Duke Basketball Playbook: 2010-11

This should be an especially exciting season for Duke Basketball fans.  I believe this team is as talented, as athletic, and as deep as any Coach K or Coach Bubas has had. They will probably start the season ranked number 1 or 1A (along with Michigan State).

As most of you know, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith are returning to provide maturity, experience, and the all important component of senior leadership. The other intriguing component is freshman Kyrie Irving, a point guard in the mold of Cris Paul and John Wall. The other projected starters are the Plumlee brothers, Miles and Mason. Coming off the bench will be Seth Curry, Stephan’s brother who transferred from Liberty where he led all Division I freshman in scoring; Andre Dawkins, who displayed flashes of exceptional ability last year; Ryan Kelly, who has added 35 pounds over the summer; Josh Hairston, a power forward who played on the 18 and under National Championship Team with Kyrie this summer; and Tyler Thornton, a defensive oriented point guard.

What to look for: With the quicksilver Kyrie running the point and with the athleticism and fire power of the other players, this team should run and gun and press most opponents into the ground. How many big men have the speed and endurance to run baseline to baseline with Plumlees and Kyle Singler for forty minutes?

The most interesting question is how Coach K manages his substitution pattern/mix and the minutes of Curry, Dawkins, Kelly, and Hairston. The best case scenario is that the starters will not have to play thirty-seven or forty minutes every game and, therefore, will be fresher for tournament time.

Traditionally, Coach K takes the first ten or so games to give the new players an opportunity for extended minutes, then shortens his rotation for the start of the ACC season. However, this year there are fewer cupcakes games. There are two exhibition games, then only three real games before Duke plays Marquette, Kansas State or Gonzaga, Oregon, Michigan State, and Butler (all except Michigan State are road games)—and that is just before December 5th.    After that, things get less challenging until January.

It is apparent that the strength and depth of this team is the back court and that the front court is talented but relatively unproven. The question marks will be whether or not the Plumlees (as athletically gifted as they are) have put in the off season work to take their games to the next level and, if so, have they matured to the point that they can stay out of foul trouble; has Brian Kelly developed a toughness and mindset to go with his additional bulk; and can Josh Hairston be counted upon to be a dependable, productive freshman?

Of course, the fall back front court option is that Singler (who has also added upper body strength) can move down low to the one or two spot as he was forced to do his first two years and play three guards. However, as he proved in the NCAA Tournament, Kyle has the size and skill to be a number three wing player from hell– and that is where he will have to play in the pros. In college, a big man cannot cover him on the wing where the oxygen is thin and the real estate is large and he can take a smaller guard down low and score over him. Whatever develops, we can count on Coach K to make the whole more than the sum of the parts—and there are a bench full of parts with which to work.

As Duke proved last year, staying healthy, having team chemistry, and having good luck trumps talent. A case in point: Kentucky had six players drafted in the NBA first round and they didn’t make the Final Four while Duke had none of their three seniors even drafted– and that if either of Haywood’s last two shots had been a quarter of an inch shorter, Butler would have won the title.

In any event, I will let Coach K sort it all out as he has won four more NCAA Tournaments and one more Gold Medal than I have. I’m just going to relax and enjoy watching the season unfold on my 60” HD television. That strategy worked pretty well last season.

Here are some additional comments by my hoops buddy Alan:

I predict that K will end up using Singler at power forward and Dawkins in the starting 3 guard lineup with Seth Curry as 6th man (ala Scheyer in his sophomore year).  The point of concern is no proven big guy.  Lots of potential, but look at the difference between the past accomplishments of the perimeter (putting Singler there for a moment) by contrast.  I suspect K will like the firepower of a 3 guard offense with Singler up front.  But like you, I am four NCAA championships and a gold medal behind the maestro.  And, of course, the key is staying healthy (ask Purdue).

It is ironic to note how much higher expectations are at the start of this season than they were at the start of last season (which worked out in a satisfactory way).  This should be an enjoyable ride.  We should not get ourselves into the state that if Duke doesn’t repeat it was not a good season.  We should enjoy the efforts of a bunch of young men that seem to be standouts in many arenas in life and are a proud contrast to many of the top tier teams in college hoops.

Pretty cool tonight that the kids who played on the 19 and under team (Irving and Hairston) and those who played on the select team to help get the FIBA gold medal team ready (Singler and Smith) are being honored along w K.  It’s nice to link Duke and USA BBall.

 DUKE – PRINCETON

The methodical, fundamentally sound Princeton offense was designed by the basketball purist Coach Pete Carril to frustrate and beat more talented but less disciplined teams. They play a patient, time consuming good-shot-only offense and a match up zone with the goal of keeping an opponent’s score in the 70 point range. However, it has only worked against the school that copied their architecture but not their playing style when they had a player named Bill Bradley, who broke his commitment to Vic Bubas to go to Princeton. This defection probably cost Coach Bubas a well deserved NCAA Championship—although it was a good career move for the former senator.

On the other hand, Coach K molds each team to fit the talent with one exception—each features a strong man-to-man defense geared to producing turnovers and transition baskets. Last year’s Championship team was a methodical half court offense and defense with limited minutes for a few bench players. This year’s team is a high octane offense and defense with potentially a much deeper and versatile bench rotation that is geared to wearing down opponents mentally and physically. It worked pretty well last night against a team coming off an upset win over Rutgers and the favorite to win the Ivy League.

Princeton more or less hung with the Devils for most of the first half when a patented Duke run increased a six point lead to fourteen in the last ninety seconds. The second half was target practice as the Blue Devils wore down the over matched Tigers and cruised to a 97-60 win with everyone getting into the act.

Kyle and Nolan picked up where they left off last year and are again the back bone of the team. But the lynch pin of the new look is freshman point guard Kyrie Irving, who adds a whole other dynamic dimension at both ends of the court demonstrating why he is so highly rated with 9 assists, 1 turnover, and 17 points. On the first two Princeton possessions he had a steal, then a block/steal that led to two fast break scores. Andre Dawkins (13 pts) is a much more mature player this year and with his athleticism can play small forward as well as guard. Seth Curry (14 pts) is not as versatile and athletic as Stephen but like his brother and father is a terrific spot up shooter.

The question mark of this team is the consistent contribution of the big men. Mason is very athletic and a very good passer in the high post but still does not appear to have a confident shooters touch from beyond a few feet and Miles is athletic and powerful but still is not a polished post player. Both were susceptible to foul trouble last year and that was again the case last night. Their defensive lapses also put Singler, who covered for them, in foul trouble. This cannot happen against top teams. Eventually, I hope the Plumlees will follow the Brian Zoubek model of rebounding and kicking to an open perimeter player for a three—the math is better. Ryan Kelly has added weight and has a fine shooting range but still is unproven as a low post presence. Thornton and Hairston, the other freshman, appear athletic and eager defenders. Each had steals that they converted to dunks.

Some interesting stats: Duke was 14/26 from the 3pt. arc; forced 27 turnovers (vs. giving up 14); and shot 92% from the free throw line. Numbers like these almost guarantee a win. If you watched Training Days: Duke on ESPNU, you saw how execution and repetition at full speed teaches the type of optimum performance for forty minutes we have come to expect from Coach K’s teams. As he emphasizes, most games are usually determined by one or two plays but you never know when they will occur so you have to play every minute like it is the crucial one. Kyle Singler is the personification of this work ethic.

We will know a lot more in a week when Duke plays Marquette, the winner of Kansas State/Gonzaga, then Michigan State. Kansas State and Michigan State are pre-season picks for Final Four teams.

DUKE – MIAMI (OHIO) 

In the initial games at the beginning of each season, which essentially are exhibition games played on the home field, Alan Silber, my long time hoops buddy, and I are most interested in evaluating the new talent, trying to anticipate whom Coach K thinks is ready for prime time and what his substitution pattern will be in once the real season starts. Last night he started Ryan Kelly for Miles Plumlees and because Kyrie Irving got two quick fouls, he had an opportunity to see how Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry could perform with the other starters. Here is how Coach K explained his approach:

“We’ll try some different things to see where our chemistry might be with different units. It’s not like a demotion or a promotion. We look at how do Ryan and Mason play together, bring Miles in. Friday we might do something else to see how that would work. Whereas the perimeter is going to be those three guys. And I don’t want to look at yet where you would start Kyle [Singler] at the four and have Andre [Dawkins] or Seth [Curry] start. We have a bunch of possibilities there, and we just wanted to take a look at that one today and then we’ll see about Friday night. But Ryan did a really good job. He played about 16 minutes which is probably what he played against Princeton. But it did mean that Mason was closer to the bucket because Ryan is more of the shooter, and that’s one of the things we wanted to look at.” The subtext: If Miles only gets four rebounds against a team as small as Princeton we need to find another starting center. Let’s see if Mason is more productive as a center than a forward, (He got 14 rebounds, but, in all fairness, Miami dropped four men off the offensive board to prevent Duke fast breaks). The blunt truth is that both Mason and Miles are shooting challenged and we need more offensive production from our two big men. In addition, we can’t afford to have two players on the floor at the end of the game who shoot 50% or less from the foul line and Ryan Kelly is clearly superior shooter. Let’s see if he can also contribute on defense. The 79-54 win proved that when Kyrie was off the floor with two quick fouls Nolan Smith is much more confident running the point than he was the last few years; that no matter who is on the floor this is a terrific defensive team: that Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins can light it up; that even when Singler has an off night offensively, there are plenty of other options. However, when I started playing tennis the pro told me:” There are three levels of performance in this game. You have to be able to hit the shot in practice, hit it in a match, and hit it on a big point.” The same holds true in any sport. Hitting shots in a blowout in the friendly confines of Cameron is a lot easier than hitting them on the road on an opponent’s home court with the game on the line. There are many reasons for Coach K’s extraordinary success. Miami Coach Charlie Coles explains one not often mentioned: “Do you know why I respect him so much, and I think he’s such a great coach? I can’t remember a Duke player that was an underachiever. Has there ever been one? I’m not talking about a guy that’s playing bad, but I’m talking about the guy that gets up off the bench and looks around and he’s mad. I don’t ever remember a guy at Duke that didn’t at least pretend like he’s going out on that floor to overachieve…… It seems like those kids just “Hey, let’s all agree on everything.’’

DUKE- COLGATE

Apparently, ESPN3 is a 3-D channel. Whatever the case, I could not locate the Duke game on any one of my 800 or so DirecTV channels. I also have a new computer loaded with Windows 7 and its vast galaxy of unfamiliar options ( most of which I probably will never use), so I am struggling to master enough moves to send this email in decent form. Here (hopefully)  is the DBR take on the game:

“Against Colgate for the first time we saw a glimpse of what this team could become:  an aggressive defense joined with an explosive fast break, deadly outside shooting, and a powerful inside game.

For the first part of the game, Colgate, a better team than we expected actually, stayed relatively close, but it was an unachievable task.  Duke simply has too many ways to attack.

Obviously the Big Three from last year is no more, but Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Kyrie Irving are a great building block.  We’ve talked before about how the backcourt, with Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry coming off the bench behind Smith and Irving, is a devastating weapon.

Tonight, for the first time, we saw glimpses from all three big men:  Miles Plumlee, Ryan Kelly, and most of all Mason Plumlee. Kelly showed some flashes throughout.  He’s willing to fight for rebounds, stand and take charges, take the occasional three pointer and really just give the team whatever it needs.

Miles Plumlee, who has come off the bench the last two games, came alive in the second half.  He defended, ran the floor, rebounded and played a much more solid game than he has so far this season.  He finished with nine points, eight rebounds three steals and a block and an argument for more minutes.  We didn’t realize how badly he jammed his finger last game, but he seems to have put it behind him.

Mason Plumlee had some tremendous plays, mostly in the second half.   His stat line wasn’t as impressive as his brother’s (nine points, four boards, an assist, a block and a steal.  Plus he only played 13 minutes after fouling out.

Doesn’t sound so great, right?  But here’s what was great: he was ferocious.  When he blocked the shot, he went after it.  When he had an alley-oop, he slammed hard.  He played with a lot of emotion, aggression and passion.  It was great to see him with a mean look on his face.

If all three guys can build on the high levels they reached during parts of this game, Duke will really benefit — and soon.

After the game, we learned that Singler was getting over a case of food poisoning and didn’t eat on Thursday at all.  Given that little nugget, his game looks pretty solid: 18 points, nine boards, and two steals.

At the beginning of the game, Irving looked like he was going to completely dominate — and one of those games is not too far away.  He is figuring things out pretty quickly and we’re going to start seeing things in the play-by-play like: Irving for three.  Irving steals.  Irving fouled.  Irving assist to Ma. Plumlee.

As it was, he had 13 points, nine assists and no turnovers and was 3-5 from behind the line.

We’re just saying, it’s coming.  That ain’t bad, but more is on the way.  Did you know, by the way, that Irving on the season has 20 assists to three turnovers?  Wow!

This should also be said: Dawkins is dramatically — dramatically — better than last year.  It’s not just his confidence on offense.  He’s become not just a good defender but a better-than-average defender.  He’ll be picking up a lot of mid-size opponents on the defensive end.

Curry had a bit of an off game offensively, but big whoop.  The kid plays his butt off.  Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton both got in and showed toughness and intensity.  They’re most likely understudies right now, but you have to like the apparent trajectory.
As we said after the Miami game, things are about to get a lot tougher.  The next five games are Marquette and then either Kansas State or Gonzaga, Oregon out there, Michigan State at home, and then Butler in the Meadowlands.  This will require a higher level of play and we’re excited to see what comes out of it.”
My comments: The good news is that the big men showed up and played well but the bad news is the both Plumlees fouled out, which is something that cannot happen against top teams;  Kyrie’s assist to turnover ratio (9:0) continues to be amazing; Andre Dawkins continues to play up to his talent; and despite the fact that Kyle and Nolan have yet to shot well, others have.

Coach K had these observations aboutthe fact that while two of these freshmenare mature abd “shovel ready”, there are limittions as to how deep the regular rotation will be:

“If there are emergency situations where guys can come in you know Tyler [Thornton] and Josh [Hairston] can come in for a few minutes and give us some minutes. You can’t get a ten-man rotation, but you can have ten guys ready to play. I mean you can, but then you’re not using your key guys well,  Nolan [Smith] and Kyle have to get major minutes for us to be really good.”

DUKE – MARQUETTE 

The serious season started last night and Duke, led by a very impressive performance by an up-to-now intriguing but inconsistent role player, performed well enough in spurts to win 82-77. There are certain truisms in today’s college basketball: While every year basketball players are more and more athletic, they are not necessarily more fundamentally sound; with the three point line, virtually every team can make several runs in a game; if you don’t answer an opponent’s run with one of your own and regain the momentum, you probably will  lose; most mid major teams are undersized but compensate by playing a pressing, up tempo enervating game; most competitive games come down to defense, protecting the ball, and making free throws; the basket is smaller on the road; and Duke gets every team’s best shot but in every game the Blue Devils have the best coach on their bench. The bottom line is that after totally dominating three overmatched teams at Cameron, Duke played a bigger, faster, stronger, more athletic, more talented opponent away from home. The result was a reality check for the younger players—and some fans.

The good news is that last night we saw something for which we  have been waiting  almost a year—a dominating, sometimes dazzling, thirty-two minute performance by Mason Plumlee. The explanation—other than maturity– is that he is much more effective on both ends in the low post than playing strong forward. We also learned that Kyrie is the real deal but needs more games at this level to adjust to the speed, strength, and size of top teams; that Duke is versatile enough to win when Kyle and Nolan are not carrying the team; that in close games there will be a tight 7-8 man rotation; and Coach K still has fire in the belly.

Well into the second half, Duke was cruising with a 14 point lead, when Marquette made a run to tie the game with eleven minutes left. Coach K called a time out and gave one of his patented, politically incorrect assessments—Chicago style– of the player’s effort. In the next six minutes, the Blue Devils went up by 13. However, they did not really finish off the game with authority or gusto like a top team should as Curry, Irving, and Smith all missed the front end of one-and-ones throwing away six potential points. For those who think that just because this team has more talent that it is better than last year’s edition, reflect on how many games Jon “Money” Scheyer iced by hitting his free throws? That team knew how to finish off a game!

Aside from Mason Plumlee (and to a lesser degree Andre Dawkins, who each game is playing himself into more minutes) having a break out performance ( 25 pts; 12 rebs; 5 blocks, 4 assists), there are some interesting stats that identify why this game was as close as it was and those areas that this team must improve upon: 19 turnovers (Smith 6, Irving 5) vs. 20 assists; 6-12 free throws (Mason1-4); only hitting 6-18 threes; only going to the free throw line twelve times means that there were too many jump shots and not enough attacking the basket. (In most victories, Duke hits more free throws than their opponent take). These are not the statistics of a  Final Four team but then March Madness is four months away.

DUKE – KANSAS STATE

Anytime a team is able to force an opponent or a key player out of the comfort zone of what they do best, the mental game-within-the game is usually won. You can see the frustration in the body language of players who are faced with the challenge of performing blue collar chores they really don’t enjoy—like playing tough defense possession after possession or grinding their way back into contention on offense. That is what has always been the lynchpin of Coach K’s teams. No matter the talent pool, they always play as hard—or harder—on defense than on offense. And when he has the diversity and depth of talent that he has this year, well, you saw the possibilities tonight.

Kansas State, like a lot of big, athletic teams, wants to run and gun on- on-one, but do not yet have the patience or versatility to run a disciplined half-court offense against a team that is swarming your every possession.. Of course, it doesn’t help to have a head coach impersonating a mental patient off his medication for most of the game. Tonight Duke just cut the heart out of Kansas State by doing all the little things (plus the big things)  that define a dominant team. In fact, Alan thinks that this game ranks right up there with any of Duke’s defensive gems. If you doubt that, consider these statistics: Duke held  Pullen, State’s preseason All-American, to 4 points on 1-for-12 shooting, including 1 of 8 from 3-point range; forced 12 turnovers; made 11 steals; hit 6 of 12 threes (vs. 3-17); and 24 of 31 free throws (vs., 11-23). While Kyrie got most of the headlines,  just as impressive was the fact that all eight players contributed in ways large and small.

Duke only trailed once at 11-9. After failing to extend their eight point half time lead for the first eight minutes, the Blue Devils went on a patented 18-6  run. Then they finished the game in more impressive fashion than last night. Kansas State had no answer for either Kyrie Irving and Nolan Smith running the point or in the open court. We know what Nolan can do but we weren’t quite sure how Kyrie would fare this early in the season in a hostile environment against a Final Four level team. Well, he was the MVP.

Here is Seth Davis (Full disclosure: He is a Duke grad and the son of political talking head Lanny Davis)  of Sports Illustrated and CBS somewhat breathless take: “ Given how gifted Irving is, it’s almost unfair to surround him with so much veteran talent. Krzyzewski’s motion offense is tailor made for Irving’s skill set. He has an explosive first step and is highly adept with both hands, not only at dribbling but also finishing at the rim. If he gets by his defender, Irving has a bevy of options to choose from, including the team’s two snipers off the bench, Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry, who were a combined 4 for 5 from three-point range against Kansas State. Sophomore center Mason Plumlee was also impressive in Kansas City. He followed up his 25-point, 12-rebound performance in Monday’s semifinal win over Marquette by going for 10 points and five rebounds against the Wildcats.

It all starts with Irving, but it can end anywhere.

“They run an NBA-spaced offense. Coach K has this down to a science,” Pullen said. “With that ball screen action, there’s nowhere you can help from. You have to pick your poison. Either you live with [Irving] dribble driving, or you help and they lob up to the bigs, or you help from the corner and they shoot the ball. They’ve got a lot of upperclassmen, and Kyrie is a poised young freshman. Right now they’re No. 1 in the country for a reason.”

As much hype as Irving got coming out of high school, it turns out he is actually better than advertised. Through his first five games as a collegian, he has 33 assists and only 11 turnovers. He has made 48 percent on field goals, 42 percent on three-pointers, and 91 percent on free throws. The most pleasant surprise is his prowess as a defender, which was on full display Tuesday night. Even Krzyzewski said during a practice last month that he didn’t realize how committed Irving was to that part of the game.

“He can say he’s surprised, but when you come in here as a freshman point guard, you’re expected to play defense,” Irving said. “That’s what Duke is built on. That’s our foundation. I have confidence in myself, and I believe I can guard great players.

Irving is a great player himself, and he’s only 18 years old.

“This was really fun,” he said Tuesday night. “This is what I came to Duke for, playing in a big game on a big-time stage.”

Kansas State and its fans threw everything they had at Irving, but in the end they could only stand there shaking their hands. Give the young fella his due. He handled it, man.”

A word of warning to the irrationally exuberant: Too much early freshman hype can be hazardous to your game. Harrison Barnes of UNC was named to the  pre-season All-American Team and has, to be charitable, had a rocky start to his season. The bottom line is that this was one impressive game in a long season. There are a lot of speed bumps between now and another NCAA Championship—among them, injuries, illness, fatigue, cockiness, and petty jealousies.

DUKE – OREGON

One of the reasons Coach K is able to recruit nationally is that he showcases his team live and in person all over the country– especially in the backyard of stars from faraway places. For instance, when he had Trajan Langdon and Carlos Boozer, he scheduled a game in their home state of Alaska. Last year, he scheduled a game against Iowa State in Chicago for Illinois native Jon Scheyer, who had a career night. As I noted at the time:

“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 tonight at the United Center of 36 pts. (on only 13 shots), 9 assists, 8 rebs, 1 blk, 1 steal speaks volumes about his efficient talent. Play on, Jon!” ( And play on he did, right to a NCAA Championship.)

Well, after Kyle Singler decided to pass on the NBA draft and return to Duke for his senior season, Coach K found a way to schedule a “thank you” game for Kyle in Oregon, which just happened to have his brother E. J.  as a starter. It is hard to pick out a “career game” for Kyle as he has had so many over the last three plus years. As for consistency, Singler has scored in double figures one hundred times in his Duke career–that’s out of 117 games. Johnny Dawkins is Duke’s career leader with 129. Kyle showcased his skills with 30 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists.  I cannot recall any player who has led by example by willingly and effectively played whatever position asked of him and played every play harder and received more skin burns,  bruises, and stitches than Kyle. Surely, at the end of the season his jersey will be hanging from the Cameron rafters with all of the other great Duke players.

How can a team win 98-71 against a decent team like Oregon and play such a sloppy game,  committing  19 turnovers (vs. 11) and allowing 15 steals? Granted , it was their third road game in a row and they haven’t been home in a week, but they aren’t in high school anymore. Well, the answer is that the team is so talented that even with all the sloppiness, it can still go on a 19-1 run. However, just when you think that Nolan Smith can play the point, he turns the ball over six times. The good news is that Kyrie Irving consistently makes sensational plays seem almost routine plus  Mason and Miles Plumlee, Ryan Kelly, and Andre Dawkins  continue to play at much higher and effective level than last year. Unfortunately, Curry is in a two game shooting slump and the two other freshmen are not yet ready for prime time.

Alan adds:

The Plumlees are making a significant difference on this team, especially Mason, who has made dramatic and gigantic strides on both ends of the floor.  He’s become a real force at protecting the basket (as has Miles, but not quite as dramatically and Miles is still fouling excessively) while only committing two fouls in 30+ minutes.  Mason is becoming quite a talented shot blocker and he had 12 boards (not shabby).  The thing that is impressive to me is that he’s getting better each game; more confident and efficient with the ball.  He doesn’t have any real range yet, but other than that, he’s ahead of where Laettner was at the early stages of his sophomore year.  I am also being impressed with Kelly.  He’s not the athlete that the Plumlees are, but he’s a basketball player.  He got called for a couple of fouls that weren’t, I thought.  He plays intelligent defense, he’s a competent rebounder and he is becoming a reliable ball handler.  We know he can shoot and it’s just a matter of time before he (and the coaches) have the confidence to let him do it more.  In short, the Duke question marks pre-season (how does Duke replace the size, rebounding, and  defensive intensity that Zoubs and Thomas brought to the team last year?) are in the process of being answered positively.  But, even Kansas State (tough as nails, but not as long) wasn’t the test of the front line that Michigan State will be.

The Blue Devils better bring their “A” Game against #2 Michigan State Wednesday night.

DUKE – MICHIGAN STATE

Going into this game, Duke appeared to have a number of advantages over Michigan State: they were playing in the friendly confines of Cameron, where the Blue Devils have not lost a non-conference game in fourteen years;  they were undefeated and coming off an impressive road trip where they beat Marquette, number two Kansas State, and Oregon; they were just unanimously voted the number one team in the country; and Michigan State,  a potential Final Four team,  was coming off a long trip from Hawaii where they were upset by UConn. Despite  these advantages, it took an sensational, mature performance by freshman Kyrie Irving for Duke, who lead virtually the entire way but could never totally put the Spartans away, to win 84-79. Kyrie, who had 11 points in the first eleven minutes when everyone else was cold, finished with 31 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, & 2 blocks. Fortunately, in the second half Smith, who overcame a series of four sloppy turnovers, and Singler finally heated up at  opportune times.  Mason Plumlee continued to be an impressive, vital force down low with 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 steals. Andree Dawkins played 28 minutes when Curry struggled defensively contributing good defense and two timely baskets. Ryan Kelly also played more minutes than usual because Miles Plumlee just can’t seem to stop committing foolish fouls.

Michigan State is a talented, well coached team but have been prone to turning the ball over (which they did tonight with 20) and missing free throws (which they did tonight going 8-15). The Blue Devils were not exactly stellar in those departments either as they had 15 turnovers and missed too many free throws–especially in the last few minutes. The defense was not consistently up to Coach K standards but then this Michigan State  offense will score a lot of points on any team.  However, top tier teams find ways to win when not everyone has their “A’ game and a Tom Izzo coached team will test you in ways that most others won’t.

Coach K made some interesting observations: “I didn’t think Kyle [Singler] had a great game but he made great plays for us, those two threes in a row, that stick back with one second to go on the shot clock and then he in-bounded the ball without any mistakes the last four minutes when they were pressing. So did he have a bad game? He didn’t have a bad game, but he didn’t have a great game. That’s what a good player does you know. When he hit those two threes he was 2-11, so it’s not like you’re hot and you still have to have the courage to take the shot and hit it. Nolan [Smith] was struggling with fouls, he only played 12 minutes in the first half and we had a couple of exchanges were he got five points for us right away. I thought, the two kids were obvious but Mason was right up there and if we don’t have him playing tonight the way he did, we don’t win.”

Tonight also demonstrated the thin line between winning (making or missing threes and free throws) and losing and that a bad fall like Kyrie, Mason, and Nolan took can cause an injury and diminishes a team’s chances for a championship. So far, so good. Everyone appears to be nicked not injured and I do not think Duke has yet to play their best forty minutes of basketball. Hopefully, that will be in the NCAA Tournament.

Alan, who missed some of the game because he was delayed travelling to Key West (on business, he says), adds: “Michigan State is really good.  They worked for good shots against Duke’s energetic defense.  More really good Michigan State offense than lackadaisical Duke defense.  Kyrie put on quite a show.  He is better than advertised (and his hype was considerable. Harrison Barnes will inevitably be compared, and is certainly coming up short in the very early going; UNC is another story).  He couldn’t or didn’t keep Luscious in front of him in the late going, but he sure did everything else.  His cross over drives are out of this world.  I was thinking of who he reminded me of as a freshman- Isaiah Thomas as a freshman at Indiana.”

DUKE – BUTLER

Coach Brad Stevens  of Butler ranks right there with Coach K and Tom Izzo as coaches to respect and admire. Today, he devised a clever hybrid man/triangle zone defense to inhibit the slashing drives of Kyrie and Nolan that make Duke’s offense so very lethal. In the first half, the Blue Devils took the easy path and settled for taking half of their shots from beyond the arc—but hitting only 25%. In addition, they were out hustled by the smaller, less talented, but very tenacious Bulldogs motivated, undoubtedly, by payback for their heartbreaking loss in last year’s championship game.

After a  one sided discussion with Coach K at half time, the players went to the tried and true Plan B: amp up the defense and attack the basket. That combined with Butler’s  injuries, foul trouble, and fatigue eventually took its toll as Nolan Smith fueled a 12-0 Duke run to increase Duke’s lead to double digits.  However, Butler countered with a run of their own to cut the lead to three. Then Kyrie calmly drained successive treys from the top of the key, Duke took the air out of the ball and hit their free throws to secure the win that was much closer and more difficult than the final 82-70 score indicated.

Like the Marquette game, this was a good lesson for the players—get used to it, the Duke jersey brings out the best in every opponent and they get every team’s best shot. While talented and deep, the Blue Devils potential Achilles heel is that they do not have a dominant low post scorer to bail out a night of poor perimeter shooting.  The Plumlees are big and athletic, but anything other than a dunk is problematical, so they do not have to be double teamed—and fouling them usually turns 2 points into 1 point. Of course, keeping Kyrie and Nolan out of the lane is defensive objective number one; priority number two is  praying for an poor shooting night.  For instance, Duke shot 30% vs. Butler’s 50% from three point land. Counter intuitively, Duke hit 83% of their free throws vs. Butler’s 50%. All the rest of the stats were about equal, so you can see that by switching any combination of the shooting stats could produce anything from a Butler upset to a Duke blowout.

Coach K scheduled these tough, early games because he thought he potentially had a very good team and a stretch of tough games replicates the ACC and NCAA Tournament challenges. If you recall, in 1991 UNLV was the 1990 NCAA Champion returning with all their starters. They had beaten Duke by 29 points for the championship the previous year and was undefeated until Duke beat them in the semi-final round. Krzyzewski felt that UNLV lost, in part, because they had not been challenged all season and had forgotten how to respond to a close game.

Just about a year ago, I wrote enthusiastically about Andre Dawkins talent. [“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. 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.”] Then, I couldn’t totally understand why—except for flashes like the two big threes against Baylor– he appeared to mentally and physically regress. I wondered how he would respond this year to Irving and Curry being added to the rotation. Well, it is apparent that he is playing himself into a key sixth man who plays more minutes than the fifth starter and, more importantly, is on the floor at the end of a game. Today, he and Mason both had eight rebounds apiece—and he leads the team with 19 threes while hitting 50% of his  attempts. The player he most reminds me of is a bigger version of Thomas Hill, a key player on the 1991-1992 championship  teams.

A note of concern: Kyrie injured his toe(s) or foot, went to the bench and returned for a few minutes but was noticeable limping. A sprained big toe, commonly referred to as “turf toe” can dramatically effect a players performance for an entire season or longer. A case in point is Antonio Gates, the all pro tight end for the San Diego Chargers, who has a chronic problem. Let’s hope that this is a minor injury, because it is doubtful Duke would be 8-0 if Kyrie had not been playing.

Incidentally, this was Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 876th win, which ties him with Adolph Rupp for third place in all-time career coaching wins..

The reason I referred to this game being played in Cameron North is that there are a lot of alumni and parents of students and players in the New York area and Coach K’s teams are 19-1 at the Meadowlands arena.

DUKE – BRADLEY

With Kyrie Irving out “indefinitely”, there is an opportunity for this team to demonstrate that they can continue to win until/if he returns. This is not unprecedented situation for a Duke team. Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill, Elton Brand, and Carlos Boozer all had injuries that forced them miss a significant number of games yet their teams still made it to the Final Four and even won championships. Most memorable was the 2001 championship run. In the next to last game of the regular season against Maryland, Carlos Boozer broke his foot and was not available until the Sweet Sixteen game of the NCAA Tournament. Nevertheless, Coach K, in his most impressive coaching performance, rotated the improbable trio 0f bench warmers Casey Sanders, Matt Christianson, and Reggie Love at center and ran the table against Carolina, in the ACC Tournament and in the NCAA Championship.

Coach K on how the team changes without Kyrie:

“Everybody’s game changes, including mine. Your game changes. That’s what good players do. When a great player gets hurt, can’t play, it changes everything. It doesn’t mean a whole sale change on what you’re doing, it just changes everything, including the habits of having played with that great player for the entire preseason and eight games. So there is just a period of adjustment that our team has to go through and hopefully we’ll get him back but we don’t know when. We have to go on and make these adjustments. We tried to make a few tonight. But again, it was a limited practice time and it’s a really tough week for every student here because it’s the week before exams when so many things are due for these guys.” The classic example of a player being prepared to take advantage of his opportunity due to an injury to a starter is Johnny Unitas. Unitas, hardly a classic figure in his high top cleats, was cut by the Steelers, played semi-pro ball, and signed as a backup to George Shaw, the Colts number one draft pick from Oregon. Shaw broke his leg in 1956 and never regained his starting role as Johnny U stepped in and redefined the position of quarter back. Well, whenever Kyrie returns, he will have his starting position but my point is that this is an opportunity for Dawkins, Curry, Kelly, Miles Plumlee, and the two freshmen to gain more experience and, hopefully, more confidence for themselves and prove to the coaching staff that, if needed, they can be counted upon in pressure situations.”

As for the game, it was a shooting game of two halves as the new lineup took twenty minutes to adjust to a different point guard. The Blue Devils settled for being a jump shooting team in the first half but only hit 5-17 threes (four of which were by Andre Dawkins ).  The second  half they were 10-16 (four of which were by Andre Dawkins).  I won’t again remind you at length how early on I was in the tank for Dawkins, but my man Andre’s eight treys were one short of the record held by Shane Battier and J.J. Redick—not bad company. Miles Plumlee started in place of Brian Kelly and had an impressive performance going 7-7 from the field. Nolan Smith struggled scoring from the top of the key but had 10 assists and only 2 turn overs. Kyle Singler, who so far has not been shooting particularly well, otherwise had a typically strong game. Mason Plumlee just seems to play with more confidence and maturity with each game. The longer Kyrie is out, there is an opportunity to see if Seth Curry can fill in at point guard. If he can, there are more minutes available because Nolan is more lethal on the wing.

Alan adds:

Yikes!  I’m sorry I wrote what I did about injuries and an unbeaten season.  Let’s hope Kyrie’s injury isn’t season ending.  That would be a shame…especially for Singler and Nolan.  But for the near term, it will work to Duke’s advantage, meaning players who need the minute to improve will get them now.  Cases in point: Dawkins and Curry.  It was fun to watch Dawkins realize how hot he was; because he didn’t slack off a bit on the defensive end or doing the little things.  28 points on 17 shots is pretty efficient.  Plus, I predict that the reputation that will go with this shooting performance will open up driving lanes for him.  He can penetrate and when he makes that a more prominent part of his game, the sky is really the limit.  He can play all aspects of this game.  Curry really looked energized, especially on the defensive end.  When those two threes went down late in the game, you could see him sigh with relief that his shooting slump was over.  But I thought he played intense defense (he’s really quick) and handled the backup point pretty well.  He played 26 efficient minutes.

Before extolling the mobility and intensity of our big guys, I should say a word about the defense.  It’s true Bradley was undermanned and outclassed.  But Duke played really intense defense, especially in the early going when the offense looked so ragged.  [NB: the difference between the ragged offense and the second half was the difference in whether the ball went in or not on jumpers.  They were the same open looks.]  Duke’s switching was ballet-like.  The talking heads at half were saying Duke missed Kyrie’s on the ball defense.  Bradley was scoring less than a point a minute (18 in the first half).  All of those points (except a couple) came on well defended shots.  Both Plumlees were fierce around the basket and Bradley’s inability to finish at the rim was more about Duke’s interior defense than Bradley’s offense.  Miles looked really athletic and coordinated.  Huge improvement.   Kelly does a lot of little things and you can see he’s a confident shooter, even when he misses.  He can’t run the court like the Plumlees (who are really fast and in shape), but I like his game.

The other thing that made Duke’s offense look ragged was Nolan’s shot was really off as he ran the team (efficiently: 10 assists to 2 turnovers and some great passes to Miles).  He was 0-8 from the floor and 2-4 from the line.  If he’s hitting in the first half, no one would be describing Duke’s offense as ragged.  Still, weak competition, virtually no penetration except the lob over the zone, and no post offense could be signs that Duke will struggle when the competition returns to a high level.  PS: Mich State’s poor performance against Syracuse takes a little gloss off that win.  This is a very good team even without Kyrie, but…

DUKE – ST. LOUIS

With the prognosis for Kyrie’s return from his toe injury uncertain at best and not-at-all  a distinct possibility, the Duke coaching staff met with each player individually and discussed what was expected from them. The only good news is that this injury happened early in the year giving Kyrie plenty of time to recover and the opportunity for the younger players to gain invaluable playing experience. Today, it appeared that Seth Curry (11 pts. & 6 assists), Miles Plumlee (9 pts & 9 rebs), Josh Hairston (12 pts & 4 rebs), and Tyler Thornton (4 asts & 0 to’s) made the most of their increased playing time.

Miles, who started in place of Kelly for the second game in  a row, played consistently with more poise and maturity than in previous games. The St. Louis defense focuses on taking away the three point shot as Andre Dawkins ( 2 shots & 2 points) coming off a 28 point, 8 trey  performance, learned so well. He is no longer an unknown quantity and his going to be defended differently, so he is going to have to work harder for his points. The upside is that it will open up the floor and space the lane for the rest of the players as well as himself. Andre has the ability to pump fake, put the ball on the floor, drive, and finish strong. In is worth noting that the defense, which must carry the team during the transition period and beyond, was terrific in the first half limiting St. Louis to only 16 points.

It has occurred to me that often seniors seem to start their last year of eligibility slowly, as if pacing themselves to finish with a flourish. That seemed the case this year with both Singler and Smith. However, today they got the message that they have to pick up the slack and lead they team in ways they didn’t when Kyrie was healthy. Nolan’s role changes the most because he is a instinctively a hybrid score first/ pass second guard. But as quick as he is and as well as he penetrates, he should be more than adequate at the top of the key. I’m sure we will at times see Seth Curry and Tyler Thornton, a Tommy Amaker clone, running point with Nolan on the wing, where he plays more instinctively. The move to the point worked pretty well for Seth’s brother Stephen in his last year at Davidson and in the pros.

Seeing a very animated Kyrie Irving on the bench  tells us that in addition to being a terrific basketball player, he is also a terrific person who loves his teammates and, playing or not, has a lot of emotional investment in this team.

It’s final exam time so we won’t see the Blue Devils for nine days. In the meantime, I’m sure the coaching staff will be working overtime.

Alan adds:

One can’t take too much from the St. Louis game because of how depleted their team was, resulting in a dramatic difference in talent and experience (not unlike Bradley).  What we can say is that none of the negative things that could befall a team in that situation, befell Duke.  Duke played defense in both games very impressively.  This team now (and even with Kyrie) will go as far as its defense takes it.  Similar in that respect to last year.  It was defensively that Lance and Zoubs contributed so meaningfully in the last two plus months of last season.  Kelly, Miles (yesterday) and Mason (in previous games) are stepping up defensively.  Only the caliber of the competition leaves room for doubt.  Both Bradley and St. Louis had some trouble finishing close to the rim because of the mobility and potential shot blocking of the big guys.  Singler is fun to watch defensively.  He is such a good player in every aspect of the game.

Mason and Dawkins, who played so outstandingly recently, did not light it up at all yesterday.  Mason had two quick fouls and then played only 11 minutes in the game (4 minutes less than Hairston).  There must be a story behind that fact somewhere.  Injury?  Discipline?  Attitude?  Something.  Miles played 30 minutes and looked terrific with growing confidence (a left handed jump hook off a smooth move was jaw dropping; again can he do it against high level competition?).  So did Ryan Kelly.  He played 20 minutes and is also growing in confidence.  Hairston played 15 minutes and looked for the first time like a shooter.  (Level of competition question again).

I am liking Seth’s energy and ball handling skills.  He could become the starting point guard if Kyrie is lost with Dawkins coming off the bench as 6th man.  I predict that K will look at that option if the Irving story tilts to bad or very bad.  Mentally, it is hard for the team not to be wondering about what Kyrie’s role will be this season.  K will make them mentally tough enough to ignore that issue and keep developing as a team.  Two softies before ACC season opens with Miami on Jan. 2.

 DUKE- ELON

Not much to say about this scrimmage except that Duke played at times as though they had just finished exam week, but here are some observations:

As versatile and valuable as Kyle Singler is, the truth is that he still is not shooting as well as he did the last half of last year…..Nolan Smith is getting the hang of playing the point, which for him is score first and distribute second….Ryan Kelly appears to be getting better and better right before our eyes… Seth Curry, who started ( but don’t read too much into that) for Andre Dawkins,  is trying very, very hard. However,  Andre Dawkins is a much more complete and confident player this year and the more versatile and lethal of the two……As Miles progresses, Mason seems to regress.  And finally, Mike Gminski is a very good and knowledgeable announcer.

This win tied Coach K with Dean Smith for second in most wins (879) in NCAA history. It is appropriate that the top three coaches—Bob Knight, Dean Smith, and Mike Krzyzewski achieved their wins without cheating, without bogus SAT scores, without hundred-dollar-handshakes, while coaching young men who are/were successful in their post-college careers.

Alan adds:

The game was not on here (and I went to an amazing Roche sisters concert) and so I am limited to the DBR 2 reports and looking at the box score.  K’s rotation was interesting in a non-challenging post exam game.  You will remember that I predicted K would think about starting Curry and bringing Dawkins off the bench.  Curry played 30 minutes and Dawkins 32.  Only Singler played more (37).  Nolan was obviously limited by foul trouble, though he still scored efficient 22 points on 11 shots in 21 minutes (2-2 from behind the arc and 2-3 from the foul line).  4 turnovers though – against Elon – in that amount of time is not a good sign.  Also no assists for Curry (or Thornton in 7 minutes).  Finally, is Mason in K’s doghouse?  He played only 16 minutes.  He had 7 boards, took a 3 pointer (hmmmm) and 2 points.  Miles played 28 minutes and Kelly (the upfront scorer with 13) 21 minutes.  Interesting.  I’m anxious for your take.  UNCG and then the season starts in earnest with ACC comp.

Coach K’s post game comments were right on the mark:

“Look I love Dean and we competed really hard against one another. But I think the ultimate thing a competitor can say about another competitor is that he respects him 100 percent. I really value our friendship. And when two teams that are coached by two guys who are as competitive go after one another, you’ve got to make each other better. And in that respect, it made the ACC one hell of a conference. I mean no one’s done a better job in the ACC, by far, than Dean. We’ve done our share, but what he did was set a standard that the league then had to adopt or else you drop by the wayside. He’s one of the great pioneers.  He built a program when no one else knew what the hell a program is. He built one hell of a program at a great school by recruiting unbelievably good kids, developing great relationships with them and then they played a brand of basketball where they showed up every night. And we’ve, I think, done a lot like that in our own way. And that’s produced some unbelievably good basketball.”

DUKE – UNC GREENSBORO

The biggest surprise tonight in this milestone game was that Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly started instead of Andre Dawkins and Mason Plumlee as Coach K won his 880th game. Other than that this scrimmage was just another warm-up game bracketing exams before the real season starts.

Some observations:  Nolan Smith appears to be more comfortable playing the point, which he will have to play at times even if Kyrie returns, and Miles Plumlee appears to be playing with more and more confidence in the low post– both of which are keys to a championship season. I wish I knew what is going on in practice and in the coach’s conversations. I like Seth Curry’s game but Andre is the better and more versatile talent. I assume it has to do with energy and defense. Seth is the better perimeter defender but Andre is the better, more versatile athlete, interior defender, and rebounder. Mason is clearly more talented than Ryan Kelly—except that he cannot shoot nearly as well. Maybe this is all a motivational ploy but I have to believe that when a game is on the line, the two current subs will be on the floor. The good news is that with these mix of players and depending on the opposition, there are a lot of combinations to deployed. I guess I’ll let Coach K figure it all out.

Jay Williams was one of the commentators and, incidentally,  very good and informative. He pointed out that it is very difficult to win the six game NCAA Championship without low post scoring because there will be night(s)– especially in a dome arena– that the jump shots aren’t falling. To that point, just remember Sean May carrying Carolina to the 2005 NCAA Championship.

I never was in favor of comparing players from different eras. The same goes for coaches. While Coach Smith and Coach K careers overlapped, the game and schedules have changes a lot since Dean retired. Dean Smith was a great, very innovative coach who developed the concept of a “program” before there were “programs.” In addition, he might have been even a better man than a coach. He personally and quietly  integrated Chapel Hill by example –taking Charlie Scott, his first black recruit to dinner in a restaurant on the strip. We as fans are the beneficiary of what these two great coaches have brought to their respective schools—the best rivalry in college basketball. Alumni and fans of both schools have every right to be proud.

Coach K: “You have to have good players and a strong commitment from the university to succeed so often. So, I don’t know if that’s so much an achievement as the result of having all those things. I want to thank the  players from Army, from Duke and I want to thank my coaches. A coach wins because he has good people, and I’ve had great people.”

Jay Bilas: “Congratulations on becoming the winningest basketball coach in ACC history! You’re a giant figure in the game, but more importantly, you have been a transformative figure in the lives of your players. You have been coach, leader, mentor and friend to all of us, and it has not just been a four-year relationship. It has been a lifelong relationship. It has been 25 years since I played for you, but there is not a day that goes by that I don’t rely upon what you taught me. I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am for you and how proud I am of you. Congratulations. You are the best”.

Alan adds:

I’m not sure what to say about last night’s game.  Most important: nothing bad happened (which is not something even good teams, like Tenn. can say so far this year when they have gone up against overmatched teams).  There is nothing negative to say about this game except that it came against inferior opposition, so one can’t take huge significance from the nice performance.  If one got picky, (and you know I do sometimes), one could note that Duke was not as intense defensively as usual (though certainly not bad) and the support for Kyle and Nolan didn’t appear until the second half when Dawkins, Miles and Seth contributed big time.  Duke had 6 double figure scorers – starters + Dawkins.  Nolan had a stat game that astounds: 26 points on 12 shots; 9 assists, five rebounds, 3 steals and NO TURNOVERS!  Singler is rounding into shooting form and is such a sound player.  You are never nervous when the ball is in his hands.  Something good is likely to happen.

I have previously said that Seth might be the best replacement for Kyrie with Andre coming in as a micro-wave 6th man.  That is still playing out.  Both looked much better in the second half.  They are very different type of defenders, but both good.  Even without Kyrie, this can be a very good team.  It will all depend on how the bigs match up with top-of-the-line competition.  It’s impossible to judge when Duke is playing competition at the UNCG level.  Still, Miles is looking athletic and intense.  23 minutes, 5-6 for 11 points and five boards.  He’s still a half-step late defensively, but getting better.  Best part was only 2 fouls.  Kelly and Mason are more enigmatic; each played 18 minutes.  Kelly was 4-10 (0-3 from behind the arc) with 4 blocks, 2 steals and an assist.  He doesn’t run well, but he has skills and is improving.  Will he be able to defend effectively against the good big guys?  Why has Mason’s offense gone south without Kyrie?  He played well (2-3 from the floor, 5 defensive boards and 4 assists, but something seems missing.  I don’t think Thornton and Hairston will help this year, but they are each going to be very good college players, I think.  If fouls or injury compels them to play at crunch time, I predict that they will do ok.

Season really starts Sunday.

 DUKE – MIAMI

The real season without Kyrie Irving started tonight against Miami and Nolan Smith played point guard about as well as any college player can. He scored 28 points on the ball, off the ball, and played pressure defense against the ever dangerous Durand Scott (3-14), who had such a good game against us last year. I have always thought Nolan had the skills to play the point, he just lacked the confidence and/or experience  that he could. Well, if tonight (and the last several games)  are any indication, he is gaining the confidence. When Nolan is in an aggressive and attacking mode, he is a handful. Kevin Durant, the sensational young pro who averages 28 points a game for Oklahoma City Thunder, was his best teenage friend in the Washington area, they played AAU ball together, and still work out together in the summer. So, Nolan knows big time competition. He just has to accept the fact that until/if (ever) Kyrie  returns, he  has to play Batman not Robin.

Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly started again but as we all know, minutes played and who is on the floor in close games are what matter more. If tonight is any indication, Kelly has worked himself into major minutes (rotating with either Mason or Miles) with his defense and heady  play. Seth, on the other hand, just is not physically the player that Andre Dawkins is—as was demonstrated when he stole the ball and was caught stuffed from behind by a Miami player (Memo: you’re not at Liberty anymore). Andre, on the other hand, with 16 points (plus four steals) at crucial times on a variety of shots, was a much needed scorer because Kyle was 5-15. Two lethal scorers normally do not consistently win tough games—most good teams can shut down one of two but not two of three. Also, 14-15 from the foul line helps a lot.

It is apparent that the best way to beat Duke is to zone them on defense, penetrate and dish on offense, and pray they are not hitting threes, because the big men are not a treat to score many points. As long as no one else gets hurt and the defense plays like they did tonight (holding an opponent to 37% from the field and 18% from three point land), the Blue Devils put themselves in a position to win—but there is not much room for error when they only shoot 43% and commit 13 turnovers. Without Kyrie, Duke is a very good but no longer a dominating team. And, shades of JJ Redick, Smith and Singler played the entire game in a seven man rotation.

Alan adds:

No way to have any complaints about Duke tonight.  You have to be impressed with the consistency of the Duke defense.  Miami had maybe 3 uncontested shots the whole game (and missed those).  Our big guys are very active and Miami’s shots near the hoop were always contested and caused a lot of misses.  Miami is a good team.  Their big guy, (42) Reggie Johnson played very well, and scored whenever he had the ball near the basket regardless of what Duke defenders did.  He was 9-10 from the field and 4-6 from the foul line with 9 boards (5 offensive), 2 blocks and a steal in 23 minutes.  Duke is glad he picked up 2 quick fouls, and should worry about the return game in Miami on 2/13.  He looked like a beast for whom Duke had no answer.  Other than that, Duke looked very good (slightly off excellent) on defense.  They switch like a ballet troupe and are intense.  Fun to watch.

Offensively, Duke fans keep seeing the vision of what the team looked like with Kyrie.  They no longer look like that, but still…not bad.  Nolan was wonderful and his run late in the first half was basically the difference in this game (13 straight points, including 3 3s).  Even more than Singler, he’s the example of the benefit of staying all 4 years in college.  His game has taken a wonderful jump each of the last two years.  Singler didn’t shoot well, but Nolan and Dawkins picked up the slack.  I share you admiration of Dawkins’s maturation process.  He is already a good player (better say than Smith was in his sophomore year), but his skills make you think he can get much better – be an All-American type player by his senior year.  There is nothing he doesn’t do well on the court.  Nolan and Singler played the entire game (40 minutes); Andre was third in most minutes played with 29.  His last 3 was an absolute dagger.  Curry is still my starter, but his foul trouble really curtailed his value in this game. He played 18 minutes without scoring, Even having a bad shooting night, Singler is the consistent reliable glue.  That takes us to the big guys.

The Plumlees are athletic, graceful and can run and jump (like I said, athletic), but nothing that either shot had even a prayer of going in.  Miles shows amazing moments, but he is still not a really good basketball player (by a smidgeon in several different types of plays), but he is close; I have to think he’ll get there …eventually.  23 minutes; 6 points; 6 boards (4 offensive) and a block.  Mason similarly, but actually more effective.  In 25 minutes, he had 4 blocks, and 10 boards (4 offensive), but only 2 points.  Neither Plumlee could stop Johnson, but they really became efficient guarding the rim after the first 6 minutes or so.  Neither Plumlee made you feel, as a Duke fan, that you wanted either of them to shoot.   Kelly is earning his minutes.  He’s not as athletic as either Plumlee, but he knows more about basketball, hustles, and makes surprisingly good plays and exercises pretty good judgment.  He, too, played 25 minutes (both he and Mason played a couple of minutes more than Miles), was 4-5 from the field (his only miss was his only 3 point attempt) and 6 boards (2 offensive) and 3 blocks.  How these three guys develop during the year will tell the Duke tale this year, I think.  All pretty optimistic (I think Miami is pretty good), and if Kyrie comes back and is the same player…Right now, the rotation is only 7 players.

DUKE – UAB

For the opening minutes of tonight’s game,  Duke’s defense, offense, and  the Cameron Crazies were in near perfect sync. After the seven minute tsunami passed, Duke was leading 26-4. Except for the continued excellence of Nolan Smith, who had 33 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists, the rest of the game was fairly mundane. Nevertheless, individually there were some interesting developments. Andre Dawkins started for Seth Curry, played 32 minutes, and proved that with 6 rebounds and 3 steals, to go with 8 points (on only 4 shots), he is not a one trick pony in that he does not have to score a lot of points to be contribute. Ryan Kelly continues to improve as a savvy defender and efficient rebounder (8 rebounds, 2 steals, and 2 blocks in 23 minutes). Surprisingly, he does not yet appear to be a confident shooter, which was supposed to be his calling card. Mason Plumlee had his best, most assertive  game since Kyrie was injured. No matter which of the big men start, clearly the minutes will depend on who is playing the best defense and individual foul situation. Tonight, Miles started but got a few fouls and made a few awkward plays so Mason came in, was energetic and effective, so got the most minutes.

After Kyrie’s injury, I wrote that for this team to continue to win, Nolan Smith had to step up and play a pro-active  Batman rather than a reactive, side kick Robin. There were times last year when he just took a game over and looked unstoppable. However, for whatever reason, he didn’t do it on a regular basis as he has in the last several games. I think he understands that as long as Kyrie is out, this is  his team and he has  the skills to run the show—and run it he did tonight with 33 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals. Actually, on his drives, he looks more like Spiderman than Batman as his long arms, quickness, and leaping ability allow him to play much longer and taller than 6’ 2”.

Nolan is not going to be able to score like this every game. UAB has no real center and played a perimeter defense with no inside presence, allowing Smith, once he broke past his defender, a relatively clear path to the basket. Other teams (like Maryland Sunday night) with different personal will not be so accommodating. While Kyle is consistently playing his usual all-round terrific game, he has been a streaky shooter all year. After a fast start, he was 1-11 in the second half. That is why Dawkins, Curry and the committee of three Big Men (2 Plumlees & Kelly) have to be viable scoring options—and nobody else can get hurt—for the Blue Devils to continue their winning streak.

Coach K’s post game comments provide some insight into his mind set:  “I’d like to have those top seven guys think of themselves as all starters and the two freshmen coming in when they need to so that you have a starter’s mentality. We can rotate the bigs in that third perimeter position– we might, we might not. I want those seven guys to feel like when they are in the ballgame that is a starting unit in the ballgame. Like the way Mason played tonight.  He was talking, he played with a presence, getting 14 points and nine rebounds and four blocks. He didn’t play tired either. We kept him in there a long time. Ryan Kelly is playing well. He just keeps improving.  Andre didn’t shoot the ball much but he played well and that’s a sign of maturity…. The number of minutes with older players like Nolan, if you don’t over-practice them, it’s inconsequential. I mean, trust me I do this for a living and then we make sure we don’t wear them out in practice. I think what they do as far as weight training, conditioning and eating, is also important. He is a guy who after this year is going to be a pro basketball player and that’s what we try to do, to teach them how to do that. So playing this number of minutes is what he wants to do. I thought there wasn’t a phase of the game that he didn’t play at the highest level, including management which leads to team stats.”

DUKE – MARYLAND 

Everyone knew this would be a tought game because Gary Williams is a very good coach whose players personify his tenacity and aggressiveness. For about twenry-two minutes the Terps played with more intensity than the Blue Devils and gave them all they could handle–and more. As I mentioned after the UAB game, Coach Williams would not let  Nolan Smith drive the lane at will and let the Blue Devils the freedom to make easy baskets. These two factors changed the entire offensive dynamic for Duke and contributed to a poor shooting night (40%). Uncharacteristically, it was Maryland, not Duke, who ran off seven straight points to start the seconf half to go up by 6 points as the game was on the verge of getting out of hand.

Then, Coach K demonstrated why he has won more basketball games than any coach not named Knight. He called a timeout and had animated, Chicago style  “discussion” with is starters, and inserted Seth Curry and Tyler Thornton into the lineup.  These two players turned the game around as they sparked a 14-2 run. To no one’s surprise, Seth hit some jumpers but to everyone’s surprise, it was Tyler, the freshman, who was the energizer bunny catalyst for th on-the-ball intensity that disrupted the Terps offfense. In twelve minutes, Tyler had 4 steals, to 2 charges (even scored 2 ponts) and allowed Nolan the comfort to provide offense from his old position on the wing.  After that shot of adrenalin, Duke was a different team.

This was an important test because it answered the questions as to what happens when Nolan Smith goes 5 for 18 from the floor and a very good center outplays our Bigs, and going for 23 points, 13 rebounds and fouling out Mason Plumlee with 5:20 to go. Fortunately, Nolan was 8 for 8 at the foul line and Singler had his best game of the season with 25 points & 10 rebounds. After all the poor shooting and sloppy play, Nolan and Kyle executed a perfect exhibition of a high pick and roll as the shot clock expired to help protect the lead. Singler set the pick, slid left, took the pass from a driving Smith, and drained the three. However,  the key to the season is how Coach K and his staff mentally and physically coach up the supporting cast to fill in the missing blanks. I suspect that on any given night, it will be a different combination of players. Unless they are in foul trouble, you know Smith and Singler will each play 40 minutes, score 40 or 50 points, and play great defense. So there are 120 minutes to divide up among the others, who are like a box of chocolates– you never know exactly what you’re going to get from these younger players. Coach K says that he wants his top seven players all to feel like starters. After tonight, make that eight.

A win is a win but a note of caution: Duke only won by seven points. As tough and gritty as they played tonight, other than Williams, the Terps are not a very good shooting team—39% from the floor, 53% from the line, & 21% of threes are not atypical numbers for this team. These numbers will not win most games.

Coach K on calling the quick timeout after halftime and substitution patterns:
“We couldn’t score. I thought whatever we told them at halftime was not working.  In fact I was sure it wasn’t working. We gave up seven points in a minute and two seconds and we shot two air balls I think and we didn’t run what we were supposed to run. In this league you can get knocked back because you play good people. We got knocked back and I thought at halftime we could collect ourselves a little bit but we didn’t. Then we did at the timeout, got a little bit more emotion and then we started to score. Our defense picked up immensely after that first timeout and then our offense kind of caught up to it.”

“I don’t go into a game expecting anybody to play a certain amount of minutes except Nolan and Kyle, I expect them to play most of the game. Really I am more instinctive about subbing and reactionary to how a kid is playing or what they are doing against us and things like that. You know at that moment I just felt that we needed a spark and Tyler Thornton was ready to provide that spark.”

Alan adds:

There was a huge TV snafu; and I couldn’t find the game on the tube until the second half.  [it was on a “sports extra” channel].  Duke was down 38-32.  I doubt that Duke would have won if we hadn’t found the game and watched the rest.

Tyler Thornton and Seth immediately pulled Duke out of the hole with energy and a couple of shots.  Duke never got clearance, but Maryland never put Duke in real jeopardy – i.e. like Ohio St and Kansas were yesterday — after that (but no comfort for Duke either).  Duke plays the end game as well as any team.

Big guys continue to plague Duke.  Jordan Williams was a beast (not unlike Reggie Johnson) that Duke had real trouble handling.  Mason fouled out.  Ryan did not play very much in the second half.  I see he was 0-4 from behind the arc.  Duke went smaller in the second half and got good play from the three supporting guards (the aforementioned Tyler and Seth + Dawkins).  Dawkins hit a big shot in the second half.  This was Kyle’s game.  As much as he has been slightly overshadowed by Nolan in the last few games, he really showed why this team needs him (and he delivers).  I note that he is better than Harrison Barnes (as in way better that Singler came back than if Barnes had enrolled at Duke instead of down the highway).  Kyle and Nolan played 40 minutes.  Nolan had a tough time offensively, but played like the player he is in the last few minutes.  His drive from the left side with the shot clock running down was the 1 in the 1-2 punch (Kyle’s 3 at the end was the haymaker).

With 5 road games in the next 7, we will see if Duke continues this improbable run.  The road in the ACC is difficult even in a down year.  It will tell a lot.

 DUKE – FLORIDA   STATE

Playing Florida State in Tallahassee has recently been difficult for Duke. They have lost there three times in ten years as the number one ranked team in the country. Tonight, the Seminoles, who usually play very tough defense, also played very good offense as they pressed on the perimeter and dared Duke to beat them inside. Smith and Singler had just 39  (on their low range) of 61 points but, more significantly,  no one else broke into double digits. That kind of production will not beat many teams.

Live by the three, die by the three. The numbers tell the story:  Duke shot 31% with 35 of 61 shots being threes. Florida State shot 46% with 13 of 54 being threes. Even with these numbers, Duke was in a position to win the game but the Seminoles, not Duke, finished the game off. Florida State played a very smart, intense game and certainly deserved to win. Singleton and Kitchens were the offensive lynchpins as they outscored Nolan and Kyle and the entire Florida State team outmuscled and out played Duke on both ends. Duke’s late run demonstrated how much difference hitting the three point shot can make—or not.

Gary Williams had the right game plan to attack Duke offensively and defensively but did not have all the players and the venue to pull off a win. So, it’s no secret what Duke will face from here on out. Deny the three, keep Nolan out of the paint, get back on defense, and attack the lane on offense. Now it is up to the three Big’s to man up and Andre, Seth, or Ryan to provide consistent double digit scoring to take the pressure off Nolan and Kyle. Otherwise, there will be more nights like tonight.

This game had some similarities to the Georgetown game last year in that the loss was a wakeup call and motivational lynchpin to the championship drive to the conference and national titles. However, that was a more mature, experienced team where everyone knew their roll and could execute under pressure.

Alan adds:

Here was a game that went badly from the opening tip.  There isn’t much good to say about Duke’s performance other than there was no quit and both Kyle and Nolan were semi-heroic (the semi derives from their collective shooting percentage).  The rest of the team was in collapse.  K’s rotation selection was an interesting response to the absence of any offense close to the basket.  There was a clear main five, and a supporting bench that was almost non-existent.  Kelly played 15 minutes.  The rest of the bench totaled 14 minutes [Miles played 6 minutes; Hairston 5 and Thornton 3].  Dawkins and Seth shot a combined 2-17 and Mason, who fouled out after playing 32 minutes, took only 3 shots to go with his 14 rebounds.  It was a disappointing offensive effort.  Fla. St defense is good and deserves credit, but Duke’s offense was stagnant, without penetration, and with pretty awful shot selection.  Duke hoisted up 35 3 pointers (making 11: 33 points on 35 shots), many of them forced under defensive pressure.  It is so obvious to say that Duke missed Irving’s unstoppable (in 8 games anyway) penetration.

Duke has to fix its interior somehow.  Whether it is Mason regaining his offense and playing with the smaller team (Dawkins and Curry are unlikely to have similar bad shooting games on the same night), which I think (and have said) is Duke’s best team, or having either Miles or Kelly (or both) step up and become reasonable offensive forces, this is (as I have also previously written) the key to the season Duke will have.  This game was a wind of reality, but doesn’t diminish the potential for the season.

DUKE – VIRGINIA

Duke started the game playing at the same inefficient level than they did against Florida State, except that the opposition today looked like they never found the weight room. You had to wonder who were these imposters wearing Duke jerseys as they only scored 25 points on 35% shooting(1-12 threes) in the first half and trailed by 6. Then, the Blue Devils, down by nine with fifteen minutes to go, went on a 16-2 run and scored 51 points in the second half (4-8 threes) to win by 16. How can this can this disparity be explained?

Virginia’s the seven foot center Assane Sene went to the bench with his fourth foul just three minutes into the second half. Coach K went to a smaller lineup by moving Singler to the four position and inserting Curry to go with Smith, Dawkins, and Mason Plumlee at center. Duke’s defensive intensity amped which created open court opportunities that led to a momentum shift.

Andre Dawkins finally tapped into his ability to be a crucial, big time playmaker both offensively and defensively—yes, you heard right, defensively! Once Andre drained two successive threes, stole the ball and fed Nolan for a jam, the team began to play like a contender rather than a pretender.

Mason started and had another good defensive game with 16 rebounds. Curry and Kelly also contributed at both ends. Coach K  had Thornton and Curry play some point guard, allowing Smith to operate from the wing where he is more comfortable. However, Nolan appears to be seeing the floor better as he had several very nice assists. On offense the ball went into the post more often, which, while not producing a lot of inside  points, achieved better spacing and more challenges for the defenders. But make no mistake, long periods of inept offense are not the trademark of a Final Four team. Duke cannot afford to play like they did at Florida State and the first half against Virginia and be a contender—or beat State at State on Wednesday.

It is obvious is that Tony Bennett is a terrific young coach, who is just needs a few more quality players.

Kyrie was an animated presence on the bench as usual. For whatever it means, his crutches have been replaced by a walking cast with his toes exposed so, I am told, that he can exercise them. Coach K has told the team not to plan on him returning. However, there has been no definitive statement and, apparently, as long as there is no surgery, there remains a possibility of his returning. Even if he does return, it would take some time for him to regain his early season form.

Alan adds:

Very right on.  Interesting questions: 1) What is the Miles story?  Tyler Thornton logs 2 and ½ times as many minutes as Miles (4 for Miles and 9 for Thornton).  Is he hurt?  Is it the turnovers? (2 boards and 2 turnovers in 4 minutes).  Few have fallen from so high so far so fast. [Note: he may have a touch of the flu] Dawkins was indeed the catalyst on the positive side and Sene’s 4th foul was an equally important catalyst.  And let’s not forget Nolan’s quite amazing scoring burst as well as Kyle’s solid all-around game (even though he only took 9 shots (1-6 from 3) and scored only 13.

While Mason had a good rebounding game (16 may be better than good), he is missing badly from point blank range.  He simply does not go up strong.  Also all the Duke postmen catch the ball and come out rather than be than force inside.

It was a good bounce back and got some of the bad taste of those 3 uncharacteristic halves out of Duke’s mouth.  But you can see how on the brink this season is going to be.

DUKE – NORTH CAROLINA STATE

What  a difference a year makes! What a difference a week makes! Last year  State led by Tracy Smith overpowered the Blue Devils inside to win at home 88-74. A week ago Florida State overpowered the Blue Devils at home 66-61. Tonight the brothers Plumlee, Ryan Kelly, and others did not let Duke get overpowered or out played inside or out. Duke had both their “A” defensive(+10 rebs; +4 blks) and “A” offense (51% shooting) in gear for about thirty-three  of the forty minutes. Uncharacteristically, the beginning of the second half was the only extended let down as a fourteen point lead shrunk to six.

During the course of most games, an opponent, depending how talented they are, will make a run or two or three. The key is how a team responds to that challenge. An undermanned UVA, for instance, folded when Duke finally made their run Saturday. Tonight, Duke responded to every run by tough interior defense (37%) and timely offense (92 pts).  The most encouraging development was that every player contributed—even Tyler Thornton (5 pts; 2 charges; and tough defense). The little guy has no fear—as Coach K is obviously trying to give the underclassmen the playing time to develop confidence and play to their potential. No one demonstrated more improvement than Miles Plumlee, who put up Zoubek type numbers (11pts; 8 rebs in 21 minutes), and who got a well-deserved bear hug from Coach K as he came off the floor  at the end of the game. Mason was again a tower of strength rebounding (10) and blocking shots (6) to go with 7  points.

Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler are so consistently dependable and good, it is easy to take them for granted. Again playing nearly the entire game, who stemmed all State’s runs with drives or long three’s in the final seven minutes? “Spiderman” (how does he make all those stretching, twisting drives?)  Smith attacking and Singler popping. Jay Bilas, who is the most incisive college basketball analyst this side of Bobby Knight, defined Nolan accurately as not a pure point guard but as an “attack” guard.  This was the best team effort of the year. When they play like this with everyone contributing,  Duke is capable of beating any college team.

As Coach K said: “Those seven guys outside of Nolan and Kyle, they just need experience,” Krzyzewski said. “They need to do things like they did tonight and they need to do it a few more times so they say, ‘That’s what I do. It’s not what I did on Jan. 19 against State. That’s what I do.’ That’s how roles are developed for us.”

Alan adds:

First and foremost, it was just a fun game to watch.  NC State appeared to be a very talented team with a genuine inside game and the best rebounding margin in the conference.  It does not take insight to say that Duke’s big guys had (collectively) their best game of the year and it made the difference.  One could say something nice about each of Duke’s 9 roster players.  The Plumlees, of course, get star billing – especially Miles (for whom this game was like Redemption).  There were a few defensive lapses, especially in the early and middle of the second half when State went to its huge lineup (Howell, Leslie and Smith in the front line and Wood and Harrow being very effective scoring in the backcourt).  But, when it mattered, Duke ratcheted up the defensive intensity again, and made the winning runs.

Nolan continues to be brilliant.  Coach K continues to be brilliant in his development of this team.  Kelly played more than Dawkins and contributed everywhere (though Leslie beat him badly on one drive – you could hear Rafferty intoning in his head “lingerie on the floor”.  Both he and Miles had 11 points and exuded something that has been missing from the bigs – confidence!  Everyone also showed that there is much room for improvement.  Seth got scorched and torched defensively, fouling out in 16 minutes with one turnover and no assists (but 8 points in those 16 minutes on 2-4 shooting, including 1-2 from 3 and 3-3 from the line when he was fouled on his missed 3 pointer; not bad).  Thornton really contributed, but still fouled out in 11 minutes and did create fouls at a time when fouling wasn’t smart.  Both Plumlees had rebounds in their hands that they lost and are not finishing from point blank range (especially Mason).  Kelly, too, sometimes doesn’t hold onto balls that he seems to have the best shot at corralling. Sometime their defensive rotations exposed the weak side to offensive rebounding.  Even though Duke won the battle of the boards, State impressed with its inside play.  Hairston contributed on offense, but still doesn’t have a clue defensively and isn’t strong enough yet to hold his own on the boards.  Dawkins was wonderful (especially in the first half) but seemed to sink into a funk after his (not smart) foul on Woods’s 3 point attempt (he made all 3 foul shots).  Of course, Nolan was astounding in the open court, even as he had a bit of trouble from the perimeter.  Kyle is so reliable even after a desultory first half.  They are such a pleasure to watch (and watch play together).

All in all, a very satisfying win and even more important and encouraging building block.

 DUKE – WAKE FOREST

When Duke plays an ACC team at home after they have been blown out on the road, it is often a dangerous situation. While Wake Forest is at the bottom of the standing, they are a young team with talent that has not meshed or adjusted to the talent and intensity of college basketball. Nevertheless, they played Duke even for about ten minutes, five of which I missed because I do not have a Time-Warner cable password to access espn3.com.  Spiderman Smith, who may  have lingering effects from physical contact in the State game Wednesday, was not shooting well and as a result the Duke offense was struggling.

Coach K apparently has decided that in order to cover the weaknesses of this team without Kyrie Irving  to mix and match complementary players on the floor with Smith and Singler. Today the starters were struggling, so he substituted Miles Plumlee and Tyler Thornton.  Tyler has proven that he is a smallish (for basketball)  but relentless  defensive player whose on the ball pressure takes teams out of their offensive comfort zone and is not afraid to hassle big men or take charges. He also is a solid point guard  who gives Nolan a rest from ball handling duties. From the point of this substitution, the Blue Devils defense was more effective and they started to take charge of the game and the crowd out of it. And, for the second game in a row, Miles played with confidence and intelligence to go with his athleticism and strength—and he can shot free throws.

The most important development is that Ryan Kelly is growing up right before our eyes to be the solid third starter. Among other things Ryan, presents real matchup problems and has earned his playing time by understanding how to play Duke Basketball and doing all the little things that do not necessarily show up on the stat sheet. For instance, today Singler got a rebound on the left baseline and Ryan screened two Deacons in the paint so Singler had an easy, uncontested, driving layup. Now that he bulked up over the summer, the only thing Ryan has lacked is confidence in his shot, which was supposed to be his strong suite. Well, he has been working overtime on that after practice and today his line was 20 points on 6 shots from the floor (6-6; 4-4 from 3;  4-4 from the line), 6 rebounds, 2 steals, no personal fouls, and no turnovers  in 31 minutes. Play like this is another piece of the puzzle.

Speaking of puzzling, just when you think Andre Dawkins is maturing, he just sort of disappears during some games. And when that happens so do his minutes. Today he was 1-3 from the floor, 0 rebounds and 2 turnovers in 13 ineffective minutes as Thornton played 22 effective minutes. Curry is becoming a better on ball defender as demonstrated when he dove on the floor and passed it up court to Smith for a transition basket. Mason had 10 rebounds and is channeling Zoubek by passing offensive rebounds out of the paint for open three point shots rather than shooting himself.

The bottom line is that without Kyrie this is a different team with everyone (except Singler) having different roles.  Uncharacteristically, Coach K is utilizing playing more players, trying to put the younger plays in a position to succeed in small increments to add to their confidence (while covering their weaknesses) and  waiting to see who deserves more minutes.

Alan adds:

Jim Summers’ article on DBR makes almost all the points that I wanted to make.  So, I deviate a bit.  What is the Dawkins story?  He only played 13 minutes and picked up two fouls and had two turnovers and made a three pointer.  I missed the first few minutes of the game and when I saw him, he really had that whiney bad body language and then he didn’t play much.  Sick?  Another interesting time stat is that Hairston played only 3 minutes while Tyler T played 22 and looked very capable.  Tyler played more than Curry (21 minutes) or Dawkins.

The game was so satisfying because Duke got really competent play from all 3 big guys.  Thornton’s minutes bode well for Duke’s depth and K’s plan for Duke to be a bit different depending on the opponent.  You can see the team’s role players developing.  Duke needed a third scorer when Irving went down.  They don’t have one consistent third scorer, but different guys are stepping up in different games.  So that third scorer was Ryan yesterday with an amazing stat line. Other games it has been Dawkins or either of the Plumlees.  Mason didn’t finish well yesterday but he has obviously been a rebounding machine in the ACC games.

Duke hosts BC on Thursday and then comes to my neck of the woods to play St. John’s in the World’s Most Famous Arena.

 DUKE –BOSTON COLLEGE

Boston College is an undersized  but dangerous team that has undergone an offense transplant by new head coach Steve Donahue. Gone is the grind-it-out inside muscle game; instead, it spreads the floor, attacks, and kicks to the open man. Playing no real post player takes Mason or Miles to the perimeter, leaving the lane open for back door cuts and one-on-one action.  It is a dangerous but vulnerable approach.

The makeup of this Duke team enables Coach K to be creative in whom he puts on the floor with Smith and Singler. Tonight, he started Seth Curry in place of a struggling Andre Dawkins to better defend the perimeter. The strategy worked  because Seth not only defended the perimeter well but also scored (20 pts. 5-7 threes) like his father and brother. Mason’s rebound and a patented Wes Unseld two handed seventy foot pass to Seth for an NBA three was the highlight play of the night.

Spiderman Smith (28pts, 8 assist, 1 to) fed on the Eagles lack of inside defenders. Ryan Kelly finally missed a shot but still had his usually efficient game of 14 pts, 4 rebs and 4 blks. Mason, the rebounding machine, had 14 rebounds in 23 minutes.

The key to the season is the maturation and development of the younger players—and watching that process is interesting and exciting. Second and third scoring options are there for the taking as Smith and Singler are unselfish players who welcome sharing the load. The journey gets more difficult as the Blue Devils have conference road trips coming up.

Mike Gminski, is a terrific analyst. In response to a comment about the fatigue factor of all the minutes Smith and Singler are playing, he made the cogent point   that when a team is on television, the commercial timeouts dictate that the game is essentially played in four minute increments. The result is that when you combine those with the normal team allotment, Smith and Singler have time to recover without sitting out the action.  Of course, Duke is in television more than CSI reruns.

Alan adds:

The game was not on in the NY area and I find ESPN.360 a pain.  So I followed the score on the bottom line and got details from time to time from the ESPN website.  Of course, I scoured DBR this morning.  So it seems from the comments and the box score that Duke’s big guys continue to improve, which makes the team grow.  One does wonder what the Dawkins story is.  He’s only played 23 minutes in the last two games and has one field goal.  The good news from the 3 post-Fla St games is that different guys are stepping up in scoring roles.  Curry was efficient last night (20 points on 9 shots; 5-7 from 3 and 3-4 from the foul line); Kelly too and especially against NC State.  Mason is rebounding well (2-6 from the foul line has to improve because he gets there so often.  He can’t be in the game at the end if Duke is nursing a lead) and Miles had 4 steals in 14 minutes.  All in all, good signs.  Not to forget that NC State, UVa and BC are not nationally ranked teams and are not in contention for the ACC title.  So, there is the potential of the progress being misleading.  Four of the next 6 are on the road (St Johns, Maryland are the next two; then home against NC State and UNC (a real test); and then on the road again to face Miami and UVa.  It will be interesting to see how Duke’s big guys play against Reggie Johnson and Miami, and, of course, against Zeller, Henson and Knox.  Once again hats off to Coach K, who is doing some job with this team.

 DUKE – ST.  JOHN’S

Just when it appeared the Blue Devils had found a reliable third and possibly fourth scoring option, the team played about thirty-three minutes  of their worst basketball of the year without any scorers.  Smith(32) and Singler (20) final numbers are misleading because they came long after the game was decided and St. John’s had gone into their “prevent” offense.  St. John’s outplayed Duke in every phase of the game. Behind 46-25 at the end of the first half, the Devils shot an pathetic 1-13 threes and 29% from the floor.

Previously, when the Blue Devils were not shooting well, their defense kept the game close until the offense returned from vacation. Not today. Long rebounds from missed threes turned into open court baskets for St. John’s and the half-court defense was shredded by the quicker Red Storm.

A loss is a loss and this one was a wake-up call much like the Georgetown game was last year. You can count on teams attacking Duke like St. John’s did. A full court press on defense, spread the floor and a patient, attacking half-court offense.

We will learn a great deal by Wednesday night’s game Against Maryland. If Duke responds to this loss with an impressive win in College Park and a few games later against UNC at home this game, like the Georgetown loss, will be seen as an anomaly. If not…….

Anything more would just be redundant, because Alan’s comments are so comprehensive.

Alan adds:

Well that wasn’t very much fun at all.  I’m not sure what to say after that blitzkrieg by St John’s, who played virtually a perfect game.  Duke started out defending well, but when Duke couldn’t get its offense going against the St John’s press, the defense fell apart.  The offense was very ineffective against the press.  Part of that is because to beat the press, you have to make the pressing team give up easy baskets as a result of the gambling pressure.  Duke got the ball up court (most of the time), but took time doing it and then did no more damage to the press than to begin to run the set offense 10 seconds later than normal.  Some of the bad set offense was just bad shooting.  The shots were there and most were not forced, but Duke just couldn’t shoot from long range.  (Kyle, Seth, Nolan and Dawkins were 4-26 and 1-13 for the first half.  Nolan had a wonderful stat line at the end and was all Duke had in the second half, but he had his four turnovers all in the first 10 minutes when the game got away from Duke.  Duke had only 9 assists against 17 turnovers!  Wow!

It did feel as if Duke wasn’t at all ready to be challenged in this non-conference game.  The Duke focus seemed as if it was on Maryland.  Now it surely will be.

It was a year to the day after Georgetown beat Duke like a drum in D.C.  This certainly brought back memories of that collapse.  The rest of that season turned out pretty good.

Some more thoughts.  First, Duke really was complacent and not ready to play.  I know how they felt.  I just didn’t take this game seriously.  Second, Duke’s complacency was less deserved than met the eye.  After the Fla State game, Duke had four wins where one of the role players (sometimes two) had games that made Duke fans feel good.  I’ve alluded to this before.  The four wins were against really inferior teams and Duke was not that dominant throughout the games, except maybe BC, which I did not see.  Duke beat UVa, NC State, Wake and BC.  You can’t name the starting point guard for any of those four teams.  Each one is a bottom team (except BC, which was picked pre-season at the bottom and which seems to have descended in recent games to its predicted level.  I also point out that the Duke “killer schedule” (played with Kyrie) early in the year has not panned out to be a killer schedule in retrospect: Michigan State (has been hammered and has the look of Team Dissension from the outside), Marquette (a little better than St John’s but not much and maybe not at all), Kansas State (makes the Mich St season look successful by contrast), Oregon and Butler (playing better now that the competition has receded, but handled early by mediocre teams) all look inferior to what they appeared pre-season.  So, there is a real possibility that the early season success has been accomplished by K’s genius and the undeniable talent of Smith and Singler, and that the team really is overrated.  There is very little chance to prove otherwise in this down ACC year.  Duke’s games are all low reward, but high risk.  Beating Maryland or NC State won’t be considered a big accomplishment by those who vote in the polls, but a loss (real possibility as the St John’s game makes clear) will be critical to how Duke is perceived on the National scene.

UNC  looks as if it has emerged as a power.  UNC just cremated NC State and looked dominant (far more dominant than Duke; though to be fair, Duke played State in Raleigh while UNC was home) in doing it.  So, if Duke can squeeze out two games (at Maryland and home against State), the UNC game will be quite large.

Last year Duke was 4-3 in January and we were all pretty down after the Georgetown drubbing.  This year Duke was 7-2 in January, but both losses were big downers and put a bit of a pin in the Duke balloon.  Wednesday night will be an illuminating litmus test.

DUKE – MARYLAND

While I was out of town and did not have access to my email address book, I did see the game and did talk to Alan. His comments are both prescient and comprehensive, so I will leave it to him to cover the details and just make a few observations.

Coming off a horrible loss to unranked St. John’s, I thought this game at College Park, with their crowd’s obstreperous hatred for Duke, might be the most important test of the of the season. Lose it and the possibility of an ACC Championship and number one seeding in the NCAA Tournament is severely diminished. Win it, and the possibility to beat Carolina at home and run the table on the rest of the regular season is a distinct possibility. The key is how the younger players respond to such a crushing loss on national television. We know that historically Coach K’s teams rarely lose two games in a row and he has a long memory of tough losses like the one last year at College Park–and Gary Williams teams have long dry periods between wins against Duke. On the other hand, Gary Williams gets the most out of his players.

St. John’s shredded Duke defense to get into the lane for easy baskets. Maryland is a similar type of team but with a dominant center, so Coach started Tyler Thornton for two reasons: he is the best on- the- ball defender and very proficient at running the point. This keeps Nolan Smith fresher for the end of the game when he is so effective at spreading the floor and protecting a lead and it also allows him to operate from the wing where he has more angles from which to attack the basket. Then, shockingly, he ran the  first few plays for the offensively challenged Mason Plumlee to attack Jordan Williams to let him know that he would have to play both ends of the floor.  It also had the effect of energizing Mason to have perhaps his best game at Duke. And, just as importantly, Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry also responded with terrific games because Ryan Kelly was in foul trouble and only played six minutes and because both Nolan and Kyle also were flagged with multiple fouls early.

Coach K also devised a clever ploy for Kyle to stack down low with the center and forward, sort  of like three wide receivers  stacked to one side of the line of scrimmage so he could pick off his man on a curl into the paint for a fall away jump shot. It worked like a charm as Singler hit a few and was on all night. Then, with five minutes to go Smith took over and did his Spiderman impression, driving the lane and scoring or getting fouled. The bottom line is that this Blue Devil team that was humiliated Sunday on the road on national television played their third game in a row on the road against a tough, relentless team with three straight wins with twenty thousand frenzied student waiting for an excuse to burn down College Park and they more than met the challenge as Singler and Smith played like All Americans and the younger players played like veterans. Now comes the do-it–every- game part.

Alan pre game comments:

Good Morning, Bill (possibly worth including, depending on what happens tonight)

I went back into your fabulous tract on last year’s team to see how Duke fared after the Georgetown debacle last year.  It reminded me that Duke wasn’t playing that well.  They were 4-3 in January, culminating in the Georgetown blow-out, but they had been blown out by lowly NC State just a couple of games before that and were struggling even in the wins.  Things did not turn around right after Georgetown.  Duke eked out some tough wins before the season turned when Duke played Maryland at College Park (Lance returned even though it appeared that an injury in the previous game might have been season ending; and Zoubek emerged with the first of game of what became a tremendous season – 16 points and 17 boards).  That’s when the season turned into something special.  My instinct is the way this season could turn special is Mason has that transformation.  You can see all the pieces are there.  He’s got the right attitude and is trying.  He’s just a micro-click away from morphing into a consistent force as Zoubek did last year.  Tonight will be a great test because of the skill and talent of Jordan Williams.  Lightening may not strike twice, but then again it might.

After game comments:

Mason made me proud and a prophet.  It is time for him to be consistent now.  K called it his best game at Duke.  He had a double double – 12 points (6-7 from the field) and 11 boards; a big negative is 0-3 from the line.  Foul him on a layup attempt and it is (so far) like creating a Duke turnover.  It’s time for this to be the kind of game that Duke counts on him having.  He’s got the potential to morph into this year’s Zoubek.

There were many excellent aspects to the game: 1) Duke pulled to a big lead with Nolan and Kyle on the bench with foul trouble; 2) Duke’s last 17 points of the first half were scored by players other than the two All-Americans; 3) Both All-Americans played like All-Americans when it really counted.  Nolan was astounding in the last 5 minutes (the only negative was his 2-7 from 3land).  Kyle made all the plays (including taking down some key defensive rebounds at the end); 4) Tyler Thornton joined the rotation, which shored up the defense that was so shaky against St. John’s.  He did get pressured (4 of Duke’s only 8 turnovers in 28 minutes), but the team looked confident with him running the point.  He has terrific upside.  So maybe Duke does have a freshman point guard; 5) the re-emergence of Curry and Dawkins.  K sent them a message by starting Tyler and having Tyler play more minutes than either of them.  Dawkins had 11 points in 20 minutes and Curry 8 in 23.  Curry played intense and came up with one huge rebound in traffic; 6) Miles made a left hand hook shot.  He gave 22 good minutes even though not dazzling in the stat sheet (3 points; 5 boards – 3 offense – an assist and a turnover; and 7) The Mason offensive breakout.

Here’s an interesting stat that may have hidden meaning: Duke had 0 blocked shots last night.  My take is that the shot blocking mania for Mason & co has Duke’s bigs leaving their feet too soon, resulting in openings for good interior passing and easy opponent layups (against St. John’s for sure).  That did not happen last night, and I infer that might be one of K’s post St. John’s defensive adjustments.

NC State has all the makings of yet another “trap” game.  They looked terrible against Va. Tech last night and against UNC over the weekend.  Tracy Smith is an effective inside presence – very athletic scorer around the basket even if a bit undersized.  They have the talent to be a better team.  Duke is back home and gearing up for its biggest game of the year (so far) – UNC in Cameron next Wednesday.  It will be easy for Duke to look past NC State (though maybe not so easy after being ambushed in the Garden).

What could be more enticing than two home games against NC State and UNC (bring back Everett Case, Jimmy Valvano, Frank McGuire and Dean).  Bring back the Big Four Xmas tournament.  It is amazing how much more interesting Duke Basketball is this morning than last Monday.

DUKE – NORTH CAROLINA STATE

Any concern that this might be a “trap” game for the Blue Devils as they look forward to the Carolina game quickly dissipated as they played the first half with great energy and intensity. The efficiency of the

on-the-ball pressure and off-the-ball overplays created turnovers, steals, and general offensive ineffectiveness by N.C. State,  a team in which the whole is less than the sum of the parts. One of the keys was Kyle Singler’s limiting Scott Wood, a lethal three point shooter, to a bagel in 36 minutes. Another was the play of Mason Plumlee, who has added stronger offensive moves to the basket (if not a free throw touch) to his defensive repertoire.

Coach K on Mason Plumlee’s  performance: “Mason has led with his strengths during this last month, being a rebounder and a runner and a shot-blocker. He’s helped us tremendously with that. We just felt that, along the way if you keep playing to your strengths, your scoring will come. That hasn’t been a strength for him, but it’ll come just like his free throw shooting will come at some time. Hopefully sooner than later, but the fact is he’s getting to the line. It’s just a process, but when you’re going through that process, [he can’t] forget about [his] strengths because he’s been one of the really outstanding rebounders in the country and he’s doing a heckuva job.”

Seth Curry also appears to be more comfortable playing at this level now that he has become a more effective defensive player to go along with his sweet stroke.

I went to dinner after the 53 point first half confident that unless someone was injured, Duke had put the St. John’s game behind them. When I returned home and saw that Duke had only scored 23 points in the second half, I thought it was a misprint. Watching my recording of the second half reminded me how much basketball is a game of a fraction of an inch as shots that went through the basket in the first half, rolled around and out in the second. That of course does not explain shooting about the same percentage from the free throw line (53%) as from beyond the three point arc (50%).  But that was an anomaly as Duke, even with Mason shooting 43%, is shooting in the mid 70’s for the season.

Since the unfortunate injury to Kyrie Irving, Coach K has retooled the team very nicely as Smith and Singler have stepped into the breach and the younger players have matured into their roles. With the inexplicable and selfish departure of Drew II, look for Nolan Smith against Marshall and McDonald to be the key to a Wednesday night victory against Carolina.

Coach K onKyrie Irving’s injury:
“The main thing that we’re optimistic about is that there’s more healing. You can only get so much healing in a cast. Now for the next couple weeks, he goes through therapy. He’ll have a CAT scan and an MRI in a couple weeks to see if that therapy has helped with the healing also, [and] it should. We still fell he’s not going to play and we have to go forward with that. He’s a long way from playing. Just because you’re out of a cast, you have to be 100 percent before you come back and he’s a ways from that. It’s progressing well for his career. It’s being done the right way and he’s got to be honest with us about how he’s doing.”

Alan adds:

Duke scored enough in the first half to win the game.  Duke scored 53; NC State scored 52 for the game.  Even though Duke only scored 23 points in a horrible shooting second half (19%), State never got closer than 21.  It was some first half explosion.  Only Ryan (1 board; 1 assist; 1 block 1 foul and 1 turnover) and Hairston (5 points, 2 fouls and a turnover) were not really integral to it and their respective stat lines were not bad for playing only 12 and 10 minutes respectively.  Curry had 13 points in 23 minutes and played well on defense.  One of his best games, I thought (3-5 from behind the arc).  Dawkins and Thornton were solid in 26 minutes and 23 minutes respectively even though they each made only one hoop (Dawkins’ was a three pointer in the first half that started Duke’s separation from State).  Miles played 18 minutes with only a field goal (on 4 shots) and 1-2 from the line, but had 6 boards (4 offensive).  Duke’s offensive rebounding was stellar – they got 19 of the 45 caroms off the NC State backboard.

Duke had a trio of stars in the two All-Americans and Mason.  Mason had a monster game with 7-8 from the floor for 16 points (yes, 2-7 from the foul line; ouch!), 12 boards (4 offensive), 3 blocks, 2 steals and no turnovers.  Not a bad stat line.  Nolan had an amazing first half, and even his futile shooting (from outside and finishing) couldn’t detract from how impressive his stat line is.  However, take out his 2-2 from 3 and his 6-6 from the foul line and he was just 4 for 13 from the floor.  Still, 20 points, 7 assists, 6 boards, a block and 2 steals against one turnover.  A second amazing stat line.  Kyle was his steady self-playing amazingly good defense and getting 9 boards (3 offense), but was slowed by foul trouble and uncharacteristic inaccurate shooting (5-13; 1-2 from 3; 3-6 from the foul line to go with an assist, a block, a steal and a turnover.

All in all, it was an excellent tune-up to face the resurgent Tar Heels.  They play Fla. State today; we’ll see if Drew’s shocking departure harms them or is addition by subtraction.  After today, all ACC teams will have played 9 games except Wake and Carolina (8).  I think Carolina will have a difficult game today, but I hope they win to set up what could be a classic Duke-UNC game and a viable rivalry for this season.

K is trying to keep all of us from fantasizing about Kyrie returning and being Kyrie in time for the tournament(s).  But…

 DUKE – NORTH CAROLINA

In one of the most improbable and memorable turnarounds in college basketball’s best rivalry, Carolina won the first half by 14 points but Duke won the second half by 20 to win the game by 6. It was almost as if the teams switched uniforms at half time.

How could there be such a role reversal?

In the first twenty minutes, the Tar Heels, led by Tyler Zeller and John Henson, totally dominated Duke on the boards, in the paint, and in the open court. Against Carolina, if you impatiently jack up threes that miss, there is often a long rebound that plays right in the strength of Coach William’s patented primary and secondary fast break–  and Kendall Marshall orchestrated it to perfection as Carolina just about ran the Blue Devils out of the Cameron. The defense was so ineffective that Coach K went to a zone late in the half. Duke was lucky to not be down by twenty some points as they took three offensive charges on fast breaks that negated six points.

I don’t know what Coach K said at halftime but it sure worked wonders. Contrary to rumors that there is no paint left on the walls of the locker room, Coach said that he merely told the team to calm down and play their game in four minute segments. Whatever the truth (a legend has many authors), the result was that Duke played with a lot more intensity and energy on defense and more patience and precision offense.

Such a dominant comeback was a total team effort but someone other than Smith had to put the ball in the basket. The lynchpin was Seth Curry, who was all over the floor and gave Smith’s right arm and legs a rest by getting hot and personally shooting the Blue Devils back into the game. Then Smith, in another All-American performance, took over as he scored 22 of his 34 points in the second half. The other crucial factor was that the Cameron Crazies, Duke’s invaluable sixth man, never gave up in their vocal and foot stomping support of their team—probably causing Carolina a couple of turnovers and traveling violations. While Kyle Singler, who continues to get little respect from the refs, had only 10 points (8 rebounds, & 2 assists) but held Harrison Barnes to 9 points and hit three free throws to help seal the deal. Kyle, a high school quarterback, was also the lynchpin for an crucial inbounds play in the last seventeen seconds. Carolina had caused one pressing/trapping turnover and scored to cut their deficit to four points, then made Duke call a time out when they couldn’t inbound the ball. After the time out, Nolan faked coming to the ball, broke long and Kyle hit him in stride with a perfect sixty foot pass for a dunk–game, set, match!

Savor this win because Carolina is a talented, much improved team and Duke will probably play them two more times. I don’t know what Coach Larry Drew I had on Coach Williams but Drew II is not nearly as talented a point guard as Kendall Marshall, who reminds me of a young Jason Kidd at Cal (fundamentally sound, great passer, mediocre shooter). Drew II,  as he modestly referred to himself, did Coach Smith and the Carolina team a huge favor by taking his game and ego back to LA. If, as rumored, he had left after last year, this team would be even further along.

Similarly, Tyler Thornton’s injury gave Seth Curry an opportunity to star. As I noted when Kyrie was injured, Seth could  be the player to spell Nolan Smith at the point (he  had 5 assists to go with his 22 points). That’s not a knock on Tyler Thornton but I think that he is role player not a starter. Seth has an instinct to be at the right place at the right time and, now that his defense and confidence have improved, he just brings a lot to the floor. His comments after the game are interesting: “It was more than what I thought it would be.  The atmosphere was crazy, just seeing all the people come back for Duke-Carolina that in previous games I watched them play.  I was looking around before the game, and I thinking that this is what I dreamed about growing up.  So just coming out, playing well, and getting that win just adds to that classic rivalry.”

On a lighter note: a recently departed North Carolina basketball coach was quoted as telling his players Duke had ugly cheerleaders. That is debatable as some of his other judgments but I don’t think it is debatable that Duke has really attractive mothers and Seth Curry’s mom is right there with Josh McRobert’s, Jon Scheyer’s, and Kyle Singler’s as ladies who could pass for co-eds—and the camera loves them.

Alan adds:

Well, our conversation after the second half was just a tad more upbeat than that at half-time.  I am in Norfolk for court tomorrow.  I went to the gym to ride the exercise bike while I watched the desultory performance.  As I told you, Duke in the first half reminded me of the Jim Carroll story from “The Basketball Diaries”.  The high schoolers always went to Central Park before the game to score drugs — uppers (for before the game) and downers (for after the game).  They mixed them up before one game and were down 20 in the first five minutes.  Duke looked like that.  Beaten to every loose ball and rebound, humiliated by the UNC bigs, stuffed inside whether on drives or post-ups.  Barnes looked superior to Singler (unthinkable).  So, I left the gym and went to the bar (I know Dean Cox would have approved).

It was a good move.  A great sports bar by the hotel (Black and Tans to go with a good steak sandwich). The sauce was Nolan’s amazing second half.  But wait.  We need to look at Seth Curry’s contribution as he played Robin (as you like to analogize) to Nolan’s Batman.  Seth played 35 minutes (K does go with who is playing well) and scored 22 points on 12 shots (6-7 inside the arc); 4-5 from the line; 5 assists; 6 rebounds (4 offensive) and a steal.  He and Nolan had 54 points between them.  Nolan was simply awesome.  Kyle shot so poorly you wondered (3-17).  The final, and in truth, probably the most important aspect of the Duke second half was their defense.  Carolina was held to 30 points in the second half while Duke scored 50.  Quite amazing.

I think this was as good a comeback as I can remember.  It was thrilling and fun.  I believe this will be a serious jump in how this team thinks of itself.  It could be a season changer. We will see.   For one night the second half had us all giddy.

DUKE – MIAMI 

Coming off a thrilling victory against North Carolina, this was a challenging game for Duke—as UNC’s  two point win at Clemson demonstrated. In addition to being a never easy road game, Nolan Smith committed two early fouls and received a poke in  the eye that sent him to the locker room for treatment. Visions of a Jon Scheyer type eye injury flashed through my mind. However, Seth, Mason, Miles, Ryan, and Tyler filled the breach with a variety of impressive contributions and Nolan returned to score to score 16 second half points.

Seth had 16 points, 5 steals and 4 rebounds; Mason had 12 points, 5 rebounds, & 3 pretty assists; Miles played  a strong, physical defense against 6’ 10” 300 lb. Reggie Johnson; Ryan, playing on a recently sprained ankle was an efficient and timely 4-5 from the floor; and Tyler hit 6 straight free throws in the last minute. The only mystery was Andre Dawkins, who continues his inexplicable disappearing act. Fortunately, Seth Curry, a physically less gifted player (but, as most of us know a good work ethic and high basketball IQ trumps athleticism) is maturing right before our eyes into a very complete playmaker in all aspects of the game (a team high 35 steals) as well as a third reliable, lethal shooter who now is able create his own shot from anywhere on the floor. Kyle Singler appears to be assuming the Shane Battier role of doing whatever is needed to balance the team and produce a victory. Against Miami, it was 14 points, defense, rebounding, and committing no turnovers while inbounding the ball against the Hurricane’s press.

Tonight, the most impressive development was that the points and assists came from anyone and anywhere. Holy Wilt the Stilt, Mason even hit two free throws—in a row! The bottom line is that, after the loss of Kyrie Irving,  this team is retooling  and developing into more than just a two trick pony.

Mike Gminski, the anti-Dick Vitale, was one of the announcers. He reminds me of Ray Scott, the announcer for the Green Bay Packers during the Lombardi era—a Detective Joe Friday “Just the facts, Ma’am” type. He adds calm, informative, knowledgeable commentary at the appropriate time and allows the action on the floor speak for itself, which is a welcome relief to a traditionalist like me.

Alan adds:

What a joy to watch!  My adrenalin never ran.  Even when Duke was behind in the early going, I felt confident.  Duke played well; Miami just shot amazingly well and Duke needed to tighten up the defense.  I enjoyed watching this excellent performance.  The defense against Reggie Johnson was very effective, even though his numbers were not paltry.  In Durham, he was a man among boys and only foul trouble, which limited him to 22 minutes, kept him from dismantling Duke’s interior.  Last night, he was handled by Duke’s bigs effectively.  Not perfectly; but Miles (especially), Mason, and the exquisitely inventive double teams — sometimes Mason; sometimes Curry – kept Johnson from impacting the game more than slightly.  The big guys all exuded confidence with the ball and are improving visibly.  I am gaining confidence that our big guys can compete at a high level.  I believe the second half against UNC may have been a turning point for them.  They were so embarrassed in that first half.

Kelly regained his shooting touch, which was a nice complement to the zone attack.  He hit 3 nice shots from just below the foul line – the open spot in the Miami zone.  Thornton made real contributions.  You can see K respects and trusts him.  He’s in at the end hitting 6-6 on crucial foul shots at crunch time.  I think Thornton reminds K of K as a player (Sean Dockery a bit also).  Duke’s rotation is a strong 8 (only Josh Hairston is not in it of the 9 scholarship players Duke has).

Now the fun of discussing the three stars.  Yes, three.  Curry’s game yesterday was as good as what Irving did in the first 8.  He played 39 minutes with panache, energy, calm and clutch scoring.  Four boards were impressive.  16 points on 10 shots.  The defense and 5 steals were impressive.  Truthfully, his performance was Irvingesq yesterday.  I agree with Bill that Singler is morphing into Shane.  That is as high a compliment as can be given (After all, Shane was Player of the Year and MVP on a National Championship Team).  He is so steady; can score when needed making difficult shots, he is a tough rebounder, reliable ball handler and great defender.  Nolan’s stats are dwarfing Kyle’s, but no one should underestimate how valuable Kyle is to this team.  Nolan in the second half was…well. Nolan.  He gets to the rim as well as anyone.  He has just turned into a great college basketball player.  He has no weakness in his game on either end of the court.  He’s an amazing rebounder and collector of loose balls.  He’s offensive magic and defensive perseverance.

So, it was a very good game for Duke.  Here’s a sobering thought, though.  The only team that Duke has beaten this year that is currently ranked in the top 25 is UNC.  Those seemingly great early season (w Kyrie) wins against Marquette; Michigan St; Kansas State, Butler and Oregon turn out to be against overrated mediocre teams that are now unranked and not really contenders in their own conference (except Butler). [Yes, Alan, but some teams are more formidable at the beginning of the season and, because of injuries and a variety of other reasons, fade while others become stronger. UNC is an example of the latter.]   Virginia in C’ville, Ga. Tech and Temple (ranked for now) at home before the sort of brutal last three regular season games: at Va. Tech; home against Clemson and UNC at Chapel Hill.

DUKE – VIRGINIA

The only good things to be said about this game is that, hopefully, Duke got this offensive offense play out of their system – 56 points, 18 turnovers, Singler with only 2 points, only  two players in double figures, and that it is a relief to get a win on the road in this part of the season.  Part of lowest point total of the year was the result of the strategy of Coach Tony Bennett’s  depleted Cavaliers; part of it was sloppy execution on the part of the Blue Devils.

The good news is that Nolan Smith continued to play like an All American,  Player of the Year candidate and Duke’s defense was very good and/or Virginia’s offense was  very bad (they shot 29% from the floor); Ryan Kelly continued his fundamentally sound and subtle but impressively efficient play ( 5-7, 5 rebounds, 4 blocks, 1 steal) as he consistently displays a very high basketball IQ; the Plumlees made the most  impressive assists of the night: Mason on a steal and behind the back pass to Kelly for a dunk and Miles on a half court pass off a rebound to Nolan for a breakaway three point play just before the half to send Duke into the locker room up by eight.

While Seth Curry and the three big men are performing on a much higher level, it is difficult to imagine the Blue Devils running the table in the regular season much less being a Final Four team with Kyle Singler shooting like he has recently (15-47 the last four games) and Andre Dawkins appearing clueless on offense.

Alan adds:

Neither team ever thought the outcome of the game was in doubt.  That about sums it up.  UVa was simply awful at the offensive end.  It is a whole different game if UVa simply makes its wide open shots.  But they did not, and Duke’s defense did not let up much (except for those open shots; adjustments would have been made if any had actually gone in).  It was an odd game to be sure.  Duke looked very ragged on the offensive end.  The box score reveals the oddities of the game.  Minutes played always gives an insight into Coach K’s mindset.  Only 3 players played less than 23 minutes: Hairston (2); Thornton (5) and Miles (13).  It wasn’t that Miles was playing badly at all (6 boards in 13 minutes); it was that Ryan Kelly and Mason were playing very efficiently.  Kelly was superlative.  Only Nolan (36) and Curry (39) played more minutes than Ryan (33).  Ryan made the most of his minutes: 5-7 for 11 points; 5 boards; 4 blocks and a steal against 1 turnover and 3 fouls.  No wonder Miles was on the bench so much.  Mason also had an efficient game and his athleticism is being harnessed.  In 23 minutes he was 4-5 for 9 points and 9 boards; 3 assists (one had real panache) a block and a steal (3 turnovers).  Duke was dominant close to the basket.

The other stat that gives insight into K’s assessment of the team is Curry’s minutes.  Curry was not hot and his shot selection occasionally left something to be desired.  He played almost the entire game; most minutes of any Duke player and now seems to be the point guard (sort of).  He’s becoming a really good defender.  He had a block and 3 steals for an efficient floor game even though his shooting was off (2-8; 1-5 from 3land).

Nolan impresses every time these days.  22 out of Duke’s 56 points.  He is so athletic.  Watch his rebounding.  Also his quickness to loose balls and in the open court.  He has become a complete player, leader, and should have his jersey in the rafters.  He and Singler are wonderful to watch.  I have no concern about Singler.  If he was going to have an off-game, you knew it would be when Duke didn’t need him.  No matter his shooting; he is such a hard-nosed defender and tough rebounder.  His ball handling is a big part of Duke’s game.  He is security; though last night Security’s shot was really missing.  Which brings me to Duke’s enigma that has to be solved if Duke is going to have a successful post-season: Andre Dawkins.  What is up with his disappearance?  He played 26 minutes and took only 3 shots (all 3s; making 1).  I thought he looked a step late on defense.  No blocks, assists or steals.  3 boards.  No turnovers either, but 3 fouls.  He is not playing up to his considerable potential (He’s been a Bill favorite for 2 years)  It is time for Andre to become a significant contributor.

Home for 3 of the next five, but it is a tough schedule.  Temple is ranked and is sort of a trap game.  Va. Tech and UNC on the road will be very difficult games for Duke.  Ga. Tech on Sunday and Clemson at home in between Hokies and Heels.  The season is heading toward the REAL STUFF.

DUKE – GEORGIA TCH

Home for 3 of the next five, but it is a tough schedule.  Temple is ranked and is sort of a trap game.  Va. Tech and UNC on the road will be very difficult games for Duke.  Ga. Tech on Sunday and Clemson at home in between Hokies and Heels.  The season is heading toward the REAL STUFF.

Duke got off to another slow start, falling behind by five against Georgia Tech. For about ten minutes, it looked as though all of the top five teams might lose this weekend.  However, I felt like I had seen this movie before and know that a slow start is the M.O. of this team. We also know that Coach K stresses finishing the first half strong, starting the second half strong and, of course, finishing strong. So, I wasn’t surprised when the Blue Devils finally got in gear and pulled away by nine at the half. However, it was surprising that it happened with Nolan Smith on the bench for an extended period with two early fouls and that Mason Plumlee and Tyler Thornton were the catalysts.

Duke’s most talented teams have had the ability to dominate from start to finish. However, like last year’s team, the 2011 version is not yet a team capable of dominating for forty minutes. But, it does have its own personality, rhythm, and formula for winning games. One characteristic this team does have in common with other top Blue Devil teams  is that they are mentally tough, are able to take a punch, and are in better conditioned than their opponent (think Carolina).

Duke’s pressing, overplaying defense can be broken down for easy baskets—especially early in a game when an opponent is fresh and filled with adrenalin. However, as the game progresses, the pressure usually wears an opponent down mentally and physically so that they make mistakes that lead to patented Duke offensive runs. An added feature was that tonight, Coach K finally had enough of the referees letting Tech play rugby style defense on Smith and Singler while calling eight touch fouls in eight minutes on the Blue Devils. On the ninth, Thornton, who was his usual annoying self in defending Shumpert, was called for a foul after the Tech guard hit Tyler with a forearm and knocked him to the ground right in front of Coach K, who was then awarded a Technical Foul for his unique body of work in commenting on the calls. That apparently helped jump start the Blue Devils to begin taking charge of the game.

Other than Singler shooting better and Smith getting his usual twenty or thirty points, the continued improvement of Mason Plumlee, who almost had a double- double and whose offensive rebounding and redirection of the ball to an open Seth Curry was reminiscent of Brian Zoubek, Ryan Kelly, and Tyler Thornton, who even added some offense (6 pts) to his defense, was an encouraging development.

Home against Temple, at Virginia Tech,  home against Clemson,  UNC at Chapel Hill,  then on to tournament time and March Madness!

Note: I have established a website: wemillerii.wordpress.com  that has all the Duke Basketball Playbook postings from both last year and this year plus  “Remembering Rosecroft”, an article recently published in the Horseman Magazine about my family’s involvement in harness racing and the race track they built in suburban Washington, DC.

Alan adds:

I confess that I voluntarily missed the game …in order to participate in a belated Valentine’s Day celebration.  No only warranted; but I’d do it again.

I turned the game on once as Tech took a 24-23 lead.  I was still confident. So, my comments are brief: Andre Dawkins and Miles played 9 minutes only each.  It was a rotation of 6 (Josh had 4 and is pretty much an afterthought for the competitive remainder of the season)  with Tyler getting 24 minutes.  The bench contributed only 8 points (Tyler had 6 of them; Miles the other deuce).  Dawkins was scoreless.  The five starters all had good stat lines.  The final four games should/could be difficult.  Temple is a top 25 team and both Va Tech (now desperate for a tourney bid that might only come if they beat Duke) and Carolina away.  Only Clemson at home looks on the surface to be less formidable – the classic trap scenario.

Watching Kelly, Mason, Seth and Tyler reach for consistency in supporting roles is our work for the next couple of weeks.

DUKE – TEMPLE

Last night I found a more enjoyable way to watch this Duke team play. I recorded the game, ate dinner at the normal time, tuned in live with five minutes to go in the half, and caught the surge and the momentum changing,  buzzer beater by Curry to put Duke up by seven. Then, I went back and watched the game commercial free from the beginning without the anxiety of wondering when the Blue Devils would get in gear and take control of the game.

The second half went as scripted as Singler powered the Devils to a twelve point lead in the first few minutes and they cruised home against a well- coached but under manned Temple team. Speaking of Singler, offensively he played more like he did at Maryland by not settling for long jumpers but rather attacking his defender and the basket with strength not finesse. Duke is a lot more lethal when he, like Nolan and Mason, is aggressive, attack, and finish strong—or go to the line. Fortunately, tonight the referees remembered to bring their whistles. This approach also tends to create foul trouble for an opponent and puts Duke on the foul line. [Historically, the best Duke teams have made more free throw than their opponents attempt. That is what an aggressive offense does for a team. More about that later from Knight.]

Other than Singler having a big scoring night, this was an impressive team win against a top 25 team where everyone contributed. Once again, Tyler Thornton was the catalyst for a struggling offense in the first half; Seth Curry hit timely threes and demonstrated that he sees the whole floor with four nice assists; Mason had 12 rebounds;  Ryan Kelly played his usual heady game; Nolan was quieter than usual on offense but I felt part of that was because he sensed Kyle was hot and he needed a night like this; and Andre Dawkins hit two threes, one of which, was about from the scorer’s table as the shot clock ran down. All in all, this was the kind of resilient, versatile performance you like to see from your team late in the season.

Notes: Listening Bobby Knight do the commentary on any game is a seminar on the game of basketball. Last night, he commented that the were too many unnecessary fouls and that a foul is “at least as important as a turnover”….A comforting thought is that Coach K has the choice of six players (Smith, Singler, Kelly, Curry, Dawkins, and Thornton) who shoot 80% or better from the free throw line to have on the floor at the end of a game…This summer Duke is going to play in China (where a 200 acre satellite campus is being built in Kunshan and Dubai (if it doesn’t go bye-bye and implode with the rest of the Middle Eastern tyrannical quisi-monarchies/dictatorships) as Duke Basketball does their part to expand the Duke brand worldwide.

Alan adds:

When is the last time that Duke shot well in the first half.  Duke is ahead by 7, but Temple has played better.  They have worked hard for really good shots and missed them.  Duke has 11 field goals and Temple 10.  However Duke missed more shots than Temple has taken (26-25).  So Duke is 11-37.  Thank God for Tyler Thornton.  He’s Duke’s second leading scorer (6 points on 2 shots).  Nolan is 2-8 and Kyle is 3-8.  The four big guys (including Hairston) have a single bucket (Kelly, who is also 0-3 from behind the arc) for two points among the four of them.  Although Temple only scored 27, they moved the ball well and, as Coach Knight has been eloquent at demonstrating, Temple really exploited the double team on the ball screen.  They should have had another 10 points on lay ups (and they are 1-5 from the foul line compared to Duke 8-9).  Games have two halves, but this growing Duke tradition of turnovers, sloppy defense and bad shooting in the first half does not make for confidence. More later.

The motto of the Duke season is becoming, “Thank God the game has two halves.”

Obviously, the offense awakened and looked efficient in the second half.  Duke shot lights out in the second half (55% from the field; even better from 3; and perfect 8-8 from the line).  Curry, Smith and Dawkins were 8-13 from behind the arc.  In the second half, Duke had 11 assists (only 4 turnovers).  A complete reversal from the first half.  I do think Temple wore down and was not nearly as energetic on defense or on the boards as the game progressed.  But they never stopped passing the ball and getting good shots out of their offense.  I thought Duke’s defense really lagged in the second half.  Temple scored on a bunch of consecutive possessions, but gained no ground because of Duke’s efficient second half offense.  Welcome back Kyle, who still gets enormous credit for his defensive effort last night.  He is some wonderful player.  He is quietly becoming Battier-like in his overall ability and persona.

The big guys played better in the second half, and Tyler gave Duke a nice lift.  But to pick up on Knight’s erudition about fouls (good and bad), Tyler committed 4 in 11 minutes.  Duke’s bench is contracting.  Together, the entire bench played only 25 minutes – that’s four players.  Of the 25, Tyler got 11.  Dawkins played only 7 minutes (2-2 from 3) and Hairston 3.  Most puzzling is the quiet demise of Miles.  His facial expression on the bench was revealing.  He played only 4 horribly unproductive minutes (0-1; 2 fouls and a turnover) without scoring.  Hope he bounces back because we will need his power as the tournament opponents increase in quality.  Right now he looks miserable.  On to Saturday night’s important game against Va. Tech.

[Bill comments: Although the starting lineup appears established, the depth of this team gives Coach K the flexibility (unlike last year)  to adjust the players to the facts on the floor. Making adjustments during the heat of competition separates the great coaches from the good coaches. And these adjustments might be a partial explanation for the Blue Devils slow starts and fast finishes. The last few games, Duke’s opponents have played one center  and four guards and/or small forwards. Coach matched that by mostly alternating Mason and Ryan at center. In this small man matchup,  Miles the odd man out because Mason and Ryan are more flexible and are playing better. However, against bigger, more physical teams I suspect we will see more minutes for Miles as he is an antidote for physical, power players.]

DUKE – VIRGINIA TECH 

Coach Seth Greenberg sold this game to his Tech team and fans as their ticket to the NCAA Tournament, which had been denied them recently. The team responded by outplaying Duke in every facet except free throw shooting and blocked shots. If you heard that star guard Malcolm Delaney only scored 11 points, would you thought that Va. Tech won? Conversely, if you heard that Duke only scored 60 points, would you thought that Duke won? Well, that is a good indication of how well the entire Hokie team played offensively (they had five players in double figures) and defensively. Switching from man-to-man to zone coverage and back again was effective in keeping Nolan Smith out of the paint as other players settled for jumpers, most of which missed ( the Blue Devils only shot 39% from the floor). A team cannot consistently win by the three alone.

Nevertheless, somehow Duke was only down 33-31 at the half and thanks mainly to Kyle Singler’s hustle plays was up by five with five minutes to play. Usually, at this stage of a game, Duke executes well and wins. However, tonight the Blue Devils didn’t because Virginia Tech made plays and they didn’t. Duke scored only five points in the final six minutes. Singler misfired on three successive open threes, Tech thwarted Smith’s drives, no one else stepped up while Bell and Delaney did. The bottom line is that Virginia Tech deserved the win and the margin would have been more if they had not missed nine free throws.

Seth Curry, whose parents were star athletes at Virginia Tech (basketball & volleyball) and who has emerged as the third essential playmaker since Kyrie was injured, had a miserable night. He only played 15 minutes because he was in foul trouble from the first few minutes and scored no points. While Andre Dawkins (2) and Tyler Thornton(1) hit threes, Ryan Kelly was 1-6 for 2 points so there was no third player in double digits as Smith and Singler scored 40 of Duke’s 60 points. Sixty points will not win many games.

The only positive aspect of this game is that no one was injured and it was not a tournament game. Next play.

Alan comments:

Context is everything sometimes.  Va. Tech came off the annual bubble with what has to be their most satisfying win in a long time.  Just 5 guys (they got 7 minutes and no points off their bench) who all scored in double figures and all made clutch plays when it really counted.  Hats off to them!  On the other hand, this was the last game that Duke could lose without considerable damage.  Next up is senior night against Clemson and a game that sort of has some meaning against Carolina (now it’s for the ACC regular season championship).  Duke played well at the end of the first half and for the first 9 minutes of the second half.  Duke had 51 points and a 6 point lead with 11:11 to go.  Kyle had made a 3 (after missing one) on an offensive rebound and kick out and pass.  From there on, he took a lot of shots, but made only a lay-up and 2 free throws.  In the last minutes it was only Mason (steal and dunk + a foul shot) who scored.  It was so not Duke basketball in the last 4 + minutes of the game.

Once again the Duke bigs failed to deliver in tough situations.  Mason had good numbers, but all 3  were out-toughed inside in the first half.  Miles missed the dunk in a tie game with 4 minutes to go.  I actually think that was one of the major turning points.  As you pointed out, Kelly scored only a deuce and Miles not at all.  Dawkins and Thornton were 3-5 from 3land.  The rest of the team was 1-15.  Kyle and Nolan combined for 1-10.  Hopefully, this will be analogous to the Maryland game at the end of last year.

This has been a great season so far, and yet, it hangs completely in the balance.  ACC regular season title (UNC game); ACC tournament; NCAA.  We could look back at the end at a spectacular year, a disappointing year, or anything in between.  And the wild card is….”being op(toe)mistic” [Kyrie’s tweet from 2 days ago].

DUKE – CLEMSON 

On Senior Night at Cameron in a must win game for both teams, Kyle Singler (18 points. 11 rebounds and innumerable heady, hustle plays of winning plays that do not appear on the stat sheet) and Nolan Smith (21 pts. 7 assists and two emphatic late game finishes) demonstrated why they will be remembered as two of the great tandems in Duke basketball history.

Kyle was a starter and key contributor from his first game while playing out of position in the post and gradually moving to his present position on the wing. In all the four years, he never complained, he just did whatever job was needed and played every minute of every game as though it was for the NCAA Championship. When asked what position Singler played, Coach K responded: “He plays winner!”

It wasn’t always that way for Nolan. He started out as a project—a  role player ticketed as a point guard. He struggled for playing time in his first year, continued to struggle (compounded by the lingering effects of a concussion at Maryland) in his second, considered transferring that summer when his mentor Johnny Dawkins left for Stanford before finally finding his confidence and his game last year in the Championship Season. This year when Kyrie went down, Nolan was forced from his comfort zone on the wing to the less comfortable point position at the top of the key. He responded by having a Player of the Year Season. It difficult to remember any player who has improved more than Nolan Smith has in his four years at Duke nor anyone who has enjoyed the his last two more. While Nolan has evolved into the flashier player and a great ankle breaking finisher, Kyle has been a constant four year leader- by-example. They came in together, won a National Championship  and multiple ACC Championships together, will graduate together, and their jerseys should hang together in the rafters over Coach K Court as these two players are the personification of  Duke Basketball.

However, they did not win this game alone. Had it not been for the efficient scoring (18 pts.) and defense of Seth Curry, whose presence was sorely missed in the loss to Virginia Tech, and the interior defense of Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly, and Kyle Singler, this sometimes ugly contest, aided and abetted by 20 Duke turnovers, against a tenacious Clemson team, could have been a second disappointing loss. And speaking of Mason, last night we saw glimpses of a player tapping into a deep talent pool that goes beyond mere athleticism: a jump hook, recognition of defensive breakdown for a drive and a jam, 4-5 from the line, and passing skills rarely seen in a player so big.

There were a lack of calls and inconsistent calls that make you wonder what players the refs were watching or that maybe they suffered from ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). Historically, All American players in the ACC  have been given the benefit of the doubt—especially on offense. That has not been the case all year with Singler and was not that way tonight with both he and Smith.

Notes:  In their four years, Singler and Smith, Blue Devils have an overall record of 120-21 (.851) and a 50-13 (.794) record in ACC play and  65-2 in Cameron. Duke has now won 36 consecutive home games, the longest current streak in the NCAA. It is also tied for the third longest streak in school history.

Alan adds:

Senior night turned out to be a tense, but satisfying game.  Duke’s defense was as good as it has been all year.  The interior was way above even Duke par, and the perimeter defense was tough and fun to watch.  Tyler is a gadfly; other point guards must hate it when he comes into the game.  That said, all we can say is the first half – yes, or part – of the season has been successfully completed.  Now the real season starts:  Carolina for the ACC regular season championship and then the two tournaments.  Here are some thoughts as the real (in one sense only) season arrives:

I am concerned that Nolan is wearing down ala JJ.  He is no longer shooting well, especially around the basket.  He has been – maybe more than anything else – an incredible finisher when he gets anywhere near the rim.  He has displayed the full arsenal: getting to the rim, acrobatic lay-ups; pull ups; short floaters – the whole show.  It is only in the last couple of games that he has started missing.  Yes he scored 21 last night and a couple were really clutch, but he took 20 shots.  2-6 from 3 and 5-14 from 2.  He missed close to the rim a lot and he got blocked a lot.  And he is fouling on his drives.  He has been fabulous; I am just concerned about the recent trend.

Dawkins and Miles have just gone south as far as being effective.  Each played 6 minutes and each had 0 points.  Miles was 0-1 with a two boards and a foul.  Andre had a board and a turnover.  This leaves Duke with a rotation of 6 only.  Thornton played 18 minutes and Kelly 23; otherwise the four starters are playing big minutes.

Curry played a fantastic game.  A wonderful bounce back from his Va. Tech nightmare.  Duke needs a third scorer.  Last night he was wonderfully efficient, playing good defense, fighting for loose balls and handling it well.  He shot 3-6 from downtown and 4-7 from 2 plus 3-3 from the line.  If he can be consistent during the second half, Duke will be formidable.  Kelly too has been inconsistent.  I thought he looked very good last night, playing defense, and getting tough rebounds.  He was 2-2 from the field for 5 points and had 2 blocks to go with his 6 boards in 23 minutes (one turnover).  If he could do that consistently, that would be a big plus.  The concern is these two guys are good enough to play well against the teams that are a shade below elite, but not against the really elite teams.  I think Carolina is a good litmus, because they are playing like an elite team.  They are improving by leaps and bounds.  Both Marshall and Barnes have emerged and Carolina goes as its freshmen go.

We are watching the maturing and blossoming of Mason.  You can see everyone getting more comfortable with him handling the ball.  His pass to Singler was awesome.  He is getting tough rebounds and had 5 blocks last night, anchoring the interior defense.  His growth has been key and fun to watch.

Singler has been everything Bill said for four years.  He is such a wonderful defender.  He can guard any sized player effectively.  He is as accomplished on the perimeter as he is around the rim.  He understands the system so well.  Last night – as he has been throughout – he was an amazing rebounder.  He is a reliable foul shooter and ball handler (though he did get a bit exuberant last night).  He is just a great college player.  Reminds me a whole lot of Battier.

Saturday will be fun as will the next few weeks be.

DUKE – UNC 

What’s to make of a Duke team that is outplayed and outhustled in a game on national nighttime television against arch rival North Carolina for the regular season ACC Title ?

There is no way to sugarcoat it. Except for a brief run at the beginning of the second half, Duke shot and defended poorly—and the Tar Heels didn’t. An sign of how the game would unfold was that the Blue Devils couldn’t even score a point in the opening minutes against essentially the Carolina Blue team of seldom seen seniors, who started in an old Dean Smith tradition of honoring the graduating players.

Since the last five minutes of the Virginia Tech game, maybe longer, the Blue Devils have not  played like a fresh, improving, confident team and this game just puts an exclamation point on that fact. Since Kyrie Irving went down, inconsistent interior scoring has been the Achilles heel of this team, but good defense and Nolan Smith’s POY performances have masked this deficiency. Tonight, the defense and others, except for Curry, were missing in action. Recently, when Kyle Singler is turned into a three point shooter, he is just another offensive player.  Duke was a step slow to loose balls, rebounds, rotation into weak side help, and, except for Curry’s six threes, a pathetic 0-22 from beyond the arc. As had been pointed out: win by the three and die by the three—and they usually become tougher to hit as the season and the tournaments grind on. Smith (30 pts) and Curry (20 pts) were the only players in double figures. The rest of the stats, except for free throw shooting, are too one sided to dwell upon.

All indications lead to the inescapable conclusion that this was the performance of a team physically and emotionally exhausted from the overachieving efforts to meet high expectations after the loss of a franchise point guard.

On the other hand, Carolina has been rejuvenated by Larry Drew II’s fortunate defection as it gave freshman Kendall Marshall the opportunity to showcase his skills as the best freshman college assist guard since Jason Kidd was at California and being the catalyst for unleashing skills of a talented and well balanced offense that is playing vintage Carolina Basketball, which is a wonderful thing to watch—unless you are their opponent.

While this was an disappointing performance, we will learn a lot more about the resiliency  of this Duke team next week during  the ACC  Tournament. Seth Curry rebounded from a horrible experience against Virginia Tech to play his best basketball in these next two games against Clemson and UNC. If any combination of Singler, Kelly, the Plumlees, and/or Dawkins, whose demeanor and shooting touch have gone south, can catch fire to compliment Smith and Curry, this team can become a contender–and if anyone can make that happen, it is Coach K.

Alan adds:

It would be a mistake to think last night’s first half was just a replay of the first half of the first game at Cameron.  At Cameron, Duke played terribly in the first half.  Last night Duke played very well in the first half; but, Carolina would have led the Celtics at half time. [Bill disagrees: How could Duke have played well defensively and given up 51 first half points, many of which was due to slow rotating weak side help down low, not threes?]  They played an almost perfect first half and Duke played well, but was missing from long range.  I strongly suspected that the shooting percentages of the first half would reverse and the season long assets and weaknesses of the two teams would be visible.  It all turned to dust when Carolina withstood the first push of the second half when Duke reduced the margin to five.

The second half was all bad news.  Carolina really might be that good and just plain the better team.  Or maybe it was just a cold shooting night for a good team.  But here are some depressing facts: 1) Harrison Barnes completely outplayed Singler (and Singler still played great defense) all over the court; 2) Barnes isn’t even the best freshman on his own team; 3) Duke was wholly outplayed on the interior at both end, not only by Zeller and Henson, but by Knox and Ward; 4) Mason was scoreless 5) Kelly had a disappointing game at both ends; 6) Duke has no post-up game – when the ball goes inside a turnover is as likely as a bucket; and, finally Kyle had 8 points.

It was a dreadful performance by all except Nolan (not less than heroic, but he couldn’t keep Kendall out of the paint) and Curry (neither could he) – and Miles (a pleasant surprise).  Kendall is amazing.  What a treat it would be to see him go against Kyrie.  In the tournament.

The season is now on the brink.  Duke could still earn a #1 by winning the ACC tournament.  Winning it will be this team’s signature achievement; losing it will tarnish the season somewhat.

 ACC  TOURNAMENT

DUKE – MARYLAND

Coming off an unimpressive performance against North Carolina and with Nolan Smith having his worst game of the year before getting hurt with seven minutes to play, the Blue Devils were in a position to lose to a gritty Maryland team that always plays them Gary Williams tough. Not only did Kyle Singler (29 pts, 9 rebs, the flawless trigger man against the press & many hustle plays) take up the challenge but also it was the best offensive team performance of the year. Only up five when Nolan went down with a toe injury (have we seen this movie before?), Seth Curry took over at the point with a flawless closing night performance worthy of Nolan or Kyrie at their best.

Seth commented: “Once Kyrie went down I have been working on all aspects of my game, not just spacing the floor and shooting. And when Nolan went down today it kind of went back to last year in practice when I was running the Blue Team and handling the ball a lot and getting us into our sets so I was definitely comfortable out there and I didn’t feel any pressure at all.”

Tommy Amaker, Johnny Dawkins, Bobby Hurley, Jason Williams, Chris Duhon, Jon Scheyer, Kyrie, Nolan, Seth—Duke and North Carolina always seem to have a playmaker guard who know how win tight games.

Miles Plumlee, who started, almost had a double-double; Ryan Kelly (11 pts), had about a point a minute off the bench;  Andre Dawkins finally emerged from his funk and played with confidence and purpose at both ends of the floor; and Mason Plumlee did have a double-double, 5 assists and demonstrated a heady maturity in ball possession management (calling a time out in a floor burn scrum with Singler in momentary possession of the ball) and player management (pulling Seth away from a confrontation with a Terp player).

The true test of the character of a team or a player is how they respond to a disappointing loss, a poor performance, or the loss of a key teammate. Tonight’s win was a lot closer than the final score indicates even as the Terps contributed to their own demise by only hitting 15 of 28 free throws (Duke was 22-27). Despite spotty defense, Duke finished the first half off with a flourish, then after losing a nine point lead and Nolan Smith, finished the game off  with lock down defense and a 24-9 run.

Nolan Smith has a sprained second toe, the severity of which is undetermined. Whatever the case, this is not a good development.

Alan adds:

Before getting to the Duke-Maryland game and the prognosis for today and what comes after, I take a moment to say the Fla. St. – Va. Tech game was the closest game I can remember.  Tech was heroic.  There was one amazing end of the game play after another.  The winning shot was ruled late – the TV coverage was precise in its ability to see it perfectly in slow motion – by the narrowest margin imaginable.  With both Pitt and Notre Dame losing in the Big East semis, the door is open for a number 1 seed for either Duke or UNC if they can both win today.

I agree that this was Duke’s best offensive performance maybe of the season (certainly since Kyrie went down), but the defense was AWOL until the latter part of the second half.  Duke didn’t stop anyone in the first half (except by fouling Jordan W and having him miss the foul shots); and fouled very consistently in the first part of the second half while trying to ratchet up the defense.  Then everything kicked in.  Curry was outstanding and Dawkins looked and was determined.  The big guys closed down the lane, and (I think) Williams was little gassed and didn’t play with the same energy in the latter part of the second half.  Williams is not the defender around the interior that he should be.

I agree that everyone played well (I’m not sure we can include Tyler, who accumulated four fouls in 5 minutes).  The fouling spree in the second half put Duke players in foul trouble, but they played with the extra burden nicely.  Singler and Mason finished the game with 4 fouls each and Curry and Nolan had 3 each.  Ryan Kelly looked awesome on offense in the first half, but the Plumlees taking charge of the interior as the second half wore on, kept Kelly on the bench for most of the second half.

Today’s game is key.  Maybe (probably) without Nolan.  Curry and Dawkins would be a starting backcourt on most college teams and they have the talent to help Duke beat the Hokies.  Tyler will have to play better and more under control today if Nolan can’t go.  Duke should have an advantage inside and late in the game because the Hokies have a short bench and this will be their third game in three days.  Being swept by Va Tech this year would be a real downer.  Duke needs a rubber match with UNC.

 DUKE – VIRGINIA TECH

When Nolan Smith was introduced with the starting lineup started, there was a sigh of relief from Duke fans. However, when he missed his first two shots then two foul shots, the same fans had to wonder how much his injured toe would hinder his performance. After that, Nolan was his old POY self, scoring 16 first half points on the way to a 27 point, 7 assist night and harassing Malcolm Delany out of his gourd.

The Blue Devils, who played much better team defense, were up eleven at the half and never were really threatened in a rough, often sloppy game. The Hokies apparently are a team that thinks the way to beat Duke is to rough them up. There were flying elbows, and flapping—even  split– lips. Part of this was due to the refs, who were very inconsistent with their calls and almost let the game between two teams who clearly do not like each other get away from them. Let me get this straight: It is not a technical foul for a Tech player to intentionally throw the ball as hard as he can at point blank range and hit Andre Dawkins flush in the face (rather than any other part of his body) but it is a technical for Andre to go up for a jump shot and inadvertently strike a Tech player in the chin because he was bodying him up so closely that there was no room for the natural motion of a shot? And Jeff Allan, who has a history of anger management and consistent effort issues, took his frustration of a two point performance out on Kyle Singler with a flying elbow to the head on the way to fouling out.

And while I am at  it, can someone explain why ESPN cut to the Princeton-Harvard game for an interminable amount of time while the Duke-Va. Tech game was still live? I like a great ending to an Ivy League Championship game as much as the next policy wonk, but why linger for minutes on the small but enthusiastic crowd at Yale storming the court like Florida State, then interviewing the player who hit the buzzer beater with incisive questions like “How do you feel?” and “What does this mean to you?” I guess the television producer must have been a Princeton grad channeling the Bradley era.

The keys for tomorrow: Is Nolan Smith’s toe really OK after playing 39 minutes? Can Singler neutralize Barnes, who so far has had an unbelievable tournament? Can the Plumlees neutralize Zeller and Henson without fouling out? Can Smith stop Marshall from being an assist machine? Can Duke hit threes, keep Carolina from its patented fast break, and make Carolina play a half-court game?

Alan adds:

Preliminarily, I want to sing a hymn of praise for Kyle Singler.  He had “only” 13 points, but the rest of his game was so outstanding that he gets, in my opinion, equal billing with Nolan’s incredible performance.  Both Duke All-American candidates play so hard on the defensive end.  Kyle’s 11 boards (10 protecting the defensive end) was the key to keeping Va. Tech in check.  He was the primary defender on Allen (though the bigs did cover Allen at times) and switched off to stifle the perimeter players.  He handles the ball well.  In short, there is nothing that he doesn’t do superbly on the basketball court.  As Casey Stengel once said of Joe DiMaggio, “In his line of work, he’s rather splendid.”

Nolan was equally as wonderful.  Defenses are getting better at stopping him after he humiliates his defender on the way to the rim.  He has to make a slight adjustment, but yesterday his heart was on full display.  He defended Delaney with a gutty effort; got loose balls and rebounds, and broke Va. Tech with his scoring.  His passes to Mason (2) and Miles for dunks at game’s end were daggers in the Hokies heart.  He inspired and led his team.

Let us not forget the transformation of Seth Curry from his nightmare in Blacksburg.  Curry played 36 minutes, scored 10 points on 5 shots and solidified Duke’s backcourt and ball handling.  He played excellent defense with only 2 turnovers (4 boards — a couple of them were difficult and crucial – to go along with a critical steal.  He is becoming a solid and important component of this team.

Duke’s inside play was really good.  Kelly played more minutes (26) than either Plumlee (22 each).  Collectively, they had only 10 boards among them, but played solid defense and provided an inside scoring presence that Duke so desperately needs.  A key stat: Va. Tech had only 3 assists the entire game.

Duke was methodical in dismantling Va. Tech in an intensely played game.  I wish Duke would start playing defense earlier.  Once again the opponent started on fire.  Duke scored bunches in a row, but could not get a stop.  But one knew the law of averages would eventually kick in and Va. Tech would not shoot 85% for a really long stretch.

I (almost) never get into a referee controversy, but it really seemed to me as if Duke got the short end of the rough house calls.  [Duke was the beneficiary of some bad calls, too].  Although Allen fouled out eventually, he fouls on almost every post up move – rarely called yesterday.  Duke defended really well in the second half as they pulled away.  Some of that was Va. Tech’s fatigue.  They missed open shots that they made early in the game.

Dawkins fouled out in 13 minutes on some of the oddest calls of the year.  The last technical was so wrong: he had both hands on the ball and the defender leaned into him and fouled him.  (The defender did it partially with his chin; so it looked bad, but it was a terrible call) and there were others.

Duke is in as good shape for today’s title game as possible.  They have played well against both Maryland and Va. Tech.  It should be a great match up.  Bill put the issues for Duke perfectly.  How will the freshman Barnes, just really hitting his stride, defend and be defended by Singler.  How will Duke defend Marshall, who Bill and I both think is the key to UNC’s offense.  [Larry Drew was starting???].  The Plumlees and Kelly have a lot to atone for in their past performances against UNC’s two big guys this year.  It seems to me that they have grown over the past two games and have a good chance to prove up to the challenge.  But in the first two games, they were destroyed in 3 of the 4 halves.  Henson and Zeller are really good and give Marshall the inside target to feed.  They each finish well.  Zeller is an effective shooter from the post.

Nolan put it perfectly in an interview at the end of the Va. Tech game.  “We have to play really good defense.  We can’t give up 51 points in a half again.”  It should be a great game.  In my opinion, the winner deserves a # 1 seed since Pitt and Notre Dame both lost to UConn.  Btw, UConn’s winning 5 games in 5 days the way they did is some wonderful feat.  I have disdain for Calhoun and his program, but the Huskie gets his due.  Kimba W is some clutch player.

DUKE – NORTH CAROLINA

Eight days ago North Carolina scored 51 points in the first half against Duke at Chapel Hill and won by 14. Today, they scored 58 points for the entire game and lost to Duke by 17. How do you explain such an inexplicable  turnaround?

First, nobody motivates his players or consistently gets more out of them than Coach K. He would expect his team to win if he coached the Washington Generals against the Globetrotters.  K points his teams toward championships—and he hates to lose two times in a row to any team, especially to Carolina. Secondly, he values winning ACC Championships as indicated by the fact that his teams have won it an amazing ten of the last thirteen years. Thirdly,  and foremost, he coaches defense and intensity. For whatever reason, these traits were missing at Chapel Hill but apparent in spades today as Duke totally dominated the Tar Heels from the opening tip.

Let’s go to the video tape and review yesterday’s DBP keys for the UNC game:

Is Nolan Smith’s toe really OK after playing 39 minutes?

Can Singler neutralize Barnes, who so far has had an unbelievable tournament?

Can the Plumlees neutralize Zeller and Henson without fouling out?

Can Smith stop Marshall from being an assist machine?

Can Duke hit threes, keep Carolina from its patented fast break, and make Carolina play a half-court game?

The answers please: Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Game, set and a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament!

Nolan Smith (20 pts, 10 assists, & 2 steals) was the obvious MVP. However, as against Va. Tech, his defensive on-the-ball pressure on the opponent’s point guard was the lynch pin for the rest of the defense being so effective. He forced Marshall (4 assists & 5 turnovers) to start the offense further out than he is accustomed and pressured him to turn his back to the basket which slowed the flow and inhibited Marshall from penetrating into the paint. The other piece of the puzzle was that Kyle Singler and Company didn’t give freshman phenom Harrison Barnes (6-15 & only 1 three)  all the easy open, target practice looks Clemson did. On the other hand, Marshall and the other Carolina defenders could not keep Nolan from penetrating and scoring or passing to Curry, Dawkins or Kelly, who hit 7 of 11 threes. Boy, the game sure is a lot easier when the threes are dropping!

Duke had the confidence and poise to answer every UNC mini-run. Mike Krzyzewski says Duke gets much of that poise from its senior stars. “We told them before the game that our team will go like they go. When you study leadership, you never see a leader who’s down. You never see a good leader that’s not enthusiastic, that’s not brave, that’s not outgoing. I just reminded them to remember that’s who they are, and the other guys will follow no matter what their stats are.”

Actually, the maturing productivity of the supporting cast was the most encouraging development of the tournament. Just a week at Chapel Hill,  all but Curry were missing in action; today in Greensboro, they played like veterans all three games of the tournament and made Duke a much more dangerous team going forward. Smith had a poor game against Maryland and Singler did not shoot well against Virginia Tech or North Carolina, so their consistent production was critical to the wins. Inserting Miles Plumlee into the starting lineup made Duke a more physical team and Ryan Kelly, rather than sulking, embraced the sixth man role to play his best basketball of the year. Curry just gets better in all phases the game and Dawkins has rediscovered his enthusiasm and sweet stroke.

And then there is Kyrie Irving. Nike has provided him with a specially designed basketball shoe to protect his injured toe and he is doing light basketball drills. This leads to speculation (which was sort of shot down by Coach K) that he will be available for the NCAA Tournament. All that is problematical and unknowable but what we do know is that through all his travails, he has been an exceptionally involved, supportive,  and enthusiastic teammate for those who are playing—even acting as personal coach for Nolan Smith on the nuances of point guard play.

Duke was obviously not as bad as they appeared in the loss against at Chapel Hill and Carolina is not as bad as they appeared today. Both are talented, formidable teams. However, the Tar Heels were flirting with disaster in their last few games and I’m sure some of their faithful thought they could rally any time against anybody. Well, Duke isn’t Florida State, Miami or Clemson. So, against top teams, the Tar Heels need to be prepared to play hard for forty minutes.

As disappointing as this loss was for Carolina, Coach Williams couldn’t have been more gracious in defeat as he applauded Smith and Singler when they left the game. In addition, he said: “Those are two marvelous seniors and you don’t see seniors hang around that much. . . .What they did was fantastic.” That mutual respect is one of the things what makes the Duke –North Carolina rivalry so compelling.
Alan adds:

Great analysis, Bill.  I actually don’t have much to add.  I want to add to your praise of Duke’s Hall of Fame coach.  I don’t know if he has ever done a better job than he has with this team, especially after Kyrie went down.  He has brought along all of his players to the point that the five Duke players in the rotation who are not Kyle or Nolan were strong support for the two stars.  The stats for the supporting five are amazing: 18 for 26 from the floor; 7-11 from 3.  43 points on 26 shots.  Wow!  And K has brought Nolan and Kyle to achieving the maximum of their potential, including their leadership skills.  This really is K’s season.  And he has had many great seasons.

The key to Duke’s win today was, without a doubt, the defense that Duke played to start the game.  It was not less than ferocious.  Defense is about emotion.  Nolan had said that the key to the game would be Duke’s defense, and that Duke couldn’t give up 51 points in a half.  Duke really bought into that thought.  Result: 58 points for Carolina in the entire game!  Carolina had only 8 points at the 11 minute mark of the first half.  Zeller’s hoop with 8:56 to go in the first half gave the Washed Out Blues their 10th point.  By then Duke had a 15 point lead, and Duke never let Carolina back into the game.  In the first half Duke doubled the post so effectively that neither Henson nor Zeller got a decent look.  Singler hounded Barnes and got superb help; Barnes was absolutely mesmerized by the intensity of the defense (3 points in the first half).  You could almost see him thinking, “Hmmm.  This isn’t Miami or Clemson.”  Smith actually (here’s a tough word, but I maintain accurate) “intimidated” Kendall, and knocked him so far back off his game that Carolina was leaderless and confused for the entire first half.  It was not less than an astounding emotional reversal from what was extant only 8 days ago.  I don’t think that Ole’ Roy ever though UNC could win after the first 12 minutes.  Coach K gets kudos (not to mention Coach of the Year; Decade etc.)

Nolan is amazing, and had a yet another great game.  This one was better than his impressive statistics because of his iron willed leadership.  His 10 assists were even more impressive than his 20 points.  I give Coach K credit again.  He began whispering in Nolan’s ear early that he had always been Robin because he always had a Batman to back up (Jennings and Lawson at Oak Hill; Scheyer, Henderson, and Singler at Duke), and told him it was time for him to realize his full potential and be Batman this year.  What a wise move.  How wonderfully has Nolan responded in a way that has much more to do with life than just basketball.  Coach K is so subtly astute that we may tend to look past the astounding achievements that he creates on his way to hoops success.  As great as Nolan’s physical game is, he is a superb from the neck up, which at this level of sport is most important.

This team is validated by its ACC tournament win, regardless of what happens at the Dance.  Duke has a good draw in the NCAA, in my opinion.  Friday and Sunday against Michigan-Tennessee winner.  As Hubert Davis said, after the first round, you are playing a team that could beat you, so it really doesn’t matter who you are playing.  If Duke can get to the second weekend (I think they can), the game against (if form holds) Texas will be tough.  All the fourth seeds are really good teams who, I think should have been seeded higher: Kentucky, Wisconsin and Louisville.  They are all better than say Florida and BYU (2 and 3 seeds in SE).  Anyway, that’s for next week.  Let’s savor a very satisfying win and yet another ACC tournament title.

 NCAA TOURNAMENT

DUKE – HAMPTON

The only thing in doubt about this game was the health of Kyrie Irving’s toe and how much rust he had accumulated over the last three months he was inactive. Initially, it appeared Kyrie was favoring his toe and/or the special Nike orthotic in his shoe was hindering his movement.

Then in the second half, he took an outlet pass in the open court and blew the rust and defenders  off for a warp speed layup. After that, he appeared to be the old Kyrie. Next, he intercepted a long out of bounds pass like a NFL corner back and made  a spectacular, driving in-the-air right hand fake, left hand lay-up. Then, he finished the day off with two threes for 14 points in twenty minutes.

However, even more importantly, Duke picked up where they left off in Greensboro as every player continued to play their best basketball of the season—especially, Miles Plumlee. Miles and Mason (a combined 20 pts. & 18 rebs in 44 minutes) enjoy a rare chemistry and Miles gives Duke a more physical presence near the basket. If he can become a mini-Zoubek, this is a different team. Duke was 9-19 from beyond the arc. Inside / outside firepower is a lethal combination.

Hampton finished the game with 17 turnovers and only four assists. Krzyzewski again pointed out that defensive dominance like that starts with ball pressure: “Take away some vision, force an offense outside its normal area of deployment, and good things happen.”

Comment of the day: “Every college team (watches) TV and says, ‘I want to play Duke, I want to see what it’s like to play Duke,”‘ Hampton Coach Joyner said. “We sure found out.”

Note: Duke has participated in 9 of the 25 most watched college basketball games.

Alan adds:

It was good talking with you after the game.  Our euphoria over Kyrie’s return was genuine and appropriate.  Before the game, the expectation (and concern) was high.  What would Kyrie look like more than three months after he had, for 8 games, been everything that we had been told Harrison Barnes would be?  In the first half, the concern was central.  Kyrie looked tentative, without speed or explosion and none of his attempted moves looked smooth or confident.  It was, of course to be expected.  In the second half, coach K put Kyrie in again.  He still looked tentative.  He was playing longer with the other four non-starting scholarship players.  Then, in one play, it was as if Clark Kent had found the phone booth, or some secret announcer whispered, “Shazam”; and Captain Marvel appeared.  It was, I believe, an electric moment for every Duke fan.

For me, the experience of the game changed with 5 minutes and 22 seconds left in the game.  Kyrie made his first Kyrie-like play when he blazed to a long rebound on the floor, used pure speed to get clear and then exploded to the basket for an uncontested lay-up.  From there on, you could see the rust evaporating before our very eyes.  When he hit the lay up where he switched hands in mid-air, he was back.  Two for two from behind the arc added to the good feeling. Duke’s leading scorer today was Kyrie Irving w 14; most of it in garbage time.  I loved K leaving Irving in to play with the bench (Dawkins and Ryan + Thornton and Hairston) because that was when he blossomed and the rust came off. The key fact is that, from his performance, the inescapable conclusion is: “he’s back!”.  Duke’s chances for success in the tournament took a great upward leap yesterday.  And it wasn’t all just Kyrie.

Duke’s scoring was evenly spread with everyone looking good and playing well: 13 for Dawkins; 12 for Mason; 11 for Kyle; 9 each for Seth and Nolan; 8 for Miles and 6 for Kelly. [Tyler and Josh each also scored].  The level of competition could be misleading, but the three big guys continue to exude (what for me is a new) confidence, calmness and intensity.  Michigan will be a test and like all NCAA teams cannot be overlooked or taken for granted (Is Jalen playing?), but the real test will come in the Sweet 16 .  Both Texas and Arizona have talented big guys – especially Texas.

But, the coach would never allow his players to be ahead of themselves.  Michigan on Sunday to continue the season (with Kyrie, now)

 DUKE – MICHIGAN

When Duke’s defenders keep the offensive players in front of them as they did against North Carolina in the ACC Championship, the game is a lot easier. When they don’t as they didn’t against  St. John’s and today against Michigan, the game is a lot more difficult.

Michigan’s game is sort of a hybrid Princeton offense: spreading the floor, making the extra pass, attacking the lane, and kicking to open shooters for high percentage  threes. In the second half, Duke’s perimeter defenders stayed home to defend the three, making it easier to drive to the basket. On the other end, Michigan went to a 1-3-1 zone, which Duke does not see very often and didn’t not respond to well.

After a rather unfocused first three minutes of the second half, Coach K had seen enough. He called timeout, took his jacket off, and explained in graphic terms and gestures what kind of effort and energy he wanted. Nolan Smith (24 pts) obviously got the message and responded with a two minute, ten point explosion without which the Blue Devils could easily have lost this game. As it was, they were up by 15 with eleven minutes to go and needed every point as they only won by two.

In an interesting move, because of the smaller, quicker Michigan line-up, down the stretch Coach K went with Kelly at center rather than either of the Plumlees. Ryan responded with a key rebound and put back and forced Morris’ last shot to be a pull- up jumper in the lane over his outstretched arms instead of a lay-up.

A win but a rather uneven,  sloppy performance by a team which appeared to be hitting their stride. Arizona will provide different challenges as they are a bigger, faster, and more conventional team. The Blue Devils better bring their “A” game to Anaheim.

Some observations:

  • This is often a game of less than an inch. Morris’s last shot missed by  about the same amount as  Gordon Hayward’s last two shots for Butler in last year’s NCAA Championship game.
  • I have long thought that playing a zone against this Duke team is the best way to keep Smith out of the paint and to beat them.
  • While Duke had a rebounding margin of 31-18, they only forced 7 turnovers, a good barometer that the defense was not all that effective.
  • Florida State holding Notre Dame to 31% shooting and winning 71-57 (without their best player Chris Singleton) makes the Duke and ACC record more impressive as it has more teams in the Sweet Sixteen than the Big East or any other conference.
  • Kyrie was on the floor at the end of the game and hit two drives. The first one was waved off on a close call as an offensive charge but he pulled up on the second one and banked it off the glass. He also hit 9-10 free throws. However, he still appears to be feeling his way back and not wanting to step on anyone’s toes (sorry, couldn’t resist) or upset the chemistry of the team.
  • As great as Kyrie is, it is hard to imagine him playing any better or making more big shots than Nolan, who had been the high scorer in twenty games this year.

After the game Coach Krzyzewski put his 900th win in perspective: “I feel like it’s amazing that a coach and his point guard can be the first two coaches in the history of our game to win 900 and that it says something about the guy who has 902 and it also says something about the United States Military Academy. There will be a lot of guys who will win 900 games eventually, but to be the first two and it be the coach and his player to do it, is  something very unique and that’s the type of relationship and friendship I’ve had with Coach Knight. I’m glad I can share a moment, that moment with him. I’ve shared very really good ones with him.”

Alan adds:

I was driving back from Boston and couldn’t watch it until last 16 minutes.  It was a rollercoaster of a 16 minutes.  So, my remarks are necessarily limited by the truncated time I was able to watch.  In some ways it was traditional Duke basketball,  winning a shockingly close game with some timely plays.  But, in the end, Michigan just shredded the Duke defense.  I think that may be a credit to Beilin.  Michigan played wonderful basketball and got good open shots.  Statistics tell an interesting story because in many ways it was not traditional Duke basketball at all.  Michigan shot amazingly well — 20-32 from inside the arc (51% when you add the 7-21 from 3land).  Duke forced Michigan to turn it over only 7 times; making only 1 steal.  That’s not traditional Duke defense.

The offense stagnated with the substantial lead.  Duke was only 5-20 from 3; Kyle still in a 3 slump (1-5), and was uncharacteristically only 2-5 from the stripe.  Still, he’s the glue for this team.  Miles played only 13 minutes, and Mason played only18 (but had 7 boards in 18 minutes; and he was 2-2 from the floor and 0-2 from the foul line).  Neither played in the 16 minutes that I watched, and I admit I kept thinking that their interior defense might have stopped Michigan from scoring side so easily.  Kelly played excellent 23 minutes; was 5-6 from the field with 3 boards for 11 points.  One other point of interest.  Seth did not score, and I think he’s being affected by Kyrie’s return. Kyrie is not yet taking his shots – he took only 4 (0-2 from 3land and 1-2, including the game winner from inside the arc.  9-10 from the line).  This is an important week of practice for Duke, trying to re-integrate Kyrie with the first unit.  If anyone can do this, it is Coach K.  This game was very close, and the stats show where Duke was uncharacteristically weak.

Duke took 4 fewer shots than Michigan over all (in spite of a substantial rebounding edge),  and made 2 fewer.  Duke took 1 shot less than Michigan from 3land (making 2 fewer);  Michigan had one more assist and 6 more steals (Duke having only 1 steal is an amazing – very disappointing — stat to anyone who has watched the Duke defense perform at its customarily high level).  Duke won game at the foul line (making 18 of 25 while Michigan was 10-11).

Arizona will be difficult, but I think Texas had more potential.  Nice to see the ACC have more teams in the Sweet 16 than the Big East (or any other conference for that matter.)

DUKE – ARIZONA

Last year’s Championship Season wasn’t meant to be but was; this year’s Championship Season was meant to be but wasn’t. In sports, you never really know.

In the first half, Duke was in control even as Derrick Williams was a phenom with 25 powerful points (but no one else had more than four). Perhaps it was a bad omen that Williams hit an incredible three over the outstretched hands of Ryan Kelly to cut the Duke lead from nine to six just as the horn sounded. In the second half, the rest of the Wildcats also caught fire as Arizona just dominated Duke  physically and emotionally on both offense and defense in a manner I cannot ever remember happening to a Blue Devil team. It was as if Duke was playing the Dream Team—one hell of an impressive half of basketball for Arizona, not so much for the Blue Devils.

Duke recovered from the injury to Kyrie Irving to play some terrific basketball and win the ACC Tournament but apparently the team chemistry was affected by his return. The blunt truth is that neither Nolan Smith nor Seth Curry were the same players and the team performance was not as efficient as evidenced by  both the Michigan and Arizona games. And that is not a criticism of Kyrie or Coach K. He’s a great player and you had to play him. One bad half in one game should not obscure the fact that this was another exciting thirty plus win season nor the body of work of Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith—125 career wins, multiple ACC titles, and a National Championship .

The larger truth is that no one wins—or can expect to win– all of the time. After all, these are college students barely out of their teens. However, you hope your team plays the right way with players who belong in the school and still wins more than their share of games. And that is what Duke Basketball has done for over some sixty years and is one of the reasons we take pleasure in chronicling the efforts of a group of coaches and players who excel at what they do and represent the school so well.

Alan adds:

The Game

Arizona scored 55 points in the second half; they shot 60% from 3 land and 54% overall.  I’d really like to see the shooting percentage for just the second half, but DBR didn’t put up the box score and ESPN doesn’t break it down by halves.  Duke got so few rebounds in the second half because Arizona simply did not miss – and when they did, they got the offensive board.  Visions of 3 halves against Carolina (especially 51 points in the first half at Chapel Hill), the St. John’s game inescapably filtered into mind.  Eric Williams not only had a brilliant scoring first half (“only” 7 points in the second half), but his presence and Coach K’s adjustment to his first half opened the floor for Arizona to get pretty wide open looks, which they knocked down at an incredible rate.  I think Bill hit it: when the going got tense (Duke led 53-47 when the wheels came off), Duke’s chemistry was gone.  Nolan was 3-14 with only 8 points.  Singler blazed in the early moments, but wasn’t efficient at all in the second half.  Seth got hurt.  Duke was astoundingly ineffective in protecting its own rim after the Arizona shot went up.  I believe that was the Williams effect.  The help that Duke sent at Williams left Duke out of rebounding position.  But when it was all said and done, Arizona played a perfect game.  They shredded the Duke defense (as Michigan did in the waning moments of that game).  I don’t know what that story is or was.  Duke’s defense is so team oriented, it may be (this is speculation) that Kyrie wasn’t as efficiently re-integrated into the defensive schemes as he was into the offense.  In one sense, there was far less pain than if it had been a close game.  There is disappointment for sure.  Duke is now 3-7 in Sweet 16 games since 2000, six of those losses coming against lower seeds (think W. Va and LSU).

The Season

I fully enjoyed this wonderful season.  No single loss can dilute the pleasure and pride from the 2010-11 season.  Thirty wins, ACC tournament champions, K’s 900th win, wonderful players and a team one could admire, have affection for and appreciate.  Nolan had a season for the ages (though I think he wore down some as the season went on; still maybe his best game was against Va Tech in the ACC Semis).  Singler did not have the season he had hoped for, but he proved a versatile player with a perfect attitude.  Even when his offense went South, the rest of his game remained constant.  Both of their jerseys should hang from the rafters.

In some ways, as I have previously written, this was one of Coach K’s finest jobs.  He re-structured the team when Kyrie went down, and he came close to re-integrating him for the Dance.  You had to admire Kyrie’s attitude on the bench and his commitment to rehab.  He was astounding in the first half against Arizona.  I think his lack of game shape showed in the second half, though he was still terrific.  Ryan Kelly emerged and will be part of the foundation next year.  The Plumlee enigma will be solved next year (I certainly hope Mason is sufficiently self-aware to know he needs to develop other parts of his game at the college level to have the foundation for an NBA career).  They will be heavily relied upon and I believe will grow into their respective potentials.  Seth and Andre were not quite as consistent as they will be next year, but they had excellent seasons.  I think that Bill is correct that neither Seth nor Nolan were the same players when Kyrie came back.  Duke will be a good team next year; a very good team (with the possibility to be great) if Kyrie returns.

All in all, it was a season to fully appreciate.  I’ve had a blast.

We close the season with a short historical narrative that may give some insight into why we have such affection for Duke Basketball at a great university which has contributed so much to our lives in so many ways:

After the endowment gift from the Duke family, President William Preston Few had the extraordinary foresight to take Trinity, a small college of the Methodist church, and  conceive the vision of a great university then enlisting businessmen, academicians, students, and alumni to fulfill his vision. The foundations of his dream were: a strong academic  institution with a religious underpinning , a stunning campus, an extraordinary teaching hospital, and outstanding athletic teams. The new West Campus was constructed in the form of a cross. At the apex of the cross was the magnificent chapel, to the right the library and classrooms leading to the hospital complex, to the left, the student union and dormitories leading to the football stadium. President Few recruited doctors from Johns Hopkins to be the nucleus of the hospital staff and, understanding the national marketing  impact  of winning teams, Wallace Wade from national champion Alabama to build a football program.

While the whole is more than the sum of the parts, successful athletic teams have provided the university with free publicity that otherwise would not be affordable– first through print and radio, then through television. The athletic teams have increasingly been the lens through which Duke University is viewed by the general public and which, in turn throws a spotlight on  the rest of 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 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.

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.

Alan adds:  Duke has always had athletic teams that presented the university in the light that we all admire.  There have been no academic short cuts to success.  I wasn’t around for the Wallace Wade days, but no person in college athletics has had a more profound impact on his university, college basketball, and the national sports scene than Coach K.  I think it puts the point perfectly that Coach K runs a leadership course at the Fuqua Business school.  He is, in fact, a leader who happens to coach basketball.  He makes us proud because he seems to be able to do everything the right way.  Even his involvement with our Olympic team and USA Basketball brings great prestige to Duke.

I do think his program epitomizes the ideal of college athletics.  His players grow under his tutelage, not just as basketball players, but from boys to men (like Grant Hill; what a wonderful article he wrote on the Fab Five).  There is no coach now active that has his resume as a teacher, leader and icon.  There are other coaches who may be his basketball equal, I believe (Ole Roy comes to mind), but none of them is in the same league for accomplishments as a human being and as, what he really is– an educator.  I’m not sure this could happen at a different institution (Stanford, maybe).  Duke is a perfect blend of the old Greek philosophy of keen mind and strong body.  The basketball program is seamlessly a profound and important part of the university, and enhances all that Duke does and promotes.

I join Bill in saying what a pleasure our writing has been for us.  I have reveled in the effort and enjoyed the camaraderie with a treasured friend (and ex-intramural doubles partner). Thank you for allowing us to share our thoughts with you this season.   Next Play.

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