Duke Basketball Playbook: 2009-10

During the season, Bonnie suggested that I save, organize, and archive my Duke Basketball emails. I didn’t consider doing it until after Duke won the NCAA Championship as I was curious as to what I thought as the season progressed. Reviewing them was interesting—sort of like watching a replay of the season when you know the final outcome but still get caught up in recalling the emotional ebbs and flow.

While my January prediction of Duke potentially being a Final Four team was accurate– as was my assessment of Singler, Scheyer, and Smith– my opinion of Zoubek wasn’t. But who knew, except maybe the coaching staff? Alan was ahead of the curve by pointing out early on that if you project Zoubek’s stats from twelve or so minutes to thirty, he would lead the country in rebounding.

My initial enthusiasm for the impact of the brothers Plumlee was not fully realized but was replaced by acknowledging the amazing transformation of Brian Zoubek into the missing link and catalyst for a NCAA Championship run. Likewise, my assessment of Andre Dawkins talent appeared like fool’s gold until he played well in the tournaments, culminating in hitting two crucial three pointers against Baylor.

Unfortunately, I was prescient in anticipating the Georgia Tech and Georgetown losses by pointing out how the schedule and travel can have a negative impact on a team’s performance. Also, unfortunately I don’t bet on games because I also stressed the axiom that not only do Coach K’s teams rarely lose two games in a row but also that he has a long memory for disappointing defeats and teams like West Virginia which have disrespected his players.

I tried to remind everyone that there is a good bit of luck involved in a championship season but that better coached teams that play smart and hard generally have more luck than those that don’t.

Many people have expressed the opinion that this was Coach K’s best coaching job. Well, maybe. But what about the 2001 Championship year when Carlos Boozer was out with a broken foot from the final Carolina  game until the last few NCAA games  and Coach K creatively utilized Sanders, Christensen, and Love as the three headed center or the 2010 Olympic Gold Medal team, where he had all the professional All Stars playing as a team?

Only after he retires (which I hope is many years in the future) will we fully appreciate the body of work of Coach Krzyzewski and what he has meant to Duke University.  In the meantime, let’s enjoy the ride.

It was an amazing season and anytime my memory of it fades, I will have this blog to remind me of how special it was and how fortunate we were to watch it unfold.

Duke – N.C Greensboro, Coastal Carolina, Charlotte, & Radford 

I’m not sure how accurate an assessment can be made about this year’s Duke team from the first few games against basically mid-major competition and playing without the benefit of two starters: Nolan Smith, serving a two game suspension for playing in non-sanctioned NCAA summer games (whatever that means) and Mason Plumlee, who broke his left wrist but who should return after the first of the year.  However, we all know that Nov/Dec is the time Coach K experiments and tinkers with various personnel mixes to determine who and how to play the rest of the season. Scheme and strategy wise it appears we will see less full court pressure and more matchup zone defense; more of a hybrid motion offense featuring a three man weave because he has three go-to guys including  a breakdown-you-down, speedy guard with another gear in Nolan Smith; and more high-low posting especially with Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly in the game.

This team will go as far as Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer, and Nolan Smith, players of very different but complementary skills, carry them—and how well the supporting cast supports them.  While Singler has from day one been a very admirable and very productive player who has done whatever the team needed, he really was an undersized #1 post up player. With the maturation of Miles Plumlee and the addition of his 6’10” brother Mason, Kyle Singler 3.0 has been released from low post purgatory and is free to play all over the court as a small forward mismatch from hell in a modified motion offense. Always a tireless competitor in the John Havlicek mold, Kyle has dramatically improved his three point and mid range jumper while losing none of his willingness to mix it up in the paint.  If he remains healthy and fresh and Duke wins big games, Singler should be a national POY candidate.

You know what you are going to get from Scheyer—forty minutes of steady, heady but not breathtaking basketball and the man you want on the foul line with the game on the line.

All reports are that Nolan Smith is practicing like the confident Nolan Smith after his head injury last year rather than the tentative, inconsistent Nolan Smith at the beginning of last year. If tonight’s game against Charlotte is any indication, that report is not an exaggeration. When Nolan is in a confident, attacking, scoring mode, he can be a breathtaking, lethal, game changing player at both ends of the court.

Miles Plumlee may possibly be the difference between Duke being a very good team and a terrific team. He is a 6’ 10” strong, wide body 250 pound real athlete who high jumped seven feet in high school—something Duke has not has since Sheldon Williams graduated. Wide bodies take up more space (think Charles Barkley) which gives them a rebounding and defensive advantage. In addition to the weight gain and adding four more inches to his vertical jump, Miles is playing with a great deal more confidence. Whether or not this carries over to ACC competition remains to be seen; but, we all know that as hard as he tries and as skilled as he is in some ways, Brian Zoubek’s lack of lower body athleticism limits him from being a consistent contributor against top tier competition.

Andre Dawkins may be the most intriguing talent on the team. Athletically and skill wise, there are times he shows flashes of Johnny Dawkins, Jayson Williams, JJ Reddick, and Gerald Henderson.  While he has a very smooth, quick release jump shot and can drive and finish with authority, what I like the most is that he seems to be fearless and has the look and demeanor of a confident junior or senior. In fact, he seemed quite comfortable playing the point for a short time against Coastal Carolina. The fact that Andre pulls the trigger like JJ did tells me that Coach has given him the green light to shoot. But he is a freshman and he will be inconsistent.

Lance Thomas is slated to be the sixth man/defensive specialist who can play the high post or guard any of five positions.

Olek Czyz is a European basketball anomaly in that he is very athletic but not a finished product.  As Coach K said, he should have been red shirted last year because he has a lot to learn. I don’t doubt that in time, he will become an interesting role player.

Ryan Kelly is 6’ 10” but not a wide body or a post up player. However, he was a late bloomer in high school who won the McDonald’s three point shooting contest and appears to have more complete and diverse skills than most players his size. He has shown that he can be effective in the high post because he can accurately shot a jumper and/or look over small defenders to make passes into the low post. He also is a tougher defender and stronger rebounder than my friend Alan initially thought.

Losing top target Harrison Barnes to Carolina was disappointing. However, despite the fact that speculation about Duke’s recruiting misses focusing on Coach K’s Olympic commitments will be grist for the media over the next months or even years, no one should think that Duke hasn’t been able to bring in top shelf talent—just not one and done talent, which is not necessarily a fatal flaw.  After the announcement, Harrison’s mother said basically that her son had known he was going to UNC for a long time and that he just played the other schools for the publicity to “brand’ himself.  The somewhat over-the-top staged press conference Barnes held for himself announcing his decision pretty much confirmed that he has an inflated sense of his place in the universe but that is what ESPN, the Internet, Texting, Twitter, the early draft, and shoe contracts have done to many blue chip high school basketball prospects.

This year Duke has more size, depth, and diverse talent than in recent years—and except for possibly Singler no one should be going early to the NBA.   Next season, Duke will bring in Tyler Thornton, Josh Hairston, and Kyrie Irving—all four star players with Irving being considered one of the two top point guards in his class–and Seth Curry, Stephan’s brother and the nation’s top scoring freshman last season at Liberty, who transferred to Duke  will also be available next year.  This is talent most college coaches and fans would pay a lot of money for—and, indeed, some do (read Kentucky. Memphis or any school coached by John Calapari.)

That being said, Barnes joins Brandan Wright, Patrick Patterson, Greg Monroe, and Kenny Boynton who have been top targets that considered Duke, but ultimately committed elsewhere. I read an article that expressed the thought that Duke is perceived by recruits to be an elite private school that has a majority of white players, which is highly unusual in an elite college basketball program.  In fact, this year’s projected starters are—to use a moniker hung on the Boston Celtics in the 70’s—a “Busted Flush” (four whites and a black). Further, the article suggested that the top players Coach K has been unable to sign are all Afro-Americans who might not have felt as comfortable in the Duke environment as they would at another school with a team where they were not in the minority. Another explanation is the televised NCAA Championship effect. JJ Reddick, Elton Brand, Shane Battier, and others became enamored of Duke watching the 1991 & 1992 championship teams. Carolina’s recent championships impress and sell the program to future players. It goes in cycles.

Whatever the case, Duke has won more games than any basketball program in this decade. Let the play begin!

Duke – University of Connecticut 

I don’t like Big East Basketball. I don’t like the way the players play, I don’t like the way the refs referee, I don’t like the compromises most Big East schools make in admitting players and, in some cases, thieves, and felons, and I don’t like  many of the coaches.  It started in 1959 seeing John Thompson, the center on the great, undefeated Bishop John Carroll High School team, attempting to jump on a fallen opponents head with both feet. It seems to me he took that attitude to Georgetown and his success there set the template for the “Big East Style” of physical intimidation.

Recently, UConn holds the Gold Standard (formerly held by whatever school “Tark the Shark” Tarkanian, then John Calipari have coached) for playing fast and loose with admissions and ethics. Then, there is UConn’s play on the court. Let’s go to the TiVo (I was out of town for Thanksgiving) and review Friday night’s game with Duke. Jon Scheyer should have received combat pay for the physical abuse he took because the refs “let them play” (until they decided things were getting out of hand and started calling touch fouls)—punk, cheap shots out of bounds and after the whistle, elbows to the head, intentional fouls, you name it. Well, enough about rugby, let’s talk hoops.

After a less than scintillating performance against Herb Sendek’s Arizona State (what team looks good playing a Herb Sendek team and, in case you missed it, ‘Zona State beat LSU handily for third place in the tournament), one writer called Duke the most overrated team in the country and Doug Gottlieb on ESPN called Duke “alarmingly unathletic” (a word that does not pass the Word spell check test), which is usually code for “too many soft, white boys”. Coach K responded by saying that “actually, we’re pretty athletic; we’re just not as athletic as Connecticut and that Doug (who played at Notre Dame and Oklahoma State) should be an expert on alarmingly non‑athletic.  So I’ll have to take a look at that a little bit closer because it comes from an expert who actually knows what it feels like to be alarmingly non‑athletic”.  On other occasions, Coach has said that he recruits basketball players not track team prospects. Nolan Smith added succinctly: “When Mason Plumlee returns to the rotation, Duke will be “even more athletic than people don’t think we are.”

Well, bless their shortcomings, just how did the athletically challenged, soft Duke team win by nine when they only shot 29% from the floor and lost the ever popular slam dunk contest (but did win the  acrobatic shot contest with Scheyer’s flip over the shoulder bank shot while being knock upside down without a foul being called contest)? Well, somehow they managed to stumble into 4 more rebounds, 2 more steals, 6 more threes, 8 blocked shots– as well as shooting 80% (vs. Huskie’s 54%)  from the line, proving once again that there are a lot of different ways to win a game.

After the game, UConn’s Stanley Robinson was quote as saying that Duke played “smarter”. Well, as one reporter wrote: “One out of three usually won’t get a student a C. The correct answer is smarter, and harder, and better.”

Duke – Wisconsin

Coming off two close, draining games in the NIT, you knew that this away game at Wisconsin was going to be difficult. The Badgers had their A game– a forward bomber in the first half and a gutsy guard in the second—and Duke didn’t.  Zoubek and Thomas, who were the heroes of the UConn game, came up empty. Singler kept Duke close in the first half and Andre Dawkins almost shot Duke to tie in the second half with 4 straight threes. However, Duke could never sustain a run and Wisconsin’s disciplined offense, accurate perimeter shooting big man Leuer and quick guard Hughes were the difference.

Mason Plumlee played about ten minutes but clearly not yet up to speed. The rotation is in flux. I suspect that Zoubek will be the odd man out as Miles, Lance, and Mason bring more to the court. And my man Andre deserves more minutes. Let me remind y’all what I wrote after the first two games:

“Andre Dawkins may be the most intriguing talent on the team. Athletically and skill wise, there are times he is shows flashes of Johnny Dawkins, Jayson Williams, JJ Reddick, and Gerald Henderson.  While he has a very smooth, quick release jump shot and can drive and finish with authority, what I like the most is that he seems to be fearless and has the look and demeanor of a confident junior or senior. In fact, he seemed quite comfortable playing the point for a short time against Coastal Carolina. The fact that Andre pulls the trigger like JJ did tells me that Coach has given him the green light to shoot. But he is a freshman and he will be inconsistent.”

It’s still early in the season but he is not longer a secret and teams will defend him more aggressively; however, I have seen enough to think that he is a more versatile, and talented shooting guard than JJ Reddick. That is not to say that he will have as good a career because there is still a lot to learn about his mental makeup and ability to overcome diversity. Time will tell.

This team needs to smooth out the rotation and the wrinkles because Carolina sure has. The win over Michigan State was impressive as their two point guards are improving and their big men, of whom there are many, are a handful. The rest of the ACC teams have been unimpressive.

Duke – St. John’s 

I imagine that I was one of the few people in the southeast watching Duke play St. John’s rather than the Alabama-Florida game.

What I took away from the game is that the Blue Devils are still an inconsistent team on both ends of the floor but a work in progress. They are still not shooting well–43%) from the floor but, paradoxically, about 80% from the foul line. My (DID) Defensive Index Differential (rebounds, turnovers , steals, blocks) was a +23 for Duke, which masked the fact that unlike last year this team is not defending the three point shot very well—or they would have won by twenty.

Again although Nolan Smith is not a true point guard, Duke is a different team when he is aggressive offensively. When he attacks, he distorts the defense and creates a multiplicity of options. Otherwise, their half court offense is pretty static– and a lot less effective.

I am at a loss as to why both Plumlees started but only played 19 minutes between them.  Lance Thomas, a much more effective and balanced contributor this year–thanks to adding muscle and a nice mid range jump shot–, deserves major minutes but, while Zoubek  has his moments, he still lacks the lower body athleticism to be  anything more than a brief change of pace presence against top tier teams ( which St. John’s is not). Only the Plumlees and Lance can provide the inside firepower offensively and defensively to compete against athletic top ten teams as you could see if you watched the Carolina-Kentucky game. By the way, John Wall is the real deal! Kentucky is not the same team without.

Duke – Gonzaga

 One of the most difficult challenges in any rhythm sport is under the pressure of competing to somehow find your shot or stroke or free throw when it is missing in action. And in basketball, the additional challenge is to not let poor shooting affect your defensive effort (Duke was +25 on my Defensive Index). This has always been one of the keys to Coach K’s team’s success, which today was exemplified by Kyle Singler, who had only 9 points but shut down Gonzaga’s star Matt Bouldin and gathered 11 rebounds.

Neither Duke nor Gonzaga started the game in any sort of offensive rhythm as their shooting was just cold as the weather outside of Madison Square Garden. The score was something from the 1930’s—10 to 10 after ten minutes. Then Scheyer and Smith heated up and the Committee of Big men dominated the paint and the glass as Duke controlled Gonzaga at both ends for the rest of the game for a stunningly easy win.

What does it mean when Duke is 9- 1 and beats #15 Gonzaga by 35 points while Kyle Singer, who is in an extended shooting slump, only scores 11 points?

It means that this is not your recent Duke Basketball team. It is deeper, more diverse, more resourceful, and coached differently. To borrow a military quote: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you wished you had”. In recent years, Duke has had to rely on few super stars like Reddick and Williams and role players in a limited rotation. If JJ had an off night or Sheldon got in foul trouble, Duke was at a severe disadvantage. And at the end of a long season, the grinding pressure on these star players took its toll.

Well, this year everyone thought that Singler was going to be the super star but so far it has been Scheyer and Smith  who have been  carrying the offensive burden and Coach K is developing a situational four man bench rotation—especially at the center and power forward position. I think it is pretty clear that Coach K has much more confidence in the depth of his bench this year and is coaching accordingly–so that would seem to bode well for  fresher players at tournament time.

I think there is significance in Coach K’s after the game comment: “This is the first team in eight years that really understands our defense so well, not individually, but together”.  Let’s see, that would be 2001, the NCAA Championship year.

PS. Vern Lindquist has had some signature moments s as a commentator (He called the famous Duke-Kentucky-Laettner miracle shot NCAA game and the Tiger dramatic birdie chip-in on #16 at the 2005 Masters yelling “Oh my goodness! Oh WOW!! IN YOUR LIFE, have you seen anything like that?”). However, today was not one of them. He was annoyingly casual and disengaged in his announcing, miscalling several plays and totally missing Miles Plumlee leaving the floor holding his arm after a nasty fall, which was of some concern to Duke fans.

Duke – Pennsylvania & January 1, 2010 Prediction

My take is that potentially this is the best team Coach K has had since 2001 for the following reasons:

1)      There is more depth and more talent in the front court than in recent years. No longer will Duke be forced into an exhausting (seven man rotation) press all over the floor to force turnovers, and cover for a weak inside size and defense. There now is a five 6’ 10” man rotation inside. Miles Plumlee, while having a “bull in a china shop” quality, is a developing into a true enforcer; Mason, as he demonstrated last night against Penn, is the most talented big man Duke has ever had. Apparently, playing harder is the key to more minutes—and Lance Thomas, who has added offense to his defense, is the coaches stalking horse. Zoubek is exceeding all expectations. And while Kelly may be a year away, he is much better defensively than some knowledgeable observers thought. These guys can block shots and, except for Zoubek, run the floor.

2)     More fire power. No longer is Duke’s offense dependent upon one or two scorers because there are four legitimate, unselfish perimeter players—Scheyer, Smith, Singler, and Dawkins.

3)     Jon Scheyer has morphed into the best point guard since Jason Williams. Moving him to the point has unleashed the full range of his talents. Guarded by a smaller, quicker defender, he can look, pass and shoot over them. When Smith has the point, Jon can rotate to the wing, and post them up. I’ve been trying to think of who Jon plays like and it finally occurred to me that he reminds me of John Stockton—smart, sees the floor, can pass and shoot, and continually exceeds expectations.

There has to be a lot of luck—no serious injuries, hit end of game free throws, find ways to win close games, and, above all, play hard especially when the offense is on vacation —to be a Final Four team. All I am saying is that I think this team has the complementary players, the chemistry, and the coach to be one of those teams.

And speaking of coaches, Duke won more games during the last decade than any other college basketball team. Did any other coach get more out his talent than Coach K?

Duke – Clemson 

The key to a winning season is an athletic version the early Clint Eastwood film: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”—you have to find a way to win them “Any which Way But (don’t) Loose”. (Sorry for the pun. I’m an Eastwood fan.)

The Penn game was winning “Good”; the Clemson game was winning “Ugly”; and my fear is that the Georgia Tech game in Atlanta Saturday, just three days after flying to Chicago to play Iowa State, will be “Bad”, especially if Coach K stays with the seven man rotation he used against Clemson. As my long time hoops buddy Alan pointed out, because of the fatigue of short rotations, the recent Duke teams have been more impressive in November-January than they have in March.  With a double digit lead at home for most of the game, you would assume that Dawkins and Kelly would get more minutes so that they would become acclimated to the intensity of ACC play. For sure, Coach K had not forgotten the embarrassing defeat last year at Littlejohn Coliseum and probably wanted to keep the pedal to the metal. Ironically, that humiliating loss was the catalyst for inserting Elliott Williams into the starting lineup and moving Jon Scheyer to the point, which led to a strong finish and winning the ACC Tournament.

However, this year the Blue Devils were in control all the way and closed the game out in an impressive manner. It was classic Duke Basketball- play good defense, get the other team in foul trouble and hit a high percentage of free throws. The good news is that Singler has his stroke back and Scheyer and Nolan have great chemistry at sharing the ball with each other.

Duke – Iowa State 

For me, one of the joys of following Duke Basketball each year is watching a player’s development.  A case in point is Jon Scheyer. He came in with the reputation of being a big time scorer–maybe the next JJ Reddick. Obviously, Coach K loved his game, because he was a starter from day one. The reality is that he has been Mr. Consistency–a versatile, very good, very dependable player (especially at the foul line)– but not a flashy, superstar. Surprisingly, Jon has been a somewhat reluctant shooter but rather a more subtle, efficient and complete talent who seemed more interested in being a good teammate than putting up a lot of points.

Perhaps as a two guard, he was a little physically disadvantaged. However, moving to the point has allowed the full range of Jon’s skills to flourish to the degree that it occurs to me that he is right there with Grant Hill as the most complete Duke basketball player I can recall. A 30 minute stat line of 36 pts (on only 13 shots), 9 assists, 8 rebs, 1 blk, 1 steal speaks volumes about his efficient talent—and his show-the-ball-blind-left hand-behind–the-back pass to Singler for a layup was a Sports Center high light moment. Play on, Jon!

On the other hand, I don’t know what to make of Zoubek. At the beginning of each season, he looks like he will be a real contributor but when he plays against top teams, he appeared to be one of the few seven footers to play below the rim–and to add insult to injury, refs seemed intent on calling a couple of fouls on him before he even leaves the bench. In all fairness, the Zee Man did have the most impressive game of his career against UConn, so maybe this year will be different. However, Miles Plumlee, who is much stronger and more athletic, definitely plays above the rim and is much more polished than last year.

I’ve made no secret from day one of my assessment that Andre “instant offense” Dawkins is a wonderful talent who will be a huge asset to the rotation. Nothing he has done this year has changed my mind…… Can’t figure why Mason Plumlee, who has shown flashes confirming his reputation as an exceptional talent, is behind Ryan Kelly, who needs to get stronger and more confident, in the substitution rotation– unless Coach is sending Mason a message.  I believe that he will be getting serious minutes when the games get more serious. Lance Thomas is stronger, has an improved mid range jump shot, and is a very good athlete who accepts whatever role the coaches assign him.

Let’s hope Singler’s ankle and Smith’s knee are minor ailments.

Duke – Georgia Tech 

As I noted last week: “The key to a winning season is an athletic version the early Clint Eastwood film: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”—you have to find a way to win them “Any which Way But (don’t) Loose”. (Sorry for the puns. I’m an Eastwood fan.) The Penn game was winning “Good”; the Clemson game was winning “Ugly”; and my fear is that the Georgia Tech game in Atlanta Saturday, just three days after flying to Chicago to play Iowa State, will be “Bad”— especially if Coach K stays with the seven man rotation he used against Clemson.”

When Singler goes 2-13 and Smith 4-10 for nine points each, Duke is not going to beat many of the more talented ACC teams. Let’s consider other numbers: a team that commits 24 fouls is giving an opponent a huge opportunity for easy, uncontested points; and only getting to the line 14 times (vs. 28 for Tech) and hitting 64% (instead of 75%) is just not taking advantage of a gift—and a sign that you are not playing the attacking basketball that is one of the benchmarks of Duke Basketball. These are the signs of a tired, sluggish team—Singler, in particular, appeared not himself.

Despite all that went wrong, this was a winnable game. Duke was up 6 at half time and came out flat to begin the second half and just let the momentum slip away. That is a cardinal sin on the road where the crowd is so important. Nevertheless, Scheyer and the Plumlees kept Duke right in the game until the very end when Georgia Tech converted a couple of air balls (forced by good defense)  for buckets– that was tipping point—and hitting six straight free throws to seal the deal. Tech deserved the win.

Regrettable, against big, stronger, more athletic competition, Zoubek has reverted to his immobile, a beat late, former self—and Lawal (8-9) 21 points and 9 rebounds is a real load for most any college player to defend. The good news is that Mason Plumlee had his best game and adds a multiplicity of skills on both ends when he is on the floor. It is obvious that he and his brother have very good chemistry and in close games it is a real advantage to have the two brothers and Lance Thomas rotating in the power positions. That plus Singler and/or Smith just scoring a normal amount of points and this team is much less vulnerable to being beaten. However, the cold truth is that on offense Singler has only shown flashes of the All American player most commentators expected this year. Fortunately, Scheyer is having that kind of year but until Kyle’s shots start falling, there will be a lot of games like this against UNC, Florida State, Georgetown, Wake, Maryland, Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Maryland.

Duke – Wake Forest 

Tonight’s game against Wake Forest was much closer than the final score but the more disciplined, better conditioned, better defensive team won. My Defensive Index (differential of rebounds, turnovers, steals, and blocks) was +13 for the Blue Devils who also got to the line 32 times and shot 81% vs. 25 times & 60% for Wake. Those stats pretty much tell the story and anyone who thinks that Duke is a finesse team that is not physically tough needs to watch a tape of this game. While the refs tried to get control of the physical play early on, they never really did and probably never will until someone deals with instigator of dirty play, Chas McFarland—or he graduates. The guy makes Big East games look like a ballet. And if Kyle Singler’s wrist is injured (think Gerald Henderson), it probably will never truly heal until after the season which would be a devastating blow to this team.

I thought two plays were the tipping point that broke the game open: a conventional three by Singler quickly followed by an old fashion three by Scheyer which turned a three point lead into nine. Singler (21 pts. 14 rebs.), incidentally, seemed more comfortable tonight as he played more of an outside/inside game by taking his smaller defender into the paint more often than he has in other games.

This win against another big, strong, athletic team gave us occasional glimpses of how good this Duke team can be if Miles (19 pts.-14 rebs. 1 blk.) and Mason (11 pts.-7 rebs. 2 blks.) Plumlee continue to improve, stay healthy, and stay out of foul trouble. The team is much more athletic and more formidable offensively and defensively when both Plumlees are on the floor together. Thomas and Zoubek have their strengths and roles but clearly are not as talented. And it really doesn’t matter who starts, what matters is who gets the major minutes and is on the floor at crucial times.

Duke – North Carolina State 

In a game all too reminiscent of the Clemson game last year, N. C. State played with the purpose and efficiency of the  #7 team in the country and Duke played like an out-of-synch, unranked team. After playing so well against Wake Forest, Miles and Mason Plumlee were missing in action (2 points & 4 rebounds in only 23 minutes vs. 30 points & 25 rebounds). Miles Plumlee was undressed by Tracy Smith early and often, setting the template for the rest of the game.

To make matters even worse, Duke’s early turnovers and fouls gave State and their home crowd an advantage and confidence they never relinquished. Nolan Smith made a sensational buzzer beater three (catching a loose ball in mid air at the top of the key and in one motion draining a long three) to bring Duke to within three points to end the half. However, Duke started the second half like they did against the loss to Georgia Tech and were quickly down double digits. As we all know, Coach K’s teams over the years have lived and died with tough man to man defense. Tonight, they died as State scored virtually at will. Five minutes into the second half, he finally went to a 1-2-2 zone for a few minutes but nothing worked very well tonight.

My Defensive Index was a minus 18 against Duke as the team was outshot 58% vs. 38%. To defend and shoot like this in the middle of the season with a tough stretch of games coming up is not encouraging. The blunt truth is that Scheyer has been the catalyst for the team winning ways (and covering for some other weaknesses) by playing like an All-American point guard but has not for the last four games; Singler has never consistently been the offensive force envisioned at the beginning of the year; the Plumlees have had their moments but either get into foul trouble or K’s doghouse and their play is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates–“You never know what you’re gonna get.” Z Man and Thomas work hard but are complementary role players who will not take their team deep into the NCAA Tournament; Dawkins and Kelly have all but disappeared from any meaningful minutes; and, at the present time, only Nolan Smith has consistently played championship caliber basketball. However, if any one can affect a turnaround, it is Coach K—as he did last year.

I’m “Old School” on many levels and really dislike what expansion has done to ACC Basketball. Not to play emotional, intense games like tonight’s against natural, historic rivals like State, Wake, Maryland, Clemson, UVA  twice a season while substituting Miami, Boston College, Virginia Tech, Florida State) is just so shortsighted (not to mention unfair in determining the regular season champion) on so many levels, it defies explanation and comprehension.

Duke – Clemson 

After the lackluster performance against N.C. State (lost to Maryland tonight by 24), psychologically and statistically this was a very challenging and critical game for Duke. Next to Cameron, Littlejohn Coliseum is the most difficult ACC venue for an opponent. Nevertheless, if I were a betting man I would have doubled down on Duke and given points just because I have seen this movie before and know what Coach K demands from his teams after a loss. And this was a motivational Trifecta: the listless loss to State compounded by conventional wisdom that, unlike most Duke teams, the 2.010 version cannot win on the road compounded by the embarrassing loss last year to the Tigers in which K called a timeout with seconds to go just so his players would never forget the humiliating score and the derisive roar of the home crowd.

Clemson’s defense is baseline to baseline hand-to-hand combat in an attempt to physically and emotionally wear opponents down and take break their will. After twelve minutes neither team was giving an inch and the score was 13-13 (23-23 at the half) as the Blue Devils were strong and quick in their half court defense but terrible offensively. Games like this when a team’s shots are not falling are a test of confidence, perseverance, and tenacity. After the State game, Coach K commented that the first three defensive stands to start the second half usually determine how the rest of the game unfolds. Well, tonight after less than two minutes into the last twenty minutes, Duke was suddenly up six points (forcing Coach Purnell to call a time out) as they forced five turnovers and continued on to a patented 14-2 run. Unlike most teams facing the Clemson press, Duke did not play race horse basketball. Instead, they attacked it patiently which, among other things, took the jacked up ESPN Game Day crowd out of their look-at-me-I’m-on-TV hysteria. After a sloppy eleven turnover first half, the Blue Devils only had one turnover in the second half to calmly protect their lead. My Duke Defensive Index was +15 as the Blue Devils harassed the Tigers into shooting only 37.5% from the field with only two threes.

Offensively, Nolan Smith (22) just took the game over with an assist from Singler (12), who was successful flashing down low and the steady but still searching for his suddenly on vacation jump shot Scheyer (11). However, the unsung hero was Lance Thomas, who not only played tough defense against Booker but also scored 13 points to go with 7 rebounds and a steal. Miles Plumlee had a game high 8 boards but Zoubek again struggled to finish shots at the rim and latch onto loose balls. It remains a mystery to me why the Z-Man usually plays more minutes than Miles and Mason Plumlee, who only played eight tonight. A further mystery is that Andre Dawkins did not play at all. Are they injured or in the dog house? If anyone knows the answer to these questions, please let me know.

It was reported that Coach Oliver Purnell kept telling his players that Duke would wilt and tire and fade at the end of the game. Didn’t happen tonight. There is a brutal stretch of tough games coming up. Fortunately, all the conference games are at Cameron except BC, UNC, Miami, and UVA, & Md. So, it will be interesting to see if this team rediscovers their offense and stays fresh into the NCAA Tournament because 60 points is not going to win every game. There are times when it appears that if you just give the ball to Nolan Smith and clear out a side and let him operate a la Michael Jordan, he could get 60 points himself. The cat quick guard has a clever repertoire of moves and shots you rarely see in college basketball.

Duke – Florida State

Florida State has one of the tallest, most intimidating defensive front courts in college basketball and leads the nation in field goal percentage defense, holding its opponents to 35.5%. However, unlike Wake, Georgia Tech, and Clemson, they do not have a true point guard and are bricklayers from the free throw line. If Tony Douglas was still playing, they would be one of the elite teams in the country. Since he isn’t, the Seminoles are a formidable but erratic, one dimensional opponent. The obvious strategy to beat them is to press them full court, which is not the primary strength of this Duke team, so that they have difficulty getting into their half court, low post offense. When the Blue Devils force 22 turnovers and 10 steals, they should win most games. And when they run their offense like they did for all but six minutes in the second half (when they appeared to run out of gas but seemed energized but briefly going to a 1-2-2 zone), they are hitting on all cylinders. My Duke Defensive Index was just +2 as the Devils were out rebounded by 9. But Duke made 12-17 (71%) free throws while FSU made only 6-14 (43%).

The three S-Men had 53 of the 70 points. However, Lance Thomas made contributions that did not show up on the stat sheet and Zoubek was unusually effective against players as big but more athletic. In many ways, this was as impressive an all round performance as the team has had all season.

17-3 and Looking Ahead: Clemson coach Oliver Purnell on his strategy against Duke: “We were monitoring minutes during the game and recognized that Scheyer and Singler had not been out of the game. With our style and all of that, it was something we were trying to do at the end. And quite honestly, they looked bushed. But I give them all the credit in the world. With tremendous mental toughness, those two, along with Smith and their other guys hung in there when they were tired.”  Coach Krzyzewski expressed confidence that superior conditioning is keeping his top players from wearing down. Scheyer and Singler played 40 minutes each Saturday, and Smith played 37. “They’re in great shape. They finished the game, and all three of them, they could have played another 20 minutes.” Well maybe, but the question is: Can they keep doing it game after tough game deep into the season in a league that is very well balanced?

Coach K has forgotten more basketball than I will ever know. However, the facts are that since 2001 Duke’s teams have had disappointing results (for them) in the NCAA Tournament. Conventional wisdom is that Coach K has relied on too short a rotation that left his players drained by a long, tough regular season and ACC Tournament. There’s an old saying that fatigue makes cowards of us all. In basketball, the first signs of fatigue are missed three point shoots, defensive lapses, and being beaten to loose balls. Then the coward–mental fatigue—kicks in.  And all these factors are exacerbated by a long, draining season of tough physical games in which most ACC teams play pressing defenses.   J J Redick’s post season play is a case in point.

In some years, because of the disparity of talent between the starters and the reserves, there has been little choice in the extended playing time of the stars like Redick, Williams, and Singler. That did not seem to be a problem earlier this year with Brian Zoubek, Mason Plumlee, Andre Dawkins, and Brian Kelly coming off the bench, but lately there is a reversion to the mean of a seven man rotation. However, an outsider has no way of knowing who is injured or what goes on in practice, the locker room, or the class room that may affect Coach K’s decisions about playing time.

Here’s the issue and challenge for the three Iron Duke S-Men strategy: Since the first Clemson game on January 3rd, Duke has played or will play thirteen games with only three days rest. Duke had another physical game tonight against Florida State after just returning from at Littlejohn Coliseum late Sunday. Meanwhile, Georgetown blew a double digit lead against Syracuse Monday and will have until Saturday to reflect on that embarrassment loss and recover and be fresh for a home game against the Blue Devils who have to study, go to class, and fly to DC.  Clemson, on two days rest, travelled to bottom feeder Boston College and predictably played sluggishly and lost. Since this is a good but not great Duke team, it has achieved a lot when a lock down defense covers for its sometimes inconsistent offense. They can miss jump shots and still win—but not if the defense is half a step slow (ref. N.C. State game).  So let’s hope Coach is right and Smith, Scheyer, and Singler are in great shape and do not need more than a day or two to recover, because there is no time off from here to the end of the season—whenever or wherever that may be.

Duke – Georgetown 

This afternoon Georgetown put on a clinic of fundamentally sound and efficient basketball to totally dominate Duke on national television. I cannot remember the last time Duke played so poorly in a game of national importance as it may well have cost them the possibility of a number 1, 2, or even 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. (However, there are still ten games and the ACC Tournament left before the seedings are made.) The Blue Devils followed one of their best games of the season against Florida State by playing their worst game of the year. The score was no indication of the how badly they were out played on both ends of the floor (outshot an incredible 72% to 37%).

While disappointing in its nature, the loss itself is not all that surprising. As I noted after the FSU game: “Here’s the issue and challenge for the three Iron Duke S-Men strategy. Since the first Clemson game on January 3rd, Duke has played or will play thirteen games with only three days rest. Duke had another very physical game tonight against Florida State after just returning from at Littlejohn Coliseum late Sunday. Meanwhile, Georgetown blew a double digit lead against Syracuse Monday and will have until Saturday to reflect on that embarrassing loss and recover to be fresh for a home game against the Blue Devils, who have to study, go to class, and fly to DC.  Clemson, on two days rest, travelled to bottom feeder Boston College and predictably played sluggishly and lost.”  But that’s an explanation not an excuse. Quick turn arounds are what tournament basketball is all about. Fortunately, this was not a one and done game.

What is of more concern is that at this stage of the season the team does not appear to be improving. The interior defense is better this year but the Committee of Big Men has yet to prove that they can score consistently as they should have today when they had a size advantage. And they make far too many silly fouls. Today, all of them got into early foul trouble disrupting the rotation and putting the Hoyas on the foul line. It is getting too late in the season for this to be happening. Players have to understand how the game is being called and this refereeing team was calling it like an ACC game from the sixties not a Big East game from the John Thompson Era. Zoubek is a senior and Academic All American and he had two fouls in two minutes. It was that kind of game for everyone. Duke played as though they had pulled all nighters for exam week and Georgetown played as though they just came off spring break.

There is not much margin of error for this team. When the Iron Duke S-Men settle for jump shots and miss and don’t attack the basket and there is not much low post offensive production, the team has to play lock down defense or it is virtually impossible for them to win. For whatever reason, Kyle Singler playing on the wing is not shooting and scoring as scripted. Nolan Smith is enigmatic in that there are times like the first half today when he is missing in action and does not assert himself as he did against Clemson. And I can’t figure out what’s going on with Mason Plumlee. He has gone from being a projected starter to playing eight to ten minutes as game and often looking lost out there. Today, when Lance Thomas fouled out Ryan Kelly, who just is not ready for prime time, not Mason was the substitute. What’s that all about? Miles is still green and somewhat of a bull in a china shop and fouls too much but is strong, athletic, and energetic. Lance is more productive that anyone thought he would be but gives up a lot of size and weight. Andre Dawkins has apparently hit the wall and, when he gets minutes, is playing like a freshman. Only Jon Scheyer is playing better than anticipated but, as good as he has been, he cannot carry this team alone. It will be interesting what changes, if any, Coach K makes for the tough home stretch of the season.

I’m not a fan of celebrities in the broadcast booth because it is a distraction from the event. The ubiquitous President Obama made a an appearance  with announcers Verne Lindquist and Clark Kellogg, who spent about five minutes  chatting with the president about such fascinating subjects as many points Obama’s brother-in-law scored on Kellogg in a Princeton-Ohio State game thirty years ago, while mostly ignoring the action on the floor. In was bad enough to have the game relegated to a small window on the screen and be subjected to tape of Obama scrimmaging with Carolina last year, but to hear Obama refer to the pedestrian Kellogg as the best college basketball analyst makes you realize that he is just another politician–or he hasn’t listened to Jay Bilas.  Fortunately, Obama did not bring his seatmate, Vice President Joe Biden; otherwise, the interruption would have been much longer and much less knowledgeable. 

Duke – Georgia Tech 

Since I just returned from being out of town and am pressed for time, I am including my buddy Alan’s assessment of the G-Tech game– an outstanding team effort featuring Singler’s Larry Bird impression. Needless to say, if Kyle can consistently hit just 40% from three point land for the rest of the season, there will be more and easier wins.

Note: I met Alan playing pickup basketball one afternoon in 1956 in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Love of basketball (augmented by an off-the-chart intelligence and infectious sense of humor) have been the common denominators that has kept our friendship alive and well all these years. After Duke, Alan went to Columbia Law, then to Venice Beach where he “decompressed” as a public defender, played in tennis tournaments, and met Wilt Chamberlain, who invited him to live in his infamous house with a retractable roof.

But I digress, that’s a whole other story. Since then Alan, has been a criminal defense attorney as well as a life long competitive distance runner. Our post game comments are something Alan and I have been exchanging for years.

Alan comments:

The box score is revealing about this game, which was very even – with the exception of Singler going 8-10 from 3 point land.  All else discloses no advantage.   Of course, the score dictates how teams play and affects statistics, but still:

Shooting from the field: Tech  24-49; Duke 25-56

Fouls committed: Tech 27  Duke 25

Steals by: Tech 7  Duke 6

Blocks: Tech 2  Duke 1

Assists by: Tech 12  Duke 15

Turnovers by  Tech 15  Duke 12

Duke’s advantages were rebounding 40-32 with a 17-12 lead in offensive rebounds (can you say Zoubek – 4 offensive rebounds in 13 minutes.  Total of 7), foul shooting (Tech was a miserable 16-28 while Duke was only 67% at 24-36) and DRUM ROLL PLEASE, 3 point shooting.  Tech was 3- 12 (9 points on 12 shots) while Duke was 12 -18 (36 points on 18 shots) Even without Singler, Duke was 4-8 (2 for Scheyer and 1 each for the big guy freshmen, Kelly and Mason.  Nolan missed his only attempt; Davidson missed one and Scheyer and Singler each missed 2.  That, of course was the huge difference in the ball game.  This is especially true because Duke’s rebounding edge is not a measure of the rebounding talents of the two teams.  Georgia Tech was gutted by the sub-par performances of their two foul plagued stars, Favor and Lawal.  Lawal played just 16 minutes (4 fouls) with 6 boards and 9 points (3-8 from the foul line).  Favor played the majority of the second half totally 8 points, 7 boards and a block.  If Tech has those two for the whole game without foul trouble, it is a very different game.

Saturday is a big game (aren’t they all in this crazy ACC season) because Duke needs to demonstrate that the team can shoot well on the road.  All the road losses have had the component of bad Duke shooting.  The “wet dream” is that Singler’s performance is his “coming out party” and he will be the player (shooter) for the rest of the year that he was anticipated to be coming into the season.  Scheyer is returning to form.  He played really well.  He is turning the ball over now quite a bit more than earlier in the season (3 last night), but still is very efficient with the ball (7 assists and a couple of other gorgeous passes).  The big guys are still an enigma – inconsistent play.  Miles was disappointing.  10 minutes; 3 fouls, 1-4 from the field and 0-2 from the line with one board.  Ryan Kelly played a valuable 7 minutes.  He hit a 3, grabbed 4 boards.  He also rotated well on defense, which does not show up in the stat sheet.  His best game; he looked comfortable with the ball against Tech’s press.  Mason looked terrible in the beginning (bull in a china shop), and then made some spectacular plays.  In one short sequence, he secured a fabulous rebound, hit a long open 3 and drove the lane for a stuff.  And let’s not forget he is an excellent passer (though still trying to do too much).  He made one long cross court pass to Scheyer in the far corner, who hit one of his 3s, that was extraordinary.  But he fouled out in 18 minutes with just those 5 points, one rebound, and one assist.  He was a liability for the rest of the time he was on the court.  Lance was – once again – an unsung hero.  He played 33 minutes and garnered 11 boards (5 on offense; and he passes out for full extra possessions) and played solid or better defense.  But he is no scoring threat (1-2 from the field and 4-4 from the line).  However, one feels comfortable when he has the ball.  He does lots of little things.

We will see down the road about the rotation.  Scheyer and Smith each played 39 minutes with Davidson – not Dawkins – replacing each briefly.  The Dawkins story is not public and I don’t know what it is, but I do know he has more potential for Duke than Davidson does.  Hopefully, this will be another K coaching genius motivating move.  On to BC.

Duke – Boston College 

Duke played well for about a game and a half this week. Up by ten today at the half, they started the final twenty minutes lethargically and ineffectively and were inconsistent after that (especially after Thomas fouled out) to barely hold on by three as Smith and Scheyer free throws probably saved the day against a team at the bottom of the league standings. My Defensive Index was +9; however, Duke played, shot, and defended like a tired team in the second half. The three Iron Duke S Men, who are the highest scoring trio in college basketball this year, scored all but twelve of the points—not a script for tournament longevity. But, Coach K put the two games in “season body of work” perspective: “We got better this week. To add something to our offense, win two games, and to win them in 43 hours, I like that about our team.”  Zoubek had the best game of the big men– especially, his last second defensive play of the game as he hustled his big frame from under the basket to force Trapani to dribble and hoist an off-balance line drive three point shot which missed badly. With the Virginia loss to Wake, the ACC Regular Season Championship is on Duke’s racquet—all they have to do is hold serve.

Once again, the game looked like a typical Big East cage fight. I believe that all Duke’s opponents (except Carolina) are convinced that Duke is soft and the way to beat them is to be overly physical with them. It makes for ugly basketball and someone is going to get hurt. The refs are calling a lot of fouls but the calls are inconsistent and a lot of rough stuff is overlooked.

Duke – North Carolina

It’s February, the homestretch of the regular basketball season when the college contenders are separated from the pretenders. Seniors have an extra sense of urgency as they realize this is their last time around and young players either step up or falter under the pressure. The only thing Carolina, which has been in an inexplicable free fall, had going for them was home court advantage and a bench full of McDonald All Americans but no point guard majoring in Chemistry.  In addition, the Heels were away from Chapel Hill for four days as they had to travel straight from losing in Charlottesville to College Park (to beat the snow storm) and then get blown out by Maryland. But this is Duke and Carolina, so anything can happen—and almost did.

As mentioned before, a successful basketball season is an athletic version the early Clint Eastwood film: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly—you have to find a way to win games any which way you can. Well, this game was all three for the Blue Devils. It was good the first four minutes with Duke going up by six but both bad and ugly offensive basketball for the middle thirty minutes before a good last six minutes as Duke won by a deceptive score of 65-54.

The turning point of the game was deep into the second half when the Tar Heels had somehow clawed their way to a rare four point lead and the Smith Center was (for it) in full frenzy. Coach K went small with Andre Dawkins and Mason Plumlee to go with the Three S Men. Mason Plumlee broke a tie with a sensational, athletic rebound and reverse dunk with four minutes to go; senior Zoubek made a terrific handoff pass to Singler for a layup; senior Scheyer was in his Player of the Year mode (24-5-4-2-1) as he iced the game with two back breaking threes, a drive, and a nice fast break assist to Smith; and Duke played lock down defense on UNC (which is a lot easier this year than in years past).  Duke’s offense was mostly awful as they shot 32% from the floor and 61% from the line. The big men rebounded well but got stuffed at the rim (12 UNC blocks). Scheyer and Singler carried the Blue Devils the first half as Smith had no points. Fortunately, Nolan heated up in the second with ten points.

The bad news is that Lance Thomas, a much improved player who has been a vital but underrated component of this team, appeared to have seriously injured his knee.

Bottom line: I still can’t decide whether Duke is a contender or a pretender. They looked more like a pretender (except for their relentless defense against the taller Tar Heels and were +12 on my Defensive Index) on offense for much of the game until they closed out Carolina like a contender. So, I guess my take is still that with the Three Iron Duke S Men (40, 40, 39 minutes tonight) and Coach K, you can never count this team out– as some may have tonight. However, it sure would be easier to be a contender if the Committee of Big Men would chip in with more points.

Duke – Maryland

What a tough scenario for Coach Gary Williams and his Maryland team: A big game for first place in the conference, Coach K’s 63rd birthday and 1,000th game at Duke, 100 former players and staff in the house, and at Cameron. Call a Medic. It was another TKO (remember last year’s 41 point loss) for the Terps, who were never ahead and down double digits after the first few minutes.

The best birthday present was that Lance Thomas is not out for the season able to play. The next best present was Brian Zoubek playing above the rim and having a career game of 16 points and 17 rebounds and only 3 fouls in 22 minutes as the Committee of Big Men scored 29 points and gathered 27 rebounds. Boy, winning is a lot easier when the Big Men produce like this!

The way to neutralize this Maryland offense is to force Vasquez into double teams so that he has to give up the ball and can neither drive nor shoot off the dribble.  If a team can keep him out of the lane where he is very creative and most lethal, Maryland’s offense becomes a lot less formidable. Duke’s defense completely forced Maryland out of its half court offense as Nolan Smith and Singler did a terrific job limiting Greivis to only two points in the first half.

It is not how many points a player scores so much as when they score them. In most games, Jon Scheyer is a good model of this axiom. Today, he helped shoot Duke to their lead then orchestrated the offense until Maryland made a mini-run in the second half before he asserted himself again by making several key baskets and free throws to ice the game with his 22 points. It was nothing as dramatic as what he did at Carolina, but it was typical of Scheyer’s approach to the game. By contrast, it wasn’t until the Terps were down twenty or so in the second half that Vasquez scored his most of his 17 points and by that time the game was essentially over. Vasquez is a mercurial talent, who can be very exciting; Scheyer is less exciting but the more valuable team player.

After the game, Coach Williams was analytical and accurate in his assessment of Coach K’s tenure: “Mike Krzyzewski is Duke Basketball. He’s created a thing that very few schools have and so that when you think of Duke Basketball, you think of Coach K. The way his players play, the effort they give every game; I’ve seen Duke a few times not play well, but I’ve always seen the effort there. That would characterize the way Mike’s teams play, whatever players they have, and they have good players, they’re usually out there playing hard, working hard and playing for each other. I think that to be able to do that for 30 years is an accomplishment, given the fact that it wasn’t that way when he got here. He had to turn that around and he did a great job in doing that and then sustained it, which just might be just as tough.”

This approach is what we saw from Duke today executing at their best and what we saw, in particular, from Brian Zoubek, not the most talented player but one who is relentless nevertheless.

Undefeated in Cameron, Duke has played like contenders at home; but only 7-4 away from home, they have played more like pretenders on the road.  This was a very important game in that it separated Duke from the rest of the field in the loss column and set the stage for them to win the regular season–if they can silence the critics and play like contenders on the road.

Duke – Miami

This game was a Tale of Two Halves. When was the last time Duke only scored 25 points in the first half? We all know that Coach K stresses finishing the first half strong, starting the second half strong, and finishing the game strong. Well, Duke did not finish the first half strong as they let Miami extend their lead to twelve in the last minutes. To add insult to injury, Scheyer shot a three too quickly and Scott went the length of the floor for a two at the buzzer. At half time, Alan emailed me: “State, Georgetown Redux? (Don’t you hate a showoff—and he isn’t even Catholic). I’m so glad basketball games have two halves.”

Raise your hand if you saw the season passing in front of your eyes and all the critics jumping on the narrative of Duke not being able to win on the road and another late season fade. Apparently, Coach K said something like that because Singler’s nine straight points led a surge that had the Blue Devils pulling even after four minutes and going on a 22-5 run to a comfortable lead they never relinquished.  After scoring just 9 points in the first twenty minutes the Iron Duke S Men scored 49 of the 56 second half points. That plus Nolan Smith’s second half defense on Scott put the game away. Despite those impressive numbers, Zoubek might have been the most valuable player. Without his scoring, passing, and steals, Duke might not have scored 15 points in the first half. As Alan points out, the Z-Man is playing far better than anyone expected.

One disconcerting note is that Scheyer has been hindered the last three weeks with a sore back. However, even when he was Oh-for-the half, he had 5 steals at Miami’s end and with four fouls successfully defended a three-on-one break—and he had 15 crucial points in the second half.

The VT and Maryland games are critical because they also play each other.

Duke – Virginia Tech

Playing thirty-four minutes of tough defense when your shots are not falling is the characteristic of a tough, tenacious, resourceful team that hates to lose.  And that is what Duke did against Va. Tech until their shots started falling in the last six minutes. No one was more tenacious than Singler (10 rebs) and Zoubek (16 rebs). We have come to expect that kind of production from Kyle but, until recently, not Brian. After a 17 rebound game against Maryland, and a terrific all round game against Miami, Brian is playing like the real deal. Who would have thunk it? Not me.

Early in the season, I wrote that if Duke had to rely on Zoubek as a starter, they were in trouble. Well, what center in the ACC is playing better? The Z Man has always had good hands and is an exceptionally savvy passer in the post. Unlike most big men, after getting an offensive rebound, he looks to pass not shoot and usually finds one of the S Men for an open three. It may have been that in the last two years his development was handicapped by broken or injured feet, because now he is all over the court making plays, not a statue under the basket.  For three years, it seemed that the refs called Zoubek two fouls on him before he even got off the bench just because, well, just because he was 7’ 1’’ and an easy target. But as he has started playing better, the same refs seem to be giving him more respect. And, of course, unlike the Plumlee brothers, he is playing smarter, staying out of cheap foul trouble, and available for many more minutes.

How does a team shoot 29% and still win? They hit 10 threes, 21 free throws, hold an opponent to 33% from the field, 2 threes, out  rebound the them by  9—and make plays in the down the stretch. It is not so much how many but rather when you make plays.

Teams usually reflect the personality of their coach. Seth Greenburg rarely gets a McDonald’s All American player so he signs talented but flawed players and late bloomers. He coaches with a New York playground attitude and his players play with a chip on their shoulder, a lot of woofing, and an intimidating physicality better suited for the Big East than the ACC. But that is more and more the case with the league since expansion.  As I have pointed out, the referees need to take better control of games early in the contest before they get out of hand.

After road trips to UVA, Maryland, and a home date with Carolina, we will have a better idea of how well the Iron Duke S Men are holding up. Fortunately, the load has gotten a lot lighter since Brian Zoubek has emerged as another essential piece of the puzzle that has changed the character and chemistry of this team. 

Duke – Tulsa

It is becoming more and more apparent that the emergence of Brian Zoubek, who is now playing up to his size, has changed the character and tournament prospects of this Duke team. No longer is the center position manned by a Committee of Big Men. Zoubek is playing like a committee all by himself. His defense, offensive rebounding (consider the math of consistently getting more field goal attempts than an opponent) and passing has allowed the team to shoot in the thirty percentile and still win. Of course, three point shots, which this team prefers, are worth fifty per cent more than the duce, so this seemingly low shooting percentage is somewhat deceiving. But as long as Nolan Smith plays lock down defense on an opposing point guard and the rest of the defense does their job, this is now a less vulnerable team– especially when their shots are not falling.  And when the shots are falling, they can beat anyone.

Another interesting dynamic is that Thomas and Zoubek are mentoring the Plumlees brothers on the nuances of playing Duke Basketball. At the beginning of the season I thought the Plumlees should be starters because the combination of their size and athleticism was an upgrade over the seniors. It has turned out that the seniors are bringing mature, subtle talents to the floor that do not always appear on the stat sheet and that the talented but raw Plumlees are finally showing signs of “getting it” by watching more accomplished teammates playing the majority of minutes of winning basketball, then making the most of their diminished minutes.

Tonight’s game also was yet another example of what we have come to expect from the Coach K winning basketball model: recruit solid citizens who are fundamentally sound players; seniors mentor the young players on the Duke Basketball culture; play tough, relentless defense; never give up on a play (say hello to Kyle Singler and Lance Thomas); get to the foul line and hit the free throws; start the second half strong (a 10-0 run last night); and finish strong.

I always admired Len Elmore as a player for Lefty at Maryland and like him just as much as a commentator. Tonight, his comments demonstrated once again that he knows the game, does his homework, and is not in love with his own voice.

Duke – Virginia 

Tonight was basically a scrimmage because UVA was on a seven game losing streak and Sylven Landesberg, their best player, was unable to play due to an injured thigh. Coach K substituted liberally (for him) as he undoubtedly wanted to have his players as fresh as possible for next week’s two critical, final games. The path to an ACC Regular Season Championship and quite possibly a number one seed in the NCAA Championship is clear: beat Maryland and Carolina. Duke was ranked number five in last week’s polls and number four Purdue first lost Robbie Hummel, their best player, for the season with a torn ACL, then Saturday lost to Michigan State.  A number one seed is a huge advantage in both the ACC and the NCAA Tournaments, so the Blue Devils have the opportunity to determine the degree of difficulty in each venue.

Clearly, Kyle Singler has become more comfortable playing on the wing, has more developed more rhythm and confidence in his jump shot, and is now the complete package we all expected at the beginning of the season; Jon Scheyer has played like an All American in all aspects of the game all year; despite the fact that Nolan Smith often starts games slow offensively, he finishes them fast and his lock down pressure on opposing point guards is the starting point for the Duke defense; Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek are playing at a higher level than I ever imagined; and the Plumlees have been consistently inconsistent but lately seem to be getting the idea of how to play Duke Basketball; Dawkins and Kelly are not quite ready for prime time.

It is not quite one and done time but still maintaining the momentum of playing well and winning is very important to post season success.

Duke – Maryland 

Tonight, Maryland started fast and finished fast and Duke didn’t. Maryland has played very impressive basketball since they lost to Duke by 21 three weeks ago in Cameron– especially the recent miracle win over Georgia Teach and a triple overtime win against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. So, it is not surprising that the Terps were at their best at home on senior night in front of Maryland fans who have never forgotten Duke scoring ten points in the last minute to tie, then win in overtime against the Juan Dixon-Lonnie Baxter-Steve Blake team or the twenty some point comeback in the 2001 NCAA semi-final game. The Terrapins are 8-12 against Duke in the last nine years, but were 7-6 during one stretch. The Blue Devils, however, had won six straight coming into Wednesday’s game. If Duke – North Carolina is the number 1  rivalry in college basketball, Duke- Maryland is 1A  in student and fan intensity.  Gary Williams deserves a lot of credit with what he has accomplished with this team. Virtually every year he is competitive, usually without the benefit of top tier talent. He works hard for every win—and his teams reflect that mind set.

After being thoroughly outplayed for most of the first half, the Blue Devils went to a 1-2-2 zone that handcuffed the Terps and made a 19-7 run to cut a 14 point deficit to 2 at the half. Duke started the final 20 minutes strong—usually a good omen– but let a 5 point lead slip away to a 5 point deficit. Yet the score was still tied with two minutes to go. Then, Scheyer and Smith couldn’t get their shots to fall and Vasquez did with two off balance circus shots to seal the win. Sometimes the ball just does not want to fall for you but does for your opponent.

Missed open threes (live by the three; die by the three), drives that wouldn’t fall,  and two consecutive bad calls—one back court that was highly questionable and the other travelling on Scheyer that clearly wasn’t—at a crucial juncture late in the second half didn’t help. Nevertheless, no excuses. This was an important, winnable game-–one that a championship team should win. However, that is difficult when you are outshot 50%-40% from the floor; 90%-63% from the line; 46%-37% from beyond the arc; have no rebounding edge; and no easy transition  points. So, from the stats it is obvious that Maryland executed better, was more efficient, and deserved the win. It is a credit to the Blue Devils tenacity that a game played in the second most difficult venue in the ACC was not decided until the last minute.

As disappointing as this important game was, Duke still has the opportunity to be the ACC Co-Champion and be the number one seed in the ACC Tournament.

 Duke – North Carolina

Senior night is an emotional event in Cameron so it is often difficult for the seniors not to press but rather to control their emotions, relax, and let the game come to them. The Duke seniors (and juniors) did just that tonight as they saved some of their best basketball for the last game of the regular season. The first three times down the court the Three Iron Duke S-Men all hit threes, the defense shut UNC down, and the Blue Devils never looked back or let up. They led 29-9 after ten minutes and 53-26 at the half. If it was a prize fight, the ref would have called a TKO and stopped it. The final score was 82-50 as the Blue Devils went17-0 at home for the first time in their history to tie Maryland for their 19th regular season ACC Championship– and 12th under Coach K.

Guess what, pundits? These are not the numbers of a basketball program in decline.

On the other hand, it is hard to believe that the opponent is the same proud program and coach that won the NCAA Championship last year. Their top six players graduated, but still, Roy has been one of the very best recruiters in the country for decades, so his cupboard has rarely been bare and they are still loaded with McDonald’s All Americans—even if not the right mix. In all fairness, Carolina has been plagued by mediocre, inconsistent point guard play and the lack of three point scoring all season and, more recently, by a rash of injuries.

These issues plus the fact that the Blue Devils were coming off a difficult, disappointing loss at Maryland and the seniors had never beaten Carolina at Cameron made for a potentially bad night for the Tar Heels—and  was it ever. It was the largest winning margin against Carolina in Cameron in the history of the storied rivalry. And it might have been worse if Duke had not taken the air out of the ball in the last six minutes.

Despite his most disappointing and (self proclaimed) depressing season, Coach Williams demonstrated another reason–respect (at least by the coaches)–why this is the greatest, longest running basketball rivalry in the country as he was most gracious and complementary toward his opponent in his post game comments:  “I do want to congratulate their seniors particularly Jon Scheyer. He is a young man that I’ve really enjoyed watching play– except against us. To go from a quote shooting guard to one of the primary ball handlers and have seven assist and zero turnovers, that’s sensational. I’ve really enjoyed him as a college basketball player and think he stands for so many great things. Lance Thomasdoesn’t shoot it very much, but he does all the dirty work and really helps their team. Brian Zoubek, especially down the stretch, tonight he had 13 rebounds, that’s three of the last four games that he’s had double-figure rebound totals. Their senior night was so emotional. It was a very positive experience for them and a very negative experience for us. A great senior night for them; their crowd was sensational. This is the best Duke team I’ve seen in the seven seasons since I returned to North Carolina. They have no holes.”

Tonight was another confirmation that the emergence of Zoubek during February and March as a solid, efficient presence (and even force) in the paint has filed a void (since Sheldon Williams graduated) that makes Duke a much more formidable team and has fueled the 9-1 run to finish the regular season. It is not only his protection of the basket, his offensive and defensive rebounding (he had 13 tonight) but also his calm passing out of the post and massive picks on the perimeter that make the team much more versatile and a lot less vulnerable.

The games are much easier when (unlike the Maryland game) the balls on the rim roll in not out; you shoot 46% from the floor while holding  an opponent to 33%; shoot 96% from the line; have 7 more threes; 12 more rebounds; 5 fewer turnovers; and 2 more steals.

Some random thoughts: There are times like when Nolan Smith left Drew II looking like a statue as he froze him and drove past him for a transition basket that Nolan looks virtually unstoppable….For the last half of the season Kyle Singler has been playing offensively like we all thought he would at the beginning of the season but he is no more ready for the pros than Gerald Henderson, who rarely gets playing for an “also ran”  Charlotte team…Did Coach K actually hug Miles Plumlee in front of the bench as the clock was still running after he deflected a ball, went on the floor at half court and passed it for a transition basket?..…The ESPN outside half time repartee between Digger Phelps, Bobby Knight, and Jay Bilas was more entertaining than the second half….Want to know why Jon Scheyer’s parents don’t miss any of his games? They bought a condo and moved part time to Durham from Chicago to watch their youngest child play– saving about 200K on tuition, room, and board sure must have helped ease the pain of the purchase….Andre Dawkins appears to be coming out of his playing funk, which might have been caused by Seth Curry, Stephan Curry’s brother, who is sitting out a year but on the practice squad and basically plays the same position….The best Cameron Crazie sign: “Eight miles isn’t far unless you’re crying.”…. With UNC having virtually no shot to win, it will be interesting to see what the effect is on attendance at the ACC Tournament in Greensboro.  To put the relative numbers in perspective, there are more UNC graduates living in North Carolina than there are Duke graduates in the world.

                       

                                 ACC TOURNAMENT 

Duke – Virginia

Just when you think Duke’s season is gathering momentum, they start the game against Virginia very casually, without much sense of urgency, and shooting like Carolina. But it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Tied at the half, Kyle Singler personally took over offensively to gain a working margin, and then Scheyer finally got untracked and scored seven straight points to put the game away. It was another prime example how important good defense is to a successful team, because without it, Duke could well have lost today.

Virginia’s performance was confirmation of my initial impression that Coach Tony Bennett is the third best coach in the ACC. Two weeks ago, playing for the first time without Sylven Landesberg, their best player (who has been suspended for neglecting to attend classes, which, unlike some schools, is taken seriously at UVA) the Hoos were blown out. Today, the Cavaliers were a different team as final score was not indicative of how tight the game was for

thirty- five of the forty minutes.

Some observations: Vasquez is a player I enjoy watching. It is like giving your teenage son the keys to your car. You don’t know whether he will wash it or wreck it. Scheyer is not nearly as exciting but you know he will wash not wreck your car. Today demonstrated the difference in style and substance between Jon and Greivis, both of whom had poor shooting stats. Down the stretch Scheyer scored seven straight points on good percentage shots while Vasquez was, well, Vasquez.

Mike Wise, a former college basketball player and now writer for the Washington Post, profiles Greivis this way:

“Greivis Vasquez, who never met a bad shot he didn’t like — or, for that matter, couldn’t make — finally lost a game of H-O-R-S-E to himself.

His step-back, unorthodox, shot put of a runner rimmed out. That “No, no, no, yes!” fallaway from the baseline wouldn’t fall. The three-point bomb that made the bench cringe until it swished through from 24 feet on the right wing? It went 23. And it did make the bench cringe.

Right away you think Kobe [Bryant] or something like that,” he said. “You see Evan Turner hit a game-winning shot for Ohio State. Or [Da’Sean] Butler [from West Virginia] making one, and you think, ‘That’s going to be me.’ And then you shoot and — Doh.”

Nothing was more telling from Greivis’s game than his errant, off-balance throw from behind the arc in the final minute. Trailing by only two, all Maryland needed was a field goal — or a drive toward the rack, where he could have drawn a foul and gotten to the free throw line.

In that instant, the allure of “Sports Center,” which he led off last week with his one-handed, no-angle runner that dumped Duke, became too much of a temptation.

It is moments such as these when young bucks need to heed some old-school wisdom: “A hero ain’t nothin’ but a sandwich.”

It’s never over until it’s over: How about North Carolina State!

The table is set with low seeds for the Blue Devils to run the table and win another ACC Championship. No excuses.

Duke – Miami 

So far Duke’s play has been inconsistent but effective enough to win their games. For the second straight day, Kyle Singler (27 pts-8 rebs-6 assts-1 blk) played Batman and came to the rescue of his struggling,  erratic shooting teammates who blew a double digit lead to fall behind 35-32 at the half on a Miami NBA three and a premature  leaving-the-floor-like-they-won-the-game celebration for which losing teams are well known. If Singler was Batman, hitting two quick threes to start the second half, Scheyer (16 pts-6 rebs-4 assts-3 steals-1 blk) was Robin as he had the assists and threw in eight points  of his own they —and good defense—personally shot Duke to a 15-0 run.

It was classic Duke Basketball: start the second half fast, get the other team in foul trouble, play good defense, and hit free throws. With Miami making a late charge and the game on the line, Zoubek, Scheyer, and Singler made 11 of 12 free throws. That’s how winning teams close out games.

In a combined 28 minutes, the Mason & Miles Plumlee (11 pts-7 rebs-2blks-1 steal) made several impressive plays as they appear to be getting more comfortable in their roles—and they seem to play better together….Andre Dawkins is playing better defense but his jump shot is still on vacation… Yesterday, when Scheyer was not shooting well, Coach K told him that if he wasn’t interested in playing, he should go sit in the stands with his parents and watch….After the game, Coach K was more generous. He said that Scheyer is like a batter who goes 0 for 4, then drives in the winning run…..During the 17-2 Miami run in the first half, Coach K got his first technical foul in years. It didn’t slow Miami down but in the second half the calls seemed more even as Miami was the team in foul trouble….The good news is that Kyle Singler is playing his best basketball. The bad news is that he probably is improving NBA draft status—but, hey, so did Henderson and all he has this year is a good courtside seat at Charlotte Bobcat games—and a large bank account. 

Duke – Georgia Tech

Duke split the regular season games with Georgia Tech but the most recent was basically a blowout win at Cameron. While the Yellow Jackets are talented and big, they lack an accomplished play making guard, turn the ball over far too much, and are not proficient at the free throw line. Those deficiencies plus this was their fourth game in a row would seem to be a huge advantage for the Blue Devils. Anyway, that’s the way the game began as Duke started with a lot of energy, forcing Tech into five turnovers and no shots in the first five possessions while jumping to a 15-5 lead as Nolan Smith showed the full range of his offensive game. Unfortunately, Nolan was called for two early fouls and replaced by Andre Dawkins, who, fortunately, suddenly found his confidence as he hit a three, a pull up jumper, and a dunk down the lane.

Duke was up seven at the half but started the final twenty minutes with sloppy play—but so did Tech. However, the Blue Devils got into the bonus situation early and, while not making many field goals, hit most of their free throws. With five minutes to go, the Devils were up by nine. Then, against all the odds and to their credit, Tech cut into the lead until they were down only one with a minute to go.

I had noticed at the beginning of the game Nolan Smith was bringing the ball up court a lot and thought Coach K was giving Scheyer some on court breathers as he appeared to be wearing down and had not been shooting consistently well—even at the foul line. But Jon still wasn’t shooting well, even missing two free throws. So, with the game on the line, I thought Smith, who held the ball held the ball at the top of the key as the shot clock ran down, or Singler would take it to the rim looking for a basket and/or a foul. Well, with the defense packed in the lane, Scheyer suddenly came off a solid screen by Zoubek, Nolan hit him with in rhythm with a perfect pass, and Jon drained a three with just twenty seconds left on the clock—an appropriate exclamation point for a stellar four year career. Singler hit two free throws to seal the deal.

As Coach says, Jon is like a baseball player who goes 0-4 then drives in the winning run. Coach Hewitt saw the play this way.  “At the end, Jon Scheyer made an unbelievable shot. If he was to take the shot, we wanted to force him to shoot from the right side so he had receive the pass and have to turn to face the basket to shoot a more difficult shot rather than shooting from the left side  where he would flow more naturally into the shot. If he misses, we’re getting the rebound because it’s coming out long and we’re going to score and probably win the basketball game.”

Nolan Smith deserves a lot of credit. He is more comfortable as a slashing, scoring guard than as a point guard and everyone wants to be the hero and hit the winning shot. But selflessness and trusting your team mates is a characteristic of winning basketball—and no Duke player exemplifies that attitude more than Jon Scheyer. Another characteristic of Duke players is that they play hard and no one plays with more abandon and less concern for his personal well being than Kyle Singler. Kyle chased a loose ball to the sidelines, dove for it, and with one hand tossed it between his legs onto the court as he hurtled over the press row table just missing Dickie V but taking out ESPN announcer Dan Shulman with a cross body block. Monitors and drinks tumbled but, fortunately, no one was hurt. Only Shulman’s headset, chair, and dignity didn’t survive the crash.

This was Duke’s 9th ACC Tournament title in the last12 years and ACC league record 18th overall. That’s not good enough for The New York Times, which has never apologized for their inaccurate, slanderous coverage of the Duke Lacrosse case. As my buddy Alan emailed me this morning:

“The Times is full of derision.  Headline on the sports page sidebar: “Duke’s Seed Says Contender, But the Record Begs to Differ”.  “…don’t be surprised if the Blue Devils continue their six year streak of losing to lower seeds….This team has all the makings of an upset victim.  Duke fattened its record on a down ACC and its biggest victory was arguably against No. 8 seed Gonzaga…Furthermore, they do not have much beyond their big 3…It is hard to believe that the Blue Devils have not made it [to the Final Four] since 2004.  They last won a national championship in 2001.  Expect both droughts to remain intact.”

Well, all I can say is that no matter what happens in the NCAA Tournament, Duke Basketball had a better decade than the New York Times. Go to the video tape or just look it up.   

 

                             NCAA TOURNAMENT 

Duke – California

I didn’t write anything about the first round game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff because it was blacked out in my area. Instead, it was the Georgia Tech game. I called DirecTV to buy their NCAA Tournament package so I could watch all of the Duke games uninterrupted, but it was not available this year. Belatedly, I worked my way through the confusing ncaa.com website and figured out how to access future games on my computer, so I could avoid those annoying interruptions of “look in’s” of other games.

Duke matched up well against Cal, because the Bears do not have much size on the front line so, obviously, getting the ball in the paint and attacking the rim was the game plan. One theory of breaking the will of an opponent is to attack their strength which in this case is Cal’s quick back court and shut down their leading scorer Jerome Randle, the Pac-10 player of the year. All this played right into Smith’s wheel house and he had his “A” game dialed up. No tired legs here nor with the big men as Zoubek (14 pts & 13 rebs), Thomas, and the Plumlees, both of whom have serious hops, dominated the lane at both ends. The bottom line is that Duke’s defense was suffocating and the offense diverse and efficient.

Duke was up 37-24 at the half and more or less cruised even though Scheyer and Singler were only 2-14 from beyond the arc. Nevertheless, Singler, his usual hustling self, was 5-6 inside the arc and Scheyer keyed a four point play with a steal and feed to Smith. On one hand, it was good to see the big men be able to take advantage of mismatches but to continue to win at higher altitudes, more threes have to fall. However, the major difference between this team and those of the last several years is that it is much better defensively because of the Committee of Big Men. Now they can still win even when the threes are not padding the score board.

It was interesting to see Jamal Boykin, who transferred from Duke during his sophomore year. His persona (but not necessarily all of his game) reminds me somewhat Shane Battier. His game has matured and if he had stayed at Duke he would have had to fight Lance Thomas for minutes. While Boykin’s numbers (13 pts & 11 rebs) were impressive, I don’t think he would have been as valuable to this team as Lance Thomas, whose value does not show up on the stat sheet.

For the record: Duke advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 for the 25th time in the 34 appearances. The Blue Devils are making their 15th straight NCAA Tournament under Coach Mike Krzyzewskiand 26th in his 30 overall seasons. Krzyzewski extended his NCAA record for tournament wins to 73. He is now 73-22 (.768) all-time in the NCAA Tournament, the second highest winning percentage among coaches all-time. The Blue Devils improved to 31-5 on the season.

What exciting finishes! Bracket busters Northern Iowa, Cornell, who would have thunk it? What a tournament!

Duke – Purdue 

Purdue gave Duke a dose of its own medicine with “in your face and in your jock defense” and “I will out hustle you and play harder than you on every possession” attitude. It was a give no quarter, grind it out, bang it out first half in which two tough, defensive teams made each other look inept offensively. Until the last few minutes of the first half, I wondered if the Blue Devils would ever make one of the patented runs we have come to expect over the years. While Singler (24 pts) almost single handedly carried the offense with 11 points, the score was only 24-23 at the break as Purdue forced Duke into an uncharacteristic 11 turnovers (their average for an entire game).

Fortunately, the game was a tale of two halves. Scheyer (18 pts) finally hit a three (from the same spot that he did against Georgia Tech) in what has seemed like forever and seeing the ball go to the bottom of the net apparently exorcised his shooting demons as he went for 16 second half points and managed the pace of the offense flawlessly. Then, Nolan Smith (15 pts) heated up with a critical 7 straight points to give the Blue Devils a working margin that they never relinquished.

Meanwhile, Purdue, after hitting a few threes, got seduced (reminiscent of Duke the last few years) into jacking up and missing treys as Duke cleaned up rebounds on both ends and hit 20 of 24 free throws to protect and even increase their lead. The net result was 70-57 victory which was no indication of how close the game really was. Without injured star Robbie Hummel, the Boilermakers were just outmanned and this year Duke has the right combination of players who have the talent, the maturity, and mental toughness to overcome a disappointing first eighteen minutes in a pressure filled atmosphere.

Some stats:  Duke out rebounded Purdue by an amazing 44-22 margin with the center position of Brian Zoubek& Miles Plumlee getting 21;  scored 46 points (with only 3 turnovers) on 58% shooting in the second half after shooting just 24% in the first half.

A note of concern: Kyle Singler took a nasty fall on his previously injured right wrist on a drive late in the game and appeared he might have reinjured it. It is hard to imagine that Duke can go further if Kyle is not 100% as he is playing the best basketball of his career.

Duke – Baylor

There are some wins that are inexplicable. Duke has had more than their share just in the NCAA Tournament—Kentucky, UNLV, Maryland, UConn. This one didn’t come down to one shot. Rather, it was sort of like the UNLV game–a nip and tuck affair against a talented, physically imposing opponent that turned to a series plays and shots in the last minutes. If you had offered to bet that Singler would go oh-for-the game from the floor and Duke would still beat Baylor, you would have won a lot of money. As Coach K has said many times: “This is a good but not a great team.” However, what this team has is great chemistry, toughness, and tenacity combined with a savvy understanding of their individual roles that allows them to prevail in games like this.

This win was also a product of a team being more than the sum of its parts as eight players all made major contributions in many different areas that do not always appear on the stat sheet.  Well, what about Singler? First, it appeared the Kyle had his right wrist taped and braced, so as I feared, he apparently did injure it against Purdue. Actually, other than shooting from the floor, Singler, as usual, played very well. He hit 5 of 6 free throws, cooled Darius Dunn down in the second half, and made a crucial steal at the end of the game.

Each time Lance Thomas attempted to take an offensive rebound back up and was stuffed, I pleaded with him to take a page from Zoubek’s book and kick the ball to Scheyer or Smith for a three. He must have heard me (well, the coaches might have had some input) because his rebound of a free throw and pass to Smith for a three was one of the biggest plays late in the game as it gave Duke a three point lead with only minutes to go.  Shortly thereafter, Lance made an uncharacteristically stylish one hand, hanging dunk off a miss (plus a free throw) to put the Blue Devils up eight. Another important shot was Dawkins second three just before the half that cut Baylor’s lead from six to three.

While the hustle of the Committee of Big Men, led by a fierce Brian Zoubek (he even improbably stole an inbound pass), out rebounded the taller Bears by six on the offensive end and allowed Scheyer (5) and Smith (4) second shot opportunities, the two guards were the ones who made the pressure shots. At various times during the season, first Scheyer then Singler appeared to be the catalyst that made all the other players better.

Nolan Smith has always played Robin to one Batman or another: first to Ty Lawson in prep school, then to Henderson, Scheyer, and Singler at Duke. What we saw during the season were flashes of a very athletic, creative, talented player who appeared deferential—sort of a junior member of the Duke Basketball Firm of Scheyer, Singler, and Smith. Finally, out of necessity, he took the cape and played Batman for an entire game, displaying an assortment of quicksilver moves and gap attacking, creative shots that were the badly needed and, in fact, absolutely necessary—a memorable MVP performance.

Duke – West Virginia

Duke played their most impressive forty minutes of the season as they went wire to wire to win going away against West Virginia, a team which beat them two years ago in the NCAA Tournament. The players didn’t comment much about it but clearly this 78-57 win was part payback for the memory of the Mountaineer’s attitude in and after that loss: guard  Joe Mazzulla  mocking WoJo’s floor slapping in the waning minutes after the game was decided and (since departed) Joe Alexander’s pre and post game comments disparaging  the player’s basketball abilities.

The key to the game was Kyle Singler, who went oh-for-the-game from the floor against Baylor to a Dick Enberg “Oh My!” game against the Mountaineers. Not only did he hold Da’Sean Butler to just two field goals and ten points in the 32 minutes before he unfortunately injured his knee charging into Zoubek, but he also jump started the offense with 14 first half points to end up with 21 pts, 9 rebs, and 5 assts. [Charley Rose interviewed Coach K this week and asked him what he said to Kyle Singler after he went 0-10 from the floor in the Baylor game. Coach said that he sat down with Kyle one on one  and watched a tape of the game, stopping it on every Singler shot and asking him what he was thinking and was the expression on his face one that he recognized? The point he drove home to Kyle was that he was thinking, not playing in the moment and letting the game come to him; therefore, Kyle couldn’t get into any shooting rhythm and while it didn’t affect his defense, the team needed his usual offensive production to win the next two games.]

The half court offense was precise with the three Iron Duke S-Men hitting 13 of 25 threes and outscoring West Virginia 63-59 just by them selves. Clearly, as the tournament has progressed, the Blue Devils keep playing better and better and when all three perimeter players are hitting, they are very difficult to beat. However, the catalyst for the improvement has been Brian Zoubek’s (10 rebs) emergence as a determined, tough, even ornery, presence in the paint. So, defense is still the Blue Devils calling card. They were the more physical team, outhustling the Mountaineers to loose balls and rebounds. Duke outscored West Virginia, 18-0, on second-chance points.

As usual, the numbers tell the story. Duke shot 53% from the field; 52% from beyond the arc; 78% from the line; had 20 assists and only 5 turnovers.

The media narrative is that the final game is a “Hoosiers” scenario. It didn’t take long into his postgame press conference for Coach K to begin debunking the David vs. Goliath storyline.  “They’re one of the best teams in the country,” he said of the 33-4 Bulldogs. “I think Cinderella would be if somebody had eight, nine losses and pulled some upsets, stuff like that. They’ve beaten Syracuse and Kansas State and Michigan State.”

Duke is still taking more than its fair share of shots from the press. Duke graduates in the media are even chiming in. John Feinstein, who apparently is still carrying a grudge against Duke for not promoting his classmate and friend as athletic director, opined that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is the best coach in college basketball (did he look like the best coach in the last minutes of tonight’s game as Draymond Green had to restrain him from running onto the floor or in his tearful post game comments that implied that if not for the injuries Michigan State would be in the final game?) and that Coach K was becoming more and more like Dean Smith in more ways than one ( his imperial attitude); and Seth Davis, Lannie’s son, agreeing with UNC alum Hubert Davis on CBS that West Virginia would beat Duke because they were tougher defensively.

“This is a really good team that can do something great on Monday night,” Krzyzewski said. Let’s hope there is one more game left in the tank.

 Duke – Butler 

This has been another incredibly exciting college basketball season and NCAA Tournament. Fittingly, it culminated in a heart pounding championship game between two well coached, fundamentally sound, tough teams that was not decided until Butler’s last desperation half court shot nearly went in.

In the first half when Duke missed four free throws, was beaten on the boards, and the backup center who averages 3 points a game goes for 10 points, I thought that the Basketball Gods might be Hoosiers. Duke made defensive adjustments at halftime that eliminated Butler’s offensive rebounding but they still could not get much separation. Singler was doing a terrific defensive job on Gordon Hayward (2-11 from the field) but other Bulldogs were scoring.  The Blue Devils ground out five point lead with three minutes to go. However, the Three S-Men failed to make another offensive play to seal the deal: Singler travelled, Smith was short on a point blank floater at the rim, and Singler missed an open ten footer. Zoubek appeared to have the rebound but it was wrestled away and went out of bounds off his foot. Butler was down just one point with the ball and thirty-five seconds to go. This Duke team has been resilient throughout the season and the next thirty-one seconds proved no exception and why they are no fluke.

Duke pressed, Butler probed and feinted but could not get an opening. Zoubek deflected a pass out bounds in the corner. Inbounding with 14 seconds to go, Zoubek, pressed the passer (who could not move), forced Butler to take its last timeout. That forced Butler to quickly toss the ball long to Hayward so there would be no chance of a five second call and loss of possession.

The ball ended up with Haywood near half court. He tried to drive left but was cut off by Singler and Scheyer, so went right across the foul line toward the baseline where Zoubek double teamed him, forcing a fall away ten foot jumper (I had visions of Sean Singletary’s shot that beat Duke at UVA a few years ago) that looked good but was just an inch too long. The ball bounced back toward Hayward but Zoubek recovered to get the rebound and was fouled with 3.6 seconds left. Brian hit the first free throw and missed the second on purpose because Butler was out of time outs and had to dribble at least half the floor in less than three seconds to get a shot. Haywood got the rebound, and as he started up the floor Singler was picked off  by a wicked illegal arms at shoulder height blind side clip by Howard (which was not called) and got off a heart stopping shot just beyond half court which was on line but too far. It hit the back board hard, then the bounced off the front of the rim. What a finish!

In sports, you never know. Just like this game, who wins and who loses often turn on fractions of inch or so which is often affected by pressure and/or degree of difficulty. The fact is that Coach K and Dean Smith teams have won a disproportionate number of these type games. I don’t think it needs any explanation other than coaching counts.

Who envisioned a season like this–especially after the Georgetown loss– or that Brian Zoubek would be the catalyst who transformed a very good team into a National Championship Team or that he would make the winning plays with the championship on the line?

Even though all the players have Duke on their uniforms, each team has its own character and personality. While this team may not have had any great players, they have three very, very good clutch playmakers, more supporting cast talent than normal, and, most importantly, the chemistry that allowed them to accomplish something great that eluded other Blue Devil teams considered more talented. They remind me of the 1957 North Carolina team which went 32-0 and beat Kansas with Wilt Chamberlain in the NCAA Final, in that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. One reason for their achievements is that the three seniors and two juniors did not go to the NBA so they played and grew together in the system—as opposed to Kentucky who rented five first round NBA choices and played like a pick up team against West Virginia.

When comparing this team with other Duke teams, consider where they started, where they finished, and their body of work:  thirty-five wins, an ACC Regular Season Championship, an ACC Tournament Championship, and an NCAA Championship. All these accomplishments are in addition to how well the players represented their school.

Having said all that, one can only marvel at Coach K’s accomplishments over the last thirty years, not to mention just this year—an Olympic Gold Medal and an NCAA Championship.

In conclusion, I think this is an appropriate time to comment on an issue which occasionally surfaces, most recently raised by some of the Duke faculty during the Lacrosse hoax fiasco. Namely, the relationship of athletics in general and the basketball team in particular to the university.

The mission of pursuing excellence in both academics and athletics has been the goal of the university virtually since its inception–certainly since Eddie Cameron was athletic director. It has been a significant reason why Duke University has been and is such an exceptional institution. The truth of the matter is that while Coach K and his basketball program is the latest and most successful in a long, proud history of Duke Athletics, it is also a major reason Duke is viewed as an elite university. It is not just that his and other teams have won, it was the way they have won and the kind of players with whom they have won– and graduated.  Not to accept this legacy and not to celebrate and nurture it would be a terrible mistake.

A case can be made that Duke has come further, faster than any Top Ten University. Athletic Director Eddie Cameron was a major catalyst. He had the foresight to see that excellence in athletics was quickest way to attract national attention to a young, ambitious university. In 1930, he hired football coach Wallace Wade away from Alabama following his third national championship with the Crimson Tide. By the mid 1930’s Duke had a powerful football team that attracted national attention and played in the 1938 and 1942 Rose Bowls. From $400,000 of the proceeds of the 1942 Rose Bowl (played at Duke because of concerns about Japanese attacks on the West Coast), Mr. Cameron built Duke Indoor Stadium (fittingly renamed Cameron Indoor Stadium), which was, at the time, the second largest basketball arena (next to the Palestra in Philadelphia) in the East. Fortunately, the legendary Dick Groat matriculated shortly thereafter and a great basketball tradition was established.

Legend has it that James Buchannan Duke established the Duke Endowment with $40,000,000 (over $500,000,000 in today’s dollars) after Princeton University turned down his offer of the very generous bequest with the caveat to change the name of the school to Duke University. The gift to Trinity had two caveats: change the name to Duke University (after his father Washington Duke) and build it to look like Princeton.

Whatever the truth, building a campus as beautiful as Duke, establishing rigorous entrance and educational standards, then building  nationally ranked football and basketball teams as well as baseball, golf, tennis, and lacrosse were the lynchpins of the meteoric rise of Duke University as an elite institution (Yale on steroids is how one of President Brodhead’s former students characterized the school). It could not have happened without all of these elements –and it would be difficult to maintain that status without preserving a dual excellence in both academics and athletics.

Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts with you this season.

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