Duke faces questions, concerns about future following ACC Tournament loss

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski yells at his players during the Blue Devils’ loss to Virginia Tech in Saturday’s championship game of the ACC Men’s Tournament at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

For the first time since 2018, Duke lost an ACC Tournament game. A red-hot Virginia Tech team finished a four-day run to the title with a 82-67 win over the Blue Devils Saturday night in Brooklyn. The win capped Virginia Tech’s first trip to the tournament final with an ACC title for the Hokies, who, at No. 7 in the league, became the lowest seeded team ever to win the ACC Tournament.

The loss raised red flags for a Duke team that has struggled on defense down the stretch of the season. Duke allowed the Hokies to shoot 10-of-22 from three, including a 7-of-9 performance from beyond the arc for Hunter Cattoor, who lit up the Blue Devils for 31 points and made his first six three-point attempts.

“He had a Klay Thompson night,” said coach Mike Krzyzewski. “Someone should figure out how long did he have the ball to score 31 points? He moves so well without the ball.”

The Hokies also outrebounded the Blue Devils, 37-26, and rebounded 13 of their 35 misses, becoming the second Duke opponent in three games to get at least 37 percent of its offensive rebounding attempts, a figure the Blue Devils hadn’t allowed in nearly two months, heading into the tournament.

“I thought we played tired,” said coach Mike Krzyzewski. “Mark (Williams) didn’t have legs tonight.” The big man struggled with foul trouble and keeping up with the smaller, faster Hokies, finishing with just eight points and three rebounds in 18 minutes.

Duke Blue Devils center Mark Williams (15) walks off the court after they lost to Virginia Tech Hokies 82-67 during the ACC Championship game of the ACC Men’s Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY on March 12, 2022. PJ WARD-BROWN/NORTH STATE JOURNAL

Meanwhile, Duke struggled from the outside, hitting just 4-of-20 from three, its third-worst outside shooting night of the season.

“I thought our offense was good,” Krzyzewski said. “We just didn’t hit shots. We just couldn’t stop them. When you don’t hit shots, you don’t look like you’re running good offense.  When we got within 10, we had two threes that were in and out and missed four free throws.”

The defense has been a major issue for the last two weeks. Duke has surrendered its four highest defensive efficiencies of the season in the last five games, and the last three opponents have all posted effective field goal percentages of 50 percent or more.

“Our communication has been a little off,” Moore said. “I feel like the effort is there from all our guys. We’re just a little late on our talks, a little late on our switches. We’ve got a couple days to prepare for it.”

Krzyzewski blamed his team’s youth and lack of practice, while crediting the Hokies. “They’ve been like a well-oiled machine,” he said of Tech. “They’re a team you need two or three days to prepare for, to put in your defensive game plan, and it still might not work.”

It didn’t on Saturday.

“Our staff scouting report, the first line is, ‘No threes,’” Krzyzewski said. “They have such good movement. Going against incredible movement, you have to have incredible talk. The toughest thing to teach a young team is constant communication. If you don’t do it, boom! They’ve got something.”

Now Duke has a few days to regroup before beginning its NCAA run. Krzyzewski emphasized to the Blue Devils that the record goes back to 0-0 for the start of March Madness.

“I think we’ll be a decent seed tomorrow (Selection Sunday),” he said. “Then, let’s get refreshed and get ready. That’s what we’re trying to concentrate on. …   I’m very confident, because we’ll be able to practice. Since the Carolina game, we’ve had one practice, and you play three straight games.”

The tournament experience—hard-fought wins over Syracuse and Miami, followed by the Virginia Tech loss—will have to serve as a learning experience for the young Duke players.

“I think we’re a lot more mature team,” Moore said. “You saw last Saturday (a loss to North Carolina) how young we were. This week, we’ve really grown up. We had a couple meetings, a hard practice. I think it turned us into men over the last few days.”

After a disappointing end to the ACC Tournament, Duke is saying the right things. In a few days, we’ll see if it rings true.

Duke Blue Devils forward Paolo Banchero (5) walks off the court after losing to Virginia Tech Hokies 82-67 during the ACC Championship game of the ACC Men’s Tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY on March 12, 2022. PJ WARD-BROWN/NORTH STATE JOURNAL