Math 9314: Volunteering An Explanation

Note: If you need a refresher about what all this advanced metric mumbo jumbo really means, see yesterday’s post to turn yourself into an all-knowing wizard of basketball statistics.

Let’s take a look at yesterday’s 77-67 victory over Tennessee, shall we? On the motion chart below, you currently see GameScores on the x-axis, the eFG% on the y-axis, and the size of each player’s bubble is determined by his Usage% from last night’s game. Press the ‘play’ button or scroll to the right to observe metrics from last night’s win. With this motion chart you can see all four metrics charted against one another in whatever manner you’d like for every game Duke has played this season. You can also isolate each individual player to track his performance. The first thing that jumps out at you upon examination of the metrics from the Tennessee game is where the bubbles are positioned on the chart. Unlike a much more statistically efficient game against Davidson, Duke only registered three players with GameScores above 10 last night. Only Austin Rivers, Seth Curry, and Ryan Kelly were able to break double digits. However, you will also notice that despite the low GameScores, six out of the nine Blue Devils that played last night had above a 40% eFG%. This indicates that despite the fact that Duke shot well (48.1% from the field and 38.9% from 3-point range), the Blue Devils were extremely inefficient thanks to sloppy offensive execution, 13 turnovers, and 18 team fouls.

Upon examining individual performances from last night, some interesting trends arise.

Austin Rivers nails a floater against Tennessee (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Look Past The Scoring
Austin Rivers sticks out like a sore thumb. Although he was able to turn around a rough start to finish with a team-high 18 points, Rivers only registered the third highest GameScore on the team with 10 (the definition of average in terms of GameScore). Meanwhile, his 39% Usage% was a team-high as well, besting his next closest competitor, Quinn Cook, by 14%. This means that while Austin was on the floor, he accounted for 39% of his team’s shots. Although a Usage % this high would not be uncommon for an elite player, Rivers has yet to play like one. 14.2 points per game along with 40.4% shooting from the floor and 68.0% free throw shooting are not perfect numbers, and don’t warrant 39% of the possession. Rivers has shown flashes of brilliance this season, especially in the second half of last night’s game, but needs to become more efficient in his play. If he wants to take his game to the next level, he’ll need to slow down his thought process and break out of his tunnel vision. Sometimes splitting double teams and taking on big men is not his best option. Duke will take his scoring production, but not at the cost of 6/15 shooting. For more on Rivers, check out Sebastian Pruiti’s most recent article for Grantland for some excellent analysis.

No Surprise
After showing what he can do during the stretch run of ACC play last season, Seth Curry has been the Blue Devils’ greatest scoring threat, and is doing so in an efficient manner. His 12.9 GameScore was second on the team against Tennessee, and he was able to do so with a 55% eFG% and only a 22% Usage%. Over the team’s five games, Curry has registered a low GameScore of 10.2 with a high of 20.6 against Michigan State, all the while shooting with an eFG% above 54% in each contest. Meanwhile, his Usage% has been considerably lower than Rivers’, and has been less than 23% in four of Duke’s five contests. Though last night was not Curry’s best statistical performance of the season, the Blue Devils will take 17 points and four assists on 5/10 shooting from Seth any day. They’ll just consider his 1 of 4 shooting from beyond the arc an anomaly.

Ryan Kelly pulls up for three in the Blue Devils' victory over Tennessee (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Duke’s Unsung Hero
Curry and Rivers have received much of the credit for Duke’s early season success, but arguably Duke’s most consistent player this season has been junior Ryan Kelly. In five games this year Kelly has posted GameScores between 9.4 and 15 each time, while registering above a 58% eFG% and below a 24% Usage% in four of his five games this year. Kelly has been a consistent scoring threat, and his promotion into the starting lineup in place of Miles Plumlee, whose play has been lackluster this season, was well deserved. Ryan’s 17 points and six rebounds on 5/9 shooting in just 27 minutes last night earned him a GameScore of 14 to go along with his 67% eFG%. This earned him the title of Duke’s most efficient player and second most efficient shooter in their victory over the Volunteers.

A Blast From The Past?
All advanced metrics aside, this year’s Duke team appears to be a significantly more talented version of the 2007-08 Blue Devils, who fell in the second round of the NCAA tournament to West Virginia. Much like the current Duke team, the ‘07-08 team had only one senior and a crop of juniors to lead a relatively inexperienced squad. The team also struggled with an identity crisis throughout the year, failing to recognize who their star was and scoring by committee. Both the ’07 team and today’s Blue Devils had five players averaging double figures in scoring, and it was unclear who would lead the team on a given night. However the main difference we see between these teams is that the 2007 team’s roster didn’t have players that could single-handedly take over games. DeMarcus Nelson, Greg Paulus, and Gerald Henderson along with Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith, and Jon Scheyer in their early years were never going to put the team on their back and carry them to victory. However, Curry, Rivers, and Andre Dawkins have proven this year that they can score in bunches and Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee have provided some much needed consistency inside that Duke teams have not had since Shelden Williams roamed the paint in Cameron.

We hope this look behind the box score has been an enlightening one, and look forward to bringing you more data as the season presses onwards. Be on the lookout for our live blog of the Maui Invitational semifinals against 15th ranked Michigan later this evening along with game and statistical recaps tomorrow. Stay Crazie, my friends.

Section 17: Duke Trumps Volunteers, Set Up Rematch with Michigan

Courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com

Austin Rivers d's up. He had 18 points in the game. (Photo via BluePlanetShots.com)

Through four games, Duke looked like a talented team without a fixed identity. We escaped against Belmont by one point at home, and many fans in Cameron gaped in bewilderment. We looked ready to roll against Michigan State before the Spartans cut a double digit lead to 5 by the buzzer. Davidson had a fantastic first half before the Plumlee connection overcame the Wildcats in the second half. Blue Devil fans, including the Crazie-Talk cadre, were never sure of victory despite the high level of talent on this team.

And so we went to Maui, where we faced off against upstart coach Cuonzo Martin’s Tennessee Volunteers in the quarterfinals. The Vols have had their fair share of scandal in the past year, with formerly lauded coach Bruce Pearl dismissed at the end of last season. The new look Tennessee squad never truly backed down; their lack of organization and a tendency to take bad shots doomed them against Duke, but they were athletic and feisty through Monday’s 40 minutes. Duke finally got it together in the final eight minutes of action, pulling away to a 77-67 victory in the Lahaina Civic Center, where we have never lost in four previous Maui Invitationals.

Here are some of my observations from the night.

  • Our three point defense against the Vols was fantastic. Tennessee took eight shots from beyond the arc and connected on none of them. I attribute this to our ball-hawking perimeter defense. This facet of our defensive strategy is both a gift and a curse: we often pressure shooters at the expense of dribble penetration. The Vols were more keen on taking shots closer to the bucket anyway–they shot 50 times from within the arc and collected 10 offensive rebounds. However, Tennessee is not a bad outside shooting team. Even after tonight, the team shoots threes at a 49.1% clip. If Coach K is comfortable funneling shooters to the paint and protecting the three point arc, let’s hope our big men can handle it against better teams in the future.
  • Ryan Kelly is our most consistent offensive player. The White Raven has proven his mettle this year, quietly of course. The Raleigh native doesn’t burn up in a blaze of glory, he simmers like a tender pot roast (Thanksgiving metaphors!). Against Tennessee, he had 17 points and six rebounds–a ho hum night for a star player, but a testament to Kelly’s skill at taking what comes to him. Yesterday, we wrote about Kelly’s incredible effective field goal percentage, and he continued that trend against the Vols. Kelly shot 5-9 from the field, made five of six free throws and two threes. His buckets came at important times in the game, too. With about four minutes to go, Kelly was on the finishing end of a Seth Curry alley oop that permanently shifted momentum in the game to the Devils. As Curry recovered the loose ball, Kelly saw the play developing and made the smartest possible play: a cut to the basket and a call for the ball. It’s no secret that Kelly is one of the smartest players on the Duke team–he had extremely high SAT scores and studies in the demanding Sanford School of Public Policy. As a junior captain, he has shown his ability to lead Duke to wins in competitive games. I’m glad the White Raven is flying with Duke.
  • Mason Plumlee and Austin Rivers showed flashes of offensive brilliance, but just flashes. Mason and Austin are the most hyped players on the team this year, mostly because of their NBA potential (never mind that Curry and Kelly are the most productive, of course). Monday night was up and down for each of these studs. Rivers took several boneheaded shots in the first half, killing Duke momentum and allowing Tennessee easy transition opportunities. Plum2 was 3-5 from the field, but showed a tendency to dribble himself into trouble with his back to the basket. In the second half, each player had fantastic finishes: Mason’s left handed finish and one and Rivers’ many floaters come to mind. Both Mason and Austin have oodles of ability, and since K is the master of November, he will find ways to help each player grow as the season progresses, even when making mistakes. Certainly both will have to be more efficient if we plan to go deep in March. Luckily, March is months away.
  • Free throw shooting needs work. 18-27 will not cut it when we start conference play. Oh wait, the ACC still sucks. Still, though.
  • The backup PG duo of Thornton and Cook were up and down, but I believe in them. Thornton, our requisite defensive stopper, bodied up against Tennessee’s best player, Trae Golden. He fouled out. Cook posted a eclectic line of two points, two boards, a steal, a block and an assist. He did seem a little bit out of control, though, and only was on the floor for eight minutes. Many have made the observation that “Duke plays better” with Thornton on the floor, and that is usually true of the sophomore. Cook is still recovering from a knee injury and will surely grow as a guard as the season goes on. So, let’s just wait to see what happens for these two guys.
  • Rebounding can be better. Chalk some of it up to Tennessee’s wildly inconsistent shot selection, but they had 10 offensive boards to our eight, and outrebounded us 34-33 overall. This should not happen when we have three upperclassmen 6’10” or taller.

Tonight, we face off with a surging Michigan Wolverines squad who handily beat favored Memphis yesterday. Duke-Michigan carries heavy historical connotations, which were reignited last season by Jalen Rose’s foolish “Uncle Tom” comments about Duke legend Grant Hill. Then we barely escaped from Michigan in the NCAA second round, saved only by Kyrie Irving’s late game floater. Michigan has already beaten Duke once this year by securing the commitment of coveted high school senior Mitch McGary. The Wolverines, true to their mascot, will be out for blood against Duke for all these reasons. There shall be fireworks.

We’ll be back with another liveblog of tomorrow’s action; tipoff should be around  7 PM on ESPN. Thanks to all of those who participated in last night’s liveblog, by the way.

See you at 7PM. Go Duke.

Bonus footage: Highlights from Duke’s most recent Maui championship from DBP in 2008. Whoa, remember Greg Paulus?!? Whoa, remember Taylor “2 packs a day” King? Well, we are now 13-0 in the event.

Correction appended 11/23/11: Tyler Thornton is a sophomore, not a junior. Whoops. 

 

Math 9314: An Introduction to Statistics in Basketball

At the start of this season, all-knowing college basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy announced that he’d be requiring a subscription fee to access his incredible database. While this was greatly disappointing to many a college basketball fan, we at Crazie Talk decided that this was as good a time of any to start doing some statistical analysis of our own, specifically focusing on Duke and Duke’s opponents.

Using Basketball Reference, In-The-Game.org, and Pomeroy’s own resources, we decided to focus in on four different metrics – game score, effective field goal percentage, offensive rebounding percentage, and usage percentage.

Let’s start with the game score, which is computed via the formula below.

The game score is a basic efficiency rating, devised by NBA stats guru John Hollinger. It is designed to be applied to single games and is scaled relative to points scored. Scores above 20 are considered to be excellent, while scores below 10 are average. Four games into this season – only two Duke players have posted game scores above 20 – Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, both against Michigan State.

The next metric is the first of basketball statistician Dean Oliver’s “Four Factors of Basketball Success” – effective field goal percentage. eFG% essentially combines two-point and three-point shots, giving a simple evaluation of how well a player shoots the basketball. This can be computed as follows:

According to Dr. Oliver, effective field goal percentage is the most important factor contributing to whether a team will win a game. Obviously, a team that has a bevy of effective scorers will put themselves in the best possible situation to win. Thus far, Ryan Kelly leads the team in eFG% with a whopping 75.72% over four games. For a historical perspective, the Duke all-time leader in eFG% was Carlos Boozer, who posted a 63.1% over his three years in Durham. Last year, Andre Dawkins led the team with a 63.5% mark, which was one of the best in the nation.

Offensive rebounding percentage is the second of Dr. Oliver’s “Four Factors” and can be computed with the following formula:

Offensive rebounding rate is a metric to measure how many extra possessions a team can convert from missed shots. Obviously, Duke fans understand the importance of offensive rebounding – as Brian Zoubek averaged a ridiculous 7.8 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes on the way to the 2010 National Championship. This was well documented during Duke’s 2010 run, as the Devils struggled to shoot well but consistently put points on the board and won games. Miles Plumlee currently leads the team in this category with a 21.19% mark. It will be interesting to see if Duke’s three headed monster of Miles, Mason, and Ryan Kelly can become a force on the offensive glass – if so, Duke will be very, very tough to beat.

The final metric we’ve chosen to track this year is individual player usage percentage. This can be computed using the formula below:

I’ll defer to the master himself when explaining the value of this figure. From Mr. Pomeroy’s blog:

[Usage percentage is] “a measure of personal possessions used while on the court. Simply assigns credit or blame to a player when his actions end a possession, either by missing a shot that isn’t rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover. 20% is average, and 25% indicates a go-to guy. 15% is a player with a limited role in the offense. Higher values do not indicate a player is better, merely that he is more involved in the offense.”

This figure should be especially interesting for Duke this year – with a superstar yet to emerge and a number of players who can dominate the ball on any given night. Personally, I’d expect Seth Curry and Austin Rivers to dominate in this category down the stretch, but the distribution has been relatively even for games up until this point.

To provide a visual representation of the stats that we’ve tracked so far, we’ve put together a Motion Chart – which essentially allows you, the readers, to observe how each player has fared in each of these metrics over time. Each color represents a different opponent, and each bubble represents a different player. You can track an individual player’s progress – from Belmont to Davidson – or focus on a single game to see who on the team was most effective and in which areas.

In its default setting, the motion chart projects game score against eFG% – providing a general idea of how well each player played during a given game. The size of the bubble is representative of a player’s usage percentage – thus allowing us to discern how big of an impact a certain player may or may not have had on any given night.

Of course, these parameters can be changed. Feel free to play with the axes and project each of these metrics against one another – it is definitely interesting to look at the statistics and compare the numbers to our own observations of the actual games. We’ll be posting updates to the Motion Chart after every game, and after we have collected a sizeable amount of data, we will have a pretty interesting (and hopefully accurate) measure of how well this team is (and is capable of) playing.

Obviously, the season has just begun, and so has our foray into statistical analysis. If you have any suggestions or ideas for different methods we should check out, feel free to comment here or tweet at us @crazietalker! We would love the feedback and want to make this as informative and awesome as possible.

As always, stay Crazie! We’ll be live-blogging the game this afternoon, so be sure to check us out around 5pm! Go Duke!

The World Celebrates 903

The buzzer sounds, Duke beats Michigan State, and Coach K is the true G.O.A.T. (photo courtesy BluePlanetShots.com)

Last night, we all watched as Coach K surpassed his former coach and mentor Bobby Knight to become the winningest coach in men’s Division I basketball history. It was an exciting game, a global stage, and a special moment for a man who is always more concerned with his players and his community than with himself.

Perhaps we will reflect on 903 in a more extensive essay at a later date. However, for today, I have collected some of the best coverage of this historic moment from around the internet. Enjoy perusing these links instead of working or studying.

1. Coach K infographic from DukeBluePlanet

Duke basketball’s marketing masterminds are back with this phenomenal infographic detailing Coach K’s accomplishments at Duke. Most astounding figure I saw: Duke has been a top 10 team for 75% of Coach K’s games and in the top 5 for over half.

2. Jay Bilas and Grant Hill reflect on what Coach K has meant in their lives

Two of the most erudite former Dukies hold forth on ESPN.com and Sports Illustrated about how Coach K helped them grow as athletes and as human beings. (warning: Bilas looks kind of like a gremlin in the photo)

3. Seth Davis on the unique relationship between Coach K and his mentor, Bob Knight

Davis can be an idiot sometimes, but he’s put together an incredible story on the relationship that these two legendary coaches share.

4. GoDuke breaks down the 903 wins

The official Duke athletics site charts K’s course as a head coach, from the rough-and-tumble early years to the modern day throne. I have a feeling they’ve had this in the works for a while.

5. Dana O’Neil on Coach K’s career being “so much more” than the wins

O’Neil knows how to pull at our heartstrings.

6. An interesting perspective on the meaning on milestones from NBC Sports

“…[Brad] Stevens will need 27 seasons in which he averages 29 wins per year starting after Coach K retires to catch him, something that doesn’t appear to be coming anytime soon.” Coach K’s got this one tidied up for a long time.

7. Shane Ryan on Grantland (save the best for last)

Our Duke sportswriting idol blends personal narrative and spot-on game analysis (Plumlees: ugh) in this near-great piece on the game.

Also glad to see Jay Bilas and all the former players had a good time on the town after the game:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/JayBilas/status/136794571135926273″%5D

 

 

And enjoy an excellent tribute video from DukeBluePlanet to America’s Best Coach.

The Spartans Await

December 1st, 2010. No. 1 Duke vs. the projected No. 2 Michigan State. Needless to say, it didn’t take much for expectations for this behemoth of an early-season matchup in the ACC – Big Ten Challenge to be sky high.

My comrades and I were there three days before, starting the walk-up line before anyone had even thought to arrive. We were there to witness Tom Izzo march his Spartans through the greens of Krzyzewskiville , and greeted them with the warmest of welcomes. And of course, we were witness to a matchup of very good teams – until a freshman named Kyrie Irving – yeah, you might have heard of him – decided to take the game into his own hands.

Irving played the best game of his brief Duke career, finishing with 31 points to go along with six rebounds, four assists, two steals, and had no trouble taking senior Kalin Lucas out of the game. That Duke team was defined by its three-headed monster of superstars – Irving, Smith, and Singler – and promised to be a cut above the rest of college basketball.

A very different set of expectations follow Duke into  this year’s faceoff against the Spartans. Duke lost its top three scorers to graduation and the draft of a league that currently does not exist, and quality senior leadership in Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. Michigan State enters the season unranked after a subpar 2010-2011 season, which culminated in a second round loss to UCLA in the NCAA Tournament. Regardless, it would be a mistake to expect anything other than a hard-fought battle between Coach K and Final Four machine Tom Izzo.
Obviously, K enters the game with the chance to secure his 903rd career victory – which would make him the winningest college coach of all time. But what will Duke have to do for Coach K to finally claim this milestone victory?
 
Start Tyler Thornton.
Duke undoubtedly has one of the deepest backcourts in the country. In four games thus far, Coach K has unveiled a different arrangement of guards each time.  However, it’s become increasingly apparent that when Tyler Thornton is in the game, good things happen both on both ends of the court for the Blue Devils. While he may not be the greatest offensive threat, his 10 points against Belmont on perfect shooting from the floor serve as an indication of his marked improvement as a scoring threat. This budding ability along with Thornton’s intensity and defensive prowess make him the best candidate to fill out the starting backcourt along with Seth Curry and Austin Rivers.

Tyler Thornton's defensive prowess will be crucial to a Duke victory tonight. (Photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Against Belmont, K stuck with a lineup of Thornton, Curry, Rivers, Kelly, and Mason Plumlee for the better part of the second half. Thornton consistently made plays – diving for loose balls, forcing turnovers, finding the open man, and even hitting clutch three-pointers – when Duke needed it the most.

Duke will need Thornton’s experience against a young but talented Spartan backcourt. While Andre Dawkins and Quinn Cook will be able to provide a quick offensive spark, Duke’s best bet in terms of consistency will be to have Tyler Thornton on the floor.

Rebound.
Against UNC’s supposedly formidable front line, Michigan State racked up 42 rebounds, with 19 on the offensive glass in last week’s Carrier Classic.  UNC was outrebounded by 11 overall, collecting only 6 offensive rebounds all game. The Spartans rebounding onslaught was led by senior Draymond Green, who collected a career high 18 boards to go along with 13 points.

Mason Plumlee has rebounded well in the first two games of the season. (Photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

For Duke to have success against the Spartans, the frontcourt will need to replicate their performance on the glass against Presbyterian, where the rotation combined for 52 points and 28 rebounds. Duke will need to dominate both the offensive and defensive glass to prevent Michigan State from capitalizing on second-chance opportunities – something they were able to do with relative ease against the Heels.

Protect the ball.
Last, but certainly not least, Duke will need to place particular emphasis on protecting the basketball. The Devils were unbelievably sloppy with the basketball on Friday night against a well-coached, well-disciplined Belmont team. Lacking a true point guard and proven leader on the floor – this was certainly not unexpected, but Duke’s ostensible lack of discipline is definitely a point of concern. Austin Rivers was especially loose with the ball, netting five turnovers himself, while Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee each had more than three.
Against Presbyterian, Duke only turned the ball over ten times, with Rivers, Curry, and Mason combining for only two turnovers. Duke will certainly face a hard-nosed and gritty defense tonight – and taking care of the ball will be of utmost priority.
 
So, what can we expect?
This will be a difficult test for this young team – but it will definitely be fun to watch. How will Duke’s bigs match up against Michigan State’s rebounders? How will Austin perform under the bright lights of the Mecca of Basketball? Who will step up when it matters most?
In the end, Duke should end up on top, 70-65, in a hard-fought battle in Cameron North. It should be a good one.
 
As always, stay Crazie! Let’s Go Duke!

Section 17: Kicking Off 2011 With A Double Dose of Craziness

Tyler Thornton drains a three against Belmont (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Every Duke student has a definitive first game experience, and mine surely did not disappoint. Duke’s surprisingly competitive win against the Belmont Bruins felt like a matchup of NCAA tournament-bound teams in late February, not a matchup of Maui-bound teams in early November.

Most of my fellow students had not properly scouted our opponents and understood how good of a team Belmont actually is. For those of you who don’t know, Belmont won 30 games last year en route to an Atlantic Sun conference championship and an NCAA tournament berth. They also were extremely experienced, returning 9 of the 11 players who averaged double digit minutes last season. They also weren’t exactly flying under anyone’s radar. Belmont received votes in the Associated Press preseason basketball polls. Though they were not ranked in the preseason top 25, with the votes they had received the Bruins would have been considered the 31st ranked team in the country.

Coach K unveiled his first starting lineup of the year, beginning the game with Seth Curry, Austin Rivers, and Andre Dawkins in the backcourt with Miles and Mason Plumlee up front. This was, in some ways, surprising —I personally would have opted for the much more consistent Ryan Kelly in favor of Miles and the Tyler Thornton, who has had a fantastic preseason instead of the shaky Andre Dawkins. Then again, there is a reason why Coach K is tied as the winningest coach in Division I history (more on that later) and I am not.

The game began and Duke didn’t seem to jump too quickly out of the gate. The team struggled to find its footing as Krzyzewski tinkered with a few lineups throughout the first half. Strong play from Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee helped to put the team in front. Although freshman Austin Rivers did not shoot very well from the floor in his first regular season outing as a Blue Devil, he was able to create penetration and convert on many opportunities from the foul line en route to a team high 16 points on the night. On the other hand, Rivers also committed a team-high five turnovers on the game, a statistic that will certainly need to come down as the season wears on.

Although Duke shot fairly well from the floor and extremely well from beyond the arc, they just couldn’t seem to put Belmont away in the first half. One of the main reasons for this was the Blue Devils’ inability to hold onto the ball. Duke turned the ball over 19 times over the course of the game, a statistic that will not hold up against most viable regular season opponents. These turnovers along with some shoddy play on the defensive end led to many open shots for the Bruins—shots that a good Division I basketball team will not miss if they are given. Belmont converted on these opportunities, and the Blue Devils held a slim, but mildly comfortable 39-30 lead heading into halftime.

This was the type of game where you expected Duke to allow its opponent to hang around for the first half before returning to form and dominating the rest of the game. Last night that did not happen. Belmont came out on a 7-2 run to start the second half, trimming Duke’s lead to four. No one on the Duke sideline seemed content with this performance, and the crowd most certainly seemed out of it. Duke continued playing cat and mouse with Belmont, maintaining a 10-point lead with 9 minutes to go in the game. With desperation setting in, Belmont began draining threes, cutting the lead to six with 8:37 to play, forcing Duke into a timeout.

Mason Plumlee shows off his low post moves against Presbyterian (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

This was the “moment of truth” type situation we had been questioning all off-season. With the game on the line, who was going to step up lead this team? The answer was surprising, and most certainly was not how you’d have thought of this team a year ago.

The first key was the play of Mason Plumlee. For the first time in his Duke career, Mason’s offensive game was not purely physical; he showed true signs of a refined post game. He was able to create down low en route to 13 points, 14 rebounds and a team high six assists on the game. He was a sure bet on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor, and he made one of the plays of the game with a huge block in the waning minutes of the game.

When Mason was unable to create down low, Ryan Kelly was there to pick up the slack. Kelly showed his improved post game as well, finishing down low, including a crucial three-point play with Duke holding a slim one-point lead. He finished the game with 12 points and six rebounds, but the key to his contribution was a perfect six of six from the charity stripe.

In the final six minutes of the game, the subdued Cameron Crazies finally started to come alive. In a string of events that included Kelly’s three-point play, a Belmont travel, Mason’s huge block, a Mason Plumlee put-back dunk, and a Tyler Thornton steal that led to an Austin Rivers dunk, the student section caused the building to shake. Ironically, standing in as close quarters as humanly possibly to my Crazie brothers and sisters and going absolutely crazy during an intense moment, I realized that there is absolutely no other way I could possibly take in a Duke basketball game. Being packed in together creates a bond and an electricity that is unexplainable.

The true key of the Blue Devils holding onto their lead late in the game was the play of Tyler Thornton, who turned in the game of his life against Belmont. He shot perfectly from the field, including two of two from beyond the arc, turning in 10 points to go along with two rebounds, two assists, and three steals. On both the offensive and defensive ends, when there was a big play to be made, Thornton was there to make it. Tyler’s performance gained him significant recognition from Duke’s student section, who were extremely appreciative of his inspired play in such a crucial moment.

With Duke’s lead down to one, it was neither of these three crucial players who would step up and drain the big shot. After Duke watched a six-point lead evaporate in the last 1:23 of the game, Duke held just a 72-71 advantage and the ball with 51.0 seconds remaining in the contest. After an inability to create in their offensive set Krzyzewski called a timeout with 27.8 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down and Duke’s sideline play seemingly broken, it wasn’t Seth Curry or Austin Rivers or Tyler Thornton but Andre Dawkins who flashed off a screen and had no fear in his eyes nailed an NBA-range three, only his second field goal in a contest where he did not shoot or play well at all. After a quick layup by Belmont, Ryan Kelly knocked down two more free throws to put the game out of reach, free throws that meant much more after the Bruins nailed a desperation three at the buzzer, giving Duke a mere one-point victory.

Though there were definite areas with room for improvement, it was a hard fought win for the Blue Devils. The team most certainly struggled out there, but at least it was good to watch the team struggle and overcome the obstacle. In my experience watching Duke basketball, the difference between the Duke teams that have been very good and the Duke teams that have been national championship teams were their sense of resilience. Duke’s greatest teams have always been able to bounce back, even when they do not play their best game; they will bend and not break. The Blue Devils showed a bit of that spirit in this game.

After an emotional win the Blue Devils had a quick turnaround for their next home game, facing Presbyterian College the following afternoon. The Blue Hose (let’s get all Blue Hose jokes out of the way please, we like integrity around here) proved to be little match for Duke, as the game signaled a much needed return to business as usual. The Blue Devils dominated Presbyterian from start to finish, while fixing their turnover woes, only committing 10 in the game. Duke shot an incredible 61.4% from the field on the afternoon, with stellar inside contributions from both Miles and Mason Plumlee, both of whom registered 13 points. They also added 11 and 8 rebounds respectively as the team’s top two rebounders. Both Miles and Mason added huge dunks off of baseline drives about three minutes apart midway through the second half. No one in the building was happier to see this than younger brother Marshall Plumlee, who was up and out of his seat on both occassions and could not contain his brotherly excitement. Austin Rivers played a much-improved contest, shooting five of eight from the field en route to 15 points and a team-high six assists. Rivers also played tenacious defense, recording three of Duke’s six steals.

The Blue Devils also received stellar performances off the bench from Ryan Kelly, who added 17 points and another evening of perfect free throw shooting, and freshman Quinn Cook, who in his first extended action of the season played some electrifying point guard, recording 10 points in just 18 minutes of action. It was great to see Josh Hairston get some action off the bench after his inconspicuous absence against Belmont, recording a solid nine points and six rebounds while playing fantastic defense throughout. Even junior Todd Zafirovski got into the action in the game’s final moments. In my limited Cameron Indoor Stadium experience, it hasn’t taken long for me to figure out that Zafirovski is certainly a fan favorite around here, receiving high praise for his 0 for 1 shooting performance and lone rebound off the bench in three minutes of action. Despite only shooting 18 of 31 from the free throw line as a team, a stat that will need to improve in the next few games, the Blue Devils rolled to an easy 96-55 win over the Blue Hose. Although it seemed like a mundane victory over an inferior opponent, this win most likely marks one of the more significant wins I will ever see in my time at Duke.

The Blue Devils’ victory marks win number 902 in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s career, tying him with his mentor, Bob Knight, for most career wins in Division I history.

Coach K embraced by his team after his 902nd career victory (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)