Section 17: Toppled by the Storm

The jump ball was one of the few competitive moments of the loss to St. John's. (Courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

Well, that was eye-opening.

In Duke’s first trip to the tri-state area this season, in New Jersey’s Meadowlands, the team was freakishly robbed of Kyrie Irving. Sunday in New York’s Madison Square Garden, up against a hungry St. John’s team and its rabid crowd, the Blue Devils were relieved of something else—their dignity.

Anyone watching the game—one of the few matchups on Sunday after Saturday’s packed slate— saw the Johnnies thoroughly “undress” Duke (to use the phrase of commentator Verne Lundquist). The sublime Clark Kellogg, who called most of Duke’s games in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, was thoroughly impressed  by the offensive and defensive efficiency of a Red Storm team that was coming off a blowout loss at Georgetown four days ago. The college basketball Twitterati—including our team of tweeters—was stunned by Duke’s lethargy. How did the ACC’s best get housed by the Big East’s eleventh ranked squad?

Much was exposed about the post-Irving Blue Devils. Here are some of my observations from a day of hair-pulling and disbelief.

  • Nolan and Kyle are not enough to win against non-ACC opponents. Our guard depth of Curry, Dawkins and Thornton was overshadowed by the gritty defense and physicality of the more experienced, if less talented, St. John’s perimeter rotation. The balance of the Red Storm attack (5 players in double figures) had its counterpoint in the Blue Devils: Nolan and Kyle had 17 of our 26 field goals, and many of the other ones were forgettable.
  • If post play continues to be non-existent, we are bound for more tight games if our outside shooting is cold. I have this dance I do now called “The Plumlee Lament” where I shake my fists, flail my legs and knock over any drinks placed nearby. Miles and Mason have yet to demonstrate a go-to post move, and combined for just 6 points and 6 boards. The living room was a mess.
  • The Garden is “our house,” except when it’s St. John’s. One was hard-pressed to pick out any of the well-dressed Duke businessmen that normally sit front row for our games in New York. Instead, hordes of SJU students packed the end zones and the place erupted over our missed shots as much at the Johnnies’ effortless buckets. St. John’s is for real in this building; they’ve already beaten Georgetown and Notre Dame at home, and both of those squads are in the top 15. But today’s performance was easily Coach Lavin’s first real assertion that he’s here to win, and the program is firmly on the upswing in its own city. With a historically populous recruiting class joining next year, the Johnnies might even make noise in beastly Big East as well.
  • The full court press was not our friend. As Duke tried to chip away at the 20 point margin in the final ten minutes, every advance was negated by a St. John’s guard weaving through our “pressure” and getting easy floaters or layups. Exhaustion probably played a role in this, as K kept the starters in for most of the game. With all of the heart of Nolan making tough jumpers late in games, it won’t matter if we don’t get back on defense.
  • Without making too many long-term, swan song-like predictions, even a conservative critic would place this game as a triumph for the Big East and a huge flop for the ACC. By now John Swofford might be thinking about football season again (yikes).

If there’s anything good to take away from this, getting plastered pissed our guys off. The two double technicals—Smith and Thornton picked ours up—showed that the boys still wanted to fight to make the result somewhat respectable (15 is better than 25, after all). Exactly a year ago, Duke suffered a similar fate on the road at Georgetown, as the ever contextual Ben Cohen pointed out on his Twitter. That loss was at least as ugly as this one, but it also refocused the team, acting as a rallying point for an eventual championship run. Another run of that sort is predicated upon, among other things, the recovery of our favorite toe in the world. But as things stand, we’re still 19-2, and will certainly improve as this topsy turvy conference season continues.

For now though, this one stings. I give massive props to St. John’s, and trust that Coach will instill the fear of God in the hearts of the good guys before we venture into College Park in a few days.

Maybe some Marvin can cheer you up? I heard he was a Duke fan.

Section 17: On The Road Again

Duke took to the road last week, earning two conference wins behind strong team efforts. Let’s take a look back at last week before heading back into Cameron for Boston College on Thursday.

Duke 92-N.C. State 78

In their first visit to the RBC Center since last season’s defeat to the Wolfpack, Duke throttled N.C. State last Wednesday night with their best overall offensive performance since wreaking havoc on Kansas State in November. Nolan and Kyle combined for 40 points, despite poor shooting efforts from both, while Duke’s frontcourt of Ryan Kelly and the brothers Plumlee more than held their own against State’s amply talented frontcourt.

All nine players who checked into the game scored for the Devils, including freshmen Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston. Other than scoring from Singler and Smith, both Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins were solid contributors off of the bench, but faced limited minutes due to foul trouble (they combined for eight fouls).

What made this effort stand out was the performance of the young but promising frontcourt. Kelly was perfect on the night, finishing with 11 points on 4-4 shooting, hitting 2-2 from deep and collecting 8 rebounds. Miles emerged from a seemingly endless slump, collecting 11 points and 8 boards in 21 minutes of action—his largest chunk of playing time since playing Maryland at home two weeks ago. Mason continued his surge of rebounding excellence, scooping up 10 boards to go along with a modest 7 points on the night. Despite combining for 29 points and 26 rebounds, the trio of trees was more impressive on the defensive end. Mason had six (6) thunderous blocks, Ryan had two of his own, and all three held their own against State’s productive post players, which included Tracy Smith, Richard Howell and heralded freshman C.J. Leslie.

Duke 83-Wake Forest 59

One of the most painful moments in C-T’s tenure at Duke was the game at Wake Forest two years ago, when James Johnson’s layup with 0.8 seconds left gave the Deacons a two point win. We were #1, they were #4, they became #1; lots of tie-dye shirts were taken off, a lot of sweaty Wake fans danced to “Zombie Nation.” Walking out of the stadium was like a Polo button-up gauntlet for our small group.

But that was then, when Wake was pretty good. The “little brother” private university in North Carolina now has a purely abysmal basketball program under coach Jeff Bzdelik. On Saturday afternoon, Wake was coming off a 74-39 loss to Georgia Tech (apparently the Jackets are a defensive juggernaut now?). Despite their team’s sub-.500 record, Lawrence Joel Veteran’s Coliseum was 14,000 strong for the Blue Devils. Surprise!

This wasn’t the most exciting ACC matchup. Kyle and Nolan, as we’ve come to expect, put up a lot of points on a lot of shots—Nolan with 19 on 6-22 shooting, Kyle with 24 on 9-19. Mason contributed 10 rebounds with no points, Miles chipped in 8, and everyone was pretty bored after the first half.

Everyone except the majestic Ryan “White Delight” Kelly, who had a career-high 20 points on perfect 6-6 (4-4) shooting (that’s 10 straight field goals going back to the State game). Awkward mechanics notwithstanding, Kelly showed why he may be the most critical cog in our strategy going forward without Kyrie. He’s always been an excellent passer, but as a rediscovered threat from the perimeter RK will allow Nolan even more freedom driving outside-in. Leaving Kyle and Dre out there is scary enough, but Kelly’s jumper is released so high that it’s even harder to defend.

As fans, it’s thrilling to see Kelly fulfill the promise as a shooter he showed at the McDonald’s game. In the revolving cast of Kyle and Nolan’s third wheel, look for Kelly to pop up every few games now. Our opponents are going to be changing their defensive strategy after this performance…and it’s about time RK got some respect.

Section 17: Next Play

Duke got back to its winning ways on Saturday, with a 76-60 victory over a scrappy Virginia squad in Cameron Indoor Stadium, as 2012 stud Shabazz Muhammad and 2011 commit Austin Rivers looked on from behind the bench.

The Devils played a lifeless and inconsistent brand of basketball for the first 25 minutes of the game —we were still hung over from Wednesday night’s loss against Florida State. The Crazies were lukewarm at best as Nolan, Kyle, and company struggled to find rhythm on offense and failed to get stops on defense.

Faced with a 44-39 deficit early in the second half, top gunners Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins—who finished with 7 and 14 points, respectively—sparked a Duke Run™ that would allow the Devils to close out the game outscoring the Cavaliers by 19.

The game changed on a Dawkins steal and vicious breakaway dunk by @NdotSmitty that literally brought the house down (Yes, our own Scott and Arun are among the only survivors). Smith finished with 29 points, 7 boards, and 6 assists in yet another dominant performance. Ryan Kelly also had a respectable game inside, scoring 8 points in the paint, while Mason Plumlee collected a career high 16 rebounds – the most by any Duke player this season.

Despite cold shooting and uninspired defense for much of the game, Duke pulled out a gritty, hard-fought win against an underrated Virginia team. There’s obviously a lot to improve, but a win is a win. This team will continue to grow as Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly, Andre Dawkins, and Seth Curry become more and more comfortable with their roles. There will be growing pains, but this team is still pretty damn good. All in all, it was a fun game this afternoon in Cameron.

We’ll be back in action next Wednesday in Raleigh to face the Wolfpack of N.C. State.

Section 17: Sweat It Out

Editor’s note: special thanks to our buddy Alex Keller for penning this guest-spot!

The Duke community might not consider Maryland their rivals, but Maryland disagrees.  As usual, the Terrapins came to Cameron Indoor hungry last night, leaving it all on the floor.  Not yet this year have I seen Duke struggle against such strong defensive pressure, both out at the arc and fighting for rebounds.  Maryland wanted this one, badly.

Tyler Thornton provided a much needed spark in the second half. Photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com.

Check out Crazie-Talk exclusive highlights from the second row of Section 17 below. Special thanks to our buddy Peter for the additional footage and Dave Bradley of DBP fame for all of his assistance.

During the first half, Maryland came ready to play, and Duke, quite simply, wasn’t prepared for the onslaught.  Handling the ball on the perimeter, the Blue Devils were hard pressed to break the Maryland zone and find an open man.  The Terps were disciplined on defense, efficient, and persistent.  Guarded closely on the perimeter, Nolan Smith found himself double-teamed as soon as he came inside the arc, but Maryland’s zone was balanced enough that the Blue Devils couldn’t distribute the ball effectively to unbalance the zone and create a mismatch.  Duke got its points, slowly, but the point productivity of earlier games was gone.  Kyle Singler and Ryan Kelly were forced to take long shots under coverage, and Jordan Williams outmaneuvered the Plumlee brothers under the basket for rebounds.

On the other end of the court, Duke had on-and-off success in trapping the ball on defense, frequently creating turnovers but just as often leaving an open man with an easy shot.  Free points add up.  Maryland’s guards shot poorly from outside, but it was still enough to keep them in the game.  For neither team was it a pretty half.  The better team lacked its usual explosiveness, the underdogs seemed to want it more, and a low-scoring, poor-shooting, scrappy first half was the result, with Duke clinging to a one-point lead going into the locker room.

More of the same continued for the first few minutes of the second half.  Williams scored four quick points at the start of the second half and Maryland extended their lead as far as six points.  The Crazies got angry.  And at the perfect time, Singler hit a big three.  As Duke mounted a comeback, the familiar roar returned, growing from a rumble to a raging torrent.  The middle ten minutes of the second half showed the extent to which the Blue Devils absolutely thrive off momentum.  More than any other team I’ve seen, year in and year out, Duke surges when it gets fired up.  A few good plays at the right time, and Cameron becomes deafening as the Blue Devils charge forward.  And once again, the game went to a media timeout with Cameron shaking under the din.

Seth Curry and Tyler Thornton deserve the game ball for what the two subs did in the next two minutes.  Between 15:13 and 13:04 in the second half, Curry had seven points off of a three pointer, a jump shot and two free throws, while Thornton had two steals, hit a jumper and took a game-changing charge.  The play of Thornton and Curry, which Coach K after the game called “huge,” took the Blue Devils from a one-point deficit to a six-point lead in those two minutes and nine seconds.  That seven-point turnaround was part of a larger 14-2 run by the Blue Devils, and in the end Thornton wound up with 4 steals and Curry with 12 points.  The Terps hung on tenaciously until the final seconds, but the Blue Devils’ play had been shocked back into their normal style, and while foul trouble held Maryland back inside, Duke got its usual long buckets from Singler, Smith, and Dawkins, Smith hit free throw after free throw to hold the lead through the final minutes, and Singler finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds in leading the Blue Devils to a 71-64 victory.

Takeaways:

  • Never underestimate Maryland.  When a team considers you their rival and feels snubbed by the fact that you ignore them for a “better” rivalry – even if that other rivalry is one of the greatest traditions in sports – they come ready to play.  Every time.  Just because you beat them by 20 early in the season doesn’t mean they won’t come back and beat you later.  See Wikipedia for what is clearly a Maryland fan’s take on the “rivalry.”
  • The Crazies, as usual, were in rare form visually as well as audibly.  The student sections of Cameron held numerous mockeries of Gary Williams, from imitating his attire in Maryland’s Midnight Madness video parodying Top Gun – some with aviators, some with a full flight suit – to a costume of him sweating.  Also spotted: Santa, lots of face paint, and students dressed up as dogs, a cow in a Duke jersey, and a giant penguin.  The costumes may be extraneous, but the decibel level continues to be a key part of Duke’s home court advantage.
  • Our team continues to show its versatility.  It’s hard to steal the show when you’re on the floor with Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, but Seth Curry was big time last night.  Tyler Thornton still has some work to do and is clearly still a freshman (2 missed free throws with 40 seconds left), but his confidence in taking the point with strong ball-handling, along with pure tenacity throughout the second half, are both good signs of his development.  With Kyrie’s status still unknown, it’s key that we’ve seen each and every one of the other guards now step up when the team has needed it.
  • Miles and Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly still need work under the basket.  Positioning for rebounds was questionable for our big men, and Jordan Williams took 13 boards that felt like a lot more.  Down the homestretch, the Plumlees were missing second-chance opportunities, missing free throws, and picking up fouls.  Duke ended up with a slim 3-rebound advantage, but that’s not going to cut it.
  • Kyle Singler got absolutely packed when he tried to drive the lane.  Over and over.  Singler’s a great player, but he can’t do it all, and trying to go up against Williams and the Terps’ big men inside was not working.  Still, Singler is one of the best players in the country, and his double-double reflects that through his adaptation during the game.  He was much more effective when in the second half he started taking more pull-up shots and mid-range jumpers and got open for threes.  Many of these shots were over the defense, as well.  Singler has height and great range for a guy his size, which makes him deadly from 20 feet, and he should be taking more advantage of the mismatches his size creates for those mid- to long-range shots if a defense is shutting him down on the drive.
  • Get Nolan on the line.  Eight for eight from the stripe down the stretch, enough said.

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Video: Austin Rivers vs. Milton

Future Duke phenom Austin Rivers and his Winter Park (Fl.) team faced off against the nationally ranked Milton (Ga.) Eagles in the Hoops in OverDrive Shootout. Milton boasts tons of Division 1 talent in their senior class: Dai-Jon Parker (committed to Vanderbilt), Julian Royal (Georgia Tech), and Shannon Scott (Ohio State). They also have 2012 wingman Evan Nolte, who is currently ranked #50 in his class by ESPNU, and Shaquille Johnson, who recently lost to Plumlee #3 in the City of Palms dunk contest. There has been some noise surrounding Duke recruiting Nolte, but only time will tell how his recruitment will play out. Milton won the game 75-60 in front of a packed house, beating Winter Park for the 2nd time in a week and a half. Simply put, Rivers got little support from his teammates, as he contributed over half his squad’s points (31 of 60).

Rivers didn’t exactly have the start everyone might have been expecting in the first half. He only had 6 points and didn’t seem to get into an offensive groove—although he did have a nice block on Parker on a fast break. His team trailed 37-25 at the break. In the second half, however, Rivers came to life and showed why he deserves his high ranking. He scored 25 points in the final 2 quarters, raining threes from distance. He had several nice drives to the basket, where he would either finish himself with a variety of moves or pass out to a teammate. Unfortunately, the rest of Winter Park was stifled by Milton’s defense and failed to capitalize on Austin’s dishes.

Conversely, Milton was ready to go on both ends of the floor. They were simply too athletic for Winter Park and dominated from start to finish. The Wildcats pulled close in the 2nd half due to Austin’s amazing play, but his effort was not enough to complete the comeback. Check out the highlights above (part of the ever-growing Austin Rivers mixtape collection), and you’ll see why we’re thrilled to have one more year to watch games in Cameron as Duke undergrads.

Happy New Year from all of us at Crazie Talk! 2010 was a great year for Duke basketball, and we only hope it continues into 2011. Thanks so much for following us the past year, and as always, let us know if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions (crazietalk@gmail.com or on our Twitter)