Five Questions on Duke vs. UNC

Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s finally that time of the year again.  After a Super Bowl weekend full of national anthem gaffes, provocative Groupon commercials, and a whole lot of Greg Jennings puttin’ the team on his back, we can finally focus on what really matters in the world of sports (at least to us). It’s finally time for us to shift our focus back to the hardwood as we approach what arguably is the greatest rivalry in sports: Duke versus UNC.   In anticipation of tonight’s matchup, Crazie-Talk compiled our own “Top 5” questions surrounding the game:

Mason Plumlee, showing off his post game against the Wolfpack (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

1)   Will the real Mason Plumlee please stand up?

One of the keys to a Duke victory is how well Mason Plumlee plays on both sides of the ball.  In Duke’s two losses thus far, the Sophomore Forward has combined for a measly 5 points, coming off of only one made field goal.  The volatile play, coupled with his 38% free-throw rate, remain key challenges that Duke must overcome if they expect to make a deep run in the tournament.  I expect Mason to have a solid shooting performance on Wednesday, and hopefully we’ll be seeing more of those baby hooks he pulled against NC State.  But if he doesn’t show improvement in his shooting by mid-March, expect the “Hack-a-Plumlee”  to become a defensive staple among opposing teams.

2)   Can Duke hit free throws?

Though problems at the line primarily involve Duke’s big men, this year’s squad has uncharacteristically underperformed from the charity stripe.   Duke shot 53% from the line while missing 15 free throws in their last game against NC State, a stark contrast from the usually reliable teams of the past.  While the team successfully masked its free-throw deficiency against State, don’t expect for that trend to continue as conference play begins to heat up.  One can simply rewind back to the Derrick Rose-led 2007-2008 Memphis Tigers (or any Clemson team of the last 10 years) to see a prime example of how a talented squad can cripple under lackluster free-throw ability.

After weeks of tenting, K-Ville residents are finally ready for the biggest game of the year (photo courtesy of DukeBlue Planet.com)

3)   Will the three ball drop?

I know, I know—this entire article seems to revolve around shooting.  But on a team without the senior leadership of Zoubek and LT, it’s time to accept the fact that this squad will ultimately rely on its perimeter play.  It’s no secret that this team, similar to previous Blue Devil squads, relies heavily on the 3-point shot.  A good shooting night can lead to a blowout, but a poor performance can plague an entire team into defeat (see: St John’s game).  If Duke wants to beat a talented Carolina team tonight, they’ll need to find a balance in their offense if the 3’s don’t start falling.

4)   Does UNC’s return to the Coaches Top 25 mean anything?

It seems that John Henson and Co. took the “making other peoples’ lives relevant” concept to a whole new level.  As UNC re-enters the top 25,  The Tar Heels coincidentally have finally made themselves relevant again.  Sarcasm aside, this team has improved tremendously from the beginning of the season. Carolina has won three straight ACC games by 20+ points, the first time that has happened since the 05-06 season.  The recent success, which occurred in the midst of Larry Drew II’s sudden departure (validating the concept of ‘addition by subtraction’), hinges on the strong play of Henson, Barnes, and Drew’s replacement, Kendall Marshall.  They are coming into the tonight’s rivalry game with a lot of momentum, so expect a strong performance from UNC.

Larry Drew II, and his turnovers, will be sorely missed on Wednesday (photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

5)   Who wins the game?

Had I written this post at the beginning of the year, I would’ve easily given the nod to Duke in this matchup.  The Blue Devils simply had more experience, offensive firepower, and coaching than their counterparts at Chapel Hill.  However, after the world’s most famous toe—no, not you Mrs. Rex Ryan—took away the nation’s most dynamic point guard, the two teams should enter tonight’s game on much more equal footing.  I expect for this game to be much closer than most may predict—a Duke victory with a margin of around 3-5 points.  At the very least, UNC will play much better than they did in last year’s epic fail (see video below).  Watch for the Cameron Crazies, as usual, to push the Blue Devils past the Tar Heels in a very physical matchup between the two rivals.

Prediction: Duke wins 73-70

BONUS QUESTION:

What will Rashad Mccants’s father post on Facebook after the game?

Section 17: Whomping the Wolfpack

That was real talk.

Duke took to the floor at Cameron Saturday evening full of confidence coming off a fantastic performance at Maryland on Wednesday. Our guys were out for blood in the final game before the Tar Heels come to town, destroying the hapless NC State Wolfpack, 76-52. State’s embattled coach Sidney Lowe—who normally dresses up as the Kool-Aid Man for big games—was absolutely helpless to stop the Blue Devils, as our offense put up 54 points in the first half. Even if Duke sputtered a little bit in the second, State never got closer than 21 all game. SMH, ACC.

Here are some cogent observations from the night to accompany the delightful highlights above, shot from Section 17 by C-T’s Scott and Arun.

  • Mason Plumlee has come alive. He had 16 points on a Boozer-esque 7-8 shooting, and added his standard 12 boards as well. It seems as if Wojo has finally hammered Mason’s brain enough for him to learn how to finish correctly around the basket: no longer is he trying to dunk when a layup is more efficient. Mason also demonstrated an excellent jump hook tonight, connecting on two Kareemers that looked completely natural. After his excellent game against the Terps, it’s great to see Mason gaining confidence as ACC play heats up.
  • This whole Nolan Smith thing is getting ridiculous. NdotSmitty turned on the cheat codes several times throughout the game—appropriately, since DukeBluePlanet put up a “Nolan’s Trick Dribbles” video yesterday. The ACC’s scoring and assists leader just about hit his averages tonight, dropping 20 points and 7 dimes. And he was the only player who shot well from the line, hitting all six of his freebies. Overall, Duke shot 53% from the line. That has to change.
  • Kyle continues to put in a solid day’s work every game, adding a cool 14 points and 9 boards. The world’s best bucket-getter passed Danny Ferry for fifth place on Duke’s all-time scoring list against Maryland. Singler will go down as one of Duke’s all-time greats—the dude just wants to win so badly. Hell, he’s already got his national title and Final Four M.O.P. Ironically, Kyle was picked as preseason National Player of the Year by most publications, and Nolan is a much surer bet for that award at this point. I don’t care what Jimmer says (well, I do).
  • Sidney Lowe is on his way out. Any thoughts on his replacement? It’d be so badass if the NC State brass tried to re-hire Herb Sendek and he was like, “No, bro. I’m cool out here in Arizona. The Pac-10 is really on the rise.” Then what? Lowe can recruit, but his “surefire guy,” CJ Leslie, was suspended for this game, and his team is now 12-11. Superfrosh PG Ryan Harrow had some kind of sickness, and Tracy Smith is basically content to shake his head morosely and call it a night. Man, the ACC misses guys like Jimmy V…
  • Kyrie looked fresh on the bench in the post-cast boot. ESPN commentator Len Elmore loves calling him the “Duke’s best cheerleader.” Man, if Kyrie could walk properly, he would go up to the bird’s nest and smack Len in the head for that kind of talk.
  • I like K’s new strategy of starting Tyler Thornton. Along with his stalwart defense, it’s nice to be able to look toward the bench and remind yourself, “oh yeah, we have two of the ACC’s best shooters over there.” And then Seth and Dre come in and light up the place.

Well, that was fun. Next week is Heel Week, and we’ll be throwing up posts like Blake Griffin throws down on the world. Get thrilled.

We’re going to miss you, Larry! We’ve had some great times together.

GTHC.

Section 17: Toppled by the Storm

The jump ball was one of the few competitive moments of the loss to St. John's. (Courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

Well, that was eye-opening.

In Duke’s first trip to the tri-state area this season, in New Jersey’s Meadowlands, the team was freakishly robbed of Kyrie Irving. Sunday in New York’s Madison Square Garden, up against a hungry St. John’s team and its rabid crowd, the Blue Devils were relieved of something else—their dignity.

Anyone watching the game—one of the few matchups on Sunday after Saturday’s packed slate— saw the Johnnies thoroughly “undress” Duke (to use the phrase of commentator Verne Lundquist). The sublime Clark Kellogg, who called most of Duke’s games in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, was thoroughly impressed  by the offensive and defensive efficiency of a Red Storm team that was coming off a blowout loss at Georgetown four days ago. The college basketball Twitterati—including our team of tweeters—was stunned by Duke’s lethargy. How did the ACC’s best get housed by the Big East’s eleventh ranked squad?

Much was exposed about the post-Irving Blue Devils. Here are some of my observations from a day of hair-pulling and disbelief.

  • Nolan and Kyle are not enough to win against non-ACC opponents. Our guard depth of Curry, Dawkins and Thornton was overshadowed by the gritty defense and physicality of the more experienced, if less talented, St. John’s perimeter rotation. The balance of the Red Storm attack (5 players in double figures) had its counterpoint in the Blue Devils: Nolan and Kyle had 17 of our 26 field goals, and many of the other ones were forgettable.
  • If post play continues to be non-existent, we are bound for more tight games if our outside shooting is cold. I have this dance I do now called “The Plumlee Lament” where I shake my fists, flail my legs and knock over any drinks placed nearby. Miles and Mason have yet to demonstrate a go-to post move, and combined for just 6 points and 6 boards. The living room was a mess.
  • The Garden is “our house,” except when it’s St. John’s. One was hard-pressed to pick out any of the well-dressed Duke businessmen that normally sit front row for our games in New York. Instead, hordes of SJU students packed the end zones and the place erupted over our missed shots as much at the Johnnies’ effortless buckets. St. John’s is for real in this building; they’ve already beaten Georgetown and Notre Dame at home, and both of those squads are in the top 15. But today’s performance was easily Coach Lavin’s first real assertion that he’s here to win, and the program is firmly on the upswing in its own city. With a historically populous recruiting class joining next year, the Johnnies might even make noise in beastly Big East as well.
  • The full court press was not our friend. As Duke tried to chip away at the 20 point margin in the final ten minutes, every advance was negated by a St. John’s guard weaving through our “pressure” and getting easy floaters or layups. Exhaustion probably played a role in this, as K kept the starters in for most of the game. With all of the heart of Nolan making tough jumpers late in games, it won’t matter if we don’t get back on defense.
  • Without making too many long-term, swan song-like predictions, even a conservative critic would place this game as a triumph for the Big East and a huge flop for the ACC. By now John Swofford might be thinking about football season again (yikes).

If there’s anything good to take away from this, getting plastered pissed our guys off. The two double technicals—Smith and Thornton picked ours up—showed that the boys still wanted to fight to make the result somewhat respectable (15 is better than 25, after all). Exactly a year ago, Duke suffered a similar fate on the road at Georgetown, as the ever contextual Ben Cohen pointed out on his Twitter. That loss was at least as ugly as this one, but it also refocused the team, acting as a rallying point for an eventual championship run. Another run of that sort is predicated upon, among other things, the recovery of our favorite toe in the world. But as things stand, we’re still 19-2, and will certainly improve as this topsy turvy conference season continues.

For now though, this one stings. I give massive props to St. John’s, and trust that Coach will instill the fear of God in the hearts of the good guys before we venture into College Park in a few days.

Maybe some Marvin can cheer you up? I heard he was a Duke fan.

Section 17: K Rising

Coach K rose above Dean Smith in the win column Wednesday (Photo DukeBluePlanet)

K-r-z-y-z-e-w-s-k-i.

While the name might be hard to spell, the accomplishments of the man himself are equally hard to ignore. On an historic night in front of a “friendly” road crowd at the Greensboro Coliseum, Duke’s own Mike Krzyzewski tallied his 880th victory in 36 years of coaching D1 college basketball at the US Military Academy and Duke University. Although the game on the court between Duke and UNC-Greensboro was a mismatch in terms of talent, the Blue Devils paid homage to their legendary coach by playing as intensely as they have during the 2010-11 season. After the game, Coach K said he was honored that his team played with such passion, but he has come to expect nothing less. After all, he has instilled in each of his 31 Duke teams his own relentless drive to win for the last 31 years.

Of course however, the bigger story surrounding Coach K’s 880th victory is that of him surpassing the University of North Carolina’s own legendary coach, Dean Smith, in total victories. This just affirms that in the greatest rivalry in all of college sports, one team constantly serves as a measuring stick for the other. The Dean of Tobacco Road had an impressive tenure at UNC, tallying 2 national championships, 879 career victories, and yes, a few too many wins over the Blue Devils. After 36 years with the Tar Heels, all of us drinking the royal blue Kool-Aid were very happy to see him go. This is partly because the years following Smith’s retirement, most notably the DOH! years, were freaking awesome. But if we put down the Kool-Aid for a second and approach Smith’s legacy from the perspective of a college basketball fan, we’ll have to admit that it is pretty astounding. Smith played and coached under the University of Kansas’s revered coach, Phog Allen, who himself was coached by the dude who invented the game. Very cool stuff. Smith was no doubt a great coach and ambassador for the game of college basketball. But now, please excuse me as I take a sip of my royal blue Kool-Aid…

Dean Smith just ate Coach K’s dust.

Yeah, how does THAT feel, Tar Heel fans? Awww, I’m sorry, does it break your little hearts to know that your Golden Boy, the Great Innovator, the Granddaddy of Carolina basketball, your IDOL has now been eclipsed by the one man who you so dearly love to hate? This one man, who has instilled in you for 30+ years a soul-crushing hatred for anything Duke blue, who has elevated your rival’s basketball program into the stratosphere, has finally surpassed your beloved hero. Oh and don’t worry. Pretty soon, he’s going to single-handedly surpass you in the only number that matters: titles. And no, Carolina fans, this does not count as a national title. Now, go cry yourselves to sleep and wipe your tears with your third place NIT banner and your pictures of Jordan wearing short shorts. Good riddance.

…Ahem. Right. Gonna put down that Kool-Aid now.

There was a whole lot of this going on against UNC-G. (DukeBluePlanet photo)

But I digress. As Coach K and Dean Smith would both say, a number like 880 wins really has no meaning if you’re looking at the here and now. We all know that a win is a win, regardless of the circumstances, and any victory like tonight’s sound win over UNC-G is certainly a positive for this Duke team. Some things we can take away from this lopsided annihilation of the UNC-Greensboro Spartans:

  • Duke shot lights out in the same arena that will be the site of the 2011 ACC tournament. The Blue Devils shot 61% from the field and 46% from beyond the arc. Also, although we are pretty solid from the charity stripe, Duke is (as of yet) not the exceptional free throw shooting team that we were last year. This is in large part due to the absence of one Jon Scheyer.
  • This game was one of the few instances this year in which Duke torched the nets right from the start. I’m sure that Coach K noticed our slow starts from earlier games and sought to improve this aspect of the first half. @NdotSmitty was in attack mode from the get-go, and Duke started the contest on a 15-2 run and 6-8 shooting from the field.
  • …Speaking of Nolan Smith, it appears as though he is much more comfortable at the PG spot this year than he was two years ago, and he finished the game with a near-career high 26 points. Now, I realize that this might be in part due to the lackluster competition we have faced ever since Kyrie Irving went out with his unfortunate toe injury. But, it could also just mean that Nolan is a much improved player since the first point guard experiment that Coach K tried during Smith’s sophomore year. Additionally, this year Nolan has a few more backcourt friends with whom he can share the ball-handling duties.
  • …Speaking of Nolan Smith’s ball-handling backcourt friends (pause), Seth Curry showed some real poise with the rock in his hands. He made some great decisions with the ball and utilized the shot fake to near perfection. Tyler Thornton also got some burn in this contest, and although he might not fill up the stat sheet, Thornton played imposing defense, forced turnovers, and as usual, was quite vocal on the court.
  • Kyle was Kyle. He tallied a quiet 27 in part because a certain big man was being quite loud…
  • Miles Plumlee was DESTRUCTIVE around the rim tonight, throwing down two catastrophic tomahawks and a Plumlee Reverse Slam™. “Please sir, may I have another,” indeed.
  • If there is one negative to take away from this game, it has to be the rebounding. Duke was outrebounded by 4 boards tonight, but most concerning has to be UNC-G’s 12 offensive rebounds compared to Duke’s 7. Against teams with truly imposing bigs, such a discrepancy will certainly be a killer.

Aside from all that, this was a fun game to watch from start to finish. Cupcakes sure are tasty around this time of year. Thanks for reading! Congrats again to Coach K for reaching this newest milestone: 880 wins and a spot as the second winningest coach in D1 history. Only his mentor, The General, remains ahead of him…

The Beat Goes On

Hello, Crazie-Talkers.

Yes, it’s been a while since our last entry, and for that we apologize. The collective insanity during finals period on Duke’s campus submerged our staff in a heap of exams, papers and presentations. This writer endured European blizzards and faulty airlines before finally making it back to the United States from a semester abroad. Lamentably—but necessarily—Crazie-Talk had to take a hiatus. Now that the holidays are culminating in days of college football and snow blankets the East Coast, we have returned to provide some more fun-filled coverage of the team we all freak out about.

But enough idle chitchat. The nation’s best college basketball team has produced loads of news in the normally dull period of mid-December, and here I am to recap it:

  • Kyrie Irving—whose 31 points felled Michigan State—fell himself against Butler, and the Duke nation stood up in support of his mysteriously injured toe.
  • In his absence, Nolan, Kyle and Andre have stepped up to lead the team to home court annihilations of Bradley, St. Louis and Elon. Nolan is putting up All-American numbers and looks prepared to build his point guard resume in the coming months.
  • Our legendary coach stands poised to win his 880th game against a winless UNC-Greensboro team on Wednesday, which will move him into second place on the all-time wins list. In the process, Coach K will pass Dean Smith, his former Tobacco Road nemesis—an event that has reignited the rivalry discourse months before Duke and UNC meet on the floor (at least Roy approves!).
  • Our 2011 recruiting class has shined in early season action. Austin Rivers is putting up absurd numbers, including several huge statistical performances in the City of Palms tournament in Fort Myers. And now that Rivers has gotten the Dick Vitale seal of scintillation, I guess we can officially get excited about him (even if his team only managed fourth place). Austin was a celebrity at the tournament that he’s dominated throughout high school, and the national hype is growing to levels normally reserved for people like Greg Oden. Freshman scoring records, prepare to fall.
  • Marshall Plumlee won the dunk contest at City of Palms with some basketball/soccer hybrid tricks reminiscent of his brother’s work in the CTC Dunk show. The Perky Plumlee Big Man Academy should be opening soon.
  • Quinn Cook took home the MVP at the Iolani Classic in Hawaii, as his Oak Hill Warriors defeated Monteverde 58-44 in a battle of high school hoops powerhouses. Quinn had 22 points in the defensive grinder, and knocked down three of his team’s four triples.
  • Mike Gbinije looks fundamentally sound in these highlights from the Chick-fil-A Classic in South Carolina. (MG comes in at 1:22 in the video).

So December has been kind to Duke in all things not involving toes. The speculation about Kyrie’s potential return to the team is already turned to eleven; another “serious” prognostication would just add to the chatter. But what we do know is that our remaining regular season schedule looks horrible on paper. Of our opponents, only Maryland is listed on Ken Pomeroy’s current Top 25, and Duke is the only ACC team in the ESPN or AP polls. If we can stay afloat on the road—which is never easy, regardless of the conference’s weakness this year—Coach K should rack up a bunch of wins in January and February. The Irving Question will persist until a real answer is given, but we have a lot of ACC hide to tan until that day arrives.

Anyway, Happy Holidays, everyone. C-T will be back in force when the crew returns for the spring semester. Until then, enjoy the smooth sounds of Kyrie, Josh and Tyler singing Christmas music next to the locker room tree.

Section 17: The Fall of Sparta

We’ve got a special guest column today coming from Nick Schwartz, a friend of Crazie-Talk and a fellow Cameron Crazie. Nick hails from Ann Arbor, Michigan, home to the Michigan Wolverines. In other words, he had twice as many reasons to see the Spartans fall to the Duke Empire on Wednesday night.

Tom Izzo and the Spartans fraternized with the enemy Wednesday afternoon. It didn't help their cause. (Photo property of Crazie-Talk)

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo led his team through KVille on Wednesday to show his guys that the Crazies are just normal human beings.  It apparently did not impress Spartan forward Draymond Green, who tweeted that KVille failed to impress him more than the campout done by the aptly named MSU student section, the Izzone.  Nonetheless, MSU came out looking about as intimidated as any team I’ve seen in Cameron.  The Spartans gave new life to the term “throwing the ball away.”  Thanks to a combination of great Duke ball pressure and likely some Spartan nerves, MSU repeatedly passed the ball to the sidelines without one of the other four Spartans touching it.

Yet Duke was not a whole lot better, committing its own fair share of turnovers and failing to convert many opportunities on the offensive end.  It looked like the headlining game of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge might be a long, laborious affair.

Until a certain freshman took over the game.

Kyrie Irving rose to the occasion Wednesday night. (Photo DukeBluePlanet)

As you are probably well aware, Kyrie Irving poured in 31 points, breaking his previous career-high of 17 with an 18-point first half, which included many key 3-point plays.  While Nolan Smith likes to claim Jay-Z’s “Public Service Announcement” as his theme music, on Wednesday night, Smith took backseat to Kyrie “introducing himself” to America on ESPN.

And I couldn’t have been more pleased with what I was watching.

Hailing from Ann Arbor, Michigan, for most of my life I’ve had the opportunity to watch consistently solid MSU teams pummel over my beloved Michigan Wolverines.  Like many other Michigan fans, I have developed a love-hate relationship with the teams led by MSU head coach, Tom Izzo.  Izzo was born, went to school, and has almost exclusively coached in Michigan.  From his reign at MSU, beginning in 1995, the Spartans have managed an 18-8 record against Michigan (counting 5 of Michigan’s wins which were later vacated). Going back to the “Flint”stones era of Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, and Charlie Bell, Izzo has almost always managed to attract the state of Michigan’s top players.  Yet, it is hard to not to root for his teams.  Aside from some of the extracurricular activities of Zach Randolph, Izzo has managed to run a clean and consistent program, attracting and graduating many commendable student-athletes, standing in opposition to many of his peers.  And how can you argue with the style of play?  MSU has developed a reputation for playing strong man-on-man defense, relentless rebounding, and pushing the ball up the court after made baskets.  Izzo has been known have his players perform rebounding drills in shoulder pads.  If only Rich Rodriguez would borrow the idea for his defense.

Izzo’s ability to get the most of his players is astounding.  Pistons fans who remember Cleaves’ brief stint in the NBA can certainly attest that some of Izzo’s most successful players did not get by simply on talent (who does that NOT remind you of, cough, Calipari, cough).  While many Tarheels often jibe at Duke’s lack of stars in the NBA, MSU is much less heard come the All-Star game.

This year’s Spartan team has many similarities to those of the past.  In the likes of Cleaves and Drew Nietzel, point guard Kalin Lucas assumes a leading role.  After a junior year that ended with a ruptured Achilles, the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2009, the same year the Spartans unfortunately fell short in the National Championship, returned and is leading the team in scoring while hitting almost half his shots.  If there is a more established and talented point guard in college basketball than Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen, it is Lucas.  That’s why all signs pointed to this game as a litmus test of Irving’s current status as a very good guard or one of the premiere guards in America.  And unlike most science experiments, the results are without question.

To be fair, for most of the game, Lucas did not even look like the best point guard on his team.  Lucas was overshadowed by his backup, if you can reasonably call him that, Korie Lucious, who led the Spartans with 20 points.  Lucious matched every bit of Irving’s quickness and threw in a barrage of jump shots, drives, and 3-pointers to ensure that the game never got out of hand.

But he's only a freshman, right Kalin? (Photo DukeBluePlanet)

While any win at any time over Michigan State is certainly impressive, the Blue Devils can take some things away from this game.  First of all, the perimeter defense needs to improve.  Korie Lucious and Kalen Lucas were able to penetrate at will and get into the lane.  Fortunately, MSU mostly took advantage of this late in the second half when Duke was in command of the game.  Furthermore, the interior defense could see some improvement.  The Spartans outrebounded Duke, grabbing 15 offensive boards.  The Plumlees often looked lost on defensive switches, leading to some easy baskets by Garrick Sherman, who otherwise did not appear capable of creating his own shot.  Miles will continue to have to focus on stop committing soft fouls if he wants to play a greater role on the team.

On the offensive end, there were times when the Blue Devils shot selection was questionable.  Most notably, Kyle Singler went 5-14 from the field, and seemed to force many jump shots with plenty of time remaining on the shot clock.  At this point in his career, Kyle has essentially earned the right to shoot when he sees fit, but with an offense full of so many options on a night when the running game was relatively quiet, I would hope he remains patient on nights when others are shooting better.

Nevertheless, a win is always win, and against MSU and the second best active coach in college basketball, always a great win.  I was glad when Izzo turned down the opportunity to potentially coach LeBron James in Cleveland, but I thoroughly enjoyed getting the opportunity to see the Coack K and the Blue Devils soundly defeat Izzo’s Spartans.

And who knows, they might find themselves battling it out once again come March.

Thanks again to our friend Nick for writing up this article. Up next, the Blue Devils travel to New Jersey on Saturday to face a familiar foe from last year’s national championship game…

Section 17: This Ain't Our First Rodeo

Hopefully not the only Championship we get this year (Photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

A Win is a Win

Looking for their first road win of the season, the Duke Blue Devils packed their bags for the O’Reilly Auto Parts/Reese’s Cups/Progressive Insurance CBE Classic in  Kansas City, MO.  But besides having a floor that resembles a Nascar vehicle, the Sprint Center also provided the boos, the heckling, and general Duke hate that accompanies most road games. What many thought would result into another Duke rout turned into a fierce battle that included all the makings of an NCAA Tournament game.  The Marquette Golden Eagles, at the time a perfect 4-0, came into the game with an upset-minded focus that resonated immediately following tip-off.   Though Duke  jumped out to a 23-9 lead, the Eagles relentlessly chipped away at the Blue Devils and eventually tied the game at 57 in the second half.

Throughout the game, Duke’s main offensive weapon was the talented Mason Plumlee.   The sophomore forward, who seemed due for a breakout game, relied heavily on his athleticism to score 25 points—14 of which came after the Eagles tied the game at 57.  Though he probably won’t be pulling any dream shakes soon , Plumlee finally displayed a decent postgame to complement his freakish athleticism. With the addition of 12 rebounds (6 offensive) and 5 blocks, Mason clearly notched the best game of his young career.

Besides Plumlee, Duke saw most of its offensive production coming from Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler.  The two captains combined for 32 points and 15 rebounds, a solid outing that helped push the Blue Devils to a tough win. Nolan (along with Kyrie to a lesser extent) continues to have turnover issues—he had six in this game and four against Colgate.  With Kyrie emerging as Duke’s primary ball handler, a high turnover margin for a scorer like Nolan may mean more playing time for Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, particularly if the two sophomores continue to shoot well from the perimeter.

Another “Neutral” Site Win

Coming off of a tough battle with Marquette, the Blue Devils suited up the next day to face third ranked K-State.  In addition the game’s significance as a battle against another title contender, the matchup marked Coach K’s first opportunity to win his 800th game.

Kyrie owned Pullen almost as badly as Harrison Barnes owned himself against Minnesota. (DukeBluePlanet.com)

Though the Blue Devils looked sluggish and lethargic against Marquette the day before, the crew dominated Kansas State throughout the entire game.   Irving, the game’s star, showed the entire country why exactly scouts labeled him as the second coming of Jay Williams. His statline of 17 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals does not nearly provide enough credit to the sheer ease with which he managed the game.  He attacked the rim at will and led a defensive effort that held Preseason All-American Jacob Pullen to a measly 4 points on 1-12 shooting.

Apart from Irving, the Blue Devil offense manufactured their points through a strong shooting performance from the free throw line and from 3.  Duke converted 50% of its threes vs. K-State’s 17.3%, but more importantly they notched a +13 differential at the free throw line. The Blue Devils also found reason to cheer with the performance of Andre Dawkins. Baby D and Seth Curry complete the most lethal backcourt in the country.  The two continue to shoot well from beyond the arc, but more importantly they play relentless defense—Curry showed flashes of Ed Reed with his five steals.  I should probably also mention that neither player regularly starts, highlighting just how deep this Blue Devil roster is.

As we move forward, I see three areas of improvement for the Blue Devils:

Interior Defense: Though Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee have filled in nicely for Lance and Zoubek, the duo needs to play with more toughness on both ends.  This Wednesday’s match against Michigan State should provide a better gauge of Duke’s strength up front, but the Blue Devils will run into trouble come tournament time if they draw the likes of an Ohio State (Jared Sullinger and Dallas Lauderdale)or a Syracuse (Fab Melo and Kris Joseph).

How Nolan adjusts to playing with Kyrie: I have no worries about his scoring or  leadership capability, but what I do notice is an increased tepidness in halfcourt sets when he plays with Irving.  Nolan’s turnover numbers are up, and he took several ill-advised shots in the 2nd half of the K-State game.  He doesn’t seem comfortable playing with Kyrie yet, but I do think that his shot selection will improve over time.  Tom Izzo’s veteran backcourt should test  Nolan’s offensive game, so make sure to watch how MSU’s guards defend him next Wednesday

Mason’s Free Throw Shooting: Could the “Hack-a-Plumlee” turn into a college basketball staple this year?  Probably not, but it is disconcerting to see how poorly Mason’s shooting from the charity stripe.  His FT shooting percentage currently stands at 43%, a Shaq-like figure that screams second half liability on paper.  Mason seems to be struggling with depth on his foul shot, with many of his misses falling short. Hopefully the poor shooting does not turn into a recurring trend, as Plumlee will continue to visit the line more as he develops into a low-post threat.

The Singler Showdown

In the final leg of the Devils’ road trip, the team traveled all the way out to the Great Northwest for Kyle Singler’s homecoming matchup against the Oregon Ducks and his younger brother, E.J. The game was scheduled in large part as a “thank you” gift for Singler staying all 4 years at Duke, in the classic Coach K senior tradition. As for the game itself, it unfortunately didn’t quite match up to the hype level set up by the advertising companies (see 100 foot tall poster of the Singler Bros in Portland). But, perhaps this was a blessing in disguise, as the Devils are in the midst of a hellishly tough stretch of games requiring travel around the country.

Big brother bullied little brother all night. #12 tallied 30 points. (Photo DukeBluePlanet.com)

Duke cruised to a 27 point victory Saturday afternoon, despite some sluggish first half play. The game started off with a Mason Plumlee block party while Kyrie simultaneously robbed the Ducks blind by recording 3 steals in just under 3 minutes of play. OUR Singler started off hot, and ended up torching the nets for a 30 point career high-tying night, all in the face of lil’ bro E.J. The only real troublesome aspects of this afternoon’s game were in the 2nd 10 minutes of the 1st half, when Oregon switched to a 3/4 court press with some success. Until Duke collectively calmed down (with some help from a Coach K “inspirational” chewout timeout), the Devils were having trouble breaking the press and were forcing a few too many turnovers for comfort. In the second half, however, all that changed. Duke snipers Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry did some serious duck hunting from long range, scorching the nets and putting the game out of reach once and for all.

We saw a very, very scary second half run this afternoon, demonstrating the damage that our offense can do in a very short period of time. Specifically, Duke’s lead ballooned from 13 to 30 in under 5 minutes with help from Kyrie, Seth, Andre, and Kyle launching bombs from deep. If we shoot that well consistently…wow.

All in all, it was a successful road trip for your Blue Devils, and we managed to bring home the first of hopefully many pieces of hardware this season. Next up is a wounded but still dangerous Michigan State team. But this time, we’ll be facing them in the cozy confines of Cameron. A billion game non-conference home win streak is on the line here, but with the Crazies raucous and the team hungry, we look forward to taking down Sparty.

Home sweet home, indeed.

Congrats to our Blue Devils for a successful road trip, and for bringing home the first title of this young year. Next up is Michigan State, and Crazie-Talk and friends will be lining way too early for front row spots to Wednesday’s game. Arun bought a sleeping bag this Black Friday for a reason…