After ACC opener loss at Georgia Tech, No. 7 Duke men’s basketball has steep climb back to preseason favorite status

ATLANTA—Early December can be an odd, and oddly revealing, time in college basketball. As conference play begins and the results begin to leave a lasting mark in the standings, the relative freedom of the first month disappears rather suddenly.

Such was the case Saturday afternoon for No. 7 Duke in its ACC-opening road trip to Georgia Tech. Having come up short in a high-profile mid-week game at Arkansas just three days earlier, the best-case scenario for the Blue Devils was that the early-season highs and lows would prepare them to look the part as preseason ACC favorites and defending conference tournament champions from the opening tip.

That game plan had to be discarded by Duke head coach Jon Scheyer just mere minutes into what would ultimately become a 72-68 win for the Yellow Jackets, complete with a court-storming inside McCamish Pavilion. The loss, in which the Blue Devils trailed for 34:41, leaves Scheyer’s squad to figure out how to reclaim its team-to-beat status before its next ACC matchup one month down the line.

“It’s a long road,” senior captain Jeremy Roach said after the game. “Obviously, you see what happened last year, everybody hopped off the bandwagon early, and then toward the end of the year, everybody started talking about it. So it’s a long season, just gotta keep working.”

Quickly, Duke fell behind and went from the hunted to the hunter by necessity. Georgia Tech handily won the opening minutes by making three of its first four 3-point attempts and jumping out to a 12-2 lead before the first timeout with quick, decisive ball movement setting the tone for the afternoon. The Yellow Jackets collected assists on each of their first eight baskets and finished the game with a season-high 19 dishes to the visiting side’s 11.

The true story of that all-important opening sequence, though, was the injury to Duke star Tyrese Proctor. The second-year point guard suffered a lower leg injury while going up for a layup on the Blue Devils’ second possession of the game; he returned to the bench on crutches and was ruled out for the afternoon. 

After the game, Scheyer indicated that Proctor would receive an X-ray “this weekend and we’ll see.” It is certainly possible that Duke ends up without its primary facilitator for an extended stretch, in which case freshman Caleb Foster — who was thrust into a pseudo-starting role Saturday for 36 minutes of play — could become a bigger piece of the puzzle.

“Losing Tyrese right away is a thing you have to react to in real-time,” Scheyer said. “Really from the start of the game, we gave them some life with the threes. Thought they hit some tough shots, also for us, we have to do a better job starting off the game.”

Despite playing from behind and without Proctor, the Blue Devils did eventually find enough offensive success to keep pace with the Yellow Jackets and briefly take leads late in both halves. They were particularly excellent on the offensive glass and the break; a combined 34-2 advantage in points off turnovers and second-chance points kept Duke in the game.

Where Georgia Tech separated itself was with its ball movement and all-around fluid attack, from which freshman forward Baye Ndongo (21 points) benefited greatly. The discrepancy in assists could be felt throughout and caught Scheyer’s attention postgame as a point of emphasis moving forward.

“I haven’t liked the way we’ve shared the ball the last two games,” Scheyer said. “We have 11 assists. We have a team, I believe, should have closer to 20 assists a game. It should come easier for us.”

The Blue Devils had a very real chance to win Saturday’s game all the same, and that was in large part due to the play of Roach. The veteran guard played all 40 minutes with the backcourt suddenly shorthanded and led the team in scoring with 20 points, serving as the focal point on offense with leading scorer Kyle Filipowski kept in check for 12 points and nine rebounds. It was Roach’s second-straight outing breaking the 20-point mark after combining with Filipowski for 48 Wednesday against the Razorbacks.

Despite his unflinching performance, Roach could not get a clean look over Ndongo in the final seconds to extend the game.

“Jeremy kept us in it. He was really good throughout. He’s been in a lot of those games, so he’s not fazed by anything. That’s why at the end, down the stretch, it’s just him and [Filipowski] playing a two-man game. And they made some big-time plays … but still, we’ve got to get that win,” Scheyer said.

Other notables included the lineup change that removed sophomore forward Mark Mitchell from the starting five for the first time since his return from injury Nov. 10. He scored 11 points in 28 minutes, including a few key dunks in a near-victorious second-half surge by the Blue Devils, and committed a late technical foul for taunting that proved crucial in a tight contest.

For how quickly and wholly Duke had to adjust Saturday, it might view that unfulfilled chance to win in the final moments as somewhat of a silver lining. As he aims to prepare his team to look the part of the favorite in its next ACC test Jan. 2 against Syracuse, Scheyer sees Saturday’s loss in this light.

“Look, we got something inside of us,” Scheyer said. “Because we did [claw back], we go up four at the end, but for us, I can go back to a lot of little plays. And this is a time for us, for our team — we have a week of practice. We have to stick together. We’ve got to get together even closer.”

Jonathan Levitan

Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.

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