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.

Math 9314: Another Day at the Office

Another week, another two victories for Duke. Putting their difficulties against Ohio State behind them, it was business as usual for the Blue Devils in non-conference matchups last week, easily dispatching of Colorado State in Cameron and Washington at Madison Square Garden (aka Cameron North). Let’s take a quick look behind the numbers using our advanced metrics and see what the box scores from these games did not tell you:

Miles Plumlee recorded 14 points against Washington, matching his brother Mason (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Colorado State:
This game was pure and utter Duke domination from start to finish, as the Blue Devils shot 56.4% from the floor, their highest clip this season against an opponent that wasn’t named Presbyterian College. Mason Plumlee poured in one of the best all-around statistical performances of this season, posting 14 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks, and four steals on 6-of-7 shooting. What is most remarkable about this stat line is that he was able to achieve such a high efficiency rating with only a 22.6 Usage%, which clearly shows that he was not demanding the ball on offense but made the most of his opportunities. His GameScore of 20.9 marks the second-highest efficiency rating by a Duke player this season, and the highest since the Blue Devils’ last game at the Garden. We all remember that game as the day when Andre Dawkins played the game of his life, pouring in 26 points against Michigan State to give Coach K career victory number 903. Speaking of Dawkins, his GameScore of 11.7 does not completely tell the tale, as he added 15 points in his new role off the bench on 6-of-8 shooting, including 3-of-5 from beyond the arc in just 12 minutes on the floor. Meanwhile, Miles Plumlee took a step out of his younger brother’s shadow and took on a greater offensive role, scoring 14 points while adding five points and three blocks en route to a season-high GameScore of 16.1.

Ryan Kelly rebounded from consecutive subpar offensive performance against Washington (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Washington:
Against a young and athletic Huskies team, the Blue Devils were able to maintain control throughout and hold of a late run to secure an 86-80 victory that was not nearly as close as the score indicates. Ryan Kelly recovered from consecutive rough games to put up a team-high GameScore of 13.6 as a result of 16 points, eight rebounds, three steals, and two blocks. Kelly and Miles Plumlee controlled the offensive glass, posting OReb% of 17.7 and 13.1, respectively as Duke held a rare rebounding advantage over the Huskies. Who knows if it’s the NBA three-point line of maybe if it’s just the soothing aroma of ridiculously overpriced contracts that will never buy the New York Knicks a championship, but Andre Dawkins loves playing at Madison Square Garden. Dawkins posted another solid GameScore of 12.1 thanks to an effort of 17 points off the bench, while Miles Plumlee did not miss a shot from the field and recorded his second consecutive double-digit game score. Fun fact for all you stat junkies out there, since November 22nd Miles has shot 82% from the free-throw line (he shot 59% from the line last year). Mason Plumlee turned in a typical 12 points and nine rebounds, but only shot 2-for-11 from the free throw line, which is reflected in his 10.6 GameScore.

What We Learned:
Andre Dawkins and Miles Plumlee are here to play—Both Dawkins and Plumlee found themselves in the starting lineup for the season-opener and have since been relegated to roles off the bench. They have also both responded to this change extremely well in the past week, as each put up two of their better offensive performances of the season. Dawkins, who has stayed true to his streaky nature, looks as though he is just starting to heat up and find a more consistent stroke. Miles, who had a very promising preseason tour in China, fell out of touch at the beginning of the year but is finally beginning to assert himself as an offensive presence down low. Expect to see both of them playing significant minutes off the bench as long as their improved play continues.

Josh Hairston's minutes might be in jeopardy as Coach K seems to be thinning out his rotation (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

This team’s rotation is shrinking—Although Duke’s victory of Colorado State showcased 10 Blue Devils playing 10 minutes or more, the Washington game was a very different story. Krzyzewski’s rotation was significantly shorter against the Huskies, as it was essentially limited to seven players. My apologies to Josh Hairston and Michael Gbinije, but this should be the trend moving forward into conference play. Quinn Cook will see increased minutes as he continues rehabbing from his injured knee, and in all honesty should have seen more time against Washington while Tyler Thornton struggled offensively and the Huskies rallied in the second half. Otherwise expect to see a more compact rotation of Cook along with Austin Rivers, Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly, Miles and Mason Plumlee, and Andre Dawkins. Hairston will more likely be seen as the team’s emergency big man in case the team gets into foul trouble or one of their bigs is getting absolutely lit up on defense. Gbinije has shown signs of improvement but while most likely take on the role of a situational player as he continues to develop during his freshman season.

Thanks for bearing with us slightly falling out of touch during finals week, I promise there will be lots more exciting content coming in the next few days, including the beginning of our comprehensive team-by-team ACC preview. As always, stay Crazie, my friends.

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.

Looking Back To Move Forward

Good teams win games, but great teams can bounce back from a tough loss, and I’ll speak for the entire Crazies community by saying we can file last week’s game in Columbus under the “tough loss” category. Taking 20-point defeats is not something that the Duke Blue Devils are used to, but luckily for us, Colorado State is coming to town tonight.

We can take away many negatives and a few positives away from the Ohio State game, some of which I discussed in my post yesterday. But there is one thing I’m sure we can all agree on—in order to get back to form and elevate itself to the next level, this Duke team needs a change. Luckily for us, the guy calling the shots for this team knows just a few things about basketball. Although he has not found himself in this situation many times throughout his illustrious career, Coach K has a knack for responding to a blowout loss with an adjustment that alters the identity of the team, and when Coach K responds, the team responds as well. Let’s take a look back to some similar situations Duke teams have found itself in over the last few years to examine the adjustments we might see tonight against Colorado State.

Nolan Smith shot 1-for-7 against Clemson and was subsequently pulled from the starting lineup (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

The Game: February 4, 2009—Clemson 74, Duke 47
What Went Wrong: In a word…everything. Duke couldn’t throw a shot into the ocean during this game, shooting a miserable 30.8% from the field. Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith, and Jon Scheyer, who would eventually lead the Blue Devils to a national championship the next season, shot a combined 4-23. Meanwhile, Duke had no answer for Clemson’s Trevor Booker, who shot 8-for-10 from the floor en route to 21 points and eight rebounds.
How Coach K Adjusted: Finding themselves in a similar situation as this year’s Blue Devils, with no true point guard to speak of, Greg Paulus assumed the role in Duke’s next game, starting in favor of Nolan Smith. Krzyzewski also used a significantly smaller rotation in this game, with only six Blue Devils playing more than 7 minutes in the contest.
The Result: Despite going in down 32-19 at the half, Duke came back to win an overtime thriller at Cameron by a score of 78-75. Miami’s Jack McClinton scored a game-high 34 points in a herculean effort, while Paulus added 18 points in his first game at point guard. Duke’s shooting woes continued, however, as Kyle Singler scored 17 points but at the expense of a 5-for-23 shooting effort. Overall, Duke would go on to lose its next two games following Miami, but was able to finish 8-1 down the stretch en route to an ACC Tournament championship. The team would fall earn a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and fall in the Sweet 16 to #3 seed Villanova.

Kyle Singler's 18 points were not enough against the Hoyas (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

The Game: January 30, 2010—Georgetown 89, Duke 77
What Went Wrong: Georgetown shot an obscene 71.7% from the field as Lance Thomas and Miles Plumlee’s shoddy interior defense allowed the Hoyas’ Greg Monroe, Chris Wright, and Austin Freeman to attack the rim and score at will. Duke once again relied too heavily on its outside shooting and was only able to muster 9-of-29 from three-point land. President Obama watched on at the Verizon Center as Georgetown pushed its lead to 23 late in the second half, before a mini Duke run allowed the final score to look slightly more respectable.
How Coach K Adjusted: Brian Zoubek, who played only two minutes against Georgetown, saw his playing time increase to 13 minutes in Duke’s next contest, an 86-67 victory over a ranked Georgia Tech squad. Zoubek continued to put in quality minutes in the team’s ensuing games and replaced Miles Plumlee in the starting lineup three games later, when he played the best game of his Duke career with 16 points and 17 rebounds in a 77-56 rout of Maryland.
The Result: We all know how this story ended, as Zoubek started for the rest of the season, playing a crucial role as Duke went on to win 18 of its final 19 games en route to its fourth national championship.

St. Johns had its way with the Blue Devils, but Duke got the last laugh come March (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

The Game: January 30, 2011—St. John’s 93, Duke 78
What Went Wrong: Playing at Madison Square Garden, the Red Storm certainly had a home court advantage and didn’t waste any time, jumping on the Blue Devils early and often. As the lead ballooned to 21 points at the half, the Johnnies continued to coast, not allowing Duke to cut the lead to less than 13 for the rest of the game. The Blue Devils were too reliant on their three-point shooting early in the game, and fell behind as the shots were not falling. Faced with a large deficit, Duke had to rely on long range shooting in the second half in hopes of a comeback, but its struggles continued from beyond the arc, knocking down just 5-of-26 three-point attempts on the afternoon.
How Coach K Adjusted: Tyler Thornton replaced Seth Curry in Duke’s next game at Maryland as the Blue Devils sought to shift their focus from three-point shooting to defense and efficiency in their half-court sets.
The Result: Duke held firm control over an inexperienced Maryland team throughout the contest, coasting to an 80-62 win. Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith led the team with 22 and 21 points, respectively, while Mason Plumlee added an impressive 12 points and 11 rebounds on 6-of-7 shooting. Duke would go on to post an 11-2 record to close out the season with yet another ACC Tournament title before falling in the Sweet 16 to Arizona.

And here we are. Following a performance in Columbus that couldn’t even qualify as subpar, Duke faces yet another critical juncture in its season. If there is any time for new life to be breathed into this Blue Devils team, it is now. Despite minor tests against Temple, Florida State, and upstart Virginia over the ensuing weeks, Duke certainly won’t be considered an underdog in any game it plays before its February 8th matchup with “the-team-who-must-not-be-named” in Chapel Hill. Although following last week’s beatdown at the hands of the Buckeyes this year’s matchup at Carolina looks especially daunting, if this team can make the necessary adjustments and hit its stride, we could be looking at one of the games of the year in college basketball.

Michael Gbinije saw increased playing time against Ohio State, scoring these two points on a fast break (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

The only question now is, what will be Krzyzewski’s adjustment this time around? It almost certainly will include some sort of a change in tomorrow night’s starting lineup, though it is not particularly clear as to who will be inserted. The most likely to be pulled from the starting lineup following last week’s debacle appear to be Ryan Kelly and Andre Dawkins, both of whom played quite poorly and sat nearly the entire second half. Although Kelly has not always been reliable defensively (which is where Duke clearly got burned against Ohio State), I think the clear choice is to pull Dawkins. If you’ve been keeping up with our statistical analyses using advanced metrics, you’ll see that despite his weak showing last week, Kelly has been the most consistent offensive weapon on this year’s Duke team. Who is inserted into the starting lineup is a bit more up in the air, however. What Duke is lacking right now is the presence of a big wing player who can defend on the perimeter. As of now the only person on the roster that fits that role is Michael Gbinije, who saw more minutes against Ohio State than he had all year and put forth a decent effort. But I still question whether at this point in the year Gbinije is ready to take on a starting role, so I would say the more likely option is to see Quinn Cook or Tyler Thornton tomorrow night. Putting a true point guard out there will provide more stability on offense, and Thornton’s defense would surely be appreciated to make sure nobody can ever replicate Aaron Craft’s performance from last week again. If I were a betting man, I would say Thornton starts in place of Dawkins, but I would not be surprised to see any of these three in the starting lineup tonight.

Luckily for the Blue Devils, Colorado State does not pose a particularly tough test, so it should have plenty of opportunities to try different combinations of players and work to improve on some of the weaknesses from last week. Let’s hope history repeats itself and the adjustments pay off. Stay Crazie, my friends.

Math 9314: O-h…Oh No

We all know what happened in Columbus last week. After three thrilling wins in Maui, Duke suffered a major letdown against a surefire national title contender. Ohio State utilized their home court advantage to the fullest, gaining momentum early and exploiting Duke’s weaknesses en route to a convincing win. Funny how much of a factor the three keys I mentioned in my preview column played into last week’s outcome. Just in case you missed the game or are willing to relive the demoralizing experience, it’s that time of the week to take a look back at our favorite Blue Devils’ performance (or lack thereof) using advanced metrics, which can be viewed on our fancy shmancy motion chart.

Let’s take a look at last week’s game beyond the box score:

It seems like every week there are always a few players whose GameScores hover around zero or even slightly in the negatives—this is not uncommon. Typically these are players that played very few minutes in the game and may have missed their only shot attempt, but not this week. If you take a look at the players located in the bottom left hand corner of our chart (for all intents and purposes we’ll call this “The Zafirovski Zone”), you’ll be shocked to see three Duke starters with negative GameScores. In fact, four out of the top seven in the Duke rotation—Andre Dawkins, Ryan Kelly, Seth Curry, and Tyler Thornton—could not record positive GameScores last week. They were essentially nonfactors in this game, playing a combined 68 minutes against Ohio State, as compared to a combined 127 minutes in Duke’s Maui Championship victory over Kansas. The group shot a combined 3-13 from the field and will need to make vast improvements as Duke looks to get back on track.

On the other hand, while many of Duke’s starters struggled, the Blue Devils were able to get positive production from players that often reside deeper in their rotation. Note: by positive I mean “greater than zero”, though their outputs were positive they all still registered below 6.6. Miles Plumlee, Josh Hairston, Michael Gbinije, and Quinn Cook all ended up outside of The Zafirovski Zone this week, each playing significant minutes down the stretch with the game out of reach. They did provide some bright spots, however. Cook added four points and four assists in just 14 minutes and Hairston played his usual physical defense while shooting a perfect 3-for-3 from the field.

Austin Rivers sweeps in for a layup, two of his 22 points against Ohio State (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet)

Austin Rivers and Mason Plumlee were essentially Duke’s only two efficient offensive options against the Buckeyes. Rivers’ GameScore of 12.1 was his second highest this season as he poured in a career-high 22 points on 8-of-18 shooting. Although he was receiving little-to-no support, Rivers looked like a dangerous offensive weapon for much of the game, knifing through the defense and attacking the rim for easy buckets. Mason, who had the toughest task of any Duke player in guarding Preseason All-American and Naismith candidate Jared Sullinger, was able to fight off early foul trouble to contribute 16 points and eight rebounds. His final GameScore was only 10.9 as he committed four turnovers and three personal fouls, but he continued to assert himself with his improved low post game.

Unfortunately, there has not been much discussion of effective field goal percentage (eFG%) in this post, simply because other than the few players that made their only two or three shots, we did not have much of an eFG% to speak of. This is puzzling because Duke finished shooting 47.3% from the floor from the game, which is better than they shot in the Maui final against Kansas. However, Duke had a low eFG% because they only shot 3-of-15 from beyond the arc, and the eFG% formula weights three-point shots higher than field goals.

Ultimately GameScores are meant to take into account all of the positive and negative aspects of a player’s performance and measure of the amount of points you contributed to your team. This tells the tale of the Ohio State matchup for the Blue Devils, whose combined team score was a mere 36.2. We can only hope that a tough week at practice helped the team regain focus, and we can be almost certain that you’ll see some changes Wednesday night against Colorado State. Be on the lookout tomorrow morning for our game preview of that matchup. 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: 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)