Section 17: Clean Slate

Miles addressing the crowd on Senior Night (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

No, the regular season did not end the way Duke wanted it to. There was no celebration, there were no championship banners, just Miles Plumlee standing at center court thanking the Duke faithful on senior night. Good news is, starting today, none of that matters. Duke saw its first action in the ACC tournament Friday night when it dispatched the 2nd-seeded Blue Devils dispatched of 10th-seeded Virginia Tech by a score of 60-56 at Atlanta’s Phillips Arena. Many call this tournament the Duke Invitational- Duke has been crowned champions of the ACC tournament in 10 of the last 13 seasons.

However, this year, the road to another ACC tournament championship would be a little bit tougher. Just as the regular season ended on a bad note with a loss to Carolina, the first days of the postseason were not favorable for the Blue Devils as well. On Tuesday the team received news that Ryan Kelly would be unable to play in the ACC tournament due to a sprained right foot that he suffered during practice. Kelly was not only a crucial piece of the Blue Devils offense due to his size, versatility, and ability to hit from outside, but he was also a part of Duke’s thin frontcourt rotation. While typically utilizing a three guard attack, Duke normally only uses Kelly along with Miles and Mason Plumlee at its forward spots. Especially with the Plumlees finding themselves in foul trouble during Duke’s last few games, this meant that the Blue Devils would have to attack Virginia Tech with an undersized lineup.

Duke will have to win the ACC tournament this year without Ryan Kelly (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)


The Duke team that we saw on the court against Virginia Tech was different from the team we’d been watching all season. This was both good and bad. Unlike the team we’d seen knock down shots from long distance all year, Duke was not stroking it from deep against the Hokies. They only shot 5-for-26 on the game- just a 19.2% clip, half of their season average. Meanwhile, Duke played far scrappier basketball than I’d seen them play all year. They were getting it done with defense, and although they only forced 10 Hokies turnovers on the game, a little bit of hustle went a long way for Duke. It seemed as though they were everywhere on the defensive end. They were timing their switches perfectly and their help-side defense was working to perfection. It seemed as though nearly every Virginia Tech shot was a contested one, and although the Blue Devils struggled on the glass in the game’s opening minutes, they were able to pull down crucial rebounds when it counted the most.

Yes, this was an ugly game. A very ugly game. The first half was close throughout, and even when Duke started to knock down shots and pull away in the second half, Virginia Tech was able to find its way back into the contest. But personally I’m willing to sacrifice some style points for fighting out a gritty win. I’d much rather win a close game by playing sound defense and hustling than by shooting the lights out and running away by 30. The shots will start to fall, but this is the type of basketball we need to be playing regardless of whether or not we’re knocking down jumpers. As we progress farther into postseason play, we’ll need to do both to beat some of the best teams in the country. But for now, I am perfectly content with playing lockdown defense while we wait for this shots to start falling.

Kelly’s absence meant more playing time for Josh Hairston, who stepped up admirably off the bench and contributed 17 quality minutes. This was the most Hairston has played in a game since December 30. Although he only contributed four points and three rebounds, Hairston was a huge part of Duke’s defensive presence throughout the game. His ability to hustle on defense and body up in the paint was huge when playing with an undersized team. Especially when Miles Plumlee had to head to the bench in the first half after picking up two early fouls, Hairston’s effort was crucial to Duke’s success in this game. After not seeing very much action in most of his team’s biggest games this year, props to Josh for stepping up when Duke needed him the most.

13 is a lot of 3-point attempts, but how can you not shoot them when you're this wide open? (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

Tyler Thornton was the MVP of this game. He contributed a career-high 13 points, adding four rebounds, two assists, and three steals. But it was what he added that doesn’t show up on a box score that was most important. Tyler emerged as a floor general tonight, similar to what we saw from him earlier in the season. He controlled the pace of the game, and embraced the fact that his team would have to grind out a win. He was constantly vocal on both ends of the floor, which was crucial to Duke’s success, especially on the defensive end. Although he only registered three steals, he completely changed the game on the defensive end, knocking down many passes, providing constant pressure, and getting in the face of Virginia Tech’s star guard, Erick Green, and making him fight for every shot. Tyler was also not afraid to step up and take big shots. He knocked down Duke’s opening bucket of the game with a 3-pointer, and little did we know but that would set the tone for the rest of the game. Thornton would go on to take 16 shots, including 13 from beyond the arc, which would be too many for him, if not for the amount of open looks he was getting. For some reason Virginia Tech felt very free to rotate off of him to supply double teams, leaving him open for a lot of looks. He’ll need to knock down a few more of those open threes moving forward, but he was definitely a presence that changed the outcome of this game.

Seth was a warrior in the second half, fighting to contribute until the shots started falling (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

This game highlighted a huge difference between Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry- Curry can still contribute when he does not score. Both of these players did not have very good games, each entering halftime without getting on the scoreboard. Dawkins was unable to bounce back, while Curry was able to fight through and make a difference. Andre finished 0-for-5 from the floor in 14 minutes. He looked lost on both ends of the floor. Seth turned it on in the second half, knocking down a huge three to get on the board and finished with nine points, six rebounds, and five assists. The Blue Devils had missed their previous 10 3-point attempts before Curry hit that shot. That kind of mental toughness is something that all of Duke’s players can take a lesson from moving forward.

We've come to expect these sorts of games from Mason Plumlee (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

Mason Plumlee was his usual man-child self, but with an added twist. Not only did he manage yet another efficient game with 12 points and 10 boards on 4-of-6 shooting, he went 4-for-5 from the free throw line. He’s shooting 79% from the charity stripe in his last three games, and has made a conscious effort to improve his free throw shooting during the second half of this season. Ever since his terrible 2-for-10 fiasco against Virginia, he’s been a different free throw shooter. I know it sounds a bit scary to say it, but I actually felt confident watching Mason Plumlee step to the line against Virginia Tech. Hopefully he’s able to carry this forward- he’s definitely getting hot at the right time.

It wasn’t pretty, it was very scrappy, but I think there are a lot of positives to pull out of a game that overall was not a very positive one. We showed that we could win without Ryan Kelly (keep in mind that we don’t know how long it will be until he is 100% again), we showed that we can win without hitting long range shots, and we showed that we can win by defending, not simply by outscoring our opponents. It’s a little disheartening to play inferior teams and consistently find ourselves in close game, but let’s face it, it’s tournament time. The only type of postseason game is a close game. By playing in high pressure situations throughout the season, we’re putting ourselves at an advantage over teams like Kentucky that are blowing their opponents out every night. Regardless of whether or not the other team is good enough to be playing us that tightly, learning how to win gritty, tight contests is how you have success in March. It’s time to put that to the test.

Section 17: Punching Back

Duke won a hard-fought battle in Littlejohn Coliseum on Sunday, defeating Clemson 73-66 to remain the lone unbeaten team in ACC play.

Andre had no trouble dominating in Littlejohn Coliseum. (Photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Clemson started the game off with a quick 6-0 run that might have led many a Duke fan to flashback to February 4th, 2009, when Clemson beat the living daylights out of Duke in the very same building. The quick start from Clemson led Coach K to pull a wholesale five-for-five substitution – something he’s rarely ever done – to jump start the squad. The Devils punched back with a 15-2 run of their own. Andre Dawkins then proceeded to proverbially “make it rain”, draining five three pointers  and throwing down a monstrous dunk for good measure.

Duke nursed a four point lead at the break and played much of the second half with a decent lead, but Clemson simply did not go away. The Tigers closed the gap to four on a K.J McDaniels jumper to make it 65-61, but Dawkins drilled a three-pointer on the next possession to put the game, as Chick Hearn would say, in the refrigerator.

A few more thoughts on the game, in bullet form:

  • Coming off of a great win at home against a strong Virginia team, Duke could have laid an egg (like, ahem, some other squad) on the road this weekend. It was great to see this young team walk into what could have been a bear trap, take a few punches, and fight right back.
  • Andre stepped up with his best performance since the win against Michigan State. And this game followed what Coach K called the “best defensive game of his career” against Virginia. The biggest issue to date with Andre has been consistency – on both ends of the floor. If Dre can provide offensive firepower and play good quality defensive minutes off the bench night in and night out – this team will improve that much more.
  • Speaking of consistency: Austin Rivers has struggled to score consistently during the past few games. Rivers scored a season-low four points on 2-7 shooting. Some of his recent struggles can be attributed to the fact that he has been matched up with taller players on the opposing team, but for the most part, Rivers has simply not shot the ball well. In five games so far in 2012, Rivers has shot a combined 16-44 from the floor – good for 36.3%. Let’s hope he can break out of his shooting slump sooner rather than later.
  • It’s a shame that none of our three stud shooting guards – Curry, Rivers, and Dawkins – have been “on” on the same night thus far. All it takes is for two of the three to be on the same page – and Duke becomes nearly unstoppable. Taking it the opposite way – if only one, or worse, none of them are shooting well, Duke is in deep trouble. The Temple and Ohio State losses are cases in point.
  • Miles Plumlee had a great game on Sunday – and continues to contribute in a really positive way for this team. He collected 14 boards on Sunday night, six on the offensive end. Although he was responsible for four turnovers, it’s encouraging to see Miles make a concerted effort to get on the glass and extend possessions on offense.
  • Speaking of Plumlees – Mason had another solid game, posting up 12 points and 7 boards. But most importantly – Mason went 4-4 from the free throw line. Let’s repeat that, shall we? Mason went 4-4 from the free throw line. That means he didn’t miss. He’s made his last nine free throws (!!!!) on the road, while making only four of his last fifteen in Cameron. Maybe it’s our fault?
  • Quinn Cook (#nohim) was great in his third consecutive start, registering 10 points and 2 assists and showing a lot of promise.
  • Karl Hess is a clown. The flagrant called on Miles was just ridiculous. There’s really not much you can say – especially after watching the replay.
  • Marshall Plumlee’s interview skills continue to impress. It was hard to imagine anyone taking the DBP spotlight away from the one and only Nolan Smith, but Marshall has quietly become one of the best DBP video hosts – ever. Check out his latest offering below, with quotes from Miles and Dre on their great performances last night. 
That’s all we’ve got for now. Check back with us for more stuff later on this week, including a look ahead to Thursday’s matchup with Wake Forest. Go Duke, and #GTHC.

 

Section 17: Almost Stung

Looking to rebound from a terrible, terrible, terrible loss to Temple in Philadelphia, Duke headed to Atlanta to open their ACC regular season schedule against Georgia Tech. We projected the Yellow Jackets, who were coming off of three consecutive losses to Mercer, Fordham, and Alabama, to finish 8th in the conference in our ACC preview. Despite Georgia Tech’s recent woes, there is no such thing as an easy road game in the ACC, and this game was the perfect example. The Blue Devils were able to come away with an 81-74 victory against the Yellow Jackets, but it appears Duke still hasn’t hit its stride after a hard-fought and competitive contest.

Mike Krzyzewski tends to make lineup changes after tough losses, so it was no surprise that Coach K shook up the starting lineup for Duke’s ACC opener. Miles Plumlee re-entered the starting lineup for the first time since November 15 against Michigan State after a very strong showing against Temple. He replaced Ryan Kelly, who was an absolute non-factor against the Owls, playing just 19 minutes and scoring five points. But the real story of the game was the long-awaited first career start for point guard Quinn Cook. Cook was chosen over Tyler Thornton, who had started Duke’s previous six games but whose production had diminished as of late.

If you were a little worried about Duke coming into this game, you weren’t after the first 12 minutes against Georgia Tech. The Blue Devils jumped out to a 31-14 lead thanks to a quick start from Cook, Mason Plumlee, and Ryan Kelly. This fast start from Duke simply seemed to rattle the hornet’s nest, if you will, and the Yellow Jackets came alive. With the Blue Devils facing foul trouble early on, Georgia Tech stormed back, ending the half on a 21-8 run to pull within five.

The second half was tight throughout, and with each passing minute that Duke failed to pull away, the pressure continued to mount. The Blue Devils struggled to hit shots from beyond the arc, knocking down just 6-of-22 for the game. Glen Rice Jr., who was relatively quiet in the first half, absolutely took over the last nine minutes of the game. It was as though he couldn’t miss a shot, shooting 6-for-7 down the stretch for 15 of his game-high 28 points. Georgia Tech was able to pull within two with 2:58 to go and had an opportunity to tie the game, but Mfon Udofia missed both of his shots from the foul line. After an Austin Rivers steal and layup pushed Duke’s lead back up to four, Rice had his own opportunity from the charity stripe, but he too missed both shots. Seth Curry added an exclamation point to the win, putting the game out of reach with a lob to Mason Plumlee for an emphatic finish. The Yellow Jackets’ failure to capitalize from the line combined with fantastic foul shooting from the Blue Devils sealed this tough road victory.

Ryan Kelly didn't shoot much from the floor, but made his living from the line (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Kelly was undoubtedly the man of the afternoon for Duke, with one of the most interesting stat lines we’ve seen in quite some time. Kelly, who got off to a hot start early in the game, shot just 3-of-4 from the field, but thanks to a perfect 14-for-14 from the free throw line led the Blue Devils with 21 points. He did not attempt a field goal for the last 16:12 of the game. Kelly’s free-throw shooting was stellar, to say the least, and it led an excellent all-around performance by the Blue Devils at the line. Duke, who has struggled with foul shooting all season, shot 29-of-36 from the free throw line on the afternoon. Although Kelly’s foul shooting preserved the win for the Blue Devils, he was not much of a factor other than the beginning and the end of this game. His first nine points came within the first 10 minutes of the game, and he scored just two points between the 10:29 mark of the first half and the 4:09 mark of the second half. Clearly this is a picky analysis of Kelly’s play, as he took advantage of his opportunities down the stretch and made sure Duke would not drop a second consecutive game, but you’d like to see him recognize when he’s the hot hand on the floor and continue taking shots. But overall it was nice to see Ryan bounce back after his worst showing of the season against Temple.

Cook took control of the offense in his first career start for Duke (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Cook played quite well in his first start for Duke, adding 10 points and five assists in 27 minutes. He commanded the floor with confidence in his first ACC contest, slashing to the bucket in the game’s early minutes and setting up teammates with crisp passes. One of the highlights of the game was his phenomenal behind-the-head dishto Austin Rivers, which placed third on DukeBluePlanet’s top plays of the game. It was a strong all-around effort, though he did take a few ill-advised shots from beyond the arc. He shot 1-for-4 from 3-point range on the afternoon and has shot just 30% from deep on the year. With five assists in the game, Cook’s assist-to-turnover ratio now sits at 4.43:1, which is the best in all of college basketball. Quinn will continue to grow into his role as this team’s starting point guard throughout Duke’s ACC schedule, but in the past few games we’ve already caught glimpses of the type of playmaker he can be.

Rivers has not had his typical shooting touch in Duke's past three games (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Rivers struggled yet again, scoring just eight points on 3-of-10 from the floor. This continues to be a season of ups and downs for Rivers, but you hope he is due for a breakout game relatively soon. It just wasn’t working for Austin against Georgia Tech- his shots weren’t falling and he was torched by Glenn Rice Jr. on the defensive end. He even missed two crucial free throws down the stretch that could have come back to haunt the Blue Devils. Luckily the Yellow Jackets had much larger issues from the free throw line on their hands.

Although it is great to get a first ACC victory on the road, we need to address the elephant in the room here- this team is having trouble closing out games. We saw similar issues against Michigan State, Tennessee, Michigan, and Washington, where Duke allowed double digit leads to evaporate late in the game. The Blue Devils had Georgia Tech on the ropes early, jumping out to a quick 17-point lead. That should have been it right there. They should have been able to coast into halftime with a 20-point lead and let the second half play out for an easy blowout win, but they let the Yellow Jackets back in the game and suddenly had a tight second half on their hands. Luckily Duke was able to hold on, but heading into their ACC schedule the Blue Devils need to learn how to put teams away.

A statistical analysis of the Temple and Georgia Tech games is coming later today. Stay Crazie, my friends.

Later this week, Crazie Talk will have its first-ever mailbag where our writers answer Duke basketball questions submitted by our readers. Have any thoughts or questions? Submit them to us by sending them to crazietalk@gmail.com or tweet them @crazietalker with hashtag #askCT.

Section 17: Terrible, Terrible, Terrible at Temple

Quinn Cook couldn't stop Temple's guard play, either. (Photo via BluePlanetShots.com)

So, the title of this article, I believe, is commensurate with what Coach K must have told this team as they evaporated, like so many pitiful ghosts, into the recesses of the Wells Fargo Center as Temple fans (and this idiot) rushed the court. Temple earned this victory with some incredible playmaking. They managed to outrebound a much bigger team, overcome a number of valiant comeback attempts, and make enough free throws to seal the victory.

But Duke let the Owls have the game. Our disastrous execution, defense, decision making and teamwork was simply terrible, terrible, terrible.

Here are my thoughts, broken down into positives and negatives. Let’s do those negatives first, since most of them are still burned onto my retinas.

The Bad

Amber Alert for our veteran guards. Especially Mr. Andre Dawkins. We all love the kid, but he’s off in another world right now, and hasn’t found his place on this team. In 19 minutes, he scored no points, took three shots and got a single rebound. He fouled once. Where’s his head? Where’s the passion for the game he showed as a freshman, when he demanded the ball against Baylor and hit two huge threes? Right now, he’s as useful as four Wear twins on the court.

Seth Curry was similarly disappointing, particularly considering he’s supposed to be the leader of this team. Sure, he had four steals, but he also committed five turnovers, usually while trying to do something he’s just not capable of: being a big game point guard. He’s just not. He was never meant to be a point guard. Since Thornton has proved incapable of replacing Irving and Smith and Quinn Cook is–what, too young?–Curry has been thrust into a role with which he’s struggling mightily. If Duke wants to make a stink beyond February, we need a real point guard. By any means necessary. Just figure it out. Cook might be the best option if he can play enough to get comfortable leading the team.

So. Direct message to Quinn Cook. You have proved to be the most canny and competent point guard on the team. But, dude, stop shooting threes. Especially contested threes, or threes shot after two seconds of hesitation, or 25-foot threes. Because that’s your m.o. right now, and it’s not ideal. Be a distributor, get in the lane and find slashers. That’s what you’re good at! That’s what you were taught at Oak Hill and Dematha and that’s what you’re learning here, I hope, from all those former Duke PG assistant coaches over on the bench. Because Kyrie Irving may be the hero Duke deserves, but it’s not the one it needs right now. We need someone more in the mold of John Stockton.

If we are comparing defenses to wines, Duke’s was two buck Chuck against Temple. A sloshy combination of nonsensical on-ball defending and terrible helpside defense, a conflagration of elements that leave a horrible taste in your mouth. Pure laziness, like how Two Buck Chuck is what you drink if you’re tired, lazy and broke. You’d think that we would try to defend against Juan Fernandez’s behind the back pass after he did it once, right? Wrong.

I don’t know how many times we needed to hear Jimmy Dykes talk about it*, but we’re not going anywhere if we have more turnovers than assists. Team assist to turnover ratio, I guess? Against Temple it was 13 assists to 16 turnovers. Many of those TO’s were the result of ill-advised drives by Curry and Austin Rivers. (Rivers, by the way, reverted back to his November self, shooting 3-11 and telegraphing all of his drives like Samuel Morse). This goes back to the yawning chasm of a point guard situation, but Duke players are supposed to be smarter than that.

Also, screw the black jerseys, a topic which bring us to the tweet of the night from ESPN announcer and Boston College alumnus  John “Boog” Sciambi.

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/BoogSciambi/status/154722592077512704″%5D

 

The Good

I’m going to keep this brief. Thanks, Plumlees, for making this game at least somewhat competitive. You combined for 33 points and 16 rebounds (basically equalling the performance of one Kevin Love on an average night). Sure, Mason and Miles missed some layups in the final five minutes that would have cut the Owl lead further, but hey, they’re not supposed to be the best finishers. Wait, yes they are. Forget it, I’m not going down that road, it might lead me to talk about Ryan Kelly’s godawful performance, and I just can’t do it right now.

Thanks, Josh Hairston, for knowing your role and only shooting once in the game. Let’s keep it that way, yes?

Thanks, Michael Gbinije, for making both of your shots and not turning the ball over. Gold star. You should get more playing time because you clearly have a firm sense of what you can do on the court. Can you teach the rest of the team?

The Crazie

So I have a simple solution that might help us going forward into ACC play, starting Saturday at Georgia Tech.

This team needs to get mad. I mean fiery mad, Kim Jong-Il at the rest of the world mad, Michelle Bachmann at Newt Gingrich mad, Colin Cowherd at Virginia football mad, Jim Everett at Jim Rome mad. No more demure, “why me?” gazes from Curry and Dawkins when something goes wrong. No more Plumlee nice guys. I want Marshall on the bench in war paint, even if he might be redshirted for the next three years. I want Quinn Cook ripping off his jersey to reveal “COME AT ME BRO” scrawled in Sharpie on his chest. I want this team to play bloodsport. With pride. Like they have nothing to lose.

In the locker room, maybe Coach K will play the Howard Beale video (below) before every practice. When Mason misses a rotation, Miles should be in his face, screaming “I’M MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GONNA TAKE IT ANYMORE!” Likewise when Rivers forces an impossible drive, when Seth Curry drops his head after getting the ball stripped, and when Andre Dawkins looks like he wants to quit basketball forever.

We need to get mad. Otherwise, UNC might coast to the ACC title and the world will end in December.**

Go Duke.

 

*Answer: None. None times. I never want to hear Jimmy Dykes speak again in my life.

**Basically, those two scenarios are the same.

Section 17: Bouncing Back

Where else can you find Dell Curry, Doc Rivers, Bill Cowher, Crazy Towel Guy, and Santa Claus all in the same place but at Cameron Indoor Stadium? For a non-conference game against a mediocre Colorado State team during the height of finals season, there were a fair share of celebrities in attendance. After last week’s loss, Duke needed to respond, and respond they did. The Blue Devils returned home to Cameron for the first time in almost three weeks and trounced the Rams 87-64. As examined in yesterday’s column, Coach Krzyzewski responded to last week’s blowout loss by making a lineup change, inserting Tyler Thornton into the starting lineup to replace struggling junior Andre Dawkins. Not only did this illicit a response from the team, but no one responded by stepping their game up more than Dawkins himself.

Andre Dawkins was impressive against Colorado State, netting 15 points in just 12 minutes of action (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Dawkins looked unstoppable on the floor, knocking down 6-of-8 shots for 15 points in just 12 minutes before taking a hard fall near the end of the first half and sitting out the second half with back spasms. But for the time he was on the floor, Dawkins looked unstoppable, drilling threes with reckless abandon and capping off fast breaks with huge dunks. I think the role of coming off the bench suits him more because he has often struggled to create his own shots. Being this team’s sixth man will alleviate much of that pressure. Dawkins has been so streaky throughout the year that it seems as though you can tell whether or not he’ll be a factor in the game after his first five minutes on the floor. You could tell being knocked out of the starting lineup gave him a little extra spark, and his energy was electrifying in the short time he was on the floor.

Seth Curry struggled shooting from the floor against Ohio State, and he was the only Duke player who genuinely struggled shooting the ball against Colorado State. But unlike in the Ohio State matchup, Curry was able to make himself useful on the floor even though he wasn’t knocking down shots. Curry is starting to look more and more comfortable distributing the ball as he notched eight assists on Wednesday night, the highest single-game assist total by any Blue Devil this season.

Miles Plumlee was a force on the inside, scoring a season-high 14 points (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

After last week’s debacle in Columbus, you can be assured Duke focused on controlling the paint at practice this week, and that is exactly what they did. Miles and Mason Plumlee each turned in one of their best performances of the season. For Mason it seemed a bit more business-as-usual, contributing 14 points on 6-for-7 from the floor to go along with 10 rebounds. He really took advantage of the undersized Rams on the defensive end, amassing five blocks and four steals on the contest as well. Mason also had one of the highlights of the game when he soared down the lane to throw down a monstrous dunk over a Colorado State defender in the game’s opening minutes. Miles got himself a bit more involved on the offensive end than we’re accustomed to seeing, adding a season-high 14 points of his own with five rebounds and three blocks. Both Plumlees showed off an array of post moves and showed no fear on the defensive end.

Austin Rivers made three shots from beyond the arc en route to 17 points on the night (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Austin Rivers’ 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting doesn’t look like anything spectacular on the outside, but it made me really excited on the walk home from Cameron. This was the first game, in my opinion, where Rivers never stuck out on the offensive end of the floor. He didn’t force shots, he didn’t turn the ball over, and he blended in perfectly. He is truly beginning to fit into this system. Sometimes with great players it’s not what you see, but rather what you don’t see. To be able to practically forget about Rivers and watch him rack up those kind of numbers is exactly what shows how scary good this guy is.

Josh Hairston only contributed four points and three rebounds in his 14 minutes of play. This wasn’t his best game of the year, as he was certainly exploited on defense (something that rarely happens) on more than one occasion. However, I do believe this dunk, which was only good for #5 on DukeBluePlanet’s top plays from the contest, speaks for itself.

Although Coach K’s most noticeable adjustment might have been the insertion of Thornton into the starting five, I believe the most important change might have been Krzyzewski’s utilization of a deeper bench. Coach K has typically stuck to an eight man rotation throughout the year, but last night’s game featured 10 Blue Devils all playing double-digit minutes, with only freshman Michael Gbinije’s minutes coming in garbage time. Duke used this game as an opportunity to try a bunch of different sets, and was not afraid to sub three or four players out at a time, even early in the game. This deeper bench shows that Krzyzewski is becoming more confident in his younger players to take on more significant roles, something that will be crucial with ACC season quickly approaching.

All in all it was just what we expected. Duke shot the ball incredibly well and was able to dominate a physically inferior Colorado State team on the inside. They adjusted their rotation and were able to respond from a tough loss with a convincing win, and there were definitely some promising performances from role players that will hopefully be replicated in the near future. However, we need to keep in mind who we were dealing with. Colorado State is a .500 team that has lost to the likes of Stanford, Southern Missouri, and Northern Iowa, none of whom you’ll see come close to cutting down the nets in March. Our next matchup against a Washington who pushed #11 Marquette to their limit at Madison Square Garden will tell us a lot more about the direction in which this team is going. Hopefully our newfound momentum carries through. Until then, stay Crazie, my friends.

Section 17: No Trouble in Paradise

Andre Dawkins nails a jumper against Kansas (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Last week was an important week for the Duke Blue Devils, and it didn’t have anything to do with improving to all-time 15-0 in the Maui Invitational. Last week was important because Duke faced its two toughest opponents of the season thus far and responded by playing its two best games of the year. Michigan and Kansas are undoubtedly teams we are going to be hearing come tournament time as squads that could pose a threat to make deep postseason runs.

I have to be completely honest—I was not at all certain Duke was going to be able to take its fifth Maui title coming into the tournament. This year’s field was one of the deepest and most talented the tournament had ever seen, and I wasn’t sure if this inexperienced team in the midst of its gelling process was ready to knock off ranked opponents on consecutive days. Clearly I was simply worrying too much. This team is truly starting to come into its own, and with a clearer rotation coming into focus, they look significantly more comfortable on the court, regardless of the obstacle they face. For a team that we knew would go through some growing pains at the beginning of this season, Coach K provided his team with an incredibly difficult non-conference schedule. But through all of the difficulties it has faced, this team is finding a way to win, and good teams win close games.

Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves, my fellow Crazies, our toughest test of the year looms ahead when the team travels to Columbus to take on #2 Ohio State tonight. It’s a marquee non-conference game we’ve had circled on our calendar all year, but given that it was so early in the season, I never actually expected this Duke team to be ready to take on the Buckeyes. I always looked at it as a game we’ll view later on as a learning experience, not a game we could use to vault our team into the realm of national title contenders. But here we are, and after two signature wins in paradise last week, I will admit, this team is ready to play Ohio State. I am in no way guaranteeing a victory, but look for this game to be a knockdown, drag-out, heavyweight battle and don’t be surprised if by next Monday we look back on this game, and not North Carolina-Kentucky, as college basketball’s game of the week.

Without further ado, here are the three keys to the Duke-Ohio State matchup:

Interior Defense
One of the keys to Duke’s victory over Kansas was fantastic low-post defense from Mason Plumlee. Though on the outside Thomas Robinson’s stat line of 16 points and 15 rebounds looks like a bad omen for Duke’s defense inside, Robinson amassed those 16 points on just 6 of 15 shooting from the field. The Blue Devils will undoubtedly have an even tougher test in Columbus when they have to match up with Preseason All-American and Naismith candidate Jared Sullinger. Mason will have to try and cover one of the nation’s most complete players all over the floor  tonight in hopes that he can force a similar shooting performance. I would include rebounding with interior defense as a key, but although rebounding is important, Duke has found ways to win games with no rebounding margin whatsoever. Although conventional basketball wisdom says the team that crashes the boards harder will probably win a given game, Duke has been outrebounded all but once in its last five victories. Ohio State is one of the best rebounding teams in the country, entering the game averaging 40 rebounds per contest, but the real key to this matchup will be taking away easy inside buckets.

Tyler Thornton runs the offense in the Maui Championship game (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Depth
In a game where Duke will be collapsing to the interior to key on Sullinger, foul trouble is quite possible. The Blue Devils’ bench, especially the big men on the bench, will need to be ready for anything tonight. Look for Miles Plumlee and Josh Hairston to play crucial stretches to give starters Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee time to rest as they take on the physical Buckeyes. And of course, expect Tyler Thornton to play a huge role. Of course we all remember this shot. With his Thanksgiving feast to look forward to the next day, Ty didn’t just provide us with one helping of clutch—he went back for seconds. But down the stretch against the Jayhwaks, Thornton once again proved to us that he is capable of controlling the tempo of the game and running Duke’s offense effectively in crunch time. Look for him to see significant second half minutes in Columbus.

Outside Shooting
When can you shoot a lower percentage than your opponents and still win a game? When your shots are worth more than theirs. The case that outside shooting is crucial can be made before nearly every Duke basketball game, but against a big and physical Ohio State team, inside buckets will be that much harder to come by, and getting another 17 and 12 performance from Mason Plumlee seems unlikely. Duke’s shooters will need to be on target from the outside, especially to set the offensive tone early in the game. This has not always been a team that is great at playing from behind, but if they are able to shoot the Buckeyes back on their heels in the game’s opening minutes, we could be in for a wild one in Columbus.

Be sure to tune in tonight at 9:30 to catch a can’t-miss basketball game (and hopefully another Duke victory). 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.