Jon Scheyer spent most of this month searching for answers to solve Duke’s chronic shooting issues.
The first-year coach navigated three games without junior guard Jeremy Roach, who needed a break to allow his ailing right big toe to heal.
Monday night, with Roach back playing for the second game in a row, the Blue Devils posted their best shooting night since December.
Cause for celebration? Not even close.
Instead, Scheyer and his coaching staff face more questions — mainly about freshman Dariq Whitehead’s health — after Virginia Tech beat Duke, 78-75, at Cassell Coliseum.
The 6-7 Whitehead scored 10 points in the first 22 minutes against the Hokies, drilling both 3-pointers he attempted and hitting 4 of 6 shots overall. He was shooting and playmaking and scoring like the future first-round pick NBA scouts project him to be.
In an instant, an answer to Duke’s shooting woes became yet another unknown for the Blue Devils (14-6, 5-4 ACC)
Whitehead crumpled to the court, wincing and holding his lower left leg after landing awkwardly in his pursuit of a loose ball that Virginia Tech’s Justyn Mutts secured. Medical exams and tests await Whitehead in the coming days as Duke’s medical staff works to assess what exactly is ailing him.
Is it a muscle? Is it a tendon?
Scheyer said he had no firm answers late Monday night. The follow-up tests will tell the tale.
But that, in itself, puts a Duke season that’s careening in the wrong direction in a bad place.
This is a Blue Devils team that, prior to hitting 48.3% of its shots against Virginia Tech, failed to shoot better than 40.3% in the previous five games.
The offense found its groove with Kyle Filipowski’s grit that helped him produce 29 points while grabbing 10 rebounds. Fellow freshman Tyrese Proctor scored 10 points while leading Duke with six assists while committing just one turnover in 31 minutes of play.
“I thought we had some beautiful connecting passes,” Scheyer said.
Roach had a poor shooting night, hitting only 3 of 9 shots, but came off the bench to settle an offense that had committed four turnovers in the game’s first six minutes and 14 seconds.
Whitehead becoming an offensive force gave Duke hope for better days ahead. Remember, he scored 18 points in Duke’s 65-64 win at Boston College on Jan. 7 and 16 points when the Blue Devils beat Florida State, 86-67, on Dec. 31.
He’s had some off games since, like a two-point game on an invisible 1 of 3 shooting in Duke’s 72-64 loss at Clemson on Jan. 14.
Still, he certainly appeared to be putting things together. Now, he’s yet another question mark.
For their part, the Blue Devils showed toughness on Monday night to be in position to win when so much had gone wrong.
Virginia Tech hit 7 of its first 10 3-pointers in a dizzying shooting display that allowed it to lead by as many as 13 points in the first half. Duke was in the process of erasing that deficit to eventually take a 58-53 lead in the second half when Whitehead was helped to the locker room.
Still, the Blue Devils persisted. Their slight lead went away but even after the Hokies pushed back ahead by four points, the game saw four ties over the final 9:35.
Proctor’s 3-pointer with 38.5 seconds left forged the last one. But Virginia Tech’s MJ Collins sank a pull-up jumper with 13 seconds left giving the Hokies the lead for good at 77-75.
“That’s a game we should totally come out with the win,” Filipowski said. “You know it just hurts because I know we’re working super hard. We’re gonna hit all this backlash from from everyone but, I mean, that’s just made us closer. Games like this are bringing us closer to but it’s just hard because you hate losing.”
When Duke was down 13 points late in the first half Monday night, the contest began to look like the Jan. 4 game at N.C. State. That night, the Wolfpack blistered Duke with strong shooting and the Blue Devils could never fight back while losing 84-60.
The game at Virginia Tech was different with the Blue Devils showing tenacity to reverse a deficit and put themselves in position to win.
The result, though, looks the same in the standings. It’s yet another ACC road loss for Duke, which is 1-4 in league games away from Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke hits the road again this weekend, playing at Georgia Tech (8-11, 1-8) on Saturday. The Blue Devils will prepare for that game knowing they took a step forward offensively only to play, by their standards this season, a poor defensive game.
They also don’t know when, or if, they’ll have a rising star like Whitehead in the lineup again.
The questions are there. The answers aren’t easy ones.