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. 

 

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)

Section 17: Ringing the Bell(armine) on a New Year

Walking into Cameron Indoor Stadium last night, you might have mistaken it for a regular season game. The arena was packed to the brim, a chill in the air gave the evening a wintery feel, and the excitement was palpable. Then the game and the harsh reality sets in—this was an exhibition, and at times Duke looked a bit more like a Division II team than their opponents did.

Seth Curry drives baseline against Bellarmine (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Now let’s keep this all in perspective. Although there were many negatives to dwell on, Duke overcame a rocky start to cruise to an 87-62 victory over defending Division II national champion Bellarmine Saturday night.

The game hadn’t even started yet before the Cameron faithful had their first shock of the season, as freshman Alex Murphy was announced as a starter over experienced junior Andre Dawkins. Murphy had been highly acclaimed by head coach Mike Krzyzewski throughout their first weeks of practice for his defensive abilities, but he contributed essentially nothing on the offensive end.  Zero points, one rebound, one assist, and two steals in 13 minutes of action. Those don’t sound like starter numbers. Meanwhile, Ryan Kelly, the team’s greatest offensive weapon from their summer tour overseas, came off the bench scoring ten points.

The offense started out slow and out of sorts, while Bellarmine shot 39% from 3-point range in the first half. Duke shot terribly from beyond the arc, converting on just 14% of three point attempts for the game, going without a three for the game’s first thirty minutes. For a team that in the past has lived and died on 3-point shooting, this is a terrifying statistic. Duke also struggled to maintain possession, turning over the ball 19 times over the course of the game, including 12 in the first half. Keep in mind that Duke only had 19 turnovers in a game three times last year. Granted, they won all three of those games, but you get the point. This lackadaisical effort combined with mediocre perimeter defense led to many open transition jumpers for the Knights. When shots were raining down near the end of the first half, for just a split second fans had a legitimate reason to question whether or not Duke would win this game at all, let alone do so comfortably.

The Blue Devils were able to correct many of these issues in the second half to an extent, shooting 64% from the field to pull away to a 25-point victory. Seth Curry led Duke with 18 points on 7 for 17 shooting while freshman Austin Rivers added 13 points.

Mason Plumlee dunks against Bellarmine (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Mason Plumlee played a very impressive game for the Blue Devils, shooting a perfect 8-8 from the field for 16 points, and adding 9 rebounds on the game. Following a poor showing at Countdown to Craziness where the athletic Plumlee appeared to be in great shape but played out of control, Mason looked as though he found the perfect balance against Bellarmine. Older brother Miles Plumlee added 14 points and 8 boards, but was exploited defensively on a few occasions. Whether or not all of their options play consistently, Duke will always have at least one option on the low block this coming season.

A huge question entering the year was who would run the point with Duke’s starting lineup. While both Seth Curry and Austin Rivers split time taking up the ball, as expected, the biggest surprise of the evening came from Duke’s true point guards, Tyler Thornton and Quinn Cook. Thornton provided five points and three assists in 24 minutes while exhibiting his usual lockdown defense, and he was crucial in controlling the flow and tempo of the offense. Thornton, who drained one of Duke’s two three pointers with less than nine minutes remaining in the second half, garnered great praise from Krzyzewski in his postgame press conference. Meanwhile, Cook provided us with the most impressive performance of the game, scoring four points while adding two rebounds and five assists in just seven minutes of action. From the second he stepped on the floor, Cook was absolutely electric. He was quick off the dribble, feeding his teammates for easy buckets and navigating the lane like he had played quite a few games in Cameron before this one.

Though he saw moderate playing time, Andre Dawkins was strangely absent from this game. Dawkins did not receive the start as Krzyzewski opted for freshman Alex Murphy. Meanwhile in Dawkins’ 15 minutes he only shot 1 for 6 from the floor, a worrying performance following a 3 for 10 shooting night at Countdown to Craziness. Dawkins was expected to start as Duke’s third guard along with Curry and Rivers, but he has not played like a starter. This should open the door for freshman Michael Gbinije, who showed some flashes of brilliance in limited action.

Marshall Plumlee was strangely absent from this game—in fact he never even took his warm-up off. In an exhibition situation such as this, many would have thought that Marshall would see some playing time to get adjusted to the speed and physicality of the college game against a weaker opponent. However, he remained on the bench, raising questions of his future in the Blue Devils’ rotation.

All in all, it was a performance that was to be expected of Duke’s first exhibition game of the year. There were definite signs of rust in execution on both ends of the floor, but there were many distinct positives that provide hope for the future. Coach Krzyzewski tested out a variety of lineups and offensive sets, and although the game was at many times ugly, Duke remained firmly in control. Now everybody’s got their feet wet in this 2011-12 season, and it’s time to iron out the kinks.

Crazie Notes: Although the Duke crowd brought the noise like any Duke crowd would, the student section was a bit subdued as it was occupied by many parents for Duke’s parents weekend…Duke honored the parents of its basketball players with a ceremony at halftime, with NBA coach Doc Rivers and former NBA player Dell Curry in attendance…Duke hosted Lithonia, Georgia center Tony Parker for his official visit…Parker sat near former Duke players Kyrie Irving and Nolan Smith…Parker was hosted by freshman guard Quinn Cook for his visit to campus…the crowd chanted for Parker to commit to Duke multiple times throughout the game, but Parker was generally unresponsive…UCLA and Ohio State remain among the top teams to land Parker, who intends to commit during the first signing period beginning November 6…it was an exhibition for all, and Coach K used it as an opportunity to practice winning over officials, giving them quite an earful following a charge call on Seth Curry in the second half.

Section 17: Road Block in Blacksburg

As the ESPN College GameDay crew cast their game predictions moments before Duke and Virginia Tech tipped last night, Bob Knight—clad in his trademark v-neck sweater—said one word. “Duke.” And proceeded to stare into space.

Duke held a six point lead with eight minutes to go, but Virginia Tech simply wanted it more down the stretch. (Photo: DukeBluePlanet.com)

The General was so close to being right. But the Hokies prevailed 64-60 in a game VT guard Malcolm Delaney called “the biggest of my life.” Delaney didn’t deliver on his promise until 2:02 left in the second half, when he hit his first 3 pointer to give his team a lead it didn’t relinquish.

In lieu of focusing on the heart of the home team, which was considerably large last night, let’s see what we can gather about our performance in our penultimate ACC road game.

  • Without Irving in the lineup, Duke’s post players are ineffective. Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler are a particular breed of player—winners. But while each of them are usually comfortable taking (and making) big shots, it didn’t happen last night, as the seniors combined to shoot 15-37 from the field. Nolan only had two assists against VT’s stifling perimeter defense. So what does this have to do with Kyrie? Well, Irving made this team great by getting everyone involved, including the Plumlees. Remember Mason’s 25 point performance against Marquette? You can credit Irving’s 7 assists for much of that, as he knows how to set up big men. Nolan and Kyle didn’t demonstrate that skill last night, and our interior play suffered. Particularly when the Plumlees would rather try to tip dunk misses than get an easy putback and Ryan Kelly is bricking threes.
  • It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish…Not just advice from this guy. With 7:33 left in the game, Duke was up 53-47. Greenberg called a timeout, VT settled down and outscored Duke 17 to 7 the rest of the way. How did this happen? Well, our free throw woes didn’t help—Nolan and Mason went 1 for 3 with under 30 seconds to go. But that was after Miles boneheadedly missed a dunk, Kyle missed some tough contested “hero shot” jumpers, and the Hokies somehow outfought Duke for every loose ball. It was a grueling game, and the pressure was certainly more on the home team to win and (maybe) make the Big Dance for the first time in however long. But at Duke, our expectations are higher. When we play teams like VT in the Tournament, we have to step on their throats in the final 8 minutes. That ruthlessness has gotten Coach K the second most wins of all time. And it will get Duke back to the Final Four if we learn it now.
  • We must have a third scorer. Again, the Big 3 would be intact if Irving were in action. Since December, our offensive strategy has been “The Big 2″—Kyle and Nolan—plus whomever felt like stepping up that game. It’s been Curry and Kelly on the offensive end, and Mason and Thornton on defense. We’ve put together some ramshackle wins with Irving on the bench in a cast. Last night, though, it was just the Big 2—Kyle had 22 and Nolan 18. But with the seniors’ inefficient shooting and Seth Curry nowhere to be found, the offensive attack sputtered. This will not do.
  • A number one seed is still possible, no matter what ESPN tells you. Congrats to BYU for winning on the road and all, but I’ll still match our resume with theirs. A top line seed is still within our reach. Texas laid an egg at Colorado yesterday, which is a much more embarrassing loss than ours. Kansas has been inconsistent and could easily lose in the competitive Big 12 Tournament. Ditto Ohio State in the Big Ten tourney, and Pitt in the Big East. Duke? Well, we play in the pitiful ACC. We should beat Clemson, and we have a good shot at North Carolina. If we win those two, we’ll sit at 28-3 and will have won the ACC regular season. We have owned the conference Tournament as well, and nobody takes that more seriously than K. With our out of conference wins looking better with the resurgence of Michigan State, Kansas State and Marquette, our Strength of Schedule will likely climb. And don’t be surprised if Jimmer Fredette somehow shoots 8-35 (gasp!) and BYU drops a game to some West coast rando.
  • Save the Toe. All said and done, we certainly hope Kyrie can come back for the Dance. At least one local yokel writer “wouldn’t be surprised” if he does. Everyone has been rumbling about it on the Twittersphere, including the man himself. Yeah, Kyrie. We’re op(toe)mistic about your comeback too. Mostly because opponents will quake in their Kobes when they think that the 26-3 Duke Blue Devils won 18 of those games without the nation’s best point guard. More importantly, the team would be complete again for the best month of the year.

That’s all from me. I always get wired after losses, and would love for some soothing words from our readers. Leave your thoughts about our beloved Blue Devils in the comments section, or give us a shout on Twitter or Facebook.

Let’s go Duke. Let’s keep working harder.

P.S. Vote for Nolan to win the Cousy Award!