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.