10 years of its existence, between 1999 and 2008. The Big Ten has more often than not had its way since then, with that conference winning the past three consecutive entering Wednesday. Duke’s game against Ohio State, then, had the feel of Princess Leia begging Obi-Wan Kenobi for help.
You could almost see a hologram version of Jim Phillips, the ACC commissioner, pleading: “Help me, Duke Blue Devils. You’re my only hope.” Well, not exactly but close enough. After last season, and after the ACC proved itself in March, the conference’s coaches bemoaned the lack of respect they believed the league carried throughout the season. They all talked, entering this one, about the need for the league to avoid the sort of nonconference embarrassment it experienced a year ago.
If anything, this November was worse than the 2021 version. It comes at the worst possible time for the league, which is fighting multiple battles: a similar perception problem in football, for one, as well as the general impression, right or wrong, that the conference is doomed because of the growing revenue disparity with the Big Ten and SEC.
The ACC long outclassed the Big Ten in basketball — and the SEC, for that matter — but the last time the conference dominated this event was in 2017, when it won 11 of the 14 matchups. Since then there’s been a shift in the power structure of the sport upon which the ACC was built. The league’s two conference rivals have asserted themselves. They’ve turned the Power Five into a Power Two.
It’s one thing for the ACC to labor along in football, but basketball, too? Duke, at least, did its part. The Blue Devils entered Wednesday a bit wounded, and more than a bit humbled after that loss to Purdue three days earlier.
“You get knocked down and you get back up,” Scheyer said, repeating a mantra he hopes will define his program, “and “I thought that was our attitude going into tonight’s game.” Indeed, the Blue Devils showed some toughness. It remains to be seen whether the ACC can do the same.