Section 17: Growing Pains

‘Section 17’ is Crazie-Talk’s weekly feature that lets you, the readers, take a look at what we see from Section 17 of hallowed Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Well, the end of the semester is upon us. It was quite an eventful week for Duke fans. Our Devils fell to the Badgers in Madison on Wednesday but bounced back at home against St. John’s on Saturday. Meanwhile Duke students collectively realized that final exams begin…tomorrow.

Photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com

Miles throws down...with authority! Photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com

Of course, the team also has to take exams, hence the week-long layoff before the Blue Devils take on Gardner-Webb at home next Tuesday. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This past week has left plenty to be discussed and plenty to be desired from this team in the four games before conference play begins in January.

Duke got beaten on both ends of the floor against a tough, well-coached Bo Ryan squad on Wednesday night.  Wisconsin threw the first punch, and Duke just couldn’t recover. Trevon Hughes carved up the Duke defense for 26 points, and it seemed like  the only offense Duke could run was through Kyle Singler, who had a career high of 28 points. Uber-frosh Andre Dawkins played one hell of a game, going 4-4 from three point land, singlehandedly bringing Duke to within one. But with no answer to Hughes, very little production down low, and a few uncharacteristic miscues from Scheyer and Singler at the end of the game, Coach K and Co. suffered their very first loss in the ten year history of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

Saturday’s home test against St. John’s was a completely different matter. As Coach K walked onto his own court, he personally let the students know that this game was not to be taken for granted. Mason Plumlee made his first career start alongside his brother in Cameron Indoor, and Duke looked very, very good in the first twenty minutes of play, jumping out to a 40-24 lead against the best squad St. John’s has had in a while. But basketball is a game of two halves, and this occasion was no exception. Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas started for the Devils, while the brothers Plumlee remained on the bench for the majority of the second period. Slowly but surely, St. John’s made their way back into the game as Duke failed to score for an extended period of time, cutting the lead down to four. Stall ball ensued, with K playing four guards and Lance Thomas for the final ten minutes of the second half, and the Devils hung on to win by single digits against a team they looked to be absolutely dominant against earlier in the afternoon.

And while a relatively close win in December is a win nonetheless, there are a few things that need to get fixed if this team wants to make a serious run in March.

  • Enough Small Ball. It’s been Duke’s demise the past few years, and there’s no excuse for this team to suffer the same fate. This team six players over 6’8. Six. This is the biggest Duke team…ever. But in the past three games, Coach K has reverted to small ball, with three guards (Scheyer, Smith, and Dawkins), Kyle, and Lance – a lineup that we’re all too familiar with –  and one that hasn’t had success in March. While this does cause some matchup problems on the offensive end, that advantage is negated by the fact that this lineup is extremely ineffective for interior defense. Meanwhile, it also negates the aforementioned fact that this team has six big guys, the most talented of which – Miles and Mason –  seem to be stuck on the bench. And after listening to this postgame interview with Mason, I don’t think he’s too happy about it.
  • A Go-To Team? Coach K said in a press conference earlier this season that this squad doesn’t have a “go-to player”, it’s a “go-to team”. But while the “Big Three” have emerged as the leaders of the team, they haven’t had much support (except for Andre, but I’ll get to that later). Singler, Scheyer, and Smith have taken over 75% of the Duke’s field goal attempts in the past four games, while logging an average of at least 35 minutes between them. And while the best players on a team should be taking the most shots, it’s also important for those players to be taking the best possible shots. Against SJU, the Big Three shot a combined 15-43. Duke has been a jump-shooting team for a long time, but as I’ve said before: for the first time since Shelden Williams, Duke has a legitimate post presence – or three. For this team to have a balanced attack (or a way to put points on the board when shots aren’t falling), the guards have got to find a way to feed the post effectively. Even though Lance and Zoubs have had some excellent games thus far, very rarely do you see this team look to them as primary scoring options. Instead, Duke is essentially a three man team on offensive when LT and Z are on the floor, where the seniors do most of their damage on the offensive glass (Zoubek is at the top of the ACC in offensive rebounding). But while the two seniors bring energy and defensive intensity, the Plumlee brothers and Ryan Kelly could provide a jolt to this offense. Granted, Mason and Ryan still need to get acclimated to the college game, but combine Ryan’s marvelous high-low passing skills with the Plumlees’ athleticism, and you finally have legitimate offensive weapons in the paint.  All in all, it’s imperative that this team exploit its strengths and run offense through the low post. While this team can be lethal from long range, it will be very, very difficult for opponents to defend this team if the perimeter guys start feeding the big men on a more regular basis.
  • Dre’ All Day – Andre Dawkins is a man. Babyfaced he may be, but he is a cold- blooded assassin on the floor. His gutsy performance on Thursday was one of the best by a Duke freshman in a long time. But as good as he was on Wednesday, he only finished with 2 points on 1-5 shooting on Saturday. Why? While Andre does need to get more aggressive in terms of creating his own shot,  it looked like guys weren’t really looking to get him the ball. Case in point: on one of the last possessions of the St. John’s game, Scheyer came up with another ridiculous block on a Red Storm breakaway. He proceeded to outlet to Nolan, who led the break and saw Andre wide open in the lane. Instead of dishing it out to Dre for the easy jam, Nolan slowed the pace, crossed up his defender and slammed it home himself. You can check out the play here. Just watch for Andre. Cameron erupted, of course, but standing there I knew it would have been even louder had the kid finished the play. Nolan had already had a great game, but Andre really didn’t have many opportunities. His only basket of the day came when he showcased his “alarming” athleticism as he elevated and got to the rim, only to have his dunk attempt altered into a layup. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again. Andre Dawkins is Duke’s next superstar shooting guard, and he needs to get the rock in his hands. Period.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love this team, and it has a lot of potential. Jon has been almost perfect at the point (six assists, no turnovers on Saturday), Kyle has played like the All-American he is, and Nolan has cemented himself as a vital cog in the wheel that is K’s motion offense. But it’s obvious that adjustments need to be made, and it’s better to struggle and learn now than later. Everyone knows that championships aren’t won in November or December.

Here’s to hoping this week will give the guys time to rest, both mentally and physically, so that they can get geared up to play with full steam ahead.

Cheers.

[12/7/09 7:32am] Edited to add:

Our deepest sympathies go out to Andre Dawkins, as he lost his sister in an accident on Saturday. Please keep your thoughts and prayers with Andre and his family during this difficult time.