A Historic Day?

I realized this morning where Duke stands going into today’s 5 o’clock tilt with Baylor. On the verge of the program’s first Final Four since 2004. Coach K’s eleventh trip to the promised land in his legendary career. An opportunity for our seniors to reach the climax of their careers on college basketball’s biggest stage.

But the most important aspect may be abstract and intangible, a feeling rather than a statistic. A trip to Indianapolis would redeem the trend of March heartbreak, and silence all the doubters who questioned Duke’s placement in the weak South region.

The experts and pundits question Duke’s ability to handle an athletic and hungry Baylor team, whose first NCAA tournament appearance has been a fantastic success. Moreover, we’re playing them on their turf: Waco, Texas is just four hours from Houston’s Reliant Stadium. Baylor demolished the upstart St. Mary’s Gaels—they look comfortable on that weird raised floor.

This game will not be easy, but we have been building to this moment for four years, ever since LSU’s Garrett Temple shut down JJ Redick and crushed Duke’s hopes of a 2006 title run.

Laettner’s shot eighteen years ago sent Duke to a “-polis” (Minneapolis) which resulted in our second straight national title. Will Duke require more heroics to make it to Indy? Hope not. Let’s put down the Bears and get ready to take care of business in Indy.

Section 17: Reality Check in D.C.

Georgetown did most of the swarming Saturday, forcing 15 Duke turnovers, many of which led to open layups. (courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

After banging out a home win against Florida State on Wednesday, Duke faced a tough test on Saturday afternoon. Seventh ranked Georgetown. 20,000 Hoya fans packing the seats of the Verizon Center. Coach John Thompson III going for his 200th win. And then President Obama decides to show up, sweater-clad VP Biden in tow.

Georgetown came out swinging, and we came out dull.

The Hoyas put on a statistical show en route to an 89-77 win, a margin that could have been 20 had the Hoyas applied defensive pressure in the last minute. The numbers are staggering: nine blocked shots, nine steals, 20 assists, and a ridiculous 74% field goal percentage. The Hoya ‘Big Three’ came to play: Greg Monroe (21 points), Austin Freeman (20 points) and Chris Wright (21 points) dominated Duke with the outside shot, off the dribble and in the paint.

Of those three, Greg Monroe was the absolute star. A former recruit of Coach K, Monroe abused our interior defense in the second half. He showed a variety of moves, including two spin moves with either hand for an easy layup. This seemed to be a statement game for Monroe, who had a horrid showing last season when the Hoyas lost in Cameron. Monroe proved his mettle on the big stage, and got his revenge against Duke.

So what can Duke learn from this difficult loss? Here are some of my thoughts.

1. Defense, Defense, Defense. A graphic popped up late in the CBS broadcast that 89 points was the most Duke has allowed all season. Moreover, it was 17 points above Georgetown’s average offensive output. For a team that is perhaps seven deep, Georgetown’s offense flowed like melted wax over a branding iron. Duke won the previous two games with their defense. We held Clemson to 47 points, its lowest home total in seven years, and prevented Florida State from getting into any offensive rhythm.

So what happened in Washington? Coach K told the media before the game that Georgetown had had a week to prepare, while Duke had played on Wednesday. That’s a good point: Georgetown certainly looked fresher. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Georgetown runs a Princeton style offense, predicated upon quick backdoor cuts and precise passing. Each Hoya is capable of making those passes, and Duke didn’t adapt its on ball defense. We were beat backdoor over and over again. When Coach K went to a zone in the first half, the Hoyas shot over it, nailing five of their six total three pointers. At that point, I considered them to be on a hot streak that would eventually cool. Hardly.

Shooting 75% may seem lucky, but our defense allowed Georgetown to dictate the tempo and get easy shots. Coach K is all about collective responsibility. Accordingly, that was a team losing effort on defense. In order to compete in March, we must be ready for the fast-paced, physical style of teams like Georgetown (and basically any Big East team). In the disaster that is this year’s ACC, we may win despite playing poor defense. But I’d rather hold every team under 60 points, wouldn’t you?

2. Road Woes Continue

As Duke fans, we always expect the other team’s best shot. My parents often lament our losses to normally inferior teams, offering the justification that

Georgetown2

Team defense is the key to wins on the road. (courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

“The Duke game is always their national championship.” In a way, this is true. The four blue letters across our jerseys inspire a hatred and passion that no other program can evoke. Teams (and their fans) want to beat Duke—knock us off our pedestal, if you will.

So nearly every road game will be a fight for Duke; we will get the other team’s best shot. Nonetheless, we usually win anyway. John Roth pointed out in an Jan. 2009 article that Duke had won 77% of their ACC road games since 1998, a mark 14 percentage points better than the ACC’s home winning percentage in that period. Despite the pressure and hatred, Duke usually wins. That is, until this year.

All four of our losses have come in true road environments: Wisconsin’s Kohl Center, Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Colosseum, NC State’s RBC Center (wtf?), and this weekend at the Verizon Center in Washington. Each of these games we have looked tired and sluggish on offense. Our defense—and Nolan Smith’s heroic scoring—beat Clemson in Littlejohn. We only scored 60 points, hardly an offensive juggernaut.

At home and at neutral sites we are one of the most efficient and dynamic offenses in the country. With three legitimate scoring threats in Earth, Wind and Scheyer, Duke can beat teams in a variety of ways. The point production of our Big Three is pretty consistent, with each averaging over 16 points per game.

Scheyer, Smith and Singler need to continue to get their shots on the road. But these games must be a team effort—the comfort of Cameron cannot always be there to bolster the team during bad stretches. One of the main sufferings during the Georgetown game was our apparent greenness with interior defense. Miles and Mason Plumlee got into early foul trouble, leaving Lance Thomas with the burden of trying to contain Greg Monroe without any backup. Zoubek, unable to guard anyone even mildly mobile, only played two minutes. Ryan Kelly also looked like the freshman that he is on the defensive end.

Past Duke teams won road games due to a commitment to team defense. We cannot rely on our three stars entirely away from home. Until Duke learns to play as a seamless unit on offense and defense, the road will continue to be rocky terrain.

3. A Bad Loss?

I had reservations about Saturday’s game, although C-T cautiously predicted a Duke victory (don’t call us homers, we didn’t write the Odyssey). This was a huge game for Georgetown, and you know that Obama’s special appearance sent all those future lawyers and government lackeys into a frenzy. I did not expect to lose—I hardly ever do—but I was prepared for the possibility.

What I was not prepared for was how badly we lost. Coach K said in his post-game comments that Georgetown was “electric”—the team, the fans and the ‘grayed-out’ stadium. As Coach said, we couldn’t match the intensity the Hoyas brought—they played with urgency for 40 minutes.

So what can we take from a game that most Duke fans will want to wipe from their memory?

For one, I was pleased to see the freshmen get some experience playing in a big out of conference road game against a powerful team. None of them ‘lit it up’—Dawkins missed several open threes he would knock down in Cameron, Kelly looked flustered, and Mason was overpowered by Georgetown’s Monroe and Julian Vaughn. But unlike in past years, they stayed on the court. Obviously, the quick whistles of the refs put Miles and Lance on the bench, necessitating more minutes out of Mason and Ryan, and Andre has proved his road worthiness at Wisconsin. Nevertheless, the experience of playing in that pressure-cooker of a stadium will greatly benefit our three first-years in the long run. I was happy to see Coach K use his bench in a more than nominal fashion.

It was also reassuring to watch our guys fight for loose balls to cut a 20 point deficit to 12 in a final run capped off by Mason’s emphatic dunk. Although Georgetown had all but sung the fight song at that point, our guys did not hang their heads and walk toward the locker room. They preserved their dignity and tried to make it at least look like a competitive game.

What did we learn in D.C.? That we have a lot to learn. Let’s rebound this week with a vengeance victory versus Georgia Tech, and get ready to face those bottomfeeders down in Chapel Hill.

Crazie-Talk thanks our readers for sticking with us in these tough times. That’s how Duke fans are. Let’s not start pining for Kyrie Irving just yet, we have a lot of season left to play. Go Duke.

Section 17: Are We There Yet?

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

Matt Bouldin is scared. (courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

Following Duke’s blowout of Gonzaga at Madison Square Garden, some may have feared of a temporary lull in the Blue Devils as they segue into ACC play.  Luckily, this past week’s schedule brought two teams to Cameron that even the New Jersey Nets could beat.

On Tuesday, Duke welcomed the Long Beach State Bulldogs to the lovely confines of a relatively quiet Cameron Indoor.   With classes out of session, the student section definitely did not pack the same enthusiasm that’s become an expectation at home games.  Nevertheless, Duke’s impressive 84-63 victory allowed the fans plenty to cheer about.

On New Year’s Eve, Duke played host to the Ivy-Leaguers from the University of Pennsylvania.  Penn, which came into the matchup with an 0-8 record, never really stood a chance as the Blue Devils easily dismantled the Quakers 114-55.

Some key takeaways from these games:

  • Jon Scheyer has emerged as Duke’s best, and most important, player over the past 5 games.   Over that stretch, he’s shot lights out from behind-the-arc (50%), and that has opened up driving lanes as defenders play him tighter.  This, in turn, has allowed him to become much more aggressive, as he increasingly looks to attack the rim.  Over the past 5 games, Jon has averaged 8.2 assists and 6 free throw attempts per game, both of which mark an upswing from previous career averages.
  • The big men– I never thought I’d say this, but Brian Zoubek will serve as an integral part of this team’s success as it eases into ACC play.  Zoubek, along with the Plumlees and Lance Thomas, has created a defensive force inside the paint, as evidenced by the 10 team blocks in the Long Beach State game (at one point, Duke had more blocks than LBSU had field goals).  More importantly, Zoubek has averaged around four offensive rebounds a game, providing Duke with much needed second chances.   He’s even become somewhat of an offensive threat, with his height allowing him easy access on tip-in opportunities.   With the ongoing development of the Plumlee brothers, Coach K holds the key to developing a strong frontcourt for years to come.
  • Nolan Smith has definitely been in “The Lab,” creatin’ that monster (also known as a 3-point shot).  He’s shooting 49% from behind the arc, and he’s emerged as a consistent scoring threat in Duke’s three-headed offensive attack.   What impresses me about Nolan is his shot selection- he’s allowing Scheyer to run the point, which in turn affords Nolan with plenty of wide-open jumpers.  As Duke begins to size up against ACC foes, the team will increasingly rely on Nolan’s scoring ability to win games.
  • Not everything’s good news, as Kyle Singler continues to struggle offensively. While he notched 20 points against an overmatched Penn team, the preseason All-American has been overshadowed by Smith and Scheyer on the offensive end. Some might blame the difficulties on his position switch, while others might point to other defenses putting more of a focus on stopping him.  Whatever it is, Singler is clearly not performing like a first-team All-American.   Singler has been trying too hard to create his own shot and oftentimes disrupts the flow of the game.  His position switch also doesn’t help, as opposing teams now usually match him up with a quicker small forward (whereas Singler used to oftentimes play with power forwards).  Though he certainly has the capability to score on anyone he likes, I believe the team would benefit more if he allowed the guards to create shots for him.
  • Ryan Kelly‘s woes continue, as he oftentimes looks lost on the court.  Kelly doesn’t seem as polished as his two classmates, even though he holds an extremely diversified portfolio of offensive tools.  Hopefully, Ryan will find his niche on this year’s team and gain some confidence as the season progresses (much like Elliot Williams did last year).

So what can we take away from these two wins?   To be honest, not much.   We played two teams that we should have beat, and we simply took care of business.  However, we still managed to close out the decade in style, all while preparing for our first ACC game against Clemson.

Here’s to another successful decade of Duke Basketball!

Section 17: Taking Care of Business

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

With the burden of final exams finally lifted, the Blue Devils continued their non-conference schedule with a home tune-up against Gardner-Webb followed by a return trip to the Big Apple to face 15th-ranked Gonzaga. After a tough road loss at Wisconsin and a shaky victory over St. John’s at home, the team made a statement with two blowout victories.

On Tuesday, the Blue Devils played host to Gardner-Webb at Cameron. It was pretty loud in there considering classes were not in session. ESPN announcers Mike Patrick and Len Elmore played up Gardner-Webb’s upset of Kentucky at Rupp Arena two years ago. However, there would be no upset as Jon Scheyer’s career game and ridiculously hot shooting ran those Runnin’ Bulldogs right out of the building. The 113-68 victory was the 74th consecutive victory for the Blue Devils over a non-conference opponent at home. The star of the night was Scheyer, who finished with career highs in points (36), assists (9) and three pointers made (7). He also had the highlight of the night when he grabbed on offensive rebound from the top of the key and threw a lefty, behind-the-back pass to Kyle Singler for a layup-and-1.

The “substitute Crazies,” as Mike Patrick called them, let Andre Dawkins know that he had the support of the entire Duke community in his first game following his sister’s tragic passing in a car accident. Dawkins entered to a rousing ovation early in the first half; after his first basket extended the lead to 44-24 with 3:21 to go, the Crazies exploded by chanting his name in unison. It was certainly an emotional moment for the freshman standout, who had a strong game with 16 points, even though 13 of them came in the second half with the victory well in hand.

Following the easy 45-point victory over Gardner-Webb, the Blue Devils had more of a challenge on their hands with 15th-ranked Gonzaga on Saturday in New York City. The challenge was evident in the first 10 minutes, as Duke scored only 8 points in the first 10 minutes. Nolan Smith and Scheyer then ignited an 11-0 run to help the team pull away in the first half. Then the rout was on, as Duke outscored Gonzaga 45-21 in the second half en route to a 76-41 blowout victory.

Several things to take away from Duke’s victory in New York:

  • These Blue Devils can sure as hell play defense. We are allowing a stingy 60.2 points per game on defense. We force teams to play at our pace and turn them over; the lone exception was Wisconsin, who dictated the pace of the game and never got flustered, turning the ball over only 4 times. Compare that to Gonzaga, who turned it over 18 times.
  • Madison Square Garden really is Cameron Indoor North. There were lots of Duke fans in attendance, even with a snowstorm on the horizon. And Duke does play extremely well in MSG. The team is 6-0 in the last two years in New York City.
  • More about defense, specifically the way the team defends in New York. Derek Glasser, Richard Kuksiks, Bol Kong. What do these three names have in common? This season, the Blue Devils have played and won three games in MSG. Those are the only three players to have made a three-point field goal against us in those games. Arizona State, Connecticut and Gonzaga have combined to shoot 3-27 from three against us. If Kong hadn’t made his three in the final 30 seconds, Duke would have played two consecutive games without giving up a single basket from distance. If the team can bring this type of defense for a true road game, it will fare well in the ACC.
  • Kyle Singler had a career game on the road at Wisconsin, but struggles in New York. Our All-America candidate is shooting 10-31 with 28 combined points in the three games at the Garden. And yet, we have won all three rather convincingly. However, he scores 28 at the Kohl Center in Madison and we lose? Chalk it up to coincidence, as our loss to Wisconsin can be blamed on the Badgers’ execution and our mediocre defense.
  • Jon Scheyer will be first-team All-ACC. Maybe he’ll wear down from playing too many minutes, but he exploded toward the end of the ACC schedule last year. He is averaging 18.2 points (3rd in the ACC) and 5.9 assists per game, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.9-to-1 (that’s ridiculous). We really haven’t had a senior leader like him since the days of JJ and Shelden (no disrespect to DeMarcus Nelson).
  • Gonzaga is not a top-15 team. They might not even be a top-25 team. They have beaten no ranked teams (although they beat Cincinnati, who is currently ranked). I do not see how they even gave Michigan State a game. Even if Matt Bouldin wasn’t suffering the effects of a concussion, what would the difference against us been? Maybe ten points? How did the voters get them up to 15th? Nonetheless, I still think this victory says more about us than it does about Gonzaga. We showed we can defend and rebound with anybody in the country.

Some final musings as we look toward the year 2010:

  • The team has earned a well-deserved break to be with their families during the holiday season, as the schedule will resume after Christmas with a home tilt against Long Beach State on December 29th. The 49ers sure are playing a difficult non-conference schedule that already includes losses to Texas, West Virginia and Clemson. They will most likely get wrecked by No.3 Kentucky on December 23rd before visiting Cameron Indoor. On New Year’s Eve, winless Pennsylvania visits Durham. Really? I would love to play a competitive Ivy League team like Harvard or Cornell.
  • Olek Czyz has decided to transfer from the program. He was never going to get playing time either now, or in the future with the recruiting class we have coming in next year, so we wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors.

Even though I was more impressed with our victory over Connecticut, Duke fans should be happy with the thorough beatdown we handed Gonzaga. They may have not played to their level, but we didn’t exactly light the Garden on fire. I don’t think this game told us anything new, as we might jump West Virginia, who had a close call against Cleveland State. All we did this week was simply take care of business.

Section 17: Devils Feast in the Garden

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

It was a team effort in New York, as Duke brings home the NIT Season Tip-Off Title. Happy Thanksgiving! (Courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

It was a team effort in New York. Duke brings home the NIT Season Tip-Off Title, beating rival Connecticut 68-59 in the championship game. Give thanks, Blue Devil fans. (Courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

For the second straight year, Duke emerged victorious in a pre-season tournament held in Madison Square Garden. In dispatching Arizona State and UConn, the Blue Devils move to 6-0 on the season and bring home the NIT Season Tip-Off trophy.

As the adage goes, “Defense wins championships.” That rang true for Duke in the world’s most famous arena. Through the first four games, Duke lit up the scoreboard, averaging 94 points per game in huge wins. But in New York the offense sputtered, and Duke relied on tough defense and our bevy of big men to limit Arizona State and UConn to 53 and 57 points, respectively.

Against the Sun Devils on Wednesday—a team that featured class of ’05 transfer Eric Boateng—the offense just wasn’t clicking. Naturally, we turned the reins over to the steady Jon Scheyer, who came away with 16 points and 6 assists. Nolan chipped in 14 and Kyle overcame a slow start and 5-16 shooting to finish with 13. Oh yeah, those three guys all played 40 minutes. With a slim backcourt, that’s going to happen sometimes this season. And Boateng, who had starred in the first couple of ASU’s games, scored a measly 4 points and turned the ball over an incredible 9 times, mostly on walks. Good riddance.

Jon Scheyer took home MVP Honors after leading Duke to the 68-59 win.

Jon Scheyer took home MVP Honors after leading Duke to the 68-59 win. (Courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

On Friday, Duke faced its first ranked opponent in the UConn Huskies. Probably the third most hated team for most Duke fans (guess the first two), ESPN talked up this rivalry all week. Obviously, there are difficult memories for both fanbases, notably Laettner’s buzzer beater in 1990 and the past two Final Four heartbreakers for Duke (painful). Coach K and Calhoun each have 800+ wins. The game was a big deal.

Of course, none of the history mattered on Friday night. After a frantic first 12 minutes, Duke built a nine-point halftime lead and never relinquished it. Both teams struggled to shoot the ball; Duke shot 29.6%, UConn faring slightly better at 36%. The Huskies are not a three-point shooting team, only hoisting four treys and missing all of them. Instead they worked the ball inside constantly to the frontline of Stanley Robinson, Gavin Edwards, Alex Oriakhi, etc. And the Devils responded: we blocked eight shots and grabbed 52 rebounds, led by Zoubek’s 11. So much for being “unathletic.”

The players of the game were Tournament MVP Scheyer (19 points) and local Jersey boy Lance Thomas, coming up big with 11 points and 11 rebounds. Lance was especially energetic—a lot of people underestimate his value to this team. Lance went after every loose ball and played above the rim all night, blocking three shots and altering several more. It was a good homecoming for the former St. Benedict’s Prep star.

Kyle Singler was conspicuously absent from the flow of the game. Hounded all night by Robinson, one of the Big East’s best defenders, Kyle was held to 6 points on 2-12 shooting. A silly third foul cost him the last 4:30 of the first half (ironically when Duke extended their lead).

Without the pre-season All-American on form, freshman Andre Dawkins stepped up once again to fill the scoring void. In an efficient 16 minutes, Dawkins dropped in 11 points, with two momentum shifting threes in the first half. Dawkins is looking like the fourth scorer on this team; his beautiful stroke caught the eye of Jason Williams, who tweeted “Dawkins has such a sweet jumper!” (@RealJayWilliams, for those interested).

Overall, the experienced core of this team produced the season’s first title. With the return of Mason Plumlee in a few weeks, Coach K has reason to look forward to several more championship runs this season.

Crazie Notes:

  • Duke moves to 5-4 in the series history with UConn. We’d have liked to win the Final Four games in ’99 and ’04, but hey, this one feels good nonetheless.
  • The Blue Devils out-rebounded a huge Connecticut team, 52-48. Plumlee and Zoubek are each averaging over 8 per game. It’s a luxury to have active big men like this—something we’ve missed for several years.
  • Dick Vitale was raving about UConn’s Ater Majok, who is eligible to play in a few weeks. Majok, who famously declared for the ’09 draft before playing a single game, is a 6’10” forward that should contribute, per Coach Calhoun. The complexion of the game may have changed a bit if Majok, as well as Mason Plumlee, could have played.
  • Smith joined Scheyer on the all-Tournament team, along with UConn’s Jerome Dyson, Kemba Walker, and ASU’s senior PG Derek Glasser. Nolan has a edge to him this year that is key to our success.
  • Zoubek has never developed touch around the basket. He had eight offensive boards, but couldn’t convert them, finishing with just a single field goal. He did have three nice assists, including two kickouts for perimeter jumpers. However Zoubek can contribute, we’ll take it. He’s had a less than stellar career, but as my uncle says, “He just tries so hard…”
  • The commentators would have us believe that if UConn had knocked down more threes, the game would be different. But they only took four of them. Their gameplan was to penetrate with the quickness of Walker and Dyson, and pound the glass with Robinson and Edwards. Three-point shooting just isn’t a focus for the Huskies this season.
  • The ACC and Big East are typically two of the top conferences in the country. With the win, Duke shows that not all ACC teams are apt to embarrass themselves in the Garden.
  • Walk-ons Jordan Davidson and Steve Johnson got in the game late. Inconceivable!
  • 2010 target Roscoe Smith is considering both Duke and UConn. Hopefully the title game performance helps him make the winning choice.
  • Stanley Robinson post-game comment: “They’re not very athletic. We’re more athletic than they are. They were just smarter than we were.” Kiss the trophy, pal.
  • With all the chatter about Duke being unathletic, Nolan Smith had this to say about the Devils when Mason Plumlee returns: “[We’ll be] Even more athletic than people don’t think we are.” Gotta love this kid.
  • If you missed it, check out our LiveBlog of the UConn game. Colorful commentary and in-game analysis included…

Duke returns to action on Wednesday at Wisconsin for the ACC-Big 10 Challenge. Crazie-Talk wishes a retroactive Happy Thanksgiving to all our readers. Go Duke!