What’s wrong with Duke in the first season without Mike Krzyzewski?


Duke is running out of time. At least this year, anyway.

The Blue Devils were always going to attract an added degree of scrutiny in this, Coach Jon Scheyer’s first season taking over for Mike Krzyzewski. However unrealistic it is to expect a 35-year-old coach to be anything close to a finished product, the snap comparisons are as unavoidable as they are unreasonable.

Duke’s problems aren’t tied to coaching. Instead, it is the most banal of issues — injuries and the inability to build continuity as a result. It’s why the Blue Devils (14-6, 5-4 ACC) have split their last eight games entering Saturday’s trip to Georgia Tech (8-12, 1-9).

Think back to the summer, and there were two things Duke was banking on. One was for its usual conveyor belt of top-notch recruits to step in immediately, including wing Dariq Whitehead (the No. 1 player in the class of 2022 according to Rivals.com, and No. 2 according to ESPN and 247Sports) and center Dereck Lively (No. 1 ESPN, No. 3 Rivals and 247Sports).

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The other was for junior guard Jeremy Roach to follow the same path. did last year, making a significant jump in production during his third season in Durham while providing stability for a batch of younger teammates.

Then Whitehead underwent foot surgery in August. And Lively was slowed by a calf injury that delayed his debut by a game. Roach sat out three games with an ailing toe this month. And now Whitehead is sidelined with a lower left leg injury suffered in Monday’s loss at Virginia Tech.

Duke has deployed all three in just 12 of its 20 games, and Whitehead will miss at least one game with his latest injury. They have yet to all play at least 20 minutes in the same game.

When healthy, Roach (11.6 points per game, 2.4 rebounds per game, 3.3 assists per game) has been solid but not markedly better than last year, and his three-point shooting (an offseason priority) has dipped slightly to 30.4 percent. Whitehead (8.4 ppg) ranks fifth on the team in scoring. Lively (4 ppg) is ninth.

Duke hasn’t completely collapsed in large part because newcomer Kyle Filipowski (15.6 ppg, 9.5 rpg) is one of the ACC’s best players. Fellow freshmen Mark Mitchell (9.2 ppg) and Tyrese Proctor (8.6 ppg) have been steady contributors. Northwestern transfer Ryan Young (8 ppg, 6.8 rpg) has proved particularly valuable.

But no one has seen the Blue Devils anywhere near their peak, to the point it remains a mystery just what that peak is. And it might remain that way. It takes time for a team to develop cohesion, especially one filled with new pieces. With Whitehead sidelined again and the lineup in flux once more, time is not on Duke’s side to maximize this group’s potential.

Fare thee well, SEC/Big 12 Challenge

Saturday’s 10-game SEC/Big 12 Challenge will mark the end of the decade-long event. ESPN announced in November it was halting both the SEC/Big 12 event and the longer-running ACC/Big Ten Challenge in favor of an ACC/SEC event beginning next season.

Not coincidentally, ESPN owns all the broadcast rights to the SEC (besides CBS’s Saturday afternoon football package, which ends after the 2023 season) and will have no part of the Big Ten’s rights moving forward.

In other words, a made-for-TV event joined another made-for-TV event as collateral damage in TV happenings, but a new made-for-TV event will spring forth soon enough.

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The SEC/Big 12 Challenge served as a convenient excuse to have Kansas and Kentucky play in seasons when they didn’t meet in the Champions Classic (hey, another made-for-TV event!); Saturday will mark the fifth time that’s happened in 10 editions of the challenge.

But the single best thing about the event since 2016 was its throwback element. Here were intersectional games at the heart of conference play, something that was once common and now on the verge of extinction in college basketball.

Given the ever-growing size of conference slates (and TV’s demands can be thanked for that, too), this might mark the end of consistent, quality nonconference games after New Year’s Day.

Mid-major spotlight: Maryland-Eastern Shore

Building a program isn’t easy anywhere. it really isn’t easy at a school that’s enjoyed two winning seasons in the last 40 years. Throw in a pandemic that leads to the cancellation of an entire season, and the degree of difficulty escalates further.

And so here is Maryland-Eastern Shore, sitting at 11-8 and tied atop the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference after erasing a 16-point deficit in the second half Monday in a 59-58 victory over league power North Carolina Central. The Hawks wiped out a seven-point hole in the final minute to win it.

“This is a Maryland-Eastern Shore basketball team that not many people have seen,” said Coach Jason Crafton. “It’s got blue-collar kids that want to do it the right way, have bought in and they have great relationships on and off the floor. That’s who we are, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

The 40-year-old Crafton, who worked under Jay Wright as a video coordinator for two seasons early in his career, has infused UMES with some of Villanova’s principles. The Hawks were shorthanded and overmatched on offense in their first season. The second year was wiped out by the pandemic. And last year, UMES went 11-16 but ran out of gas when late February arrived.

It led to some offseason reflection. Players and coaches agreed they needed to approach every game as a chance to prepare not only for winning a conference title, but winning a game in the NCAA tournament (an event the Hawks have never played in). That’s how UMES ended up angry after defeats at Duke and Virginia this season — and not surprised it won Dec. 20 at Temple.

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“Every single loss to a money team in the eight or nine money games we played, we were [ticked]Crafton said. “We would walk out of the gym upset — ‘No, we wanted to win that game.’ Whether we were capable of it or not, it did not matter. We were trying to instill a mentality that it’s no longer okay at Maryland-Eastern Shore to just give the good old college effort and try.”

Three of the freshmen from Crafton’s initial four-man class — top scorer Kevon Voyles, Da’Shawn Phillip and Glen Anderson — are now seniors. Several additions who could have bailed after the canceled season, including steals leader and no. 2 scorer Zion Styles, stuck it out. And Canisius transfer Ahamadou Fofana has stabilized the point guard position.

It’s a group invested in the program, which is three games over .500 for the first time since going 18-15 in 2014-15. The Hawks win with defense, ranking 11th nationally in turnover percentage at 24.1 percent according to KenPom.com. They’re 4-1 in the MEAC for the first time since 1995-96, and can get to 5-1 for the first time since rejoining the league in 1981-82 with a victory Saturday over Coppin State.

“It’s different around here right now because there’s a buzz,” Crafton said. “There’s a hype. We’ve had news people in here three or four different times in the last two weeks, which has never happened. I’m getting constant podcast and media requests and I’m having to organize my day in a different manner now than when no one cared and we were just losing. It’s new for everybody. We’re just trying to keep everybody humble and on track and stay focused on what we have to do.”

No. 13 Xavier at Creighton (12:15 p.m. Saturday, CBS): The Bluejays (12-8, 6-3 Big East) have a chance to narrow the gap in the conference standings as league leader Xavier (17-4, 9-1) arrives in Omaha. The Musketeers fended off Creighton, 90-87, on Jan. 11 behind Souley Boum’s 26 points.

No. 10 Texas at no. 4 Tennessee (6 p.m. Saturday, ESPN): Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes returned to Austin last year, and his team wound up on the wrong end of a 52-51 slugfest. The Volunteers (17-3) get another shot at Barnes’s former school as the Longhorns (17-3) pay a visit to Thompson-Boling Arena.

Ohio State at Indiana (8 p.m. Saturday, Fox): Chances are the Big Ten will not manage to have 11 teams with NCAA tournament-worthy resumes at season’s end. The wobbly Buckeyes (11-9, 3-6) have lost six of seven to head in the wrong direction. A victory at Assembly Hall over the Hoosiers (14-6, 5-4), winners of four in a row, would do wonders.

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No. 9 Kansas at Kentucky (8 p.m. Saturday, ESPN): Normally, this matchup draws attention because of the programs’ strengths. Right now, their (moderate) struggles at different times this month add an element of intrigue. Kansas (16-4) has dropped three in a row, while Kentucky (14-6) has tied its longest winning streak of the season at four since a baffling home loss to South Carolina.

Michigan State at no. 1 Purdue (12:15 p.m. Sunday, CBS): The Boilermakers (20–1, 9–1 Big Ten) scratched out a 64–63 victory in East Lansing on Jan. 16 behind Zach Edey’s 32 points and 17 rebounds. Now, the Spartans (14-7, 6-4) make the return trip in a game they probably need to remain a realistic Big Ten regular season title contender.

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