After a flat performance in a loss in its ACC opener against Wake Forest, No. 17 Duke needed to respond in a big way in its final game of the calendar year. In a matchup against Florida State, he did, winning 86-67.
The Blue Devils used their signature strategy of tough defense and capitalized on offensive rebounds, two things they struggled with last time out in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. recipe for success in the conference game.
To this point in the season, Duke has consistently relied on the same players to step up in the big moments, most often junior guard Jeremy Roach and 7-foot freshman Kyle Filipowski. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, neither player brought their A-game Saturday, with Roach still battling his nagging toe injury and Filipowski struggling to find his balance thus far in ACC play.
However, head coach Jon Scheyer has shown he’s not afraid to use his depth, and that move paid off on Saturday. Duke had 46 bench points to Florida State’s eight, a stat that perfectly exemplifies the potential Scheyer can unleash in a variety of different lineups. Two players who were largely overlooked before the start of the season, sophomore guard Jaylen Blakes and graduated center Ryan Young, were the catalysts for the success in the win.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re starting, coming off the bench, that’s something we’ve talked about a lot in our depth is still one of our strengths,” Scheyer said after the game. “You get to play nine guys and, you know, you played a lot of extended minutes.”
After a career-high 17 points against Wake Forest, Blakes was thrust into the starting lineup for the first time in his Duke career on Saturday and proved he belongs in the top five. Blakes took over the game early, scoring Duke’s first five points, part of his career-high 17 total.
In addition to his brand of tenacity on the defensive end, Blakes looks like he’s unlocking untapped potential on offense. In particular, the sophomore guard has been on pace from beyond the arc, going 4-for-6 in a game where the rest of the team struggled from downtown. It’s clear that during the offseason and extended breaks in December, Blakes has worked on his game, and Scheyer has obviously recognized and rewarded that. Whether Blakes will continue to start remains to be seen, but it’s clear that his role on this year’s team is growing by the day.
“Very proud of what he’s done,” Scheyer said of Blakes. “You know, a year will come that he didn’t play. It has been in different environments. And it just grew. And he’s as hard a worker as we are. He studies game plans like you wouldn’t believe and I’m proud and happy for him.”
In a year where Duke brought in a top-tier recruiting class headlined by two of the nation’s top-rated big men, Dereck Lively II and Filipowski, it was a graduate transfer who dominated the spot Saturday for the Blue Devils. Young turned in his best performance as a Blue Devil, and one of the team’s most impressive performances in recent memory. Everything Young touched was gold as he went a perfect 7-for-7 from the field and 6-for-6 from the charity stripe, finishing the day with 20 points.
Young also pulled down 12 rebounds, an aspect of his game that has been most valuable to this Duke team. Five of those rebounds came on the offensive glass, a category in which Duke ranks among the best in the country. Young’s attention on the boards almost certainly came as a result of the rebounding struggles against Wake Forest, something the team obviously focused on after Christmas.
“Defensive rebounding has to be something we hang our hat on and I’m glad we bounced back the way we did,” Young said. “I think we’ve handled our business.”
“You know, I’m sure I’ll find something I could have done better,” Scheyer said when asked if he would call Young’s performance perfect. “But it was pretty close.”
Another cog in the Duke machine that hasn’t necessarily put up flashy numbers thus far is Dariq Whitehead. The freshman forward battled a preseason injury but is starting to make progress. He has had back-to-back scoring nights, with 16 on Saturday in an offensive display that showed the elite driving ability and shooting prowess that had coaches around the country chasing him out of high school.
Unfortunately for Whitehead, he didn’t get to fully maximize his December after missing multiple practices and the Wake Forest game due to an illness. However, those offensive outbursts were only a matter of time for the super-talented guard.
It’s clear that Whitehead’s confidence is building, and Duke could use a lot of his improved play. “I heard it coming,” Whitehead said.
Duke’s depth was on display in its final game of 2022, painting an even more promising picture for the rest of the season. Blakes, Young and Whitehead will likely continue to see their minutes increase if they maintain their current level of play, making an already potent team even more dangerous.
The Blue Devils now look to carry the momentum of Saturday’s win into the new year. When asked about his New Year’s resolution, Blakes said, “Win a national championship.”
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