E.A. Sports Today

Duke’s ‘dirty work’

Senior center proves there’s life after departure of 6-9 star Phillips, helps defending state champion Jacksonville return to Final Four in his way

Senior center Ethan Duke (21) comes ready to rebound as Caden Johnson looks to dunk against Etowah in Wednesday’s Northeast Regional final in Pete Mathews Coliseum. (Photo by Greg Warren)

By Joe Medley
East Alabama Sports Today

JACKSONVILLE — Ethan Duke matter-of-factly notes he’s not 6-foot-9, like the guy he replaced in Jacksonville’s starting lineup.

While Tennessee commit Cade Phillips sharpens his game at Link Academy in Branson, Mo., this season, Duke has a work-a-day commitment for his soon-to-be life beyond high school. He’s taking his talents to Alexandria-based K and A Landscape, where he’s worked part time for three years.

“I’m not going to college or anything,” he said. “I’m just working. I’ve got some family members that run a business, and I’m just going to work for them.

“It’s landscaping, lawn care … outside stuff.”

Duke still has indoor work to do. Having helped the defending state champion Golden Eagles (27-6) return to the Final Four, the 6-4 senior center hopes to help their otherwise star-laced lineup mow down two more opponents in Birmingham this week.

It starts with Hale County in Tuesday’s Class 4A state semifinals in Legacy Arena, and the winner advances to Friday’s title game.

Jacksonville won its first-ever state championship in boys basketball in its one season with Phillips, who took the prep school route after last season. The Golden Eagles have the chance to win a title without him.

While Jacksonville coach Tres Buzan acknowledges that replacing Phillips’ points, rebounds and rim defense has come “by committee” this season, there a place for a glue player like Duke in the lineup.

Duke has been more than a placeholder.

“He’s a big part of our team. He’s one of our main captains,” senior guard and South Alabama signee John Broom said. “He helps us lead the underclassmen, and he’s just very, very strong on and off the court.” 

Duke’s strength helps Broom, twins Cam and Caden Johnson and rising-star sophomore point guard Devin Barksdale flourish.

“He plays with guys with a lot of tremendous talent, so he embraces where he’s going to get his shots,” Buzan said. “He knows we’re at our best when we get guys like Devin, and John, and Cam, and Caden loose. He takes a lot of pride in doing that. He’s kind of our tone setter. 

“We couldn’t do it without him.” 

Duke averages 2.8 points and 4.5 rebounds but has his moments. He scored six of his nine points during a key third-quarter stretch in Jacksonville’s victory over Etowah in the Northeast Regional final.

Duke’s victories come more often in the stats of others. Broom, the Johnsons and Barksdale average between 11.1 and 20.8 points a game partly because of what Duke does for them.

Watch him operate, as Jacksonville’s quartet of scorers go four-out on the perimeter. With so much room to operate in the lane, Duke could back down defenders and post up. More often, he looks to plant his strong, 225-pound frame next to unsuspecting defenders for picks and screens.

“Ethan is a guy behind the scenes, doing all of the stuff that nobody wants to do,” Buzan said. “The guy works hard. He does all of the dirty work. He cleans boards. He takes charges. He’s such a big part of what we do. He’s so unselfish. 

“It’s not that Ethan can’t post. He can post, and we can do that if we need to. The big thing with ‘E’ is he knows his role, and he embraces his role. A big thing of what he does is get our ball handlers downhill in the lane and score around the basket off of what they do.”

Duke’s embrace of his role is so thorough that opponents don’t look for him to score. 

On an inbounds play against Cleburne County in the Area 10 tournament, Duke inbounded to Broom and stepped over the end line and into the lane uncovered. The play called for Broom to take the open baseline 3-pointer, but Broom saw Duke even more open under the basket. 

Broom’s pass hit the unsuspecting Duke in the side and bounced off of him, out of bounds.

More often than not, Duke’s predecessor would’ve caught the inbounds pass, sometimes in the form of an alley-oop.

Every team is different, even when it returns so much production from a state-championship team. Duke has given the Golden Eagles something of value in his way.

Senior center Ethan Duke lurks behind Jacksonville coach Tres Buzan during a timeout in the Golden Eagles’ victory over Etowah in Wednesday’s Northeast Regional final in Pete Mathews Coliseum. (Photo by Greg Warren)

His aggression rarely comes with the ball in his hands and sometimes comes behind the scenes. When Buzan dismissed senior guard Jaliek Long from the team just ahead of the Calhoun County final, Duke and Broom led a team meeting.

“We talked it out and got everybody’s opinion on it, and we kind of refocused on the main goal,” Duke said.

Duke’s aggression on the court often comes verbally, as well. He doesn’t always speak softly and acknowledges losing his temper at times.

“We have a lot of, I wouldn’t call it arguments,” he said. “I’d just call it competitiveness.

“Everybody wants to win. We get under each other’s skin, which I think is good, because everybody is trying to win the game, and we’re used to it.”

With Jacksonville headed back to the Final Four minus Phillips, there’s no doubting results.

“It means a lot,” Duke said. “There were definitely doubters coming into the season. Obviously, I’m not 6-9, but, if we play as a team, nobody can beat us, this team this year or last year. It doesn’t matter.”

Cover photo: Ethan Duke goes up for two of his nine points against Etowah in Wednesday’s the Northeast Regional final in Pete Mathews Coliseum. (Photo by Greg Warren)

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