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Duke basketball coach Jon Scheyer on Blue Devils toughness

Any of the 20,344 people who jammed Bud Walton Arena like never before, or the ESPN audience, could see that for most of the second half of Wednesday night’s game, Duke offered little defensive resistance to Arkansas.

Seeing the Razorbacks make 12 of their first 16 shots after halftime, an alarming number of them layups or wide-open jump shots, was jarring.

As its fans stormed the court, Arkansas ultimately celebrated an 80-75 win where the final score made the game appear closer than it really was. That opening onslaught after halftime allowed the Razorbacks to lead the No. 7 Blue Devils by as many as 14 points.

Duke coach Jon Scheyer’s opinion on how that happened raises deeper questions about the Blue Devils (5-2), who have now been pushed around by veteran backcourts in losses to Arizona and Arkansas.

“There wasn’t a collective toughness that you have to have on the road,” Scheyer said.

Duke’s Jeremy Roach (3) talks with head coach Jon Scheyer during the first half of Duke’s game against Arkansas at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Ark., Weds. Nov. 29, 2023.
Duke’s Jeremy Roach (3) talks with head coach Jon Scheyer during the first half of Duke’s game against Arkansas at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Ark., Weds. Nov. 29, 2023. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

That’s a blunt assessment that’s impossible to argue against. That it came about a team that returns four starters from an ACC championship team is alarming, even at this early stage of the season.

The numbers bear it out, though. Arkansas shot 60.9% in the second half, making 4 of its 8 3-pointers. The Razorbacks finished at 49% for the game. They did all that without their leading scorer, Tramon Mark (18.4 points per game), who was out with a back injury.

“We just kind of came out flat those first four minutes of the second half,” Duke senior guard and team captain Jeremy Roach said. “Those are crucial moments of the game.”

And that makes it inexcusable for Duke to play the way it did.

The problems started far earlier in the game, though.

Kyle Filipowski picked up two fouls in the game’s first five minutes so Scheyer removed him from the game. When back-up center Ryan Young, admittedly more foul-prone in general, picked up three with nine minutes still remaining in the half, the Blue Devils had a problem.

Christian Reeves, a 7-1 sophomore forward, isn’t physically prepared to help at this point of his career.

Arkansas’ Trevon Brazile (2) pulls in the rebound from Duke’s TJ Power (12) during the second half of Arkansas’ 80-75 victory over Duke at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Ark., Weds. Nov. 29, 2023.
Arkansas’ Trevon Brazile (2) pulls in the rebound from Duke’s TJ Power (12) during the second half of Arkansas’ 80-75 victory over Duke at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Ark., Weds. Nov. 29, 2023. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

So Scheyer employed a zone, used Filipowski sparingly the rest of the half within it, and coaxed the Blue Devils to halftime trailing, 33-32.

He and the Blue Devils felt good about that.

Then, they came out, as Roach said, flat, and allowed the Razorbacks to roll to their double-digit lead.

“The resistance on the ball,” Scheyer said, ticking off the issues, “our second level defense and protection coming over on the weak side, you know, it wasn’t there for us to the level that we need it to be. Bottom line.”

Duke lost the rebounding battle, 40-34. That’s partially a product of foul trouble to its big men. But Scheyer said it’s on them to play better without fouling.

As for Duke’s guards, Scheyer has proudly said he thinks his team’s backcourt is as good as any in the country. Roach and Tyrese Proctor are returning starters, freshmen Jared McCain and Caleb Foster arrived as heralded recruits.

All have already produced big scoring nights this season, be it Foster’s 18 points when Duke beat Michigan State, 74-65, or Proctor scoring 22 points when Duke beat La Salle, 95-66 or Roach’s 22 points at Arkansas.

Duke’s Mark Mitchell (25) looses the ball while defended by Arkansas’ Makhi Mitchell (15) during the first half of Duke’s game against Arkansas at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Ark., Weds. Nov. 29, 2023.
Duke’s Mark Mitchell (25) looses the ball while defended by Arkansas’ Makhi Mitchell (15) during the first half of Duke’s game against Arkansas at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Ark., Weds. Nov. 29, 2023. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

But, other than Roach, Duke’s backcourt didn’t have a good night against the Razorbacks offensively or defensively.

Proctor hit only 3 of 12 shots while scoring seven points. McCain hit only 1 of 7 shots, scoring five points. Foster missed all five of his shots, scoring just two points on free throws.

Scheyer attributed the defensive problems to the Blue Devils allowing their poor shooting to carry over to the other end of the court.

The calendar is just turning to December. The Blue Devils have time to address these issues.

Yet their first ACC game awaits Saturday at Georgia Tech (3-2), a team that showed unexpected bite by beating No. 21 Mississippi State, 67-59, on Tuesday night.

This Duke team, still learning its identity, has to respond quickly.

“It’s a mental toughness game,” Scheyer said “We have great focus, short memories. But, also, you have to learn. We’re gonna watch film. I think the thing we’re gonna see is giving up layups, giving up our pain too easily. For me, it’s the defense and the collective effort on that end.”

Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. In the Associated Press Sports Editors national contest, he’s placed in the top 10 in beat writing in 2019, 2021 and 2022, breaking news in 2019 and explanatory writing in 2018. Previously, Steve worked for The State (Columbia, SC), Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, S.C.), The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.), Charlotte Observer and Hickory (NC) Daily Record covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly. He’s won numerous state-level press association awards. Steve graduated from Illinois State University in 1989.

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