Tennessee uses strong defensive effort to eliminate Duke from NCAA Tournament

Duke entered Saturday’s NCAA Tournament second round game against Tennessee on a roll.

Seeded No. 5 in the East, the Blue Devils have won their last six regular season games, advanced to an ACC Tournament Championship, then defeated Oral Roberts in the first round.

But Jon Scheyer’s young Blue Devils couldn’t match the strength and physique of a veteran team from Tennessee.

The East’s 4th-seeded Volunteers used fierce defensive effort and an unusually strong outside shooting performance to knock out the overmatched Blue Devils and advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2019.

In the 65-52 win at Orlando, Tennessee made 42.9 percent of their 3-point attempts while forcing 15 turnovers and outplaying Duke on the glass. Duke ranks seventh nationally in offensive rebound percentage (35.3%), but missed just six of its misses in the loss.

There wasn’t much of an offense early on, but Tennessee closed out the first half on a 14-2 run to take control of the game. On several occasions, Duke looked close to cutting the lead dramatically, but Tennessee always responded.

The Vols, playing their fifth game without standout point guard Zakai Zeigler, got a timely shot from Olivier Nkamhoua and Santiago Vescovi, particularly in the second half. Nkamhoua had one of the best games of his career. The eldest from Finland scored 27 points in the victory, matching his career high. Nkamhoua has scored 17 of Tennessee’s last 19 points and all but four of his 27 points have come in the second half.

Vescovi, meanwhile, had 14 points, five rebounds and five assists. His four field goals came from 3.

Now in the Sweet 16, Tennessee will face the winner of Sunday’s second-round match between No. 9 Florida Atlantic and No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Tennessee veterans overtook Duke freshmen

Duke typically starts four five-star freshmen and brings a fifth, Dariq Whitehead, to the bench. In this encounter, Mark Mitchell was out with a knee injury. This moved Whitehead into the starting lineup and shortened an already short Duke bench.

In this game, Tennessee was able to exploit Duke’s youth and lack of depth. Tennessee has five seniors who play long minutes and an array of big men who can punch bodies in the paint. Duke’s Kyle Filipowski found out the hard way. Filipowski leads Duke in scoring and is incredibly good at a 7-footer, but he committed two serious fouls early on and then took an inadvertent elbow to the face while looking for a rebound.

That low physical play paired with Tennessee wing defenders constantly bumping and catching Duke guards has made it difficult for the Blue Devils to establish some sort of offensive rhythm. Everything was on purpose.

Tennessee was the more balanced team and wanted to turn this game into a street fight. The Vols did just that. Duke could never get comfortable and saw their season end in the Round of 16.

Olivier Nkamhoua of the Tennessee Volunteers shoots the ball over Kyle Filipowski of the Duke Blue Devils on March 18, 2023. (Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)

What do you think of Jon Scheyer’s first season?

Scheyer played at Duke and spent nearly a decade as an assistant for the Blue Devils before being promoted to head coach following the retirement of Mike Krzyzewski. Krzyzewski has set the bar incredibly high by winning five national championships and appearing in four Final Fours. Needless to say, Scheyer had some tough shoes to fill.

His first year on the job was mixed. Duke suffered quite a few injuries during the season. It was a bumpy ride at times, but the Blue Devils ended the season on a high by winning the ACC Tournament.

Duke had a 10-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s game and looked like a team that could make a deep run. But the Blue Devils came up against a team that could physically overwhelm them. And with limited rotation, Duke, who finished 27-9, simply couldn’t string together enough attacks to give himself a chance to move on.

With the season over, Scheyer and his team will go into roster building mode. The Blue Devils have another terrific recruiting class coming up and several of the current freshmen could be on the doorstep of the NBA.

Duke will be different next season, but he won’t be short of talent.

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