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Duke’s season comes to an abrupt end, and with it a painful lesson about toughness to the dangers of youth

It wasn’t even halfway through the first half here on Saturday afternoon before the Duke players returned to their bench during a timeout, looking a little tired and besieged, and received a message from their coaches that became the chorus of what was their last match of the season.

“You must be strong!” Blue Devils assistant coach Jai Lucas yelled into the group in an insistent, pleading tone, as if trying to transfer that power to those in front of him.

“We have to be tougher,” Jon Scheyer, the first-year head coach, said calmly — the intensity of his eyes spoke the most. He repeated it again, shaking his head, “We have got be harder.”

That was pretty much the theme of Duke’s season-ending 65-52 loss to Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Power. Toughness. It wasn’t that the Blue Devils didn’t have those characteristics at all. They fought. They fed. Within moments they were playing with the required grit. Just not all the time, and not enough to match Tennessee.

Of all the numbers that could distill Duke’s final game of the season down to a single factor—the nine 3-pointers Tennessee made, or the 15 turnovers Duke committed, or whether the Blue Devils shot just seven free throws in a game that sometimes resembled a wrestling game, — the most important were probably these: 21.8 and 19.

The first of these was the average age of Tennessee’s starting five on Saturday. The second Duke’s average. These weren’t exactly men vs. boys, but it was grown men vs. those who have just come of age. The Volunteers had no starter under the age of 20, and their starters included two 22-year-olds and Uros Plavsic, 24. Duke, meanwhile, started four teens and Jeremy Roach, the junior guard who, at 21, is something like the oldest statesman of the team.

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With age comes experience and strength, and the Volunteers punished the Blue Devils with both. Scheyer and his coaching staff felt that from the start—in fact, from the very first play, when an elbow hit Kyle Filipowski, Duke’s freshman forward, after going forward for a rebound. Duke’s coaches clamored for a review that didn’t come and moments later Filipowski once again found himself on the other side of a punch, this one that left him with a cut under his left eye.

For a second or two, a bleeding Filipowski resembled Bloody (Eric) Montross from the 1992 Duke-North Carolina game at Chapel Hill. The Difference: Montross was a junior at the time and accustomed to the drama and intensity of college basketball on the biggest venues. Filipowski, meanwhile, is a freshman who played in his second NCAA Tournament game on Thursday night – after throwing up for a few minutes in his first game.

“It didn’t affect me, mentally staying in it,” said a silent Filipowski, without looking up. “But you just can’t take a break this whole year.”

He referenced other instances this season where he was on the other side of physicality that left him, or Duke, the only one in pain. If Mike Krzyzewski were still around, he would no doubt have spent some time on Saturday talking about Tennessee’s determination, about how the volunteers were “grown men”—one of Krzyewski’s favorite phrases over the years. Scheyer, his successor, put it this way about the intensity: It “really felt like a Sweet 16, Elite Eight kind of game.”

It did, with almost no empty seat at the Amway Center, and with the Blue Devils and Volunteers throwing figurative and literal punches—although Tennessee threw many more. It didn’t help that Duke continued to play without Mark Mitchell, another six-foot-tall freshman who was undoubtedly missed while tending to a knee injury sustained in practice on Friday. Mitchell had started every game and if he had started on Saturday it would have made a difference.

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But the difference? Perhaps not, against a Tennessee team that closely resembled the bruises of coach Rick Barnes’ Clemson teams of the late 1990s—the ones that played with all the finesse and aesthetic beauty of a dump truck. Love or despise Barnes’ favored acting style, at least he’s remained committed to the act. For decades his teams have been showing up and challenging opponents to match their physicality, and the Blue Devils just couldn’t do it.

They literally got hit in the face early on and then ended the first half with one of their most unproductive plays of the season – a nearly five-minute scoring drought; four consecutive misses from the field; possession after possession in which they showed their youth. Three times in the second half, Duke cut Tennessee’s lead to four points, but never during the last nine minutes and never to less than four. Meanwhile, Tennessee’s Olivier Nkamhoua largely did what he wanted after halftime, as he scored 23 of his 27 points.

You won’t see Nkamhoua, one of four seniors in the Volunteers’ starting lineup, at the top of the NBA Draft projections. He wasn’t a one-and-done or even a two- or three-and-done. On Saturday he looked like the old man at the Y, school age kids who may have more natural talent but not yet the knowledge of someone who has been walking around and seeing things for a while.

That was essentially the game: Tennessee’s experience and strength versus Duke’s talent and potential. With the defeat, Scheyer’s first season came to an end, a season in which there was much to enjoy.

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Duke won the ACC tournament. It reached a level of defense that no Duke team had played in years. Entering Saturday on a 10-game winning streak, the Blue Devils became a trendy pick to make it to Houston and the Final Four, if not to win it all. Over the past few days, a sense of inevitability has almost sprung up around this Duke team, as if it was destined for something greater.

And then it was over. Urgently. That’s March.

One night you look almost invincible, completely sane, in an easy first round victory against Oral Roberts. Two nights later you suddenly miss an appetizer and wonder where it all went wrong. At least for Duke it wasn’t hard to understand.

For programs of this caliber, the challenge in this environment will always be to find the balance between talent that makes a difference and team building. Duke has been so talented for years that his best players only stay for a year. The roster essentially reverses annually. Between the Blue Devils and Volunteers, this Duke team is bound to put more players in the NBA. However, Tennessee goes further.

It was older. More difficult. Stronger.

Tennessee was on their way to New York City, and the Sweet 16. Duke was on their way back to Durham, without taking any of the memorabilia off the locker room walls, as some losing teams do to preserve a memory of March . No, these Blue Devils expected the journey to take a little longer. Sure, they learned some lessons in defeat on Saturday. Now the question becomes how many of them will stay to continue those lessons.



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