Duke Basketball Playbook: 2018-19

Welcome to  the Duke Basketball  Playbook 2018-19 season preview.

Let’s not tap dance around it. This is the most talented, athletic, and deepest Duke Basketball team I have seen—with the extra added attraction of a once in a generation talent in Zion Williamson. Even Johnny Tar Heel grudgingly agrees with this assessment.

Come on, Bill. How can you say that when the season hasn’t even started? Well, for starters no college has ever run the recruiting table 1-2-3- #1 point guard–not even Michigan’s much hyped Fab 5. And thanks to DirecTV and ESPN+, I have watched five & a half (Countdown to Craziness) exhibition games and the “Earn Everything” series on Duke basketball. Granted, these games weren’t against Final Four teams but they weren’t against The Little Sisters of the Poor either.  In addition to offensive firepower, here is what I saw: hustle, defense, assists, camaraderie, and improvement with each game.

What were last year’s team weaknesses? Man-to-man defense, consistent point guard play, and  foul shooting. This year’s treasure trove of athlete/students/future millionaires, has a pure pass first/shoot second, point guard in Tre Jones, a bigger, stronger, and, hopefully, just as clutch version of his older brother Ty, who also plays Tommy Amaker like on-the-ball defense, which is the starting point of good defense. In addition, there are three other starters—Barrett, Williamson, and Reddish– who can play the point better than Trevon (shoot first/ pass second) Duval. And so far, they have demonstrated the talent and desire to play much better man-to-man defense and have no 50% free throw shooters—as a team, they are shooting a respectable but not outstanding,  70%.

Reading Coach K’s mind: My youngest grandson could pick four of the starters. Initially, it appeared Javin DeLaurier would be the fifth. Then, he hurt his foot and Marquis Bolden took his place and has continued to start. Maybe, Coach is protecting Javin but maybe Coach is looking at the size of Kentucky on November 6 and thinking he should find out whether or not Bolden will figure out what kind of player he wants to be. If Bolden does start playing to his potential, that will give Coach another option to throw at an opponent. He knows what kind of effort he will get with Javin and/or Jack White and I am sure with them on the floor, he will go to his Five Out Motion offense, press both full and half full court, and play Golden State Warrior  basketball. An effective pressing defense should be the key as to how successful this team will be, because they are so lethal in the open court.

Once again, Coach K is talking a nine or ten man rotation. But you know how that usually goes: 10-9-8-7, then 6 at tournament time. This time he may really mean it, because DeLaurier and White are co-captains (Interestingly, Bolden was not. What does that tell you?).  Alex O’Connell and Baker may be a later day Grayson Allen wildcard subs, because they can really play and shoot the three.

What else to like: The intangibles. All the players appear to like one another and enjoy all aspects of the game. In a press conference, DeLaurier commented that, unlike some other years, there are no class cliques. The freshmen hang with upper classmen. Every player talks about enjoying all aspects of the game but watch how many actually dive on the floor for a loose ball. Up fifty some points against Ferris State, Flyin’ Zion (half man, half amazing) dove for a loose ball, knocked it away from  an opponent, got up, chased down the player who retrieved it, and tied him up. That’s Duke Basketball!

Any caveats or hedges?  Yes, you have to play the games and sometimes the basketball gods play tricks on the better team: #16 Maryland-Baltimore County 74 – #1Virginia 54.  North Carolina State 54 – Houston (Phi Slama Jama) 52. North Carolina 54 – Kansas 53 (Wilt Chamberlain). And injuries (ref. Kyrie Irving.)

Miscellaneous Comments:

If you ever wondered what it is like to be a basketball player at Duke, you must watch the above mentioned series “Earn Everything” streaming on ESPN+ . It takes you behind the scenes and almost makes you feel like a member of the team. You are right there seeing and hearing how Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski runs his program, talks to his coaches and his players as he prepares this team for the upcoming season in pursuit of the program’s sixth national championship. There are up close and personal looks at the athletes as they are taught how to practice, how to rehab, what and when to eat– and as they spend time  interacting with one another. There is access to closed practices, conditioning and skills testing, and even nutrition counseling; Zion Williamson breaking the all-time Duke vertical record during testing; One-on-one conversations between coaches and their players during practice;  Preparation for pre-season exhibition tour of Canada; Coaches breaking down film with the team after the Ryerson game in Canada; and No. 1 recruit RJ Barrett discussing his reasons for attending Duke.

What stood out dramatically for both Alan and myself was the intimate look at just who our student-athletes are.  What you see are articulate young men, who are also thoughtful. These gifted athletes clearly belong as students at Duke University. They perform community services at the Emily K Center, getting as much out of it as they give to the underprivileged kids. They are insightful about themselves in differing aspects of their growth.  And finally, Coach K was philosophical and analytical about the role his program plays within the Duke University universe. The university gives to the program and the program contributes to the university. It is a really an exceptional documentary and watching is a perfect introduction to the 2018-19 season.

 Alan Adds: 

I have been a basketball recruiting junkie since 1985 (when you had to subscribe to publications – no internet).  In all that time, no recruiting class at any school has contained the consensus top three recruits, as this freshman Duke class does.   But, as we learned last year, freshman talent alone may not be enough.  Last year’s team had # 3 and #7 lottery picks in the NBA draft as well as a late first round draft choice, and an early second rounder plus an undrafted player who earned a professional contract.  Expectations (and maybe a bit of hubris) may have harmed that team.  I cringed last year when Wendell Carter opined, well before the season opener, that Duke had so much talent it might go undefeated all year.   Hubris.  Duke had a very good season, but could not play even passable man-to-man defense, did not win either the ACC regular title, the ACC tournament or get to the Final Four — while sustaining nine losses.   However, this group of freshmen are saying all the right things, and have much different talents than last year’s talented class.  Let’s look at the four highly touted freshmen.  I am leaving out 6’7” freshman, Joey Baker, who is rumored to be red-shirting this year.

R.J. Barrett:  I saw him several times last year and opined he is the best high school player I have seen since LeBron.  He’s 6’7” and can play on the perimeter and in the interior.  Two years ago, when Canada beat the USA in the Under 19 World Championship, Barrett scored 38 points while grabbing 13 boards to lead Canada.  He is the only non-NBA player on the Canadian National team getting ready for the next World Championship, and was in the starting lineup in the National team’s last game.  He is a spectacular finisher in the open court as well as a defensive stopper.  But, he might not be the best player in Duke’s freshman class.

Zion Williamson: Zion was nowhere near as impressive last year (but damn impressive – overall #3 recruit) when I saw him as he has been in his Duke pre-season appearances this year.  Last year I saw a superstar in the open court, but not in the half court.  [He got hurt about mid-way through the McDonald’s All-Star game and did not play last spring after that).   He is 6’7” and 270 lbs. (down from 285 and won the pre-season award as Duke’s best conditioned athlete) with a 45 inch vertical (David Thompson territory).  Against inferior opposition, he has been unstoppable in the post and in the open court.  He is an energetic defender.  But what I did not see last year and has been in dramatic evidence this year is ability to handle the ball and pass.  His attitude is as amazing (as per Bill’s description of diving for the loose ball; what is astounding about that is that it came with Duke ahead by 50 points in the fourth quarter with only a few minutes left) as his motor.  In the pre-season, he snatched every 50-50 ball with strong and dexterous hands.  Let’s see how he does against top flight competition before we put him in the Naismith Hall of Fame, but his upside seems to have no limit.

Tre Jones: Tyus’s younger brother is not as highly rated as the top 3, but I am writing about him third because, like Bill, I think he may be Duke’s most important player.  What is interesting is that Duke’s other freshmen think so too and are not shy about saying so.  He impressed me last year in All Star games (playing tough defense in games where defense is honored more in the breach) with his leadership and passing.  He missed the 3 games in Canada, but has looked very good since then.  His high school English teacher is a friend of a friend.  My friend reports that the teacher extolled Tre as a student, a leader and a very thoughtful person who was respected and admired for much more than basketball.  Great attributes for a point guard.

Cam Reddish: Cam has not yet shown Duke fans the kind of play that made him the #2 ranked high school player last year (ahead of Zion).  He was injured for the Canadian trip and had damaged ribs through the exhibition season.  I saw him several times last year.  Another 6’7” postionless player, he is a smooth in all aspects of the game, more at home on the perimeter as a passer and shooter.  While he had a reputation as a defender, when he tried to guard Barrett in the McDonald’s game (they played on different teams and guarded each other), he could not stop Barrett (but then no one else ever has).  He will be in the starting lineup.

What stands out for me with these four is that all are essentially point guards.  Barrett played the point in the three Canadian games when Jones and Reddish were not playing.  Reddish has been slated to be the backup point guard when Jones rests.  However, in my opinion, Zion may be the best of the backup point guards; he has dazzled when given the opportunity.   Moreover, each has a reputation coming in as a defender.  It is impossible not to be excited about these four and this team as a result.

Veterans Competing To Start and/or Be in Coach K’s Rotation

Javin DeLaurier: This 6’10” Junior defender and rebounder is a co-captain, who will fight to be the fifth starter.  He seems vastly improved this year.  In the past, he has been a helter-skelter high energy defender, rebounder, but a fouling machine.  This year he is playing just as hard, but with a confidence that adds a calmness (and some leadership on defense) to his assets.  Whether a starter or in the rotation, he will play major minutes.

Jack White: The other Junior co-captain, this Australian has been Duke’s best upper-class player in the pre-season.  Another 6’7” wing, Jack has shown a nose for the ball of the glass on both ends as well as defensive skills against both perimeter and interior opponents.  He has added proficiency from behind the arc when open (and with these freshmen, he will be wide open multiple times).  He is improving in the satisfying way we have seen with four year players.

Marquis Bolden: A Junior 6’11” center, who is Duke’s leading returning scorer (a paltry 3.6 ppg average), Marquis has been an underachiever in his first two years.  He was very unimpressive in Canada and not much better in the exhibition game against Virginia Union.  However, he looked better than he ever has against Ferris State (of course, it was against Ferris State and not Kentucky) and was good in the Blue-White game.  It’s hard to guess what his contributions will be, but I think that he will get an opportunity in the pre-conference portion of the schedule to earn playing time.  He started both exhibition games, logging 20 minutes (compared to Javin’s 16) against Ferris State.

Alex O’Connell:  Alex, whose father played at Duke, has grown to 6’6” and is fighting for playing time.  If he shoots from behind the arc, as he did last year, he may well be in the rotation, and could even start if Coach K wants to go small.  Alex has been a surprisingly good rebounder for one so skinny, and is developing an all court game.  I predict he will play valuable minutes this year.

These are the complementary players who have to do the dirty work, defend, and score when open.

Justin Robinson (6’10” Junior), Antonio Vrankovich (7’0” Junior) would play – even start – on many teams; however, they are unlikely to see major minutes in close games.  But if called upon, each has the ability to contribute.  Joey Baker is a 6’7” freshman who has an excellent all court game.  He re-classified to join the team this year.  Unless injuries happen or Duke’s shooting is not up to snuff from the perimeter, he is likely to red shirt.  Jordan Goldwire, a 6’2” backup point guard played a lot in Canada when Tre Jones and Cam Reddish could not play.  He is the only Duke player who did not play against Ferris State (no one has said why).  I believe Tre Jones  will be backed up by the other freshmen rather than Jordan.

This is a team that should hold our interest, inspire our affection, and excite our fantasies.

Duke 118 – Kentucky 84 

If you had Duke and gave 33 points, you won!

You may not have believed my assessment in our DBP preview (“Let’s not tap dance around it. This is the most talented, athletic, and deepest Duke Basketball team I have seen.”), but seeing is believing. And if you didn’t see it, you missed an unexpected blowout anticipated by no expert. The only thing Kentucky won was the opening tip. The Blue Devils made their first four shots — three from beyond the arc and all by freshmen who never looked back because contrary to Satchel Paige’s immortal homily: No one was gaining on them. Duke dominated the more experienced, #1 ranked Kentucky in all phases of the game giving Coach Calipari the worst defeat of his career in Lexington. Either the Wildcats are vastly overrated or this Duke team belongs in the NBA. I usually try to be a gracious winner but, for different reasons, games against Maryland and Calipari are exceptions. So, I will say it: The deflated, defeated look on the face of the duplicitous John Calipari was priceless.

It’s hard to know where to start. The four freshmen Barrett 33, Williamson 28, Reddish 22, and Jones 6 outscored the entire Kentucky team. However, the most interesting development was the defense which held Kentucky to 44% shooting, forcing 15 turnover (Duke 4) and having 10 steals. In addition, Marquis Bolden appears to have had a talent and personality transplant and was impressive on both end of the floor and on the bench. Jack White, doing his best John Havlicek impression, hustling all over the floor  was one point shy of a double-double, and O’Connell hit 3 of 4  threes. An overlooked stat is that Trey Jones only had 6 points but no turnovers against a vaunted defender known for his on-the-ball pressure. Another thing that struck me was how well these alpha players share the ball and how, even when on the bench, are joyfully into the game cheering and waving towels when subs like White, O’Connell, Vrankovic, or Robinson make a good play.

A note of caution. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves like Carter did last year in bragging about how talented his team was. This was just the first game of a long, grueling season. As talented as these players are, the ball is not always going to go in the basket like it did tonight and some games will be a lot more difficult. Silly fouls were a potential problem but White, DeLaurier, and O’Connell filled in seamlessly. Also, the foul shooting (69%) was subpar for a championship team.

Miscellaneous Comments:

  • In a rare moment of candor John Calipari told his players. “I got outcoached. You got outplayed.”
  • The Blue Devils made 19 layups and eight dunks. They scored two out of every three times they possessed the ball, and collected 22 assists on 54 made field goals while turning the ball over just 4 times.
  • Joey Baker did not play. Either he is injured or he is being red shirted.
  • How cool is it to see David Thompson in Duke hat on  the sidelines cheering the team on?

Alan Adds:

There is no way to fully take in the impact of last night’s total destruction of the #1 ranked team in the pre-season polls by the Blue Devils.  The college hoops world will be buzzing.  The first 10 minutes are as good as a college team can play.  Duke scored 34 points in the first 9 minutes and 24 seconds of the game to lead by 31 (34-13).  The gaudy impact of RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson will be water cooler conversation today all over Hoopsland.  I want to share a couple of more subtle takeaways from the game that auger very well, indeed.  The play of Tre Jones was eye opening.  His on the ball defense set up Duke’s very effective man to man. Duke played great transition defense and made the usual running Wildcats a half court team.  Duke’s offense was jaw dropping (59 points in each half).  22 assists and only four turnovers.  Kentucky’s defensive game plan was to pressure the ball in the backcourt.  Tre made Kentucky pay dearly by beating the press easily and guiding Duke into its offense.  He had 7 assists without a turnover.  He hit the first shot of the game and then was simply a maestro at both ends.  When Tre went down with a knee (turned out not serious, but for a moment he looked awful), I saw the glorious season being only about 30 minutes long.  As absolutely superb as the others played, this is not the same team without Tre.

The dramatic moment when belief solidified was at the opening of the second half.  Duke led 59-42 at half.  I believed (wrongly) for the longest time that Kentucky would make some kind of a run.  After being embarrassed in the first half, I feared the ‘Cats would come out clawing after the intermission.  As Coach K has said many times, it is just human nature to see the score and let up a bit.  Duke came out on fire; Zion made like Zion (Reddish assist); Reddish hit a 3 (assist from Tre) forcing Calipari to call a time out just :54 seconds into the second half.  Game over.  Duke never took its foot off the Wildcat neck even when the lead ballooned to almost 40 points.  This team appears to have that “killer instinct”.

I said this Duke team could be special because all of the freshmen had a point guard mentality.  Indeed, in the 10 minutes that Tre was off the court, all 3 took turns as backup point guard.  Twenty-two assists and only 4 turnovers!  Against Kentucky!  Wow!

THE ROTATION

Zion was 6th man in minutes played!  Three players logged 30+ minutes – Barrett (32), Jones (30) and…[I should write AND] Jack White (30).  Jack was simply a revelation and reliable “glue” guy.  He grabbed 11 boards, played just superb man to man – individual and team – defense (guarded Kentucky’s leading scorer, holding Herro to a tepid 14), making two steals.  He had 3 assists and 9 points on offense without a turnover.  Right now, he is the Sixth Man.  Marquis Bolden had by far his best game at Duke, logging 25 minutes, in which he contributed 7 points (3-4; 1-3 from the line) to go with an assist and a steal.  No turnovers.  Reddish lived up to his high school reputation as a smooth all court player, on the court for 24 scintillating minutes.  He scored 22 (6-14; 3-8 from deep; 7-7 from the line) to go with some superb defense (4 steals) and all around floor play (3 assists without a turnover);Javin is still a fouling machine – committing 4 in his 11 minutes on the court.  He moves well and had a block and two steals to go with his four fouls.  Alex scored 9 points in only 11 minutes (3-6; 3-4 from deep) while corralling 3 boards.  He will give the team valuable minutes this season, I predict.  Vrankovich played little, but a valuable minute (2-2 from the line) when Duke had early foul trouble in the first half.

Foul trouble – The only negative was Duke’s fouling on defense – worse in the first half.  Duke committed 16 first half fouls (26 for the game), which had DeLaurier with 3 and the rest of the interior players with 2 at the intermission.  Zion played only 10 first half minutes. RJ played the entire first half.

RJ AND ZION

RJ took over the game in the early going.  He showed why I’ve said he’s the best finisher around the basket that I had seen in high school since LeBron.  He was simply unstoppable, connecting from the perimeter, driving to the basket, passing, and rebounding.  He scored 33 on 26 attempts (13-26; 3-7 from 3land; 4-8 from the line) to go with 2 boards and 6 assists.  He was everything that I saw from him in high school.  But he wasn’t the story.  Zion was.

Zion was limited in minutes by his two early first half fouls – the first coming before the two minute mark.  He committed only one foul in his 13 second half minutes.  In those 23 minutes he compiled a stat line that staggers the imagination.  He scored 28 points on just 13 attempts (11-13; 1-1 from deep; 5-7 from the line).  He passed; he defended; he got loose balls.  In short, he looked like a man among boys.  He was unstoppable driving to the rim.  He helped Duke destroy the Kentucky zone from the post.

The first game has “visions of sugar plumbs dancing in our heads”.  Why not!  I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like the quality of this rout against a team like Kentucky (Maybe W. Va in the 2015 NCAA tournament).  This was a pure wow.

Army on Sunday at noon is the Next Play.

DUKE 94 – ARMY 72

If you took Duke and gave more than 22 points, you lost!

Well,  Army is no Kentucky. The Black Knights execute much better than the Wildcats. And in doing so, they gave the Blue Devils a lesson that last year’s team was unable or unwilling to learn.

At least the most precocious freshman Zion Williamson got it: ”It’s one thing for somebody to tell you that everybody’s going to bring their best against you, that all their shots are going to feel like they’re going in. But I think until you truly experience it, I think you just have to go through it to fully understand.” Quite right. As last year’s team learned the hard way, better sooner than later. Defense is mostly about attitude and effort and it is a lot more difficult when your shots aren’t falling like usual and the opponents rebound and beat you down the floor for relatively uncontested shots. Fortunately, Williamson not only got it, he led the team in points (27), rebounds (16), assists (6), blocked shots (6), and floor burns (5). He has become must see TV as ESPN acknowledged by moving the game to their flagship channel. The you-make-the-call (quiet/shy/self-contained/enigmatic) Reddish, the best pure shooter on the team and the beneficiary of Zion and RJ’s driving ability, went 7-13 from outside the circle and again had a quiet-if that’s possible- 25 points.

Among other challenges will be the reaction of these alpha Blue Chip teenagers to the barrage of press coverage to which Zion is being subject—and it is just starting, because you know the press–anything worth covering is worth over-covering, then moving on to the next new thing. Until now, Barrett has been referred to as the projected number one NBA draft choice—that means about as much as being ranked the number one team in a preseason poll. I suspect that has changed. I know whom I would choose if I were an NBA general manager. And I suspect, that Cam Reddish may also pass RJ in that pecking order as he is being referred to as a Kevin Durant clone. However, so far, this team is a “Brotherhood” of Four/Five Musketeers, all for one, one for all and is fully enjoying the intense spotlight. There is only joyful camaraderie. You see it when Barrett, Williamson, Reddish and Jones — the four freshmen starters weren’t comfortable posing for the Sports Illustrated cover photo unless the fifth freshman, reserve redshirt candidate Joey Baker, was included. You saw it during Williamson’s post-game interview on ESPN Tuesday night after the defeat over Kentucky. “All of us have fun. I can’t even explain it,” Williamson said with a chuckle and a shake of his head. “I just love playing basketball. I love playing with my brothers. And playing for Coach K and those coaches, I don’t think there’s anything better than that. And in the awe of Javin DeLaurier:” I’ve never seen anyone like Zion. “All of us hit the genetic lottery… but Zion hit it twice.”

However this season unfolds, one thing is certain. This is the most likeable basketball team in Duke’s history. There is no easily vilified player like an Art Heyman, Christian Laettner, J.J. Redick, or Grayson Allen.

Miscellaneous Comments:

  • Via the Duke men’s basketball Instagram account, users have viewed videos 1.87 million times with 33,779 new followers onboard over that period. Kentucky is next closest among major college programs in that period, with 408,000 views and 3,658 new followers.
  •  Jack White played as many minutes (25) as Bolden or DeLaurier combined.
  • Freshman Joey Baker played well during the Blue Devils’ exhibition season, but still has not played a second through three halves of the regular season. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the Kentucky game that he’ll wait and see how Jack White and Alex O’Connell look on the perimeter before deciding whether to use Baker this year. It appears that unless one of Duke’s current rotation players suffers a serious injury, Baker is likely to redshirt.

Alan Adds:

“Our guys do not feel good about themselves right now”, said Coach K after the game.  He said that because Duke played an awful defensive first half and did not play cohesively together as they had against Kentucky.  “But, it was a great game for us.  We could have lost [Duke led only by 2 with a little over 2 minutes left in the first half].  Instead we turned it around in the second half.  We played harder than Army in the last 15 minutes of the game.”  “It was the perfect game for us following the Kentucky game.  A key for a winning team is to keep the “noise” out of the locker room.  This wasn’t just noise; this was NOISE – exceptional noise.  We didn’t handle it very well.”

Perhaps, that is why the Duke defense was slow to move (and talk – Coach K said Army moved faster than Duke was talking) and reverted to a lazy transition defense (last seen in the first Canadian exhibition game).  In any event, Army seemed to outhustle all the Blue Devils (except for Zion) to offensive rebounds, to penetrate to the rim and make the perfect pass in the first half.

Here’s why Coach K felt good about the second half.  Duke held Army to 30 points, but was even more suffocating on defense as the game wound down.  With 12:14 left in the game, Army trimmed the lead to 6 with 2 straight 3s (67-61).  Five minutes and 10 seconds later, Army hit a 3 to give them 66 points, while Duke had broken the game wide open (81-66; Army had made a layup at the 9:15 mark).  In short, Duke held Army to 5 points in that span, and to only 3 more in the next 6 minutes and 5 seconds  — Army scored only 8 points in that 11:42 of play.  That is why  Coach K said it was a great game for Duke because to obtain those amazing defensive results, Duke PLAYED HARDER THAN ARMY in the last 15 minutes.

The three scoring freshman had 75 of Duke’s 94 points (Zion, 27; Cam, 25, and R.J. 23).  Add Trey’s 8 (2-4; 2-2 from behind the arc and the foul line, to go with 7 assists) and the freshman had 83 of Duke’s 94.  White (6; 2-6 from 3land), Alex (3; 1-3 from deep) and Javin (2) rounded out the scoring.  It was clear that Zion could score at will in so many different ways.  He was 11-14 from the floor.  His statline (See Bill’s detail above) was simply astounding.  R.J. seemed a bit sullen to me; looking askance at the ref on one call, but stepped up his game in the second half on both ends of the floor.  Cam is so smooth and does everything (he reminds me of Keith, later Jamaal “Silk” Wilkes).

Jack White has become the Sixth man, and he is playing starter minutes.  The four freshman were on the court for over 30 minutes a piece (R.J and Tre for 33 minutes; Zion for 32; and Cam for 31).  The player who logged the fifth most minutes was Jack White with 25 minutes (15 in the second half) grabbing 4 rebounds, handing out a pair of assists to go with a block and a steal.  He is steady.  No turnovers and only 1 foul.  I would not be surprised if Coach K makes him the starter to go with the four freshmen down the road.  DeLaurier played 12 minutes – 9 in the first half where he picked up 2 fouls.  Bolden played 13 minutes without scoring, but excelled on defense,  while Alex played 10.

Next Play: Eastern Michigan on Wednesday Night at Cameron at 7 pm before heading to the Maui Classic next week.

DUKE 84 – E. MICHIGAN 46

If you took Eastern Michigan and got 37 points, you lost!

And actually, if it was a prize fight, it would have been call a TKO sometime during the first twenty minutes as Duke led 48-13 at the half. Mercifully, Coach K called off the precocious freshmen greyhounds in the second half by substituting liberally. The Eagles were thought to present a challenge because of the size and experience of their front court and tough Syracuse type zone defense. Duke aced that test by pressing full and half court, creating chaos, turnovers, and putting on a SportsCenter dunking show that has become their calling card. We have become accustomed to the dunking show but the first half defense was just as impressive as the first half rout of Kentucky— for a different reason. This group of teenagers take as much pride in their defense as their offense. The Blue Devils held the Eagles to shooting 21% in the first half. At one point, the score was 21-3.

Coach K: “We played at a pace different than what they’re really good at. It kind of snowballed for them. The intensity was excellent. We talked well, on both ends of the court. We shared the ball well and got every loose ball in the first half. Our goal was anybody, except the center, if you get the board, go. In transition, we were relentless. Everything we did kind of worked. But it worked because we played so hard. Alex [O’Connell] can score the ball. Alex continues to have to learn to play defense. He’s trying, but he’s not there yet. When that comes, he becomes better. It’s our third game, and he’s playing hard and well, but he can do that better. Jack [White], Javin [DeLaurier], even Antonio [Vrankovic] know exactly what they’re supposed to do. So even if we were to go to 10 or 11 guys, who, even if they don’t play much, know what they’re supposed to do, then we’re going to be better.”

However, to be the team they want to be, these Blue Devils have to shoot free throws and threes better or some night in a close game, this weakness cost them dearly. In the ESPN+ series  “Earn Everything” Coach K explains that in the Five Out Motion Offense spacing will create open, stand still threes and that every player on this team has to be able to hit them as well as free throws. He pointedly commented that practicing all these razzle dazzle dribbling moves is fine, but the easy, uncontested shots should be money in the bank. On the Olympic Team, Kobe Bryant didn’t believe him and when he got some, he missed them. So, Kobe shot a thousand of them a day for a week and didn’t miss many more on the way to a Gold Medal.

Duke had 14 dunks, 6 by Williamson, 4 by Bolden, 2 by Javin DeLaurier and 1 each for Barrett and White. Williamson and Barrett led Duke with 21 (12 shots) and 20 points (21 shots), respectively. DeLaurier and White, whose consistent all-round play is demanding more playing time, each had 10 points. The suffocating defense ( 56-37 advantage on the boards, forcing 20 turnovers, with 14 steals and 11 blocks masked the fact that the Blue Devils didn’t  actually shoot very well and were sloppy with the ball. The Blue Devils were 5-for-24 on 3s, 6-for-17 from the line. Of course, those stat lines were skewed a bit by the use of the deep bench.

Miscellaneous Comments: 

  • The final two (#7& 8) episodes of the Duke series “Earn Everything” are now available on ESPN+. I found them to be the most the most interesting and revealing of the segments. They made one thing crystal clear: The Duke “Brotherhood” extends back decades, is a potent recruiting tool, and has a powerful hold upon former players–even the one-and-done players.
  • Cameron Reddish did not play at all in the second half. Krzyzewski said Reddish had a sore groin, nothing serious, but it didn’t make much sense to play him when he could rest for next week.
  • For Duke, Monday’s No. 1 showing is an AP poll record. The Blue Devils, with this week’s ranking, have now stood atop the AP rankings 135 weeks in their history. That breaks a tie with UCLA for most all time. The AP poll dates back to 1949; UCLA had held the record for decades, thanks to the season-over-season dominance during the John Wooden era. Mike Krzyzewski has been coach for 117 of the 135 weeks Duke has held the No. 1 ranking.  

Alan Adds:

The beat down was as severe as any I can remember a Duke team handing out.  17 minutes and 36 seconds had expired in the first half before Eastern Michigan’s point total hit double figures.  The Eagles did not score points 10 and 11 until then to reduce Duke’s 37 point lead to 35.  Duke’s lead in the second half ballooned to 46 with 9:14 left in the game before Coach K called off the dogs (the freshmen) and the 1-2-2 press.   The tale of this game was in the amazing first half, where I will concentrate this analysis.

The Defense

This team has the potential to be not just a good defensive team, but a great defensive team.  Duke certainly was last night.  Duke’s 1-2-2 ¾ court press destroyed Eastern Michigan.  Duke’s trapping completely discombobulated the Eagles.  Tre is simply a superb on the ball defender.  He got his hands on the ball many times to disrupt the Eastern Michigan offense.  Then there is the size and athleticism of the trapping players – Cam R.J. and Zion primarily.  Bolden, DeLaurier, Zion and Jack White protected the rim, turning away a bunch of Eagle layup attempts with blocks (Duke had 5 blocks in the first half; White had 4 in the second half by himself).  You watched Duke just eviscerate the Eastern Michigan psyche.  The Eagles were looking for their exit transportation with much of the first half still left to play.

In the half court, Duke kept the visitors from open shots.  The switching was efficient, but even more so was the interior defense against penetration (Duke’s major weakness last year).  Jack White is an outstanding defender.  He had the knack of fronting the big in the post, allowing him to switch onto every penetrator without giving up the pass to the primary opponent he was guarding.  Zion was also superb defending the post.  What was apparent is how much this team likes playing defense and attacking as defenders.   Duke has not had a defensive team with this much potential since its last championship team (where Justice Winslow led an improved defense to the title)  

The Offense

Duke did not shoot the ball well from anywhere but the paint, but did not have to.  The Blue Devils ran through Eastern Michigan (to quote George Scott as Patton) “like crap through a goose”.  The Duke transition – powered by 10 first half steals (10 in a half!) was a highlight reel.  Zion had one dunk where I swear his chest was at the rim.  He scored 12 in 11 first half minutes on 6-7 from the floor, (he missed his only free throw) to go with 4 boards 2 assists and a block.  He had 2 turnovers and committed 2 first half fouls.  He had his shot blocked twice (first time I can remember that happening this year); when he came back on defense, he committed a silly foul.  Coach K yanked him immediately.  Zion’s passing is fun to watch; he had 2 superb assists, and seemed to come up with every loose ball.  R.J. seems to me in a bit of a funk.  He played better in the second half, but had trouble finishing at the rim early (usually his very strong suit).  R.J. played 15 first half minutes (most on Duke) and scored 12, but took 11 shots to do it (5-11; 0-2 from deep; 2-5 from the line) to go with 6 assists (1 more than Tre) 2 rebounds, a steal against only a single turnover.  Reddish played 12 first half minutes (his only action) going 1-4 from deep and 1-5 in total from the field.  He had 2 steals (he is a tenacious defender), 3 boards, 2 assists with only 1 turnover.

Coach K was asked if Cam was unhappy “not being a first option”.  Coach K explained that Duke has 3 “first options” – obviously Zion, R.J. and Cam.  Against Kentucky, Cam was the first option in the game plan (he made 7 3s).  In the half court, the Blue Devils had no trouble with Eastern Michigan’s zone (which was not mobile and did not resemble the efficiency of the Syracuse Zone – Eastern Michigan coach was a long time Boeheim assistant at Syracuse).  Both Zion and R.J. were able to flash to the lane, catch and make plays.  Duke’s lobs to Bolden and DeLaurier were effective.  DeLaurier scored 8 first half points in 9 minutes (3-3 on 2 dunks and a putback; 2-3 from the line) to go with 4 boards, a block, 2 steals and 2 turnovers.  Key stat: 0 fouls.  Bolden played 12 minutes scoring 4 on 2 dunks.  He grabbed 2 boards, and displayed improved defense – 2 blocks and a steal. 0 fouls.  Jack White is glue. He is playing starter minutes (11 in the first half; same as Zion) without committing a turnover or a foul.  He led the team in first half rebounds with 5 and made a steal.  He was also 2-3 from deep for 6 points.  Duke shot badly from behind the arc except for White’s 2-3 and Alex’s 1-1.  The rest of the team was 1-7.  The foul shooting was embarrassing (4-11 in the first half; Barrett 2-5; Zion 0-1; Vrankovich 0-2) 36% even with Javin’s 2-3.

I still believe that Tre is the most important player on offense.  His shot wasn’t there (scoreless in the first half: 0-2; 0-1 from deep), but he controls the offense like a senior (and his defense is off the charts).  He had 5 assists, but I particularly like his leadership and his calmness.  He also threw one of the absolutely greatest lob passes I have ever seen to Zion for a dunk.  Barrett got the rebound and passed long to Tre running the left side.  Tre had to leap for the pass, and without turning, looking, or landing, threw it long over his head to Zion for an instant classic dunk.  He will score when the game is tight (just like his brother).  He is a point guard’s point guard.

The Rotation

Coach K is playing 9 right now with Jack White, Javin, Alex and Jordan Goldwire constituting the bench (Bolden is the fifth starter to go with the four freshmen).  The co-captains are playing very well – especially Jack White.  Alex’s defense drew the negative comments from Coach K that Bill quoted.  He is goosing Alex to improve.  Goldwire played well (kept it simple, said Coach K).  The rotation may remain longer than the usual K rotation if the press continues to pay the kind of dividends that it did last night.

The Maui Invitational

Duke leaves for Maui on Friday to play 3 games in 3 days beginning Monday against San Diego State (5 pm EST game).  If Duke wins, they will mostly likely face Auburn (#9 in the AP poll this week) on Tuesday at 8 pm.  The finals are on Wednesday at 5 pm.  Gonzaga, (#3 in the AP poll) is the highest rated team in the other bracket and favored with Duke to make the finals.  If Duke loses to Auburn, there is the consolation game at 2:30.  It should be a great tournament.

Duke 90 – San Diego State 64

It’s no secret about how to beat Duke: control the tempo, hit a high percentage of your shots, get back on defense to prevent  SportsCenter dunks, clog the lane and force the Blue Devils to be jump shooters, and get the Four Freshmen in foul trouble. The Aztecs accomplished most of these goals as Duke did not have a dunk in the first half. However, they had nine threes and RJ Barrett practically scored anytime he wanted. In one of the segments of the ESPN+ Series “Earn Everything”, Coach K stressed that every player had to be able to hit stand still threes, because in this Five Out Motion Offense with these players ability to drive, there were going to be a lot of them.

An example of the  versatile lethality and opportunism of this team and how coaching matters is what happened  at the end of the first half. The teams were more or less trading baskets. The Aztecs had a player on the line to potentially make it a single digit game,  and then all of a sudden SDS is down 17. The Aztecs missed the free throw, RJ hits a three, Aztecs miss a shot, Coach K calls a time out, subs O’Connell for Antonio, spreads the floor with R.J dribbling the ball at the top of the key…. pass to Cam in the corner, swish as buzzer goes off. SDS is down 17.

What RJ provided in the first half, Cam Reddish supplied with flourish in the second with acrobatic drives and scoops to the basket. While early fouls limited his minutes, Zion Williamson had, for him, a quiet game with only one thunderous dunk, he did have 5 steals. And speaking of minutes, Jack White, whose Australian father was in attendance, played more minutes than any player and almost had another double-double. Jack has developed into an invaluable sixth starter as he may be the most complete complementary player on the team.

One of the reasons I enjoy Duke basketball is watching players and teams mature—or not. What we watched last night was Reddish and Jones demonstrating that they also can score. Consider this point distribution: Williamson 13, Barrett 20,Reddish 16, Jones 14, White 12. Whom do you double team? Not to make an invidious comparison but compare this defensive challenge to last year’s team—an opponent only had to neutralize one of three players.

Mike Krzyzewski commented: “They did a little bit of what Army did to us and tried to not let us penetrate completely to the bucket. As long as our guys were ready to shoot, they knocked them down. I thought that was the differential in the first half.” And on why these young players are so good so early in the season: “They’re over themselves. It’s not about them. They’re very secure and they have been parented well, they have been coached well, and so they understand being part of something bigger than them, but still being really good. They are all really good kids as well as really talented basketball players. They are a joy to coach.”

ESPN wrote: “Duke is the best show in town, even in Maui. Tickets were being scalped for $600. Yes, the Duke Blue Devils are the early favorites to win the national title. But they’re also rock stars even 4,700 miles from Durham, North Carolina, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. When they entered the gym during Auburn’s overtime win over Xavier, folks in the stands murmured and stared. Then dozens of fans grabbed their smartphones and snapped photos of the Blue Devils, who stood together next to the court as security officials warned anyone who got too close to the young stars. They seemed unbothered by the pregame frenzy. “I try to really just ignore it, just continue to work hard and listen to Coach,” said Reddish, who finished with 16 points. It’s a constant process for a team full of former prep stars who, in just three weeks, have become the collective center of college basketball’s universe.

Miscellaneous Comments:

  • Vlade Divac, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, Los Angeles Clippers executive Lawrence Frank, Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge and Golden State Warriors executive Bob Myers all were courtside along with representatives from dozens of other NBA teams.
  • Should Duke keep the preseason tournament mojo going by winning Maui for a record 6th time, it would be the 20th preseason championship of Mike Krzyzewski’s career.

Alan Adds: 

Auburn tonight at 8 pm

Duke faces its second top 10 team of the season when the young Devils tangle with Bruce Pearl’s #8 Auburn, the defending SEC champions.  This will be, I predict, a stern test.  Auburn has an star studded backcourt that produced 51 points in the Tigers’ win over Xavier (overtime).  The 5’10” point guard (Harper) made a Zion-like (sports center highlight) slam on a darting drive to win the game in overtime.  Both of Auburn’s heralded big guys fouled out, but Auburn dominated the overtime after seeing its double digit lead dissolve late.   This team is good.

Last night, I had the oddest feeling as I watched the first half.  The score and what I was watching did not match.  Duke looked awful in some aspects of the game, and yet kept building a lead.  Here’s what seemed to me awful: Duke could not defend without fouling; 14 first half fouls.  Only White, Jones and Barrett had less than 2 fouls. DeLaurier (who continues to lead the world in fouling – and rebounding) and Vrankovich had 3 each (Antonio’s 3 came in only 4 minutes).  DeLaurier eventually fouled out in only 11 minutes.  The Aztecs doubled Zion in the post effectively.  His first two shots were blocked and he committed 2 fouls in the first 5 minutes (but interestingly no more in the game), limiting him to 7 first half minutes.  He did make the first 3 of the game, but then was 0-4 for the rest of the half.  The Devils did not (could not) penetrate.  But, of course, when you shoot 50% from deep (9-18 or 27 points on 18 shots) your offense is rolling anyway.

The first half was very different from the second half.  RJ Barrett played every minutes of the first half, lighting it up for 16 first half points (3-6 from deep and 5-6 from the line) to lead Duke.  Tre Jones played 17 first half minutes.  While he was the second high scorer with 9 on 4-5 shooting (1-1) from deep; his defense was ineffective and (for the first time) he had more turnovers than assists (2-1) and was 0-3 from the foul line.  Reddish played 13 minutes, scoring 8 (3-5; 2-4 from deep).  The three of them were collectively 6-10 from behind the arc.  Add Zion’s opening 3 (1-2 for the half) and that is 7 for 12.  We are getting to the point where we may say Duke has 6 starters or that Jack White is the best of the upper class players even though he comes in off the bench.  He played 16 first half minutes (Bolden, the starter, played 9 and De Laurier 7).  White is so valuable as a defender, who does not foul, a tough rebounder, a good open shooter, a reliable foul shooter, and a finisher who does not turn the ball over.   Duke was up only 11 with over a minute to go in the half.  The Devils scored 8 including two 3s in the last 39 seconds (Barrett and Cam) to give a 17 half time lead that felt almost artificial.

It felt very artificial when San Diego State opened with 5 straight points.  But just when it seemed that the second half could be a struggle, Duke broke the game wide open with its devastating transition game.  “We’re explosive”, said Coach K.  Indeed!  After being thwarted in the first half, the young Devils put on a show.  Zion played 11 second half minutes and put his stamp on every aspect of the game (do not underestimate the value of his 4 second half steals).  One play is worth recounting.  DeLaurier grabbed a tough defensive rebound and outletted to Tre.  Tre fired a bullet to a cutting White for the layup.  The ball never touched the floor!  It was simply beautiful.  The Devils rolled, upping the lead to 34 with over 6 minutes to go before Coach K called off the dogs and emptied the bench.

White played 28 minutes (as Bill points out, more than any other Duke player), scoring 12 (3-5; 2-4 from deep; 4-4 from the line).   R.J. was quiet in the second half, limited by the three quick fouls he picked up in the first 5 minutes of the second half (which made 4).  He led Duke in scoring with 20, but played only 6 second half minutes.  Reddish had a dazzling second half, scoring 8 more in only 8 minutes.  His drives were acrobatic.  He had 16 in 21 total minutes (6-10; 2-5 from 3land;  and 2-3 from the line).  I thought he and Tre were Duke’s best players (so I guess did Coach K; they were the two players at the post-game press conference).  White led Duke in rebounding (8); while Zion (6), DeLaurier (6) were mainstays.  But all of Duke players can rebound: Barrett, 4; Bolden 4; Vrankovich, 4 (he provided needed minutes in the first half because all the Duke bigs were in foul trouble); and O’Connell, 4.   Zion, for all his first half troubles, scored 13 on 11 shots in 18 minutes to go with his 6 boards, 5 steals and a block.  That’s a pretty cool sub-par night.

Tonight’s game should be Duke’s first close game of the year and a real test.

Gonzaga 89 – Duke 87 

Sorry for the delay. Since I was going to be in Pinehurst for Thanksgiving, Alan and I arranged to email the DBP on time. Unfortunately, technology and/or operator error failed us. However, I have had extra time to think about the game.

Because it is Coach K and Duke and the top rated freshman class with Flyin’ Zion, the human video highlight, and they smoked another “Blue Blood” Kentucky to open the season, the hype for this team was off the charts. What the Gonzaga game taught us was timely reality check:

There are a lot of very, very talented basketball players in college many of us have never heard of or much less seen– especially if they play on the West Coast. And all those players want to prove they are just as good or better than the highly publicized players at Duke, Kentucky, or North Carolina– so we get their best shot. The blunt truth is that Gonzaga is as talented as Duke–plus older and more mature. Hachimura was the best player on the floor. Until tonight, Tre Jones was underrated because he usually was  satisfied to function as a facilitator, when in fact he has a multi-faceted game. Reddish and DeLaurier need to stop making silly fouls, which limit their playing time.

Duke needs a more balanced attack, shoot a higher percentage of threes and free throws. But most of all R.J. Barrett needs to dial back his alpha player mentality. He takes  disproportionate share of the team’s shots (Alan covers the surprising stats). In the last minute, he took a three, drove three times and was stuffed three times. On the final attempt, he drove into a triangle of bigger defenders right at the basket. That being the case, do the math. It left two ‘Zags to defend four Duke players. Two Blue Devils had to be undefended. That’s not Duke basketball. The player taking the last shot needs to be better than a 60% FT shooter—and btw Buzz Mewhort is right about the free throw weakness as was demonstrated by R.J. missing 4 of his 8 attempts on this night. So, despite missing 6 free throws, and two dunks, the opponent shooting 53% from the field and the circle, Duke only loses by two.

The bottom line: Despite the comeback, I thought the score did not reflect the difference in the performance and sophistication of the teams.

Alan Adds: 

Bill called me at half time and said, “They are better than we are.”  It did not take a basketball genius to see how well Gonzaga was playing (65% shooting in the first half).   The Zags played Duke’s game (5 out on offense) better than Duke did.  Marques Bolden, who was the star of stars against Auburn on Tuesday, was the Zag target.  Whoever he was guarding got the ball on the perimeter, where Bolden is a defensive liability.  While Duke played mediocre defense, Gonzaga played almost perfect offense.  The Zags are talented, long and experienced (3 upper classmen, including a grad senior point guard and 2 sophomores start).  Coach K said, “We looked young.  They were more emotionally ready than we were.”  Gonzaga WAS a better team than Duke yesterday, though what that means for the long season, nobody can say at this point.

What we can say is that the Maui Championship loss was a very good game for Duke in many respects.  My own feeling is Duke is actually better off for having been beaten at this stage than if the comeback had produced the small miracle (I fantasized Bill naming this team “The Miracles Without Marvin”).  First, there was much for Duke to be pleased with and proud of.  Second (and maybe really first), Duke learned a lot in this game, which I predict will lead to quicker improvement than if Duke had won.

Great Duke Performances

Tre Jones – Before this game, Jones was the respected orchestrator of a dynamite offense.  Now this is Tre’s team.  Coach K said that Gonzaga knocked Duke back at the start of the second half and went for the knockout.  They doubled their 8 point half time lead after 4 minutes of the second half had gone by.  Coach K said, “One guy making a play can turn a game around.  Tre did that for us, and for the next 14 minutes we dictated what would happen in the game.”  The play came when Zion blocked a shot and Tre got the rebound and went the length of the floor for an acrobatic finish.  He whirled around and stole the ball on the inbound pass, and drained both foul shots when he was fouled attempting another acrobatic layup against 2 defenders.  You saw Tre grab his teammates and yell, “let’s go” in a way that reminded me of Grayson Allen’s moment in the 2015 championship win over Wisconsin.  Zion then hit a jumper and the lead was down to 10.  The Zag lead bounced between 9 and 15 for the next nine minutes before the Devils began to cut into the Gonzaga lead when the Zags finally started to miss (better Duke defense, and Bill and I both think the Zags got a little tired) and Duke kept scoring.  Tre played 39 of the 40 minutes scoring 17 points (7-14; 1-2 from deep; and 2-2 from the line) to go with 4 boards, 3 assists and 2 steals.  He turned it over twice early, but was the calm leader of the comeback offense.  He played valiant defense while committing only 2 fouls.

Heart – Duke had trailed for only 35 seconds total in its first 5 games, none of which were close.  While Auburn seemed to slow the Duke juggernaut, the Tigers still never got closer to Duke than 5 points.  Against the Zags, Duke scored the game’s first bucket, but never again led in the game.  Down 16, Duke emotion returned to the level it needed to be.  But the Zags are an excellent team; they managed to maintain a significant working margin.  Then with 6:26 left in the game, the Devil’s emotional fight began to cut the 11 point deficit.  Zion hit a jumper; Javin, tough underneath, was fouled. He made the first, but bricked the second.  In a great sequence, White grabbed the offensive board and hit R.J. with a pass.  But R.J. missed an open 3; Tre got the offensive board, but could not convert on the put back.  Duke scored when Zion soared for a dramatic dunk. 81-75.  Zion stole the ball from Hachimura and fed R.J. for a dramatic full court run and dunk.  81-77.  White fouled Novell, who made them both.  The Zags were not giving up.  When Zion missed a jumper, Javin stuffed in the rebound.  Zion blocked Kispart and Tre came up with the rebound and found R.J. who buried a jumper.  83-81 with 3:45 left.  Clark scored on a traditional 3 point play (foul by White), but Duke closed to 3 on a Tre floater in the lane.  After a timeout, White rebounded a miss by Clark; Tre hit another hoop to make it 86-85 with 2:26 to play.  Javin fouled Clark who made 1 of 2.  Duke tied the score at 87 with 1:41 left to play when R.J. fed Zion for a jumper.  But Gonzaga took the lead for good when Hachimura scored on a layup with 1:15 to go.  From there, Duke had 7 shots on goal without scoring.  R.J. missed a 3 (too quick, but going for the lead); Javin got the board, but Hachimura blocked Tre’s layup.  Duke kept the ball.  Clark blocked R.J.’s attempted layup; Hachimura blocked R.J.’s jumper.  Clark missed both free throws after R.J fouled him, but R.J. missed a contested layup with 14 seconds left.  White grabbed the rebound but missed the putback.  Hachimura got the board, was fouled by White, but he, too, missed both free throws.  Duke down 1 with 10 seconds left; one last chance.  R.J. was frustrated again by Hachimura on his last ditch effort to tie.  What a fabulous (even if not a winning) comeback!  Duke has heart.

Zion – While he wasn’t the 80% shooter and unstoppable force he had been in the first 4 games, he played a whale of a game.  In 37 minutes, he scored 22 (8-17; 0-1 from 3land; and critically, 6-6 from the line) to go with 10 boards; 4 blocks; 2 assists and 2 steals.  He was heroic on both ends.  His spirit and motor drove Duke.  He was simply terrific.

Javin – Although he only played 15 minutes, they were impactful minutes.  In addition to the dunk (his only field goal attempt), he was 4-6 from the line, garnered 6 rebounds, and played ferocious defense (but still committed 3 fouls in only 15 minutes).  He and Tre were the Duke players in the post-game interview.  Coach K praised him, “In the last 10 minutes he played like he can.”

Jack – He is such a glue guy.  He made his only 3 point attempt (his other shot was the offensive rebound that didn’t go with 11 seconds left in the game).  He had 5 rebounds and an assist before fouling out at the end of his 25 minutes of playing time (starter minutes).

What Duke can learn from

R.J.’s efforts at the game’s end; he took it on himself to tie or win the game.  This highlights what Bill and I think is a problem.  R.J. took 16 second half shots (25 for the game), which makes Duke’s offense unbalanced.  No Zag took more than 14 shots for the entire game.  Barrett led Duke in scoring with 23 points (9-25; 1-4 from deep; and a troubling 4-8 from the line).  He is a great player, but he should not be taking three times as many shots as Cam, for example, who took 9 shots in foul plagued 25 minutes.  Cam scored 10 on 3-9 from the field (2-4 from deep and 2-2 from the line), but had a strong second half, scoring 8 of his 9 in his 9 second half minutes, including 2-2 from deep.

R.J. has missed more shots this season than any player on Duke has taken, except Zion.  In 6 games, R.J. is 51-125 (meaning he has missed 74 shots); 12-38 from deep; and 23-32 from the line.  These are not the statistics of one who is touted to be a #1 NBA draft pick.  By comparison, only Zion has taken more shots than R.J. has missed (Zion is 49-75); Cam is 29-69; Tre 21-45 and White is 15-31.  This is a dynamic team with talented players.  R.J. cannot continue to dominate Duke’s shooting if Duke is to reach its potential.  He also has to give up his “Alpha Male gene” at game’s end and seek the player who has an open shot.  Good shots, as opposed to forced shots, win games.

Reddish has been a foul plagued problem, which has adversely impacted him at both ends of the court.  He will be so much more valuable when he learns to defend at this level without fouling.  He is such a smooth player, good shooter (from behind the line, on the drive and at the foul line) and versatile defender, that Duke should be benefitting more from his skill and talent.

Duke needs to be able to defend better with Bolden at the back line.  Duke needs the Auburn Bolden.  There are not many teams with big guys who can draw Marques away from the basket as Gonzaga did.  Duke will mix and match on defense with Bolden, DeLaurier, Zion and White playing the interior, depending on game situations.

Perhaps the biggest lesson Duke learned from this early season loss, is the requirement to bring full passion for each game from the beginning.  As Coach K said, Duke was ready, but not as ready as Gonzaga was emotionally.  In the post-game interview, Javin said that in the last 14 minutes Duke played together and with emotion to get back in the game.  If Duke can learn that, this was a great game for Duke even though it goes in the L column.

Next game is Tuesday, November 27 at 9:30 (p.m.) against Indiana.  Duke is traditionally ferocious after a loss.  I almost feel sorry for the Hoosiers.

Duke 90 – Indiana 69

Well, if anyone was wondering how the Blue Devils would respond to the loss against Gonzaga, they got the answer tonight in Cameron against Indiana. Duke played the first half like they did the last eight minutes in Maui and were up 53- 29 (while missing 7 free throws) at half time. Actually, they were losing some focus or intensity or interest in the waning minutes before the half, so Coach K called a time out. The result was a 9-0 run to close out the initial twenty minutes to more or less put the game on ice. Makes you wonder he doesn’t regret doing that at the end of the Gonzaga game. 

Duke started the game in a zone press, hounding Indiana (5-1) in its half-court offense with pressure man-to-man defense that led to turnovers, open court opportunities, and high wire shows that are these Blue Devils calling card. Duke only scored 4 points in the first five minutes of the second half, matched by 5 turnovers, and 4 fouls. So, Krzyzewski called a timeout, yanked off his jacket, fired it into the crowd, and had a few blistering comments for his precocious teenagers. The result were several SportsCenter Slamma Jamma highlights by Zion and R.J. that had an excited Scott Van Pelt, a Maryland grad, proclaiming like most of us that he was not going to miss any Duke games this season. Just to make it an ACC enemy’s list unanimous capitulation, Johnny Tar Heel reluctantly has confessed the same thing.

Although a blowout, Duke’s play was far from perfect. Looking at some of the stats, you might have thought it was a close game. The Devils shot 59% from the foul line, committed 24 fouls, had 14 turnovers, was out-rebounded by three. However, as much as the Williamson/Barrett show mesmerized the fans, the most significant play of the game–the one that signified lessons learned–was at the end of the half. Unlike the Gonzaga loss, when Williamson and the world watched R.J. Barrett try unsuccessfully to beat the Zags all by himself, there was a distinctly different approach tonight. Duke was holding for a final shot of the half and again Barrett had the ball. This time Coach K gestured for Barrett to pass the ball to Williamson. Zion successfully navigated the Indiana defense like a slalom racer, went one way, spun back to the other, leaned toward the bucket, and softly laid the ball into the basket. “I know what he can do, so I’m excited about what he is going to do,” Krzyzewski said. “After the trip, we’ve done some things to get him the ball more. That’s just the evolution of your team. So we were able to do that tonight, including at the end of the half, we were able to do a 4-5 ball screen. He’ll keep getting the ball.”  However, it is not just the gravity defying dunks. It’s the  sensational blocks that look like a volleyball spike, the defensive plays and steals, the diving for loose balls, the assist after slipping on a wet floor. The Williamson Show is must see TV.

Fortunately, Zion and R.J. are roommates and good buddies as this post-game exchange demonstrated. Williamson and Barrett often assist each other with well-placed lobs. Zion  was asked who throws better lobs, himself or Barrett. He responded: “See, that’s a trick question. I throw better lobs, but people will say he throws them better, because of the way I finish them. The finish will look better. But I think my pass is better. He knows I’m joking, he knows I’m joking.” The reporter: Are you, though? “Not really,” Williamson said with a broad smile, before breaking into laughter again.

Miscellaneous Comments:

  • Duke extended its non-ACC home-winning streak to 142 games, is 18-2 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and is 7-3 against Indiana.
  • While The Four Freshmen outscored the Hoosiers 75-69, Cam Reddish continues to struggle with too many cheap fouls and inconsistent play. Actually, Jack White is more effective and, as a result, is getting more minutes. On the other hand, Tre Jones is not struggling. Tonight, he had 15 points, 8 assists and 0 turnovers. The point guard has 41 assists against eight turnovers on the season.
  • Question: If Barrett misses a three, Williamson rebounds it and slams it home, does R.J. get an assist?
  • Jay Bilas added his usual incisive comments, which always add to the enjoyment of the game.
  • Mike Krzyzewski said of Jones’s defense: “He’s in that room where Amaker, Hurley, Wojo, Duhon, and Silber (just wanted to be sure you were paying attention) are as far as on-the-ball pressure. He has such will and determination.

Alan adds:  

After the Maui loss to Gonzaga, I wrote, “Next game is Tuesday, November 27 at 9:30 (p.m.) against Indiana.  Duke is traditionally ferocious after a loss.  I almost feel sorry for the Hoosiers.”  I’m bragging, of course.  Duke was, in fact, ferocious from the opening tip – as if the Devils could reverse the loss to The Zags, by beating the living hell out of the Hoosiers.  And that the young Blue Devils did beat the living hell out of Indiana.  On both ends of the court!  Duke demonstrated just how effective this team can be on the defensive end when it plays with the intensity demonstrated in the opening stanza.  Coach K termed Duke’s first half performance as “outstanding”, and the second half as “disjointed” (which he blamed on the lateness of the game – which was scheduled to start at 9:30 p.m. to secure the largest west coast audience).  Duke’s bench was on full display in the second half (Indiana outscored Duke 40-37) with R.J. limited to only 8 minutes, and Zion to 11.  After R.J. had an efficient first half, it was as if he ran completely out of gas in a nightmarish second half.  In the latter stanza, R.J. committed 4 fouls in 8 minutes (fouling out) while turning it over 5 times.  R.J. has not been as good in the second half this season.  The first half was the game; so, this analysis will concentrate on the “outstanding” first half.

The team statistics tell the story.  Duke was 18 for 28 inside the arc (Zion was 9-10; 2 of his 3 first half misses came from 3land) and forced 13 Hoosier turnovers.  The Indiana’s heralded stars, Langford (3-10; 0-2 from deep; 2-4 from the line) and Morgan (1-5 for 2 points) were held in check, while the Duke three quarter court press simply wrecked the Hoosier’s offensive plan.  Duke was not only a wrecking crew with the press, the Devils were also superb in the half-court defense (really talking to each other), holding Indiana to 33% shooting.  Tre’s on the ball defense is brilliant.  Coach K pointed out that he almost got about 5 additional steals where he applied disrupting pressure but just missed getting the ball.  Duke protected the rim (blocks by Zion, R.J. and Bolden) and held their own on the boards (R.J. 8; Tre 5 and Zion 4)  On offense Duke had 9 assists (Tre had 5; Bolden 2) with only 4 turnovers (2 of them from reserves DeLaurier – 2 fouls in 5 minutes – and O’Connell in his 2 minute first half cameo).  Of course, the biggest team statistics are: 1) holding Indiana to 29 first half points; and 2) scoring 53.  And, Indiana is NOT a weak team.

The rotation in the first half was tight: Barrett (19); Zion (18); Tre (16); White (15) and Bolden (12) were the only double digit minutes guys.  White played 6 minutes more than the struggling Reddish, whose nightmarish first half was followed by an efficient (hopefully confidence restoring) second half (he led the Devils in second half scoring with 10).  DeLaurier played 5, Goldwire 4 and Alex 2.    Zion led the scoring with an efficient and defense (or soul) destroying 19 points (9-12; 0-2 from 3; 1-2 from the line) to go with 4 rebounds, a block, a steal and an assist.  It was a world class performance.  R.J. was an efficient scoring teammate with 15 first half points (6-13; 1-3 from deep; 2-3 from the line) to go with 8 boards (led Duke) and a block while committing only 1 foul and 0 turnovers.  Their back to back dunks were a highlight.  Jack White and Trey Jones were also efficient.  Each scored 8.  White was 2-3 from deep and 2-2 from the line, while Tre was 4-6 from the field.  Cam was the only other Duke first half scorer – 3 points on 1-6; 1-3 from deep; and 0-3 from the line – in his frustrating first half.  Bolden played well without scoring – 2 assists and a block without a foul or turnover.

For the game only Tre (32 minutes) and White (30) played more than 29 minutes.  Zion played 29; R.J, 27; Bolden 23 (0 points, but 2 assists, 3 blocks, 3 boards and 2 steals).  Reddish played 22 minutes (his 13 second half minutes with 10 points were redemptive).  He drained a pair of 3s and made a superb driving layup to go with 2-4 from the line in the last stanza.  DeLaurier played 12 efficient minutes – efficient except for his continuous fouling – 4 in 12 minutes.  Alex (5-6 from the line in the second half) and Goldwire each played 11 minutes.

The level of competition drops for the next four games, all in Cameron.  Duke will be working on its man to man defense and communication.

Stetson on Saturday (December 1) at 7 pm.  Followed by Hartford (12-5), Yale (12-8); and Princeton (12-18) before playing Texas Tech in the World’s Most Famous Arena on 12-20.

Duke 113- Stetson 49 

Since Stetson (1-7) lost all their starters from last year’s team, I guess you could say this year Stetson, which shot 32 percent and committed 27 turnovers, is: “All hat and no cattle.”

Other than that bad pun, there were only a few takeaways from this mismatch:

Coach K:: “Two of the guys that really didn’t score had the biggest impact on the game, and that’s Tre [Jones] and Jack [White]. They’re just such good teammates. Tre goes another game where he doesn’t turn the ball over, has 7 assists, and was all over the place defensively. Jack had 9 rebounds in 15 minutes. I think he reluctantly shot the ball, which is why he missed… This is a rough stretch because of all the academic work that has to be done now”…On using defense to start a play: “They know that—it’s the best way to start a play. That, and defensive rebounding by the perimeter, if you can get both of those with multiple ball handlers. Obviously, the best way to have transition is to turn someone over with a live ball because you can have the numerical advantage. If you get it off of a defensive board, you may not have the numerical advantage, but you have mismatches. A guy who was supposed to guard you is guarding someone else. It forces the team to talk more. The more we get of that, the better we’re going to be.”

Miscellaneous Comments:

  • Duke played a lot harder and more intensity than they did in a similar situation against Army.
  • Even announcer Corey Alexander’s stream-of-conscious ramblings stumbled across the fact that this year’s team is much better defensively than last year’s edition. What he did not mention is that this year’s freshmen parents are just content to watch their kids play.
  • For whatever reason(s), Cam Reddish was more aggressive on both ends of the floor and Coach K gave him more minutes than any other starter. He responded with 23 points in 23 minutes.
  • Practically everything R.J. Barrett threw up went in as he was 12-14 from the floor for 26 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, and 4 steals in just 17 minutes.
  • I am really impressed with Alex O’Connell’s shooting and athleticism (but not his hair styles). He had three long threes and is shooting 50% from behind the arc. Unfortunately, Alex and Justin Robinson are statistically Duke’s best three point shooters.
  • One criticism: Again, lousy free throw shooting.
  • With his parents in the stands, how cool was it to see reserve Justin Robinson go 3 for 3 from three point land, then make a steal and go coast to coast for a dunk as the entire Duke bench of starters celebrated like they had just won the NCAA Tournament. Even the stoic Admiral gave his son a standing O!
  • For the record:  Duke’s home non-conference winning streak now stands at an amazing 143 straight games – the nation’s longest active streak. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s record at Duke is now 1,034-280 in his 39th season. His overall record is 1,107- 339 in this, his 44th season.

Alan Adds:

It is hard to discern the important takeaways for Duke from this preposterous mismatch in talent that masqueraded as a basketball contest.  Every Duke player looked All-World.  However, I found several impressive aspects of Duke’s performance that auger well for the season.  As usual, I start with defense because I believe Duke’s potential at tournament time will depend on how well this group perfects the justly famous and (formerly) feared Duke man to man defense. Duke is an excellent pressing team as today’s game graphically demonstrated.  But Gonzaga proved that a terrific ball handling team with experience can (did) outplay Duke’s press.  Therefore, in my view, Duke will have to be an excellent half court man to man defensive team to make a deep run at tournament time.   How is this group doing with that development?   The short answer is (except for the first half against Gonzaga) pretty damn well!  The first seven have been superb (Alex can still fall asleep more than the others, but is improving) in communicating, switching to guard the penetration, protecting the rim, guarding the three point line, and forcing turnovers.  Against Stetson, Duke had 19 steals (4 by Barrett and 3 by Tre), forced 26 turnovers and had 5 blocks (Bolden, DeLaurier 2, White, and Justin R).  Ok, it was Stetson; but still, Duke held Stetson to 10 points in 14 minutes during the last part of the first half.  Fabulous defense played with intensity.  That is impressive even if the opponents were functionally The Little Sisters of the Poor.  The Duke press was so explosive in the first 4:08 of the second half  (outscoring Stetson 20-4) that Coach K called off the dogs, “we weren’t going to get anything out of continuing to do that.” and played his bench and half-court defense for the rest of the final stanza.

To give you an idea of what Coach K calls “explosive”, consider that R.J and Tre played only those opening four minutes of the second half, while Zion and Cam logged just a few minutes more — seven minutes each.  In those brief minutes, the three high scoring freshman scored 23 points on 13 shots.  R.J. must have set some kind of record by going 5-5 from the field, including 2-2 from deep for 12 points, 2 assists, a rebound and a steal in just 4 minutes.  Zion was 3-4 (his miss was his only attempt at a 3) with 4 boards and 3 steals in those 7 minutes.  Reddish actually missed two shots  from the field, scoring his 5 second half points to go with an efficient and gaudy 18 first half points in just 16 first half minutes.  What a coming out party it was for him! (6-11 – most shots for Duke; R.J. was second with 9 – 4-8 from 3land and 2-2 from the line).  Justin Robinson acquitted himself brilliantly by scoring 13 points in his 12 minutes (5-5; 3-3 from deep; 0-1 from the line) to go with a board, a block and a steal.  It even got The Admiral to his feet cheering his son.  Alex led Duke in minutes played in the second half (14), scoring 9 on 3-5 from deep (3-6 from the field) to go with 4 rebounds and 2 assists.  Alex is a valuable rebounder for a thin guard as well as a good stand still shooter.

Coach K pointed to the academic pressure at exam time.  This week projects and papers are due.  Next week is exams.  Duke plays Hartford on Wednesday at 7 and Yale (which beat Miami last night) on Saturday, December 8 at 7 p.m.

Duke 84- Hartford 54 

If Duke plays the way they did against many teams like they did in the first twenty-five minutes against Hartford, they will have a disappointing season. To their credit, the well-coached Hawks followed the Gonzaga model: being patient on offense, defensively clogging the lane, and challenging Duke to beat them from the outside. The Blue Devils contributed to the strategy work by becoming the Duke All-Thumbs Bricklayers. Cam Reddish, the best three point shooter, bageled five for the half, and Flyin’ Zion missed two point blank dunks (“I don’t know what was going on with me. I’ve never missed dunks like that before, not even when I’m just messing around. It’s very frustrating but if I can’t play within myself, I have to still play hard for my teammates.”), while allowing Hartford to be down only 33-24 at the break, making Duke fans as well as Las Vegas bookmakers very nervous.

After more of the same to start the second half, Coach K called time, angrily spiked his folding chair several times on his very own personalized court to be sure (I assume) it stayed in place as he emphatically  lectured his young students in a vernacular not normally heard in a Duke classroom. Whatever the message, it elicited better effort which netted about fifty points in the remaining sixteen minutes. DeLaurier (10 points, 4 rebounds, 5 blocks and 3 steals in 19 minutes) played most of Bolden’s minutes in the second half and with his athleticism and hustle had his best performance of the season. Barrett, just a relentless scoring machine, had a 27-15 double-double, as did Williamson 18-12. On a breakaway, Zion was teeing the crowd up for another monster jam when he unexpectedly softly kissed the ball high off the backboard for his trailing roommate to make a two handed slam. The selfless, unexpected finesse play brought the house down and guaranteed a spot on SportsCenter. 

The bottom line is that on a night they came out flat against a team of seniors who won 19 games last season–one in the CIT–and started five seniors, Duke never did find the range from downtown, shooting 5-for-26 on 3s, with Reddish a woeful 1-for-9, the Blue Devils still won by thirty as they were 30-43 on two-pointers, outscored Hartford 36-3 in fast-break points, out-rebounded Hartford 46-32, while forcing 21 turnovers, with 15 steals and 10 blocks.

Coach K had some interesting post game comments:

“This week is that time of the year that’s been very difficult for our teams over the last 10 years. Exams are next week; often this week is harder than exams because of all the projects and papers. Sometimes the end of a course is this week, not next week. That changed about 10 years ago. A lot of times we don’t schedule a game during the week this week. We usually schedule it on Saturday. Just because we had to get games in, this year we did. We know what can happen.

On Javin [DeLaurier]: “He’s playing great. He’s playing more like he played in Canada. He’s getting into a rhythm right now. When you play against these teams that have five position-less people or they don’t play a low post, it requires that fifth guy to guard the ball. Javin can do that. The lineup that we had in when we extended was when we had Jack [White] in there with the four freshmen, but then Javin came in and kept it up. I thought Alex [O’Connell] actually did a good job in the second half.”

On discovering Jack White: “We were looking at tape of guys. I saw him on tape and I said, ‘I like his bounce, his size.’ I checked with our friends in Australia, the people I’ve gotten to know internationally. They didn’t say he’s a great player, but they said he’s a great kid and a good student. He’s followed the more traditional thing of not being as good as a freshman, being okay as a sophomore, and then kind of changing his body. Not just kind of, he’s lost 12 pounds, he’s a really good athlete right now, and is really strong. That’s happened in our program, when we have guys for a longer period. He’s been a huge asset for us.

Making history (This drives Johnny Tar Heel crazy): Mike Krzyzewski’s record at Duke is now 1,035-280 in his 39th season. His overall record is 1,108- 339 in this, his 44th season. Duke’s home non-conference winning streak now stands at 144 games – the nation’s longest active streak.

Alan Adds:

Coach K seemed rather proud of the way his team turned the game around, and it led him to talking about the defensive potential of this team.  He was also a bit defensive about the performance of his recent past teams on that end of the court.  “We’ve played some pretty great defense in my 39 years here.”  Indeed the Devils have … but not really since the 2015 end of the season.  He recognizes the potential of this team to be elite defensively, and also that these youngsters are not quite there yet.

Human nature humbled Duke in the first half.  Hartford is a losing team from a weak conference.  But Hartford also started 5 seniors with wily veteran guards.  Duke couldn’t put the ball in the ocean from the perimeter.  Consider that without R.J.’s 3-4 from behind the arc, Duke was 2-22 for the game from deep.  Duke had no energy on defense, and the lowly Stags were only down 5 late in the first half.  Duke’s press was frustrated.  Coach K said, “They played harder than we did for the first 22 minutes; then we turned it around.”  He pointed out that no matter what defense an opponent throws up in the half court, a team can have a night where the shots just do not fall.  However, if the Duke press causes turnovers, Duke WILL SCORE IN TRANSITION!  He credited Tre for turning the team on with his pressing defense; then everyone got into the fun.  In the last 16 minutes, the Duke pressure destroyed Hartford.  Duke’s 8 point lead with a shade over 12 minutes to go simply ballooned to over 30 courtesy of the press and defense at the rim.  Javin had 5 second half blocks! [5!].  Bolden only saw 3 second half minutes, though he logged 15 for the game.  Coach K:  When the opponents have a low post player, Marques is excellent, but when teams play 5 out (as Hartford and Gonzaga both did), Javin can guard on the perimeter better than Bolden.  Javin’s 11 second half minutes were simply scintillating: (3-3 from the floor; 5 blocks; 2 assists, 3 rebounds and a steal).  In the second half alone.  Coach K also credited Jack White (“we had the four freshmen and White on the floor when we broke the game open.”).  Duke’s rotation is 9 deep for now (Goldwire spells Tre for a few minutes in each half; I doubt Goldwire will play that much once conference play begins.

It is worth mentioning R.J.’s game and especially his second half.  He scored 27 points on 14 shots (same number that Zion took) in 36 minutes (10-14; 3-4 from deep; a disappointing 4-7 from the line) to go with 15 rebounds, 4 assists and a block.  In the second half, he scord 17 points in 18 minutes (6-6 from the field; 1-1 from deep).

By contrast, what is the problem with Cam Reddish, who had a nightmare game.  In 31 minutes, he scored only 5 (2-12; 1-9 from deep; he did not get to the line) to go with only 2 rebounds and 3 turnovers.  He did have 4 assists and 4 steals.  Duke is going to need him, and he is in a real slump.

Saturday, December 8 vs Yale at 5:30 (EST) on ESPN.

Duke 91 – Yale 58 

Shortly after Dr. Richard Brodhead, Dean of Yale College, accepted the presidency of Duke University, one of his students congratulated him and commented: “Duke is Yale on steroids.” And this was in 2004 before anyone had seen Zion Williamson– or the 2018-19 version of Duke basketball that, despite missing 12 three point shots and 9 free throws wore down, blitzed a good Yale team (they had just beaten California and Miami) by 33 points.

Unlike last year, Duke compensated for poor shooting by playing an energetic, effective pressing defense that forced the Bulldogs into 23 turnovers and 9 steals which they converted into the margin of victory. However, like the Hartford game, it was a close for most of the first half and the Blue Devils were only up by nine at the break. Interestingly,  the momentum for that spread was supplied by subs Alex O’Connell and Jack White. Beside the missed threes and free throws, the only negative is that Tre Jones night was cut short after suffering a lower body injury midway through the second half on a collision at mid-court. The Apple Valley, Minn., native would return  briefly but immediately return to the bench. To emphasize how important Tre’s on ball pressure is, Coach K said; “To fight Tre the whole night is the key (to our defense). That makes it easier for all of our other guys to play defense. If we become the team that we’re going to be defensively, Tre will be as valuable a defender as there is in the country because of what he does. Similar to when Wojo [Steve Wojciechowski] got Defensive Player of the Year, or Tommy Amaker … everyone should recognize the value of pressure and how we’re trying to put our team together”.

On Javin DeLaurier’s play: “He’s playing with a lot of confidence and talking. He’s such a good athlete when he’s playing loose that we can switch that one through five. He ran the court well with good hands. I’d rather have him not become a playmaker. He needs to just grab it. But he’s doing a really good job. He’s in a really good place and he’ll just get better.”

On Alex O’Connell’s defensive play: “He’s making a lot of progress on defense. He’s a heck of an athlete, and he’s got really good quickness. Out of everything, we’re spending a lot of time on our defense. For the denial, or what we call contesting, he’s got great feet. He’s 6’5/6’6 and long. He got his hands on a couple today. That was a big game for him. One, it helped us, and two, he really did something, instead of only hitting a shot. It was good. We just have to keep seeing progress from these guys.”

A gracious head Coach James Jones: “I told Coach (Krzyzewski) before the game that what he has created down here is nothing short of tremendous. (Dean who?) It is kind of an American icon, this arena and how the game is played and the fans and how they’re into every single possession and every second. It’s a wonderful experience for our guys to be a part of and to see how it’s developed over the years.”

Miscellaneous Comments:

  • Cam Reddish is in a shooting slump and it is apparent that Coach is running plays for him to get his confidence back. So far, it hasn’t worked. He is even missing free throws. However, he had 4 steals.

Minute for minute, Jack White, who had a career-high 12 rebounds (surpassing the 11 he had versus Kentucky) and 9 points to finish a point shy of his first career double-double, is the most productive player on the team.

  • Marquis Bolden has regressed against these two smaller, quicker teams. Rather than going up strong to the rim, he appears hesitant or indecisive..but whatever,  his playing time is diminishing. On top of that DeLaurier is playing his best basketball on both ends of the floor. If he could just eliminate those silly fouls…
  • There are a lot of reasons to like Zion Williamson and his effort and hustle are two of them. While chasing a fast break and unsuccessfully attempting to knock the ball from the  point guard, he paused and emphatically spiked the attempted layup by the unsuspecting player.
  • During the 50-26 second half blowout, the Cameron Crazies, who get Princeton in ten days, were chanting: “We want Harvard.”
  • My long time buddy “All Prep Ep” suggests that teams, along with player’s height & weight, also list their SAT & GPA scores.

Alan Adds:

I’m writing Alan Adds from a beach in Key West, after watching it while at a NORML (National Organization for the Reform of the Marijuana Law) Legal Seminar.  Thus, this analysis comes with a heightened consciousness and may sound somewhat “mellow”.

The Coach K press conferences have been revealing.  It has been a while since I have heard and seen Coach K so positive about the progress of his team.  He has extolled the improvement since the season began but has told the press that the team is a long way from what it will be at tournament time.  He has had players as heralded as this group before without sounding so positive. It is worth exploring why this sunny Coach K.

The answer is DEFENSE!  Duke is back to the high pressure Coach K man to man defense.  The answer is also the depth (perhaps unexpected based on last year’s performance) that has emerged.  DeLaurier, White, Bolden and O’Connell have contributed on both ends of the court.  There are lineups where Duke can switch 1 through 5, which makes it difficult for the opponents to get to the rim.  Duke is blocking shots at a record breaking rate.  The pressure defense is forcing turnovers (and steals) that turn into transition baskets.  Of course, this defense starts with Tre (Goldwire has also had good minutes pressuring the ball when Tre gets a breather).  His ball pressure is the calling card that makes this defense go.

The pressure defense is one reason (and a main one) why Duke has destroyed well coached (but less talented) veteran teams in the second half.  The pressure induces fatigue (which, as Vince Lombardi once famously said, “makes cowards of us all”) which made Hartford and Yale simply wilt in the closing stanza.

Reddish, who has been in a shooting slump, broke out of it in the second half with 8 points in 16 minutes, while playing an excellent floor game (2 assists and 2 steals). Cam was 3-4 shooting from inside the arc (2-2 from the line, but 0-3 from deep).  Coach K was pleased with his second half and expressed the hope Cam will build on it.

R.J.’s second half (and defense for the entire game) is worth mentioning.  He held the Yale star, Oni, to a single field goal, while scoring 18 points in 17 minutes (5-9;2-6 from 3land; and a gaudy 6-7 from the line) to go with 5 rebounds and 5 assists.

Two more games before Xmas and the beginning of ACC games.

Next game: Princeton. Tuesday, December 18. 6 pm. ESPN 2

Duke  101- Princeton 50 

The Blue Devils started the game on both offense and defense as if they had pulled all-nighters for the last week studying for exams. They missed their first eight shots and were down 13-8 with twelve minutes to go but closed the half out 39-26. Oh wait, they had just come off exam week but actually slow starts have been the rule not the exception for this team. As Alan will remind you in more detail, the first game of the season—the blowout of that cupcake, Kentucky, where they scored 59 points in both halves—was the only one in which this team played consistently for a full forty minutes. I call it the Golden State Warriors Syndrome—mess around, then flip the switch and blow out the opponent. The only trouble is this: Duke is good, but they don’t have Steph and Durant and threes and free throws are their weak link, so it didn’t work against a top team like Gonzaga.

We are used to seeing Duke teams make a game changing run–especially in Cameron–that gives them separation that turns into a winning margin. However, this team is something else because of their defense, speed, unselfishness, and athleticism, so when they get the pedal on the metal, they turn the game into a track meet and SportsCenter highlight reel.

An inconvenient truth is that Cam Reddish’s underperformance may be a major reason for the sluggish starts and the antidote has been Jack White, who is clearly out performing Cam by any metric. No disrespect but the Stetson’s, Hartford’s, Yale’s and Princeton’s are not ACC caliber teams, so what to do when league play starts? Will it take another loss for Coach K to invoke tough love and bring Reddish off the bench as sixth man? And if so how fragile is Cam’s ego or is it the move that light’s a fire that ignites this multi-talented high school phenon? Just the fact that B.J. is as good as advertised and Flyin’ Zion is better than advertised and is the poster player for college basketball should be motivation enough—but you never know what goes on in a teenagers head. And speaking of a teenager’s head, Alex O’Connell improved defense to go with his obvious offensive skills is playing his way into Coach K’s heart and rotational minutes. This is becoming a deep team.

Miscellaneous Comments: 

Williamson was almost down for the count twice. The first time he caught an elbow on the mouth that took him out of the game for some medical attention on the bench. Then later, he went for a block  and appeared to hit his head on the glass back board. Both he and the backboard survived.

The second half was a clinic. The Devils had 10 blocks, 7 steals, and many deflections that contributed to scoring 62 points. “They got so many deflections,” Princeton coach Mitch Henderson lamented. “Stuff we haven’t seen before.”  It all starts with Duke’s defense: point guard Tre Jones on ball pressure backed up with plenty of length and athleticism on the wings.

Coach Mitch Henderson: ”Boy, that’s a really good team. They’re even better in person.”

Alan Adds: 

Now the season starts.  After the Maui trip, Duke has played 5 games in Cameron’s friendly confines against suspect competition: Indiana (Big 10 Challenge), Stetson, Hartford, Yale and Princeton.  Thursday (tomorrow), Duke will play Texas Tech in the World’s most famous arena (Madison Square Garden, just a mile from my home).  The Red Raiders come into the game unbeaten (10-0), ranked 11th in the Coach’s poll and 9th in ESPN.  So far, the Red Raiders lead the nation in defense.  One team scored 67 points and another 62.  Two teams managed 52; in the remaining 6 wins, Texas Tech held its opponents in the 40s.  They will try and slow The Devils on offense and avoid the live ball turnovers that lead to Duke’s devastating transition game.  Then Duke is off for the holidays until the ACC season begins on January 5 in Cameron against Clemson.  Then two road games against Wake and highly ranked Florida State.  Remember last year’s first two ACC road games for highly rated freshmen (bad losses to lowly ranked BC and NC State).  Now the season starts.

Let’s dispense with the first 14 minutes of the Princeton game, and call it simply wiping the rust off.  First (and foremost), Duke could not put the ball in the ocean, and settled for deep (missed) shots (1-11 for first 12 3 point attempts).  Second, Duke forgot about Princeton and its “back door” offense.  Princeton smoked Duke early; both Zion and Javin were beaten easily back door and Princeton was launching (and making) open 3s.  The defense revived before the offense.  Princeton had 16 points after 9:10 had elapsed, but could manage only 10 in the final 11 minutes. In fact, it turned out to be Duke’s best defensive effort of the year – 14 blocks; 12 steals and forced 19 Tiger turnovers.  Princeton was held to 26 points in the first half and 24 in the closing stanza – 35 points in 31 minutes.   Tre Jones is an amazing defender.  He took on the Tiger guard who plays with R.J. on the Canadian National team, and who has been scoring in bunches since his recent return from injury.  Tre simply took his heart (and energy) out with intense on-the-ball-in-your-face defensive pressure.  R.J. held Princeton’s leading scorer in check with his length and quickness.  R.J. is not just about scoring.  Jack White is also proving to be a stopper and valuable individual and team defender.  Zion, Javin and Bolden protected the rim.  Cam’s defense is – for the moment – way ahead of his offense.  He had a block and 2 steals – one of which was spectacular, partly because it was followed by a floor length pass to the streaking R.J. for a highlight real hoop.

Duke’s offense did not get rolling until almost 14 minutes of the game had passed.  With only 5:45 to go in the first half, Duke had been limited to 16 points.  In the next 25:45 (1 minute longer than an NBA half) Duke scored 85 points (23 in the last 5:45 of the first half and a dazzling 62 in the last stanza).  The second half was virtually perfect.  Consider R.J.  After launching 14 first half shots (5-14; 0-3 from deep) – second most were Zion and Cam with 5 shots each), Barrett put in a scintillating 8 second half minutes, scoring 14 efficient points on 7 shots (6-7; 2-2 from the line), finishing drives spectacularly.  He grabbed 2 board and handed out 2 assists.  For the game he had 27 (including 5-6 from the line) to go with 6 boards.  Jack White had 10 points in 20 minutes.  Zion was superb with 17 points (9 in the closing stanza) in 26 minutes (6-8 from the field; 1-2 from deep; 4-5 from the line) to go with a game high 10 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks (and several altered shots), and 3 steals.  Tre played only 7 minutes in the closing half.  Coach K rested his regulars, getting ready for tomorrow night’s game in Madison Square Garden against Texas Tech.

Duke’s offense has been off the charts since the season started, producing half of 50 points or more 9 times in 11 games.  In addition, Duke has halves scoring 49, 48 and 48.  Consider: Kentucky – 59/59; Army – 50 in the first half; Eastern Michigan – 48 (first half); San Diego State – 49 (first half); Gonzaga – 48 (second half); Indiana – 53 (first half); Stetson – 59/54; Hartford – 52 (second half); Yale – 50 (2nd half); Princeton – 62 (second half).  Auburn alone held Duke somewhat in check (41 in the first half), but still never got closer than double figures in the game.

The Season starts now.

Next Game: #9 Texas Tech (10-0). Thursday 7:00 ESPN2. Madison Square Garden

Duke 69 -Texas Tech 58 

There are some things in life and sports that are inexplicable. Duke’s win tonight is one of them. For most of the game, I thought the basketball gods had decided enough was enough with all the glowing publicity and accolades for these young players and decided to teach them a lesson in humility: “Tonight’s not Duke’s night. The ball will not fall.” Candidly, I was mentally preparing to write that the Blue Devils brought their show to Broadway and bombed, which they did for all but the about fifteen of the forty minutes. I should have known better. I have seen this movie too many times. But still, it defied logic and the law of averages. One of the reasons Alan and I do this is in admiration of Coach K’s teams never, ever giving up and playing hard until the end. In 1992 it was Hill to Laettner. At this time last year, it was Marvin and the Miracles. Even Johnny Tar Heel called to tell me he was impressed with tonight’s win.

Fortunately, with Barrett and Reddish shooting  blanks and Williamson saddled with foul trouble, it was the relentless defense of the least publicized but most important freshman, Tre Jones, that kept Duke in the game.  He was credited with 6 steals but that does not do justice to his disruption of the Tech offense. His defense resulted in multiple offensive opportunities for the Blue Devils, which was the only way they could score in the first period as they looked like they never practiced a half-court offense. Barrett, who is not shy about taking more than his share of shots, took 14 of Dukes 32 first half shots–they weren’t dropping–and Reddish utterly disappeared in the opening twenty as he had 0 points and 6 turnovers. Best supporting roles go to the two junior captains—White (2 of Duke’s 3 three pointers) and DeLaurier—who played relentlessly and productively the entire game.

Never mind that Duke trailed for twenty-five minutes or that it only hit 3 of  20 three point attempts or that its most talented player fouled out in the critical final five minutes. The Blue Devils overcame all these obstacles (mostly of their own making) on the big stage of Madison Square Garden and still beat previously undefeated Texas Tech, 69-58 in an often aesthetically ugly game.  The Red Raiders turned the ball over 24 times and the Blue Devils 19. Combined, the two teams shot a poor 38.5% from the floor, part of which can be contributed to tenacious defenses, part to stage fright.

The good news is that counting missing the front end of one and one’s, the Devils left about 7 potential points off the scoreboard in the first half and had 8 points taken away by charging calls. However, they went 16-18 from the line in the second half and, just as importantly, Barrett became an assist man at a crucial time. Up three with three minutes to go, Barrett was in the same set at the top of the key as he was with the game on the line against Gonzaga. This time he started his drive but passed to a suddenly rejuvenated (8  points & 3 steals) Cam Reddish, who nailed the three to more or less seal the deal. If Cam can consistently play like this and everyone stays healthy, this team can be much more solid and formidable.

As improbably exciting as this finish was, it should also be a teaching moment for these talented freshmen. Poor outside shooting and missed free throws are a receipt for defeat. The balls and the calls are not always going to fall or go your way. Nevertheless, you have to find a way to win. Jones, White and DeLaurier know how, Williamson, Barrett, and Reddish are learning.

Miscellaneous Comments: 

  • I sensed it was going to be a long night when I heard Dickie “Bless his heart” Vitale’s voice. He has become a parody of his former self.
  • Texas Tech is a well-coached team and a tough out. Sophomore Jarrett Culver (25 points) was the most polished, mature offensive player on the floor.
  • Who is surprised? The Blue Devils are 124th and 202nd respectively in the nation in 3-pointers made and 3-point shooting percentage,
  •  Zion Williamson had 17 points, 13 rebounds in only 25 minutes. When he fouled out on a questionable call with 4:50 to go, Duke was +10 with him on the floor and -5 when he wasn’t. However, the Blue Devils continued a 16-3 run to close the game.
  • This was Duke’s 35th win at Madison Square Garden.
  • Alan Adds:

There are many reasons why this December win was significant.  While Zion and R.J. receive the lion’s share of publicity on this team, this is Tre Jones’s team.  At the post-game press conference, Tre and Jack White were the 2 players also interviewed.  They were both poised, articulate and insightful – the theme is the theme for this team – defense.  White, who had an amazing game, said, “defense is a big part of our identity.  We want to be one of the best defensive teams in the country, if not THE BEST.”  Coach K put the defense and Tre’s role on this team in perfect perspective.  “Tre was the key to this game.  He turned it around for us.  Six steals (seemed like more, didn’t it?). He willed the ball in the basket.  All of our guys fed off his effort.  He was magnificent.  He’s as good a defensive point guard as I’ve ever had (mentioning Duhon, Wojo and Hurley), and tonight he may have been better.”  Tre was insightful as well as magnificent.  “We haven’t won a game like this – close, we were behind for the most part against an older and more experienced team.”

Think that was high praise?  Coach K added emotionally, “Real time leadership while the game is going on is the ability to make reads that are usually adjustments at the timeouts.    Tre does that for our team and me the way LeBron and Chris Paul do on Team USA.  This was one of the best performances.”

This was a defensive game for sure.  Coach K said, “we haven’t played against a defensive team like [Texas Tech].  They play beautiful defense.  And indeed they did.  Coach K’s praise was the highest; he compared Texas Tech to the Army team that he captained under Bob Knight.  We didn’t block a lot of shots, but we took a lot of charges.  This was old school.”

Duke scored 41 points in the second half.  Duke scored 19 points in the last 7:13 (at winning time).  The Devils are in superb physical condition, and I think wore the Red Raiders down.  Texas Tech missed 8 shots in a row at the crucial juncture as Duke pulled away to a satisfying win.  The Devils (shockingly) won the game at the foul line (16-18 in the second half).   Zion was 6-6 from the line in the second half (his only second half points – 0-4 from the field.  Cam was 5-6 while Jack and R.J. were each 2-2 from the line in the closing stanza.   Interestingly, Duke used only 6 players in the second half.  Marques did not appear at all; Alex had 6 minutes, but was yanked when his man beat him easily for a layup.  He didn’t play again.  R.J. played the entire half; Tre until the last minute when the game was safe, and Jack 18 minutes.  Zion fouled out in only 12 minutes; Cam and Javin played 13 minutes each.   Duke had more turnovers than assists, both in the half and the game.  More beautiful Red Raider defense.

Zion was an amazing force, leading Duke with 17 points (4-9; 0-2; 9-10 from the line) to go with 13 rebounds (3 on one play showed, as Coach K said, “his competitiveness at the highest level”).  K was asked what was unique about Zion: “did you see him?”  Laughter in the audience.  He was something – rebounds, defense, rim protector as well as scorer (but note the 6 turnovers).  R.J. had a great second half because he adjusted to how he was being defended.  He made “big time plays” because he made the adjustment.  Cam had a terrible first half and then turned his game around.  He made crucial steals, a huge 3, and 5-6 from the line down the stretch.  Coach K said that rebound at the crucial time was “better than if he scored 20 because he did what he did after what he didn’t do .”

Jack White is Duke’s most unsung valuable player.   In 32 minutes, he was 2-3 from behind the arc and 2-2 from the line for 8 points on his 2 shots.  He grabbed five rebounds, had 2 blocks, 2 steals and 2 assists without a turnover and committing only 1 foul.  He played the third most minutes of any Duke player.

For all of those reasons, this was, in my opinion, a very significant win and wonderful sign of how this team is growing up.

The ACC season, which begins for Duke on Jan 5 against Clemson, should be scintillating.  UNC is coming together as fast and efficiently as Duke.  The ‘Heels play Kentucky tomorrow.  I think UVA may be the best team in the country right now (Silber rankings).  The ACC has 5 teams ranked in the top 12.  NC State humbled Auburn and should move up significantly in the rankings.  Auburn learned about playing ACC teams on the road.  It’s hard not to be psyched about this season and this team.

Duke 87 – Clemson 68 

For most of the first half, I thought I was watching the basketball version of the movie “Groundhog Day”—a repeat of last year when Marvin and The Miracles went undefeated and were ranked #1 until the start of the New Year when they were upset by Boston College, then Florida State. Fortunately, this is a different team with a deeper bench, a better point guard, and that plays much better defense, because once again Tre Jones, Jack White and Marquis Bolden provided the spark that gave the Blue Devils an improbable 40-33 halftime lead. Then, Zion Williamson put on another made for SportsCenter highlight show and exhibited why ESPN keeps moving the Duke games to prime time. (Alert: The January 19th Virginia game has been moved to 6pm.)

While Clemson is a very mature college team—the age of the players looks more like an NBA D-League roster—they still made two consecutive bonehead plays at the end of the first half that negated their determined play and very good three point shooting. First, Aamir Simms (1 for 11), apparently suffering from Zion envy, missed a ferocious dunk so badly the ball ricocheted all the way to half court where Tre Jones grabbed it, went in for a fast break layup, but when challenged, deftly dropped the ball behind his back to a trailing Javin DeLaurier for the jam. Then, on the ensuing in-bounds play, Clemson slow walked the ball into a half court ten second violation. Suddenly, a tight game was not so tight.

That’s all an opening the Devils, who seem to be a second half team, needed as they started the final twenty minutes like a Final Four team by running off 12 points and suddenly it was a 19 point lead. The game was essentially over, but Showtime was just beginning. Zion, apparently embarrassed by getting two cheap fouls, air balling a three, and only playing eight first half minutes put on a show of athleticism in scoring and shot blocking that had all 9,314 Cameron attendees jumping up and down like Crazies yelling “Did you see that? Do you believe that!” The piece de resistance was teaming with Tre Jones to steal a ball at half court, take off half way down the lane, do a 360 degree suspended spin, and emphatically tomahawk a jam. If you missed it, a picture of the finish is above or go to YouTube. It was so good that even Johnny Tar Heel immediately called me and asked if I saw Zion set that steal up and noticed J.R. Barrett all the way at the other end of the court jumping up and down in excitement of his roommate’s play. Maybe it’s my imagination but ever since Zion had his lower tooth knocked out by an errant elbow, I sense he has played with more determination and fire. The sheer boyish joy for the game is still his baseline—he is not naturally an angry person or player, he is more like the gentle giant and like a lot of gentle giants does not want to inadvertently hurt anyone—but I think he is toughening up his mindset.

Not so thrilling was the continuing struggles of Cam Reddish, who seems to have lost confidence in all facets (except free throw shooting) of his game. The 6-foot-8 forward, who appeared to be the team’s best three point shooter and most skilled all-round talent, has gradually morphed into an unrecognizable version of the former self we saw in the Kentucky game. He went scoreless in the first half, missing all three of his shots from the field, turning it over five times and getting whistled for three fouls. However, he still is the team’s best free throw shooter—as he demonstrated against Texas Tech. Cam didn’t start the second half supposedly because he had three fouls. In his place was the reliable Jack White, who has yet to start a game in his career, but who clearly is outplaying Reddish and is a later day version of Boston Celtic legendary sixth man John “Hondo” Havlicek. He finished with 12 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocked shots, and 2 steals in 26 turnover-free minutes. Reddish is a starter but White a bench player in name only.

It sometimes is easy to overlook Tre Jones but he is the team’s most valuable player. He establishes relentless pressure on an opponent’s point guard that is the predicate for loose balls, steals, rush shots, and shot clock violations; sets up the offense; keeps all the scorers happy; and, like tonight, when everyone else struggling offensively, scores until the others get going. He now has 76 assists and only 13 turnovers.

Miscellaneous Observations:

o   Zion Williamson had 25 points, 10 rebounds 2 steals, 2 blocks, 1 goal tend in just 22 minutes against his runner-up school, just an hour from his boyhood home.

o   The somewhat over looked Javin DeLaurier made his only two field-goal attempts, bringing his season mark to 27-for-31.

o   At one point, spanning both halves, Duke outscored Clemson 51-21. The Tigers had only 9 second-half points in the first 10 minutes.

o   Dick Vitale has done a lot to popularize college basketball but the game has moved past him and his ramblings are embarrassing. Why in the world does ESPN let him continue to promote the thoroughly disgraced Rick Pitino for the UCLA or any other college job and go into his “all the country needs is love” soliloquy?

o   “You probably heard that NC State renamed Reynolds: it’s now James T. Valvano Arena at Reynolds Coliseum, which is a bit confusing. Well that wasn’t confusing enough so when you play at Reynolds now, you are playing on the Kay Yow Court inside James T. Valvano Arena at Reynolds Coliseum. Why not make it the Kay Yow Court inside James T. Valvano Arena at Reynolds Coliseum at the Everett Case Pavilion?” [DBR observation]

Alan Adds:

Bill called me after the game and sighed, “I guess we’re a second half team.”   Dickie V said one prescient thing: at half time, he said the first four minutes of the second half would be crucial.  It didn’t take the whole 4 minutes.  Duke had possession to start the half; White hit a 3 immediately.  DeLaurier stole the ball and Barrett hit a three. :43 seconds had elapsed and Duke led by 13.  Then Zion went spectacularly to work, scoring 6 straight on three amazing forays to the hole (cross over, hang in the air, off the backboard) which produced 2 hoops and 2-2 from the free throw line.  2:53 had elapsed and Duke led by 19.  Barrett closed out the three minute and 13 second explosion – fueled by great defense to hold Clemson scoreless – with a medium range jumper that gave Duke a 21 point lead and turned the remainder of the half into garbage time (not quite, but almost).

Offense

Coach K singled out Zion, Tre, R.J. and Jack White for special praise.  Zion had, perhaps, his best game in only 22 minutes.  He committed two first half fouls (“we have to keep him on the court and from committing silly fouls 75 feet from the basket.”), which limited him to 8 minutes in that stanza (“only” 11 points on 5 shot attempts; 4-4 from inside the arc; 0-1 from 3land; 3-5 from the line to go with 4 boards).  Then he came alive ☺!  In fourteen second half minutes, Zion scored 14 (5-6 from the field; 1-2 from deep; 3-4 from the line to go with 4 more rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 steals.)  That means he was 9 for 9 from the field inside the arc and 1-3 from behind it.  9-9 ain’t bad!  Coach K was amusing when discussing Zion’s 360 dunk.  He laughingly said, “We allow that.  There is no ceiling on how many times he can twirl as long as he puts the damn thing in.”

Tre is beginning to gain the respect he  deserves from the journalists.  His defense is superb; his leadership on this team unquestioned, and his ball handling is all one could ask for.  He had 9 assists without a turnover, while scoring 10 in 34 minutes.  He didn’t come out at all in the first half.  R.J. was shy as a shooter (only 14 attempts on which he scored 13 points in 32 minutes) but was acknowledged as playing an excellent floor game (9 rebounds; 4 assists; and a block).  White has been, as Coach K said, “our unsung hero”.  In 29 minutes he took 6 3s (his only shots) and knocked down 4 of them for 12 points.  He earned praise for his hard-nosed defense, tough rebounding, and all around excellent play.

DeLaurier was 2-2 (extending his consecutive streak without a miss; he’s closing in on Alaa Abdelnaby’s school record) playing 9 minutes in each half.  Bolden had an excellent game.  He was 5-10 from the field and 1-2 from the line for 11 points.  He was getting good shots, but missing them in the first half when he played 11 minutes.  If he can make those shots, he will draw a double team (as he did not against Clemson), which will open up more driving lanes.  Strangely, he played only 4 second half minutes (2-2 from the field).

Defense

Duke is playing simply superb defense.  Clemson missed some close in shots, but that was caused by Duke’s superb rim protection.  I admit to being very excited about just how good a defensive team this year’s group is and is becoming.  Our Hall of Fame coach was effusive.  “We played good defense.  Really good defense.  We forced 19 turnovers and got 13 steals against a veteran team with an outstanding backcourt.”  In the early part of the second half when Duke blew the game open, Clemson could score only 9 points in the first 10 minutes (9:59 actually).  “Our defense gave us our offense.”  Coach K pointed out just how hard his team plays on the defensive end.  “If you play hard, with the athletic ability we have, we will play good defense.  These kids want to play good defense.”

ACC games and Road Games

This week will be Duke’s first true road games of the season (Duke has played five neutral court games) when Duke visits Wake on Tuesday (7pm) and Florida State on Saturday (2 pm).  As we have painfully learned, ACC games are different and road games are different.  Kansas, Kentucky, Nevada, and Florida State all lost road games yesterday.  It is worth mentioning the Florida State visit to Charlottesville (ACC road game).  I have said to Bill that at this moment, I think UVA is the best basketball team in the country.  Yesterday, before the Cavaliers took their foot off the gas pedal with a couple of minutes remaining, the Seminoles had been held to only 33 points in almost 38 minutes.  UVA  is not only a great defensive team, but has real offensive fire power from the field (they have really talented shooters; 43% from 3land). With 2:19 left in the game, the Caviliers led the #9 ranked Florida State by 29 points!  Do not be fooled by this opening ACC win.  Every road game will be a war (except maybe Wake, which has been losing with frequency) and the Seminoles will be smarting over that televised whipping.  Over confidence will be a Duke enemy.

Duke 87 – Wake Forest 68 

After watching this Duke team play almost twenty games against a variety of competition, I have a few observations, some more obvious than others: While talented and athletic and skillful, they are most effective in the open court but rather ordinary in executing an half-court offense, shooting threes or free throws. Zion Williamson aside, what sustains this team is their defense, which rarely gives an opponent an easy possession and  the steady baseline to baseline court savvy of Trey Jones. We see it in the fact that this team often appears to start slow and finish fast. Moreover, I think the dynamic is that every team gets sky high to play Duke and that adrenaline rush combined with the unremitting defense allows the Blue Devils to eventually start runs for which Coach K’s teams are famous—only these runs usually are sustained for the rest of the game as opponents just get worn down by the relentlessness of the pressure from a full eight man rotation. 

Tonight’s game was  predictably a pretty mundane, back and forth affair until a few minutes before the half when Duke gained a 42-34 advantage. Then, at the start of  the second half extended and extended the margin. One key was the concentration on double teaming Childress who was limited to 12 points and a  few assists. Reddish’s initial minutes can only be described as awful in all aspects of the game but recovered to play better as the game went on but is still a long way from performing like a high draft pick.  Williamson was wonderful (30 pts, 10 rebs, 5 assts, 4 steals, 3 threes!!) as was the uber consistent Trey Jones (7 assists, 6 pts). Duke which leads the country in blocked shots had 13 tonight, led by Jack White’s 5 (that’s a career total for some players). Marques Bolden appears to be much more comfortable and productive as he becomes a very important component of the rotation. 

Poor free throw shooting continues to be the potential Achilles Heel of this team’s quest for a National Championship. However, the most important development is that R.J. Barrett is shooting less, assisting more, and everyone is the beneficiary.

Miscellaneous Comments:

Clemson takes down Alabama. As N.Y. Post columnist Mike Vaccaro wrote: “This was Sonny Liston lying on his back on the canvas in Lewiston, Maine, Muhammad Ali looking over him and shouting, “Get up and fight, sucker! Nobody will believe this!” This was Roberto Duran in the closing seconds of the eighth round, staring at Sugar Ray Leonard on the floor of the New Orleans Superdome, meekly raising his gloved right hand and offering, “No mas, no mas.” Clemson thoroughly outcoached and outplayed favored Alabama. Freshmen QB Trevor Lawrence  made enough throws under pressure to impress Tom Brady and wide receiver, Justyn Ross (six catches, 153 yards) made enough circus catches to make a Wallenda blush, and Clemson defensive co-ordinator Coach Brent Venables’ defense did a damn good impression of the 1985 Chicago Bears Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense. “We’re just little old Clemson, and I’m not supposed to be here,” said self-effacing Coach Dabo Swinney, architect of the football powerhouse. “But here we are. If I can do it, anyone can do it. How ’bout them Tigers?”

Alan Adds: 

The buzz about Zion is reminding me of the astounding period in New York when Jeremy Lin burst out of nowhere to give the City weeks of Linsanity.  Zion is giving us a whole season (we hope), while turning on the whole nation of college hoop fans.  Duke has become ESPN’s darling – in substantial part because Zion is the star attraction in all of college basketball right now.   His dunks are generating much of the jaw dropping adoration from announcers, writers, and pundits, but his performance has been about so much more.  His defense is galvanizing – steals, blocks and help.  He leads Duke in rebounding, and he is so offensively efficient both in transition and the half court.  And, he can really pass.  Zion’s performance against Wake is worth scrutinizing as he puts together this amazing (perhaps even historic) season.  How about offensive efficiency?  He took 16 shots to score 30 points!  He was 3-4 from behind the arc, where he has struggled this year (under 30% prior to last night’s game).  Opposing coaches must be shuddering at the thought of Williamson becoming a proficient 3 point shooter (which I predict is exactly what is going to happen).  This means he was 10-12 from inside the arc.  His season average from inside the arc was 74% before last night’s blitz.  That is efficiency!  In the second half, for example, Zion logged 14 minutes (late game became the opportunity for lesser used players) and scored at better than a point a minute rate – 18 points on 8-9 from the floor; 1-1 from deep.   One of the new analytics is Box Score Per Minutes (BMP) which estimates the number of points contributed versus the average player.  In this decade (2010 to 2018), the top records were Anthony Davis (18.67) and Karl Anthony ( Towns at 17.30) when they each played at Kentucky.  For this season, Zion is at 20.8.  Wins Per Share (adjusted from baseball) estimates the number of wins contributed by a player because of his offense and defense.  For the decade, the top score is .3459.  For this season, Zion is at .391.  Interestingly, Zion does not score higher in transition (where he is King Stud) than in the half court.  Critically, he rates just as high on the defensive end.  The analytic called defensive rating tracks how many points a player allowed per 100 possesions.  Zion ranks 4th in the nation (behind 2 guys from Texas Tech and UVA’s Braxton Key).  He creates turnovers with his dramatic and consistent rim protection (30 blocks in 14 games as well as steals.  Zion actually has five more steals than blocks.  He is Duke’s leading rebounder averaging just a shade under 10.   R.J. is quietly morphing into Robin, although he is still averaging more points per game (on far more attempts) than Williamson.  They work so well together – Duke is the only team this year that has two players averaging more than 20 points per game.  They pass so well to each other.

Last night, Wake played Duke close for 15 minutes, leading by 1.  Duke began to inch ahead, and with 30 seconds left in the half led by 5 with the ball for last possession.  Cam drained a 3 with 4 seconds left.  Duke had possession to start the second half; Wake fouled Barrett on his successful jump shot.  When he missed the free throw, Zion grabbed the rebound and stuffed it through.  4 points on the opening possession of the half.  Duke went from a 5 point lead to 12 point lead without Wake even touching the ball.  From there the rout was on.

Duke is getting very efficient play from the center position.  DeLaurier and Bolden virtually split time at that position.  Their combined stats are revealing.  Bolden logged 20 minutes and DeLaurier 19.  Combined they scored 20 points, corralled 15 rebounds and had 5 blocks!  That is real production.

Now the real tests begin.  Florida State is ranked #13 in both polls (down from #9 as a result of being humiliated in Charlottesville last week).  The Seminoles are traditionally tough at home and will be ferociously vengeful after being simply taken apart on National television.  Facing a top 10 team like Florida State in their own gym after the Seminoles suffered such an embarrassing loss will be this season’s sternest test for the young Blue Devils so far.

Next Game: Duke – Florida State. ESPN Saturday at 2 pm. 

Duke 80 – Florida State 78 

How many times have we seen this movie without ever getting tired of it? Laettner against UConn and Kentucky; Gene Banks, Capel, Duhon and Rivers against North Carolina; JJ Redick against N.C. State—just to name just a few. Actually this game most reminded me of last year’s Michigan State game when Marvin Bagley was poked in the eye and didn’t return. Grayson Allen stepped into the breach and went for 37 to save the day and seal the win. Today ,it was BJ Barrett (32 pts.) and Cam Reddish (23 pts.).

Cam Reddish’s buzzer beater three was much bigger than just another exciting game winner. For weeks, Cam has not consistently demonstrated nearly the skill set of teammates Williamson or Barrett or Jones—or, for that matter, sixth man Jack White. As a matter of fact, many coaches would have benched him for his inept, inconsistent play, which lately has been inexplicable. I don’t know what the coaches or his teammates or his family said to him. But tonight, it was as if a light went on in his head and Reddish thought: Zion is out, we are going to lose this game if I don’t give BJ and the guys a lot of help. If Cam can continue to play offense and defense at this level and if everyone can remain healthy, Duke is a much more versatile, formidable team that is truly deserving of its national ranking.

That is not to say that Cam or the rest of the team—other than Barrett– was flawless. They only shot 50% from the free throw line—Cam missed  four early and Tre missed the front end of a one-and-one with the game on the line; in the last few minutes both O’Connell and Reddish gave up 5 easy points by inexplicably fouling three point shooters; Jones and Reddish both fumbled balls out of bounds at inopportune times; Javin DeLaurier, Marques Bolden and Jack White combined for only six points in 65 minutes playing time; Florida State out-rebounded Duke 39-34, blocked 7 to Duke’s 3 and shot 9 more foul shots. And still Duke found a way to win.

Duke got the final break and capitalized on it. Barrett missed a second free throw that would have tied the game and, in a scramble, the ball went out of bounds. After a lengthy video review, the original call was  over-tuned and it was Duke’s ball out of bounds under the basket. With just three seconds left on the clock, the Seminoles lead by a point but, thanks to multiple timeouts by both teams, each coach had what seemed like an eternity to plan and re-plan. Understandably, Leonard Hamilton chose to defend the rim and double Barrett. Three players were stacked in the lane guarding the basket, a fourth guarding the in-bounds pass, and a fifth face guarding Barrett.  BJ broke to the corner, where he was double teamed. Reddish ran like a tight end on a crossing  pattern to the elbow of the opposite three point line. Trey made the hot read and threw a pass to Cam for a wide, wide open shot. Dead solid perfect play and execution. Nothing but net! RJ Barrett: “Coach said it. They’re gonna watch me and Cam’s gonna be wide open.” Trey Jones: “Coach drew it up,  the play was wide open, and Cam was able to execute.” That’s one reason they come to Duke.

For a long time, I have thought that winning a game when things were not going your way was the real test of a top team, because these days any decent team can win when the wind is at their back. So, this was a critical test for this young team. Florida State is always big, athletic, and talented—and Tallahassee is a difficult, even hostile, place in which to play. The Tucker Civic Center is the largest arena in the Panhandle and the Seminole fans know how to tomahawk an opponent. Recently, Duke has gone down there twice with a #1 ranked, veteran team and lost. When Zion Williamson was inadvertently poked in the eye just before the half, Duke was up 38-33. When Zion did not return for the final twenty minutes, the Blue Devils chances looked decidedly blue—at times Code Blue. However, we know one thing about Coach K’s teams. They fight to the end and he is one hell of a bench coach.

Miscellaneous Comments: 

  • Recently, Zion Williamson has had a tooth knocked out and an eye traumatized. In neither instance was there a foul called or time called for a player on the floor incapacitated. Something is wrong here. Zion may look indestructible, but that is no reason for the referees to treat him as if he is indestructible. In his press conference, Krzyzewski said that Williamson had double vision but added that Zion did not have any headaches and hoped he would be ready Monday night against Syracuse.
  • The questions is going forward are these: 1) Was this a breakthrough performance that motivates Cam Reddish to consistently play to the level of his three freshmen teammates and 2) How will Zion Williamson respond to the physical play of the ACC?
  • Think Duke is a draw? The game was sold out and $250 tickets were being scalped for $2,500.
  • Dick Vitale demonstrated once again that he should no longer be allowed to be an announcer for a televised college basketball game. Among other things, we had to endure  four minutes of second half incessant, non- germane yakking before the announcers noticed that Zion was not playing and minutes more yet before there was any information as the severity of his injury or  availability.


Alan Adds
: 

Last March when Duke’s four elite freshmen were still in high school, the four were interviewed at the McDonald’s game in Madison Square Garden about what they anticipated from playing together at Duke.  In that interview, Tre was asked who he, as the point guard, would look for with Duke down by a point and time for one last shot.  Tre smiled, looked straight at R.J. and said, “Without a doubt, Cam.”  While Dickie V was prattling on how Duke had to get the ball to Barrett with 2.8 seconds left in the game and Duke trailing by one, I was thinking of that interview when I texted Bill that Cam should take the last shot because Barrett would be blanketed.  I was thinking of it when Tre took the ball from the referee on the base line just to the left of the basket.  I was hoping he remembered (as Zion had not earlier) that he could not run the baseline.   Florida State covered the lane with 3 men.  I am betting that Leonard Hamilton, Fla. State coach, was remembering how – in almost the same game situation – Barrett had attacked Gonzaga in the lane but had his drive thwarted by Gonzaga’s bigs.  He proffered an identical defense.  One defender guarded Jones, who was inbounding, and one guarded Barrett in the corner when he cut across the lane.  That left Cam wide open when he moved from the left side to the right elbow – I mean shockingly wide [expletive] open!  There was no defender within 10 feet when he caught Tre’s perfect pass — just as Tre had said in that long ago interview, just as Coach K called the play; just as I texted Bill.  The shot of the season so far!

You can feel Bill’s excitement jumping off the page because this was a significant win for a young team facing a its first tough ACC road game in a sold out arena against a highly ranked team that had much to prove, and with its own star power player unavailable.  Zion went down with a minute and 35 left in the first half and Duke up by 5.  No foul was called and Zion was on the floor, unable to get back and defend.  Cofer hit a long 3 while Duke was shorthanded.  To compound Duke’s bad luck, Cofer’s shot went in off the backboard – obviously not his intention.  When Duke came out for the second half, the Blue Devils faced a fired up arena, a one point deficit, and having to play without Zion.  In my opinion, Duke’s team developed and displayed what Coach K so admires and creates – character.

The Second Half:

The second half was simply intense, terrifically competitive, very high level basketball.  The game was tight for the first five minutes; in the second five minutes, the Seminoles established a small working margin, which fluctuated to as high as 5 points several times.  With 10:25 left, Duke trailed by 5.  R.J. tied the game quickly, hitting a 2 point jumper with 10:19 left and a deep 3 with 9:32 to go.  From there, neither team established a lead of more than 2 points.  The game was tied 7 times in the last 9 minutes, the last time at 76 with 2:01 left when Kabengele made both free throws after being fouled by Bolden.   Barrett and Cofer traded misses.  With 45 seconds left, Cam had his pocket picked by Savoy, and with 15 seconds left, Cam fouled Savoy as the latter attempted a 3.  Still 76-76.  Savoy missed the first (critical) before sinking the last 2 for a 78-76 Florida State lead.  Barrett raced up court and drove the lane (shades of Gonzaga), and was fouled with five seconds left.  He made the first, but (after going 8-8 from the line in the game) missed the second one.    An intense scramble for the rebound ensued, and the ball went out of bounds.  The call giving Florida State the ball was reversed when the replay clearly showed it was Duke ball.  Cam could have been the goat with the turnover and foul of a 3 point shooter in the last minute, but he garnished his superior game with a shot that will be remembered.

Duke played 7 (but Alex’s role was limited to a 6 minute cameo without a box score statistic – one turnover, but it really wasn’t his).  DeLaurier and Bolden have been splitting time at center.  In the second half, Bolden logged 13 minutes to DeLaurier’s 7.  Duke needed Bolden’s superior size against the huge Seminoles.  Tre and R.J. played every minute while Cam and Jack White logged 17 minutes each.  But it was the R.J. and Cam show.  Between them, they scored 35 of Duke’s 42 points.  Tre hit 2 layups in transition and White made a 3, otherwise it was R.J. scoring 19 second half points on 5-8 shooting; 2-3 from deep and 7-8 from the line; and Cam with 16 points on 6-9 shooting (4-6 from deep, but 0-2 from the line).  R.J and Cam were 6-9 from behind the arc, and 5-8 from closer.  They were both efficient: R.J. scored 19 on 8 shots in 20 minutes; Cam scored 16 on 9 shots in 17 minutes.  These are all just second half statistics.!  That was some offensive half from those two.  Tre missed his other 2 shots from the field and the front end of a crucial 1 and 1, but was himself in other important ways: 5 assists without a turnover to go with a steal, and 3 rebounds.

Miscellaneous Comments:

This was the kind of win that has the capacity to change Cam’s season, which has been disappointing.  Cam reminded us that he came out of high school rated higher than Zion in some scouting assessments.  If his play continues with last night’s quality, it will be huge for Duke going forward.

UVA continues to impress.  UVA simply smoked Fla. State in Charlottesville last week (an almost 30 point lead with 2 minutes to play) and went into Littlejohn yesterday limiting Clemson to 43 points while winning by 20.  It is worth noting that Duke hosts UVA next Saturday at 6 pm.

However, before that titanic match up (Oh please have a non-Dickie V color guy), Duke plays Syracuse in Cameron on Monday.  The timing is like an NCAA tournament schedule with only one day off between games.   Zion is a game time decision.

Is this season being fun, or what?

Duke 91 – Syracuse 95 (OT) 

There should no longer be any doubt who is the most valuable, irreplaceable player on this Duke team. Tre Jones had four steals in five minutes and Duke was up by eight before the tenacious point guard, who is both the defensive and offensive facilitator, was shelved by a shoulder injury diving for  a loose ball. The good news is that Zion Williamson started and was unaffected mentally and physically by his frightening eye injury just two days ago. The bad news is that Cam Reddish did not (because of an illness). After a horrendous beginning (0-12), the Syracuse players started shooting like they were like Golden State Warriors (11-25 threes 44%). As time expired for the half, Syracuse’s Isaiah Hughes even swished an improbable 75-foot prayer of a heave that cut Duke’s lead to one point—a very ominous omen.

All season, we have cautioned that the Achilles Heel of this team was free throws, three point shooting, and injuries. Well, tonight the Blue Devils hit the trifecta and lost in overtime. Zion, like BJ against Florida State, missed the second of two free throws near the end of regulation that would have put Duke up by one. However, you cannot fault either player (ZW: 35 pts. 10 rebs. 4 blks. BJ: 23 pts. 16 rebs. 9 assists), because they had very little help. When you consider that Duke was 9-43 for threes, it is amazing the score was as close as it was. Because Tre and Cam were unavailable, Barrett was by default was often forced to run the point, rather than attacking the seams from the side, where he is more effective. DeLaurier  was overwhelmed but Bolden  (12pts, 11 rebs, 4 blks) had one of his best games. Also, without Cam and Tre, there was no zone buster. This was a situation where we have seen Jack White step into the breach or an opportunity for an eighth man, Alex O’Connell, to have a Grayson Allen Final Four coming out party. However, both White and O’Connell often appeared reluctant to be proactive in shooting or penetrating. The talented but unpredictable O’Connell was more productive (16 pts, 3 rebs, 3 assists, 2 steal. 4-8 threes) but showed his inexperience by committing two untimely turnovers. And then there was Jack White. In the last two games, this year’s uber reliable sixth starter’s play ( 0-9 from three point land) has been a mystery.

As a basketball fan, you really have to applaud Coach Boeheim and his team. They lost Saturday at home to Georgia Tech, had to travel to Durham, fell behind tonight 0-12 in Cameron, then rallied to for an impressive, possibly season saving win. But that’s the ACC. Saturday, Louisville blitzed  North Carolina in Chapel Hill and tonight, Pitt beat Florida State.

As a Duke fan, you have to wonder what the basketball gods have planned for this year’s Blue Devils. Is this injury is another bad break like when Kyrie Irving’s foot injury cost Duke dearly or is it a less serious injury from which the irreplaceable point guard can recover relatively quickly so this team is primed for tournament time?

Miscellaneous Comments:

  • Tre Jones collision with Frank Howard in the opening minutes that sent him to the ER was  diagnosed as an AC joint separation. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski said afterwards that neither Jones’ shoulder nor collarbone showed signs of a break, but added that Jones was “in a lot of pain”. [Tuesday morning update: Jones’ injury is an AC joint separation. Jones will be out “indefinitely” and the Steadman Clinic lists a wide range of recovery times, taking anywhere from “a few days to 12 weeks, depending on the severity.”
  • One good note is that Jay Bilas was in Dickie V’s seat at the microphone.

Alan Adds: 

     Duke’s season hangs in the balance while Tre’s injury is analyzed and treated.  Coach K was asked about his game plan.  After Cam got sick right before the game and couldn’t play and Tre was hurt six minutes into the game, Coach said “We had no game plan.  We were trying to survive.  You know what our game plan was when we thought we had a full team– we wanted to press them in the open court and get out in transition.  Worked pretty well in the first minutes.”  It sure did; even without Reddish.

Long ago, Coach K said that everyone on the team had to be ready to make open jump shots because having Zion and R.J. driving to the basket, there were going to be a lot of open shots.  And so there were throughout the game.  Duke had lots of open looks, but had an absolutely atrocious shooting night.  This destroyed the offense.  By the time Duke got to the overtime, the team was exhausted and played like it.  Duke took eight shots in the overtime – they were all 3’s.  2-8 in the overtime (R.J was 1-4; White 0-2; Zion 0-1.  Alex made his only attempt.  Duke scored six points, while Syracuse went 4-6 from inside the arc.  Duke’s three point shooting for the game was simply awful, taking 43 attempts.  But as Coach K said, they were open shots.  He was ok with his team shooting them.   The loss of Tre “knocked us back”, said K, “but our kids fought hard.”

I do not know what Duke will do if Tre is out for an extended period.  He thought something was broken because he was in so much pain, but it is not broken.  It’s a shoulder sprain, but we don’t know about recovery time Tre will need.  The game proved Goldwire is not the answer.  He played two minutes in the second half and none in the overtime.  If you want a picture of the game, consider that R.J. ran the team, which took him out of the offense.  He took 15 shots in the second half (0-7 inside the arc without getting to the foul line and 2-8 from deep.  Cam’s return will be crucial.

What a season!  Georgia Tech beats Syracuse; Syracuse beats Duke.  Louisville loses to Pitt and beats UNC after the ‘heels battered Pitt.  Pitt beat Fla. State last night.  Virginia, Duke’s next opponent, is, however, unbeaten.  A glorious season hits unchartered waters.

Duke 72 – Virginia 70 

This was a rare non-sequitur college basketball game that has only occurred four times in the history of the NCAA regular season: #1 vs. #1. Duke was ranked #1 in the AP Poll and Sagarin ratings but Virginia was ranked #1 in the USA Today Coaches Poll and NET rankings. Polls, shmoles, this was a Big Time Game between the two best teams in the best conference in the country as well as two of the most admired academic institutions in the country. The Blue Devils were without point guard Tre Jones, who is the straw that stirs the drink both defensively and offensively. However, as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said: “You go to war with the team you have, not the one you wish you had.” And a war it was in the paint as the Blue Devils played to their strength and did not settle for threes as they did in losing to Syracuse in overtime. One is a veteran team that consistently is more than the sum of its parts and the other is a young team that is sometimes less than the sum of its NBA bound parts. However, Cameron is one of, if not the, most difficult venues in the country for a visiting team and, in a tough game that comes down to getting stops and making shots, can make a critical difference. In addition, in sports it is not uncommon for a team suddenly missing a key component to find a way to raise their collective play to another level—and that happened tonight as Cameron was rocking, Williamson and Barrett were rolling and that combination was too much for even the poised Virginia players and their vaunted pack line defense.

Though Virginia shot 52.8 percent overall and turned the ball over just 8 times, the Cavaliers, an unusually accurate three point shooting team, hit only 3 of 17 3-pointers. UVA shot just 48.1 percent after halftime and hit just one field goal over a stretch covering more than nine minutes. That allowed Duke to build a 67-60 lead Virginia couldn’t overcome. During part of that nine-minute stretch, Duke employed a zone defense that appeared to temporarily disrupt  the rhythm of the Cavaliers offense After DeAndre Hunter scored with 4:25 to play cutting Duke’s lead to 61-60, the Blue Devils stopped Virginia on its next three possessions. Each time the Cavaliers got one shot per trip and missed it. On the other hand, Duke led 57-56 when Williamson, whose defense was outstanding, leaped high and blocked Hunter’s shot attempt with both hands (see above). At the other end, he drove in the lane for a basket put Duke up 59-56 with 6:06 left. A minute later, Zion took an in-bounds pass from Barrett and jammed home a dunk for a 61-58 Blue Devil lead they never relinquished.

As satisfying and important a win as it was, it must be noted that Duke missed 13 free throws (but fortunately had 14 more attempts than the Whoos), mainly because the Cavaliers had no answer for Williamson and Barrett, who combined for 57 of Duke’s 72 points as no other player scored in double figures. That point distribution and the fact that the starters played 188 of the 200 available minutes, scored all of Duke’s points, and grabbed all of its rebounds is not a recipe for tournament success. Cam Reddish, who missed Monday’s game with an illness, added 9 points, 6 rebounds, an assist and a steal. If he continues to improve and an healthy Tre returns, this obviously is an even more formidable team. Duke also only made 2 threes. Meanwhile, DeLaurier, who had 5 fouls in seven minutes, is struggling to stay on the floor. (It appeared as though every time he looked at a Cavalier, the refs blew his whistle, but when Zion & BJ got mugged on drives, the refs swallowed their whistle.) Fortunately, Marques Bolden continues to improve, allowing the team to defensively  switch 1 through 5 even when Javin is out. He is a defensive plus and is one of the better free throw shooters. Tonight his two free throws down the stretch were huge.

The difference between this team and some other of Duke’s one-and-done teams is that that they have made a commitment to play outstanding defense and have unusual team chemistry. For example, the two highest profile players are roommates and genuinely buddies, referring to each other as brothers. And when asked about ex-Bulls Scottie Pippen suggestion that he should sit out the rest of the college season to preserve his health and #1 status for the 2019 NBA Draft, Zion said that he came to Duke to play basketball, live out a dream and win a championship, not watch his teammates from the bench.

Miscellaneous Comments: 

  • Coach K on Tre Jones status: “I don’t know. But he wasn’t going to play, as we made that decision yesterday. He just doesn’t have enough movement yet. I can’t tell you when [he’ll return]; I’m not going to tell you that he could be ready for Pittsburgh. Every day we’re just going to see how he progresses and make that decision based on the day-to-day stuff without putting a timetable on him so there’s no pressure for him to come back and force something. We don’t want that to happen.”
  • Coach Tony Bennett is not just a good basketball coach, he is a great college basketball coach. Virginia is an outstanding, classy university and he has recruited players to match.  For instance, guard Kyle Guy, who could play on any team, had a blunt and telling assessment of the Duke team: “An NBA team. That’s the only thing I can think of in terms of talent and size and length. We’re not probably going to see another team like that.”
  • Coach K on Zion’s growth and focus with all the media scrutiny: “I think to where we all should admire him. He’s such a people person. When football was still playing and he was at a football game, he would take time with people. He really doesn’t want a lot of attention, when obviously he attracts a lot of attention. Even for Gameday and that, he didn’t want to do too much. He didn’t want to separate himself from what the other guys are doing, and the family doesn’t either. They’re just good people. He’s handled it really well. You guys know from being with him that he’s such an upbeat kid. He was terrific tonight. Even though it was a lot of adversity on Monday night against Syracuse, he and RJ played the whole game, and that helped them tonight. The fact that they did that then, how do you handle it? You don’t handle it until you have to handle it. You can’t practice that. The times we’ve won big games in our program like championships, usually our best players have to play a lot of minutes, so hopefully what they’re learning right now will help them as we go forward.”
  • BJ Barrett on his confidence as a shooter and playmaker down the stretch in late games: “It definitely helps when you have the greatest coach of all time telling you to keep going, keep shooting the ball. I love playing for him.”
  • UVA is the Villanova model, featuring three and four year players who have become well marinated in their coach’s system.

Alan Adds:

Duke faced a #1 team in the nation without its point guard (the heart and soul of both its offense and defense so far this year), got 0 points and only 12 minutes from its entire bench (Alex 5 minutes – all in the first half; and Javier 7 minutes – one minute in the first half, but he managed to commit 2 fouls in that minute, before fouling out in 6 second half minutes.  Duke got a pair of foul shots from Marques for only 2 points in his 33 minutes (0 shot attempts) and 4 points from Jack White’s 40 minutes (2-3).  Moreover, while Cam had a satisfactory first half scoring 7 (3-8; 1-3 from deep) to go with 6 rebounds, a steal, an assist against only one turnover, he reverted to his previous ineffective form in his full 20 minutes on the court.  In the closing stanza, Cam was 0-4; 0-3 from deep, and 2-4 from the line for his only second half points, while committing 3 fouls and causing 3 turnovers.  And still Duke won!

In hindsight, one is left to wonder how Duke could possibly have accomplished that.  The answer is four-fold: first and foremost, this team has amazing heart; second, is defense; and third and fourth (maybe really first and second) were R.J. and Zion.  Each played the full 20 minutes.  Zion scored 13 on 5-7 from the field, but a terrifying (mabe horrifying) 3-9 from the free throw line. R.J. showed why he was the consensus #1 rated player in high school last year going 6-7 from the field (his only miss was his only second half 3 point attempt) and 4-7 from the line.  Zion and R.J. scored 29 of Duke’s 35 second half points.  Imagine if they had also been efficient from the line (or from 3land).  I said last year that R.J. was the best finisher at the rim that I had seen in high school since LeBron.  Last night he supported that assessment with a series of acrobatic finishes at the rim against a defense famous for protecting its interior.  R.J and Zion were simply other worldly in the clutch.  They were 11-13 from the field inside the arc in the second half, but only a collative 7-16 from the stripe.  Foul shooting in the second half – especially at “winning time” determines the outcome of many games.

Duke won the game on the defensive end of the floor.  Jack White (40 minutes) replaced Tre in the starting lineup.  In all of Duke’s games this year, Duke had never switched every screen, mostly because of Tre’s aggressiveness and lack of length.  With White replacing Tre, Duke was able to switch every screen, which turned out to be the strategic game winner.  Coach K wanted to stop UVa’s vaunted 3 point attack (Guy is almost as good as JJ was, said K), and switching every screen allowed Duke to do that very effectively.  Let me add a word about Marques Bolden.  He is now athletic enough to switch and even guard the other team’s point guard, as he did last night.  I never would have believed he could do that, but he has improved so dramatically on the defensive end of the floor as to be an integral and valuable part of this team.  He is playing superb defense.  This team loves to play defense.  Duke got tired (duh!); so, Coach K gave the team an energy break on defense by going to a zone for 3 possessions.  Very effective. This team loves to play defense.  White, Bolden and Cam may not have been scoring, but they were part of an extraordinary team defense that ultimately won the game.

This team has demonstrated the kind of heart that we have always admired in Coach K’s best teams.  In the last three games, Duke fought from behind without Zion to beat Fla. State in Tallahassee by a deuce; lost to Syracuse in overtime by a deuce without Tre or Cam, while dealing with the shock of those twin losses, and then came back to beat the #1 team in the country without Tre or an effective bench.  A team with this much heart will always be dangerous and continues to provide us with a gallant season — and to make us proud of the team and Duke.

As Coach K said, “it will be a helluva game up at their place (Feb 9).  Isn’t this why sports keep us watching.  What a week from the high of Florida State to the low of Tre’s injury and the Syracuse defeat, back to the high of last night.  Next Play: Tuesday, Duke visits Pitt and Jeff Capel.  Take nothing for granted (In short, “earn everything”).

Duke 79 – Pittsburgh 64

In what could have been a ‘trap” game, Duke, fueled by Zion Williamson’s 19 without-a- miss points, went on a 33- 12 run to close out the first half and pretty much put the game on ice, then cruised to an auto pilot win. Coach K kept his team in a zone much of the second half to a) rest them b) cut down drives and defend threes, which is easy with the 6’ 10” arm extensions of Barnett and Reddish on top of the 2-3 zone. Not many teams can beat Duke by trying to trade deuces; however, the math of trading threes for two’s is another matter, because threes and free throws are not the Blue Devil’s strength (although they did shot a season high 80% tonight). However, no team has yet shut down the explosive firm of Williamson & Barnett, that combined for 51 points, 10 assists, and 4 steals  tonight. In addition, RJ filled in nicely at the point.

Duke dominated the painted area, outrebounding Pittsburgh 39-34 and recording 7 blocks. Better defense is what separates this team from the recent one-and-done teams. More specifically, these future teenage millionaires (without the benefit of a traditional degree) can play old school Duke/Bobby Knight man defense or even a Jim Boeheim  zone as they did for periods against Virginia and again for more extended periods tonight. That’s what makes this precocious Duke team different and why this team could be the best of their genre. Consider these stats: Duke has three of the seven players (Jones, Williamson, and Reddish) in the ACC who average 2.0 steals per game plus Bolden, Williamson, White all  in the top 10 in the in blocks.

This group can obviously multi-task. After Saturday’s 72-70 home win (without Jones) over Virginia, Duke ranks No. 6 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating. Here are the Blue Devils’ pre-tournament KenPom Adj rankings (in ascending order) since Austin Rivers ushered in the “new Duke” era in 2012: 72, 39, 77, 37, 85, 39 and 7.

Marques Bolden certainly is improving. His athletic, big body presence ( 6 pts, 9 rebs, 4 blocks) is adding another welcomed dimension to the this team. In addition, Cam Reddish (15 pts, 6 rebs, 4 assists, 2 blks) is playing with more confidence. You can see in his shooting motion—the rotation, trajectory, softness, and accuracy of his free throws that his shooting touch is returning. On the other hand, Javin DeLaurier is in a foul plagued slump, Jack White’s shot is on vacation, and Alex O’Connell appears to be in Coach’s dog house.

Former Duke assistant Jeff Capel certainly has turned around the Pitt basketball program. His team fought hard to the end of the game, outscoring Duke 39-35 in the second half. However, Coach K has only lost to one former assistant—Notre Dame’s Mike Brey.

Alan Adds:

I have several takeaways from a game that seemed to lack any pizzazz!  In spite of my natural apprehension about any ACC road game; this one against Capel, who had been intensely involved in recruiting this premium class to Duke (before the game the freshmen spontaneously acknowledge Capel when he came on the court, a really nice gesture); the absence once again of Tre Jones (moving R.J. to the point and replacing Tre with Jack White in the starting lineup); and the emergence of Pitt’s freshmen guards as serious penetrators.  The big takeaway for me was the defense, which, for the first time this year was primarily a zone defense.  I was lost in admiration for how well this team played it.  Bill is right about the top of the zone, which featured Cam and R.J.  Cam looks taller to me than the 6’8” he is listed at.  He is clearly longer than either Zion or R.J. and he is quick.  So, the top of the zone was long, quick and athletic, which simply kept Pitt at bay throughout the endless second half.  Pitt never got closer than 15.  The back line of the zone was equally efficient.  Bolden in the middle had 5 blocks; Zion is so active on the wing in the back line.  He disrupted the Pitt offense from the right wing with extreme activity.  He made a couple of steals from there (which, of course, led to Zion time at the rim), one of which led to a superb dime to R.J. for a dunk.  It is a joy to watch the two of them play together seamlessly.  Jack White was very efficient on the other side of the back line.  This team loves to defend.

The other takeaway is how efficient and therefore destructive of an opponent’s defense Zion is.  How is this for efficiency in the first half?  In just 15 minutes he scored 19 first half points on 9-9 shooting, which included 1-1 from deep.  He did miss both of his first half free throws and turned it over twice.  He is such a force on the boards (5 boards; 4 offensive) to go with 2 assists and a block.   He led the charge that in reality ended all suspense as to who would win the game (maybe just the second half had no pizzazz).  With 7:54 left in the first half, Duke led by 9 (27-18).  In that almost 8 minutes to end the half, Duke shut down the Pitt offense, holding the Panthers to 7 points in that last 7:54.  The Duke zone took away the ability of Pitt’s young and talented back court from attacking the rim and the length up top drove them off the 3 point line.  During that 7:54, Duke scored 17 to put the game away.  Cam hit a 3; R.J a jumper on a feed from Cam and went 3-4 from the free throw line; Zion had 3 put backs or layups at the rim; Jack White was 2-2 from the line and Marques was 1-2 from the line.  Marques was also extremely active on defense and the boards; he had 3 blocks, a steal and 3 rebounds in that stretch.

Some interesting rotation observations: Alex played only 3 minutes; DeLaurier only 10; he missed his only two field goal attempts, ending his consecutive streak at 19 straight.  He picked up 2 fouls (and 2 boards) in 4 first half minutes, but none in his 6 second half minutes (2-2 from the stripe).  It seems clear that Bolden has nailed down the center position with his defense and rebounding.  Goldwire played 13 minutes, giving R.J. an opportunity to play off the ball where he is a better scoring threat.  R.J. was the glue for Duke as its point guard and as a scorer.  He played 37 minutes scoring 26 (on 24 shots: 10-24; 3-7 from deep and 3-4 from the stripe to go with 5 boards, 2 steals and 3 assists.  He (14) and Cam (9) kept Duke comfortably ahead in the second half.  Cam had 15 for the game as those 3 freshmen had 66 of Duke’s 79 points.

Duke returns home to face Georgia Tech on Saturday followed by a Monday game in South Bend vs Notre Dame.  Every Duke fan  wants to know “When will Tre return?”

Duke 66- Georgia Tech 53 

Everyone was baffled by the Blue Devils worst opening 22 minutes of the season. They trailed by as much as eight points before finally exploding on a patented 29-9 run to put away Georgia Tech 66-53 in Cameron. The reason for the sluggish start is that, despite my having 1,000 DirecTV channels, Apple TV, and ESPN+, because the game was blacked out locally, I was unable to access it until a few minutes into the second half. Once the guys realized I was watching and taking notes, they settled down and played Duke Basketball. Actually, Coach K’s vigorous timeout conversation also might have contributed somewhat to the belated turnaround: ”Our guys were just different (after that timeout), which says a lot about them (Editor: and the Coach). This is a game you lose if you’re thinking about being a winner. It’s a game that winners win, when you can turn it around with eighteen minutes to go and just really not playing well, and then start playing great.”

The inconsistency in the last two games is of concern. Against lesser teams, and even some better ones,  Zman & RJ can score a majority of the points. But the best teams will figure a way to limit one of the two. However,  a championship team needs balance. I have thought that Cam Reddish was the key as we saw in the Kentucky game. Well, somewhere along the way, Cam hit the freshman wall. Fortunately, the other three haven’t. Cam has recovered except for making threes, which was his calling card, but otherwise is very productive (7 pts. 5-5 ft. 6 assts, 5 stls.). Jack White, who was instant offense  early in the season, is a mystery. Recently, he has missed so many threes (1-for-20) that he appears reluctant to pull the trigger. And teams dare Barrett and Williamson to shoot them. Until the Blue Devils demonstrate they are a long range threat, opponents will pack the paint and beg Duke to try and beat them from the perimeter. However, the good news is that the team’s free throw percentage has recently improved dramatically. And that is huge because they shoot a lot of them every game. In addition, I have always thought that a player hitting a high per centage of free throws is an indication of their shooting touch, and who can and will hit jump shots.

It also occurred to me that there were two interesting developments surrounding Alex O’Connell and one probably led to the other. First, he finally settled on a mature haircut which no longer offends  Coach K’s army sensibilities. That led to Alex  (4 pts, 3 rebs, 1 steal)  playing significant minutes (19) when the game was in doubt. Actually, he got DeLaurier and White minutes. Early on, he was beaten badly by a back door cut (RJ was slow to provide weak side help) and I thought for sure that Coach K would pull him. He didn’t and Alex (4 pts, 3 rebounds and a steal) validated the decision with solid, active, athletic play. In addition, I suspect Coach is running out of patience with the poor three point shooting and is giving Alex, a talented offensive player, an opportunity to prove he is mature enough to be counted upon.

Miscellaneous Comments:

  • Alan had a terrific halftime assessment: “The first half looked like the Syracuse game without the excuses.”
  • Duke out-rebounded Tech 20-10 in the second half. Barrett led everyone with 11. Duke had 7 blocks–3 by Williamson–and 13 steals. Foul shooting was superb, 16-for-19.
  • I think this team will see a lot more zone defenses. For sure we will see it when we play Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.
  • Coach K said that after playing 35 minutes, Trey felt really well; that our defense was very important today; and that the crowd was the sixth man —and we really needed them.
  • Marques Bolden suffered a toenail problem that is not believed to be serious.   

Alan Adds:  

The valuable insights from this game are not on the surface.  Btw, I did text Bill at half:“the first half looked like the Syracuse game without excuses.”  The Syracuse adversity was more than Tre’s injury; it was also Cam getting sick right before game time.  I take some value from both the Syracuse game and Duke’s first half.  While it was surely Duke’s worst offensive performance of the season, Duke’s defense remained excellent.  Horrible offense can impact defensive efficiency.  It is easy to hang one’s head when the shots are not falling, but Duke did not do that.  The defense remained stout (with a little hiccup in the last two minutes of the first half).  Against Syracuse, Duke was wiped out exhausted for the overtime (Duke took only 8 shots in that overtime, none inside the arc).  In this game, Duke had all its weapons and exploded in the second half when Bill finally got the game on (Bill don’t you have any great grandchildren who can aid the digitally challenged?).  It was a game of two halves, and it is worth analyzing each separately.  The rotation was different for reasons that are not altogether clear.

The Rotation

The four elite freshmen and Bolden started, but Bolden got stepped on causing a foot problem.  Coach K said it was his toe.  He was limited to 9 first half minutes, and 2 in the second half when he tested it and found it a “no go”.  In the first half, Vrankovich was first off the bench to replace him; not DeLaurier.  DeLaurier was a virtual no-show logging only a single minute in each half (0-1 in the first half for only stat of the game).  Whether that was a message from Coach K or was there a physical problem is unknown; Coach K did not mention Javin in his press conference.  Jack White’s time was reduced – shooting slump and lots of minutes while Tre was out — he played 7 minutes in the opening stanza and a scant 4 minutes in the second half when Duke blew the game open.  Alex played 4 unremarkable minutes in the first half.  In that first half, Zion and foul shooting kept Duke competitive.  Zion was limited to 15 first half minutes by picking up 2 (silly) fouls, but was still 4-6 from the field and 2-2 from the line for 10 points.  R.J. and Cam played 19 first half minutes, contributing points from the foul line – Cam was 4-4 and R.J. 3-4 (that’s 9-10 for the three freshmen).  Cam is still in a shooting slump from the field (0-4 from the field including 0-3 from deep in the first half; 1-7 in the second half, but the single made shot was a 3 and it came in rhythm at an important time.  Still 1-11; 1-8 from deep has to change if Duke is going to fully reach its potential this season.  He and R.J. logged 38 minutes each for the game.

Of course, most of the focus was on Tre’s return.  In the first half it looked like he was a victim in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.  Where the hell was the real Tre?  He was, as it turned out, waiting for the second half.  In his first game back, he logged 35 minutes, 19 in the second half.  That is cause for jubilation.  In those 19 second half minutes, he morphed back into the real Tre (3-4 from inside the arc; 3 assists and a steal).  He is special as Coach K said in his press conference.  There is physical shape and there is mental shape; “Tre is NEVER out of mental shape. He is just a remarkable young man.”  I think he might have been briefly out of mental shape in the first half, but his return is beyond major.

The First Half

In spite of playing solid defense, Duke was pretty abysmal in the first half.  In my opinion, much credit goes to the Georgia Tech zone, which was an amoeba like 1-3-1 ( also morphing at times into a 2-2-1).  Georgia Tech was particularly impressive stealing  passes to the post (where when they got through, Zion was unstoppable) and picking off bounce passes.  Duke did miss many open perimeter shots; very deflating.  Duke was sleep walking.  Consider: The Wramblin’ Wreck outscored Duke 22-14 in the paint; 9-3 on second chance points (RJ’s only 3 off an offensive rebound); 5-2 in fast break point (think about that!) and 4-1 in bench points (Vrankovich was 1-2 from the line).  Zion’s 4-6 from the post and Duke’s 10-12 from the line + stout defense were all that Duke mustered.

The Second Half

Duke played most of the second half with a small lineup that did not include a center.  Bolden was in for two minutes but could not go; DeLaurier for one.  Vrankovich’s only appearance was in the first half.  The four freshmen played the entire half until the last minute of garbage time.  The fifth player for virtually all of the second half was Alex O’Connell.  Like Bill, when Alex was beaten back door, I expected him to be yanked as he had been in the last game, when that very back door thing happened to him.  Coach K said that Alex would know he [Coach K] was speaking the truth when he opined that Alex has not played very well recently.  But he was a star support in the second half after that one defensive lapse.  Alex was 2-5 (an offensive rebound put back and a medium range jumper).  He missed  two 3’s but, as Coach K pointed out, they were in rhythm and “the right shot”.  Alex has the potential to make Duke more lethal from the perimeter, which so far has been Duke’s real offensive weakness.  For example Duke was 2-21 from deep for the game (the freshmen were 2-15 – R.J. 1-5; Cam 1-8 and Tre 0-2).  White, Alex, and, Goldwire were each 0-2.  If that doesn’t change, Duke will fall short of the current lofty goals for this dream-like season.

From the timeout Coach K called, Duke played extremely well, and the Duke defense was beyond merely superb.  In the 16 minutes and 20 seconds between the timeout and the entry of the reserves at the 1:39 mark, Duke surrendered only 13 points!  In that same period Duke scored 39 points.  Zion and Barrett were a combined 10-13  — with 0 3 point attempts (R.J. 5-7; Zion 5-6).  They were a combined 6-7 from the line (R.J. 4-4; Zion 2-3) giving the dynamic duo a total of  26 of Duke’s second half points.  Add in Tre’s 6 and the trio scored 32 of Duke’s 39.  Alex had 4, and Cam’s crucial 3 completed an admirable second half.  If only Cam’s stroke would return  …

Schedule

Duke faces a quick NCAA tournament-like turn around tomorrow night (Monday),  playing a beleaguered Notre Dame team in South Bend (I don’t care how beleaguered Mike Brey’s Irish are, it is an ACC road game!) at 7 on ESPN.  The Devils are home next Saturday at noon against St. Johns, the last non-conference team to beat Duke at home (long ago).

Duke 83 – Notre Dame 61

A Northern Hemisphere’s Polar Vortex breakout that is producing the coldest Arctic blast in recent midwest history, combined with playing their second game in three days 1,000 from home, as well as facing the only assistant that has beaten Coach K (not just once but 5 times in 14 tries), had no effect on these precocious Blue Devils as they counterintuitively started hot and stayed hot beating a Notre Dame team riddled with key injuries. (Whew. That’s about as much information as I can cram into a run-on, introductory sentence. After all these years, I can still hear the disapproving voice of Mr. Ruge, my Fifth Form English teacher/guru: “Mr. Miller, for the amusement of your classmates will you please come to the blackboard and attempt to diagram that monstrosity of an opening paragraph.”)

Zion Williamson had a spectacular game with 26 points on 10-12 shooting, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks (including one  for his overflowing “Do you believe he that” archive). Marques Bolden is playing stronger and more aggressively on both ends of the floor. He had 8 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks in just 21 minutes. His athleticism allows the defense to switch 1-5, helping hold the Irish to shooting 35%. Cam Reddish played with more confidence. He was only 4-13 (but his missed shots just missed) but had 3 threes, 2 steals for 13 points. The role players DeLaurier, White, and O’Connell (2 threes) all contributed in a variety of ways.

Coach Mike Brey: “They are really gifted. With Duke’s pressure and switching, it was almost impossible to make a pass. You can say move the ball, but that’s not realistic. Their switching and their length are in the passing lanes, so when you get to ball screening, somebody has got to drive and kick.” 

Miscellaneous Comments: 

Coach K had very complimentary words for Irish Coach Mike Brey, one of the few assistant coaches who did not play for him. Mike, an assistant  from 1987-1995 was credited by K (along with Tommy Amaker) with helping build the program that went to seven Final Fours in nine years.

I enjoy Jay Bilas’ analysis a lot (“One reason this team is so good is that Zion, who receives so much publicity,  does not seek the spotlight. The spotlight seeks him and he wants to share it with his teammates.”) However, I wish he would refrain from second guessing so many referee calls. With the size and speed on these athletes, it’s a lot harder making the calls in real time than with the help of monitor replay. Less is more (effective), Jay.

Miscellaneous stats: Zion is almost shooting a phenomenal 80% from inside the arc but only a mediocre 68% from the free throwline, which led some wise guy sports commentator to comment that at this rate, he may miss more free throws than field goals. Zion and RJ are averaging about the same number of points per game but RJ has taken 138 more shots.

Alan Adds: 

The game was  practically over in the first six minutes – with 14:07 still left in the first half, Duke led by 15 (17-2) with Tre and Cam having hit opening 3s followed by Zion’s 5 straight goals — 4 at the rim and a mid-range jumper plus 1-2 from the line.  Notre Dame rallied for an nanosecond before Duke stretched the lead to 19 (26-7) with 10:36 left.  Note that meant the Duke defense held Notre Dame to 7 points in 9 minutes and 24 seconds.  Duke is playing great defense and this game was a continuation and growth.  It is hard to maintain the emotion required for great defense when the lead is so large that the game is not competitive.  Even when the offense receded a bit in the second half (Duke scored 46 first half points; only 37 in the closing stanza), the defense was very good (down just a tad from excellent; a few little flubs).  Notre Dame was gallant, but totally overmatched.  The Irish fought back to down 9 with 4:50 to go when Zion hit a 3 to push the lead back to double figures.  It was never single digits again.  It was 18 at the half, and never less than 16 in the second half with the widest margin being 24 with 5:41 to go.

Duke’s offense was terrific.  10-19 from deep (5-9 in the opening stanza).  Zion had a first half that would be a career achievement for an ordinary player – 17 points on 9 field goal attempts in 18 minutes (7-9; 1-1 from deep and 2-4 from the line) to go with 3 rebounds, 3 blocks and an assist without a turnover and committing only a single foul.  R.J. grabbed 5 rebounds while scoring 10 (4-8; 2-4 from deep).  Marques had a quite spectacular first half; 4-5 from the field in 13 minutes to go with 6 rebounds and a block.  He held Mooney (12 consecutive double doubles including last night) to 1-8 in the first half.  His improved mobility and athleticism is allowing Duke to switch 1 through 5 because he has the quickness (new to me) to stay with guards on the perimeter.  He hustles, and is on the floor for loose balls as quickly as anyone on the team.  His play is crucial, especially on the defensive end.  However, foul trouble (4; # 3 and 4 came early in the second half) limited him in the closing period.

More good news: Cam played an excellent second half.  Coach K is trying to play Cam back into the player he was in high school (36 minutes last night; 18 in each half).  Cam hit a 3 on his opening shot, but did not score again in the first half (1-6).  He is, however, playing excellent defense.  He had 2 steals (and 2 assists).  In the second half, he led Duke in scoring with 10 (total 13) on 3-7 from the field including 2-5 from deep and 2-2 from the line.  Let us hope this is like the first robin of the spring and not an aberration.  He can be the difference between Duke being an excellent team and a National Championship team.

Tre was Tre (5 assists; 1 turnover and superb defense); White grabbed 6 boards in the second half where Duke played significant minutes without a big on the floor.  Alex scored 6 in 7 second half minutes (2-2 from deep).

Duke’s defense deserves scrutiny and the highest praise so far.  Consider this: Duke leads the nation in two critical categories – blocked shots per possession and steals per possession.  Duke is blocking shots or stealing the ball on almost 1 out of every 4 of the opponents possessions.  That’s practically insane!  Moreover, Duke has been elite at defending the opponents 3 point shots.  Each of the Duke starters is a superior man to man defender (how unlike last year where Trevon, Gary and Grayson all compiled low defensive metrics) and have the length to drive shooters off the 3 point line.  Zion is as talented on the defensive end of the court as he is scoring.  Barrett is not only an intense defender, but also a superior defensive rebounder.  Those two are so versatile defensively that Duke can defend the post efficiently even without a big on the court.  This is such a fun team to watch on the defensive end.

The January part of the schedule is done.  Two home games —  St. John’s next Saturday (noon on ESPN)  and Boston College on Tuesday before the showdown in Charlottesville on Saturday, February 9.

Duke 91- St. Johns 61

Historically, teams like St. Johns, featuring a group of city ballers, have given Duke trouble mainly because they thrive on an open floor run-and-gun urban playground game. For instance, the last time the Blue Devils lost to a non-conference opponent in Cameron was an incredible 18 years and 146 games ago to, you guessed it, St. John’s. And just one year ago, an unranked St. John’s team, led by  point guard Shamorie Ponds’ 33 points, beat  #4 Duke 81-77 in Madison Square Garden. That was then against defensively challenged Duke players and this is now in Cameron against Trey Jones, who shut out Ponds in the first half, and Zion Williamson, who put on another “Oh My God! Did you see that!” SportsCenter Highlight Show.

What I look for at this time of the season is whether or not the players are all improving, contributing, and developing chemistry so that the whole is more than the sum of the parts– or whether the team is uneven and overly dependent on one or two players. Today, the Blue Devils played forty minutes of good offense and almost that much of good defense. Granted, the score was too closed for comfort until the last few minutes of the first half when Zion scored ten straight points to go into the locker room with a ten point lead and plenty of momentum. Predictably, Cris Mullins’ team started out in a zone, daring  Duke to hit threes, which, fortunately, Cam Reddish did. Unfortunately, so did his Red Storm. However, threes come easier at the beginning with fresh legs than later with tired ones. And in the second half, fatigue had turned the mean Johnnies into exhausted, frustrated players, while the Dukies were sprinting to the finish.

Obviously, it doesn’t appear than anyone has an answer for Williamson anywhere on the court but anyone can have an off night or get hurt. What I liked today was the balance of  point distribution among the starters: 29, 16, 15, 13, 10. Sometimes, RJ is the leading scorer, sometimes it is Zion—whatever, together they are usually good for 50 or so points. But to have Cam stroking it, Tre looking for shots, and Bolden continuing to contribute on both ends is very encouraging. Also, Duke outrebounded their opponent 48-30 with RJ getting 14.

Generally speaking there are three basketball defensive philosophies: 1) Play a team straight up and hope for the best. 2) Give the best player his points and focus on shutting down his teammates.  3) Try to take away  an opponent’s best player and hope none of his teammates have a career game. You just knew that with Try Jones, Coach K was going to try to limit Pond’s production, frustrate him, and put pressure on the others. It takes a very mature player who is used to the spotlight not to be frustrated by not being able to do what he does best and not let it impact his attitude—especially his defense. Well, Shamorie spent a lot of time shaking and baking, showing off his moves (and taking time off the clock) without scoring a point in the first twenty minutes. While Jones was the main perpetrator, all the other players, including Marques Bolden, were his accomplices switching with help defense. Temporarily, Ponds’ talented teammates filled in. However, pressure, fatigue, and the law of averages kicked in and the Red Storm team ended up shooting 34%.

Miscellaneous Comments:

My buddy, Johnny Tar Heel, says that if you put Zion Williamson on any of the top ten teams, that team would be #1. BTW, Carolina is surging. They beat Louisville at Kentucky.

St. John’s Coach  Chris Mullins, one of the great shooters in basketball history: “They’re a great team, obviously. Talented, unselfish. It’s great, I love playing Duke. They’re the classiest team in the country, so you can learn a lot from them.”

I have watched and played a lot of basketball and been thrilled by many wonderful players. However, I only have seen what I can consider four transcendental players: Pete Maravich, David Thompson, Michael Jordan, and Zion Williamson. While I do not think it fair to compare players of different eras, as a freshman, Zion is the best. If you are a basketball fan, do not miss watching him play.

When Dick Vitale is announcing a game, I wonder how many people turn the sound off?

Duke 80 – Boston College 55 

Well, Alan was half right. After twenty minutes, the game appeared to be the “trap game” he cautioned against as the score was 28-30. It was that close only because Cam Reddish converted a back court steal from Ty Bowman at the buzzer. While scoring 52 second half points and holding BC to just 25 was an impressive “progression to the mean” (patent pending), it couldn’t have happened without Cam Reddish’s steadily improving play producing his best game of the year. He scored 24 points on only 16 shots, played terrific defense, and was a rare welcomed sight (80%) at the free throw line. Zion’s all-round hustle and production (9 pts, 11 rebs) was about all the good news in the first twenty minutes but the second twenty was what excites Duke fans (and basketball aficionados). Neither Hubie Brown or Dick Vitale could recall a college team with three of the projected top five picks in the upcoming NBA draft.

The final scoring was 24-19-16-11-6-4. (O’Connell hit two late baskets for the Blue Devils only bench points. DeLaurier and White did produce 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 blocks.) RJ was hampered by two early, silly fouls and the focus of the Eagles defense was to double Zion. When a team shoots 1-15 from three point land in any half, you have to wonder if  it is a Final Four team. However, 52 points on 6-9 threes, shooting 63% overall, and playing lock down defense (36%) makes one wonder who were those guys wearing the Duke jersey’s in the first half? Coach K should tape his half time conversations for a motivational CD to be edited and sold at a later date as a G rated video.

Speaking of defense, for the second game in a row Tre Jones (and Company) limited an opponent’s, talented, high scoring point guard, Ky Bowman, to 11 points on 17 shots and forcing 3 turnovers. The team also recorded 9 blocks and 9 steals. Also, flying somewhat under the radar is the improved play of Marques Bolden, who according to Coach K has finally been healthy for six straight weeks for the first time in his Duke career.

During this upcoming tough stretch, let’s hope that the Blue Devils are able to play close to forty minutes of their best basketball each and every game. Otherwise…….

Other Comments: 

  • This victory produced Duke’s 23rd  consecutive 20 win season.
  • Zion (16 pts, 17 rebs, 3 asssts, 3 blks, 4 steals) missed an open floor reverse slam, then later had a perfect pass slip out of his hands as he was taking off for an uncontested dunk. Coming off the floor was the first time I have ever seen him angry. Fortunately, it was in disappointment with himself, not an opponent. Incidentally, here is what St. John’s coach and former All Pro Chris Mullins said about Zion: “I said coming in probably one of the best things about him is his attitude and his personality. He’s got a great joy for the game and passion for the game. I think it rubs off on his teammates. He’s very unselfish. If he doesn’t like his shot, he shares with his teammates. Those things get overlooked. Obviously, his physicality, his athleticism is unmatched. A lot of these kids, when they’re critiqued and they’re rated, sometimes by the time they get here they’re worn out. He seems to have been able to maintain that smile and that passion. I think that’s contagious to their team. It’s good to see.”
  • Basketball lifer, Hubert “Hubie” Brown (Hall of Fame, two time NBA Coach of the Year) was one of the announcers. Both Hubie (1968-72), as well as HOF’er Chuck Daley (1963-69), head coach of NBA champions Detroit Pistons as well as the 1980 Olympic Dream Team, were an assistant coaches at Duke under Vic Bubas. 

Alan Adds:

Hubie was a blessing on this telecast; Vitale actually shut up to listen to Hubie’s insightful color commentary so,  I didn’t have to turn the sound off.  I texted Bill at half time, lamenting how Duke played in the first half, but concluded that Duke has been a second half team all year.  And were they ever.

The First Half

But, thoughtful analysis should not just disregard the first half.  ESPN had this to say in a pre-game column: “To call it tough would be underselling the six-game stretch that awaits the Blue Devils at the end of this week. Toughest is better, because that’s what it literally is. The toughest scheduled six-game stretch. For any team. At any point this season. Past or present.  No offense to Boston College, but we’re actually previewing the six-contest stretch of heavyweights that begins after the Blue Devils beat the Eagles Tuesday”   Coach K was concerned and it showed in the opening stanza.  Tre admitted he lacked energy and had to be more of a leader in the second half.  On offense, maybe; he played a great defensive first half and game.  Duke’s offense was worse than horrible in the opening stanza (scoring only 26 points before Cam made the game changing play to close out the half – stole the ball and laid it in at the buzzer, cutting the Duke deficit to 2).  Coach K said Duke’s offense against the zone was stagnant.  “Their zone messed us up.”  After the St. John’s win, Coach K pointed out, all the hype about Duke-UVa this coming Saturday began.  “they didn’t even mention the BC game.  That’s what these kids have to live through.”  It might have affected the first half, but fortunately not the whole game.  “We played good defense the whole game (BC scored only 55; only 25 in the second half); our defense kept us in the game in the first half.  In the second half, we played great; not good, great.”

The Second Half

Offensively, the show was on.  Coach K insightfully pointed out that Duke got control of its own defensive backboard in the second half to change the game.  He said when we got rebounds, we could run; that changed the game.  In the second half, BC retrieved only 8 rebounds altogether (2 offensive) to Duke’s 22.  Cam played an outstanding second half (first half was not bad — 4-10; 1-6 from deep for 9 points).  OUTSTANDING!  In 17 minutes, he scored 15 points (4-6; 3-5 from deep; 4-4 from the line) to go with an assist and a steal.  Coach K was giddy, “Cam had a great game; not just on offense.  He was moving beautifully on defense.  We gave him the tough assignment of guarding Chapman (who, Coach K pointed out, scored at least half of his points when Cam was not guarding him).  He was running through screens and moving side to side; it was absolutely beautiful.  His defense helped his offense.  He was moving strong on defense; that helps other aspects of your game.”

  1. Had a deceptively terrific second half after a sub-par first half in which he was limited to 12 first half  minutes by committing 3 silly fouls early, limiting him to 1-6 from the field; 0-2 from deep without attempting a free throw.  Then came the second half where he absolutely sparkled (sort of under the radar).  He scored 15 second half points in 15 minutes (4-6; 2-2 from 3land; and 5-7 from the line).  He is both defender and rebounder (5 for the game; tied for second with Tre and Bolden behind Zion’s astounding 17 (10 in the first half to go with his 9 first half points, keeping Duke close.  He plays so hard and with such joy that Coach K overlooks a missed dunk or two.  “We’re lucky to have him, and you are lucky to be able to watch him.”

In the second half, Tre realized that he has to be an offensive threat; 2-6; 1-2; 2-4 for 7 second half points (11 for the game).  He has to shoot better from deep, but he is the straw that stirs the drink on both ends of the floor.  Coach K was unstinting in his praise for Marques Bolden.  “He’s not just improved, he’s playing great.”  He is healthy and moving well.  “His footwork; good on offense, really good on defense.  We switched him on to Bowman.  He did a good job there.  Javin has played well; so we are getting better inside.”

Defensively, Duke shut down Bowman as it had shut down Ponds in the St. Johns game.  It was not just Tre.  The bigs stepped up and helped Tre contain him.  It was great team defense.  Bowman only had 4 second half points. This is a terrific defensive team

The Gauntlet

Away against UVA Saturday; and Louisville next Tuesday.  The start of a 6 game grind that ESPN says is one of the toughest in the history of college basketball.  I plan to watch.

Duke 81 – Virginia 71 

This game was two heavyweights going the distance. Uncharacteristically, Duke shot lights out 13-21 (62%) from three point land and a decent 16-23 (70%) from the foul line to never lose the lead but seldom able to increase it into comfortable double digit territory. Nevertheless, Virginia was relentless and went on a late three minute 11-3 run to cut the halftime lead to only four points. Virginia Coach Tony Bennett’s “Pack Line Defense”, which discourages the opposition from penetrating and getting inside the paint, had frustrated Zion Williams into only 8 field goal attempts and multiple turnovers and forced Duke to do what they statistically have done poorly–shoot threes. Duke ranks 317th — that’s is not a typo– 317th in the nation in three-point shooting, right between those national powerhouses Texas Rio Grande Valley and Jacksonville State. And Virginia has the top-ranked defense in the nation against three-pointers. In the previous game at Cameron, Duke made 2 of 17. However, RJ Barrett did his best James Harden (on a good night) impression. Yet, hitting an amazing 8-11 (73%), playing good defense, and the Blue Devils still were only up only four points at the break—and the water was rising.

Going into halftime, it certainly appeared to the packed, raucous John Paul Jones Arena that the Cavaliers had taken the Blue Devils best shot, shook it off, and definitely had the Big Mo going for them in the remaining twenty minutes. However, never underestimate Coach K ‘s halftime talks, which he should record for a motivational tape to be edited and sold at a later date as PG rated, and his adjustments. To become quicker and more flexible, Krzyzewski started the second half inserting Jack White for Marques Bolden. This change created more defensive quickness and more space for shooters like Cam Reddish, who responded by nailing three triples before the under-16 timeout to put Duke in front by 11.

No matter how talented, you never know how a young team will react to adversity on the road in a hostile ACC arena.  Tonight, the Blue Devils earned an A+. For every charge the Virginia team, which had not lost to any other team this year, made– and there were many– the Blue Devils had an answer. In the second half, Tre Jones (13 pts, 7 assists, 3 steals) did his best big brother Ty impression by scoring points only when they were most needed plus playing, relentless ball hawking defense. The strong commitment to defense is what separates this team from all of their recent talented, one-and-done predecessors. For instance, good defense produced steals and turnovers that led to 17 fast break points versus none for Virginia.

How is this for scoring: 26-18-17-13-5-2 (Unsurprisingly, a seven man rotation). You cannot underestimate what the improvement of Cam Reddish (17 pts, 3 assts, 2 blks, 3 steals) has meant to the team. As Johnny Tar Heel noted: “Cam is really tall and rangy and a great defender as well as having the best shooting stroke on the team”. Since his Florida State 23 point heroics, a rejuvenated Reddish has scored 9, 15, 7, 13, 16, 24, 17. (He missed the Syracuse loss with illness). Although Zion was frustrated by the Pack Line Defense, which limited his field goal attempts, he compensated by hitting a three to go with  5 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks (one of which he closed from UNDER THE BASKET to spike a three point attempt from the corner into the stands.

The bottom line is that this was the best Duke has played since the opening win over Kentucky. However, it was much more impressive because Kentucky was never in that first win as Duke cruised from the opening tip and Virginia, which rarely loses at home under Coach Bennett, never, ever, stopped competing.

Miscellaneous Comments:

  • I have nothing but admiration for  Coach Bennett, who, defensively, is college basketball’s version of Patriot’s Coach Bill Belichick, and has turned Virginia into a powerful national program. Tonight, he took away the points in the paint, gambling that Duke could not make threes. Others will be doing the same—hopefully, not as well.
  • An indication of what Tre Jones’s defensive value means to the Blue Devils is that with Jones in the lineup, Duke leads the country in steal percentage (13.9). When he was out with an injury, their steal percentage dropped to 6 percent. He also leads the ACC in assists (5.5) and assist-to-turnover ratio (4.8).
  • Among the packed John Paul Jones Arena of 14,629: LeBron James, Ralph Sampson, Rajon Rondo, Grant Hill, and John Grisham, who lives in Charlottesville. 

Alan adds: 

“OK, I have said all year that Virginia is better than Duke. I guess, I was wrong!”  This sentence was actually written by Bill because I have been saying that UVA was, for the moment, a better team than Duke (with a caveat that did not mean it would be true in March).  UVA is as good as any team in the country, and they played an absolutely superb game last night in their home arena.  Consider that Duke hit them as hard in the beginning (Barrett 5-5 from 3 in the first 10 minutes) as the Devils hit Kentucky in the season opener.  Kentucky was done and never even got into the game.  In contrast, the Cavaliers actually weathered the storm and staged a dramatic comeback in the last couple of minutes of the first half to be down only 4 (after trailing by 14) at the break.  Even Duke shooting 73% from 3 in the first half failed to crack UVA.  You have to credit the heart and soul of a team that can withstand what the Devils hit UVA with in the first half.   Even though Duke didn’t cool off much in the second half: shooting 56% from the field and 50% from deep (5-10), while playing outstanding defense, Virginia hung tough and never stopped competing.  The only way to measure the significance of the Duke performance in this game is to understand how truly excellent Virginia’s play was.  Duke was on the road (ACC road games) in a place where Virginia has a home court record almost as good as Duke’s at Cameron, playing the #3 team in the country.

Tellingly, in that situation, Virginia never had the ball in its possession with a chance to take the lead; and after Zion’s dunk followed Barrett’s opening 3, Virginia never, in the 38 remaining minutes, had the ball with a chance to just tie the game!  NEVER!  That’s an unusual type of domination in a highly competitive game.  It is one reason why I think this Duke performance was a difference in kind rather than just a difference in degree.  I think Coach K agreed based on the dreamy smile and outlook he displayed in the post-game press conference. “As good as the game in Durham was, this was better. I thought both teams played outstanding basketball tonight. It was tough to single out a kid. We were fortunate we won. It’s the best we’ve shot from the three-point, and obviously, it’s a huge difference. They’re outstanding, and we’re really good too and it was that game. We feel very thankful that we won. I’m proud of my guys, but we beat a heck of a team, and they’re a great program.”

Duke was a complete team where the whole exceeded the sum of the parts.  This may be the first game where all the contributions of each Duke starter felt so equal.  First, as Jay Bilas is beginning to recognize, this is not just a good defensive team; it is on its way to becoming a great defensive team.  They communicate and switch with few flaws.  Bolden (24 minutes) has morphed into a superb defender, allowing Duke to switch 1-5.  He was guarding Guy and Jerome on the perimeter and making those two amazing players work for their points.  Cam and R.J. are beginning to be recognized for their ability to guard, create deflections and make steals.  Zion is a major part of why Duke is among the NCAA leaders in both steals and blocks; he has been a highlight reel in both categories.  We don’t really need to say anything more about Tre’s defense – it has been all-world.  Duke does not suffer defensively when Jack White and DeLaurier, Duke’s only substitutes last night, come into the game.  Neither played much: (White 13 minutes —  5 in the first half;  DeLaurier 9 minutes – only 2 in the second half).  But their presence and performance are an integral part of the whole.

Everyone in the starting lineup made valuable contributions.  I received an email from a friend asking “Where was Zion?”.  You get an idea of how high the bar has been set when a stat line — scoring 18 points in 36 minutes on 8 field goal attempts (6-8; 1-1 from deep; 5-7 from the stripe) to with 5 rebounds, 5 assists (ponder that for a moment), 3 blocks (one drew this comment from the UVA coach, “only 2 people in the world could make a block like that and they were both in our gym tonight” – referring to LeBron sitting courtside) and 3 steals — produces “Where was Zion?”.

Part of Duke’s three point success was how open the shot attempts were – really clean looks.  Zion gets some of the credit for those clean looks, because UVA packed it in to keep Zion from exploiting the lane, as he did against them in Durham.  It worked forcing Zion into 5 turnovers, but it also cost them by giving Duke open looks from deep.  R.J. was superb last night in all aspects of the game.  He never came out of the game (full 40 minutes). He passes, he rebounds, and he is a great teammate.  At one point Zion had him open and turned it over before he could hit R.J. for an easy slam.  No mere, “my bad”; the two roommates hugged after that on the court.  Much of that type of “Three Musketeer” outlook underlies what is making this team special.  Coach K on R.J.: “he’s been disappointed [in himself even though he has been very good]. He wants to be great. He really had unbelievable preparation for this game, and you could see right away that he was lathered up. He got us off to such a good start.”   You can also see his experience in tight situations – gained in International competition —  giving Duke leadership in tight situations.  In my judgement, this was the game where Cam fully joined Zion and R.J. to realize the expectations from the top three high schoolers signing with Duke.  Finally, he was an equal partner in all aspects, he played solid defense and continued his upward trajectory on offense, with 17 points, 3 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks in 36 minutes.  At one point earlier in the season, we heard suggestions that Jack White should replace Cam in the starting lineup.  Don’t hear that anymore!  Coach K on Cam: “His defense has gotten so much better.  He’s just playing stronger. He was good before, but his shots weren’t strong. His whole game has gotten stronger. He went on a flurry for a little bit, which he can do. We see him getting better and better.”

And then there is Tre.  Announcers have taken up our refrain that Tre may not be the best player on the team, but he is the most important.  He is that, but I believe for this season (not NBA potential), he is also the best player on the team.  His second half was a microcosm that I believe justifies my outlandish opinion.  Like R.J., Tre never came out of the game.  While Duke was hot in the first half, Tre was the distributor, but not scorer (0 points on a single shot), but 5 assists and 4 rebounds.  We should appreciate what an elite rebounding guard Tre is and has been all season.  In the second half, Virginia was relentless, and Duke needed scoring.  Tre became the scorer that I believe, and we all hope, he really is.  He led Duke’s second half scoring with 13 points (4-7; 1-2 from deep; and a crucial 4-4 from the line.  He totaled 7 assists and 2 steals.  His heralded teammates recognize him as their leader.  He is really something!

Finally, let’s talk about heart.  The second half was a beautiful war.  Duke pushed its 4 point half time lead to 7 almost immediately.  From there the Duke lead fluctuated between 5 and 11.  With 12:20 left, UVA reduced the Duke lead to 5 when Tre answered with a 3.  Coach K said that every time the Cavaliers reduced the Duke lead to 2 possessions, a Duke player stepped up and answered.  A Tre jumper; foul shots by Bolden and R.J., a 3 by R.J., a layup by Bolden, another jumper by Tre, layups by Zion and clutch free throwing down the stretch by R.J. and Tre kept UVA from ever getting closer than 7 for the final five minutes of the game.

This week will be interesting.  UVA travels to Chapel Hill for a game worth watching on Monday and Duke faces Louisville (stung by an overtime loss to Florida State in Tallahassee) on Tuesday.  Is this fun or what!

Duke 71 – Louisville 69

 

 

 

I saw it but I still don’t believe it! For thirty minutes, #2 Duke was totally dominated in every phase of the game by #16 Louisville. The Cardinals were playing like the best team in the country to the delight of their raucous 22,000 fans in the KFC Yum! Center but to the chagrin of the 90 some Duke fans, their body language and posturing increasingly said: “This game is over”.

With ten minutes left and Duke down 23 points on the road with Zion Williamson saddled with four fouls, raise your hand if you didn’t think the Blue Devils were dead in the water without a motor or even a paddle. There was only one problem. One person raised his hand as well as his voice: Coach K. He said he didn’t believe the game was over. According to Zion, he said: “Look, you’re not losers, but you’re playing like losers. I don’t coach losers. Keep fighting”, substituted little used Jordan Goldwire, and switched to a full court 2-2-1 zone press. Suddenly, Duke looked like the team as advertised and Louisville looked like a scared, tentative pretender not a contender. What a transformation! No Cardinal player looked as though they wanted the ball, much less to shoot it. On the other hand, with time running out, on a secondary fast break RJ Barrett, who was having a rare off night (13 pts), casually dropped the ball between his legs to a trailing Cam Reddish, who pulled up and nailed an NBA three to tie the score.

Zion Williamson ( 27 pts, 12 rebs, 1 blk, 3 steals) was his usual amazing self but tonight Cam Reddish, with 16 of his 23 points in second half, was the scoring catalyst for the rally as well as the closing. His threes and final two free throws were stone cold Larry Bird type daggers to the heart of the shocked Louisville players and suddenly quite 22,000 of the 22,090 fans.

After hitting their first five threes and shooting 55% from the floor in Charlottesville on Saturday, Duke shot 25% threes and 37% from the floor as they faced their largest halftime deficit of the season at 38-29. When we talked at half time, Alan said that it certainly looked bad but (whistling in the dark) at least we have been a second half team.

What this win says to me is that this teams is talented, flexible, and tough enough to win a lot of different ways. They may not win the NCAA Championship but this was a win for the ages.

Miscellaneous Comments:

  • Coach K is a great motivator and a great bench coach. Substituting Goldwire and switching to a zone press was like substituting Grayson Allen in the Championship game against Wisconsin—a game  changer. At his press conference Coach K was very complimentary of Louisville head coach Chris Mack and his team and brutally honest as he gave credit to his Army training: “At West Point, one of things I learned as a cadet is this: Even when you don’t feel like it’s going to go your way, your men better not see that in you, and as a result, you can speak into action sometimes. I did think that we could play better. I was hoping we wouldn’t lose by 35—I’m not kidding, we could have. So, you’re talking positive, but I don’t believe it. Once that press was going, I said, ‘We’ve got a chance here. We can get it.’ But, at that point, I think I may have been telling them a lie.”
  • The dumbest (or most calculating as he did achieve several TV shots) person in the arena had to be the student with the sign: “Zion can’t dunk.”
  • This game, combined with the indelible memory of the Christian Laettner shot in the 1992 NCAA Tournament, makes Duke fans pretty much persona non grata in the entire basketball obsessed state of Kentucky.
  • Tonight, Duke went from “Hey, we can beat they guys.” to “Duke is ranked #2? That’s a misprint. These guys really are amazing!”

Alan Adds:

The comeback left me speechless.  Let’s go inside it.  It is true that the Blue Devils started to reduce the 23 point deficit with 9:13 left; that’s the headline, but it does not tell the true story.  Two minutes later Duke had only reduced the lead to 20.  It was far from clear that there was a comeback in progress, though you could feel the vibe on the court change.  Goldwire and the 2-2-1 zone were having an effect that was still subtle.  With 6:25 left, Duke still trailed by 19.  It was the next minute that transformed the game and brought hope, tension and a special kind of stirring excitement.   Zion scored inside – a 3 point play the old fashion way and Tre stole the ball for a layup.  Louisville called time out with its lead cut to 14.  The next sequence was wild.  Tre stole the ball (again) but had his layup spectacularly blocked at the rim.  The Cardinals corralled the rebound but not for long; Zion stole it back and was fouled.  He cut the lead to 12, making both free throws.  So, with 5:41 left, Duke was down 12.  Zion stole it again and fed R.J. for a superb finish at the rim.  Down 10 only.  It was in that minute and 8 seconds – from 6:25 to 5:17 – that the rout was transformed into a game with an uncertain outcome.   Of course, Zion was not done.  Down 12 again after a Cardinal 3, RJ. grabbed a key rebound and fed Zion who was fouled and swished them both to get back to a 10 point deficit.  Then came the unheralded play of the game for me.  Zion rebounded a Cardinal miss and took it the length of the floor.  His determination oozed out of the TV screen.  Louisville only sort of got back, and Zion challenged them.  He made a fake at high speed to open a lane into which he flashed for the score, and added the foul shot for another 3 point play reducing the deficit to a single digit – 7 with 4:13 left.  We all moved to the edge of our seats.  Reddish and McMahon of Louisville traded free throws (Reddish had been fouled while firing a 3 from deep – bad foul – and made two of his 3).  Duke down 7 with under 4 left.  The Cardinals got the rebound, but RJ. intercepted the pass and went the length of the court for his specialty, a strong finish at the rim.  Down 5 with 3: 44 left.  Zion stole it again and Cam made the Cardinals pay with a deep three, and Duke was within 2.  But with 2:31, the gifted Louisville point guard, Cunningham, fed the talented Nwora for a three; the Cardinals lead ballooned to 5 with only 2:31 left.  But the bloodlust was up for the Devils.  Jones stole the ball (again) and scored to cut the lead to one possession, 69-66 with 2:10 left.  And what a possession it was.

With 1:38 left, Tre grabbed a defensive rebound and passed ahead to RJ.  J. King of DukebasketballReport.com, chose the perfect adjective to describe R.J.’s pass to Cam.  R.J. made an “arrogantly casual” pass between his legs to Cam who was at least 5 feet behind the 3 point line.  No hesitation.  The pass said “I know you will nail this.”  Cam’s confidence in going up in rhythm almost like a ballet dancer said, “I know I’m going to nail this.”  Watching on TV, I knew he was going to nail it.  Cam’s teammates knew it also.  Nothing but net and a tie game with 1:29 to go.  Duke just couldn’t lose having come back this far, but the shots stopped falling – for both teams.  Reddish and Nwora traded missed 3s (Cam’s seemed almost like a “heat check” – not a good shot, but who could complain after the tying three).  With 45 seconds left, Goldwire grabbed a defensive rebound and Duke called time with 30 seconds left.  Cam drove into a collision (charge), but the Cardinal sneaker heel was in the restricted area; so the referees reviewed the play and overturned the charge call on the floor.  Cam dropped both free throws for the winning margin with 14 seconds left.  Goldwire defended the last Louisville shot and Zion, fittingly enough, grabbed the tough rebound to clinch the game.

The freshmen scored 68 of Duke’s 71 points [Zion, 27; Cam, 22; R.J., 13; and Tre 6].  Bolden scored 2 in only 12 minutes (2 in the second half) and DeLaurier 1 in 13 minutes.  Goldwire played 12 minutes overall, but a crucial 10 in the second half.  This comeback is, of course, the stuff of legends.  Two tough road wins against ranked teams.  The gauntlet continues at home with N.C. State on Saturday at 6pm (ESPN).  UNC next Wednesday at 9 pm (ESPN).

Duke 94 – North Carolina State 78

 

 

 

 

 

 

The good news is that the Blue Devils never trailed as they beat N.C. State for the first time since 2016. Zion Williamson had 32 points on 16 shots in just 30 minutes (they were -8 when he was not on the floor) and RJ Barrett had only the fourth triple double in Duke Basketball history (The others: Sheldon Williams, Gene Banks, and Rudy D’Emilio.) The bad news is that Duke “held” N.C. State, which scored just 24 points against Virginia Tech, to 78 points and never put them away.  But when they were good, the Blue Devils were flashes of very, very good, and when they were mediocre, they were very, mediocre. However, Tre Jones played 40 minutes, and, as usual, did not take one minute off. Tonight, in the last minute of a game already decided, Tre knocked the ball lose at half court, dove on the floor for it, and, on flat prone, passed to Jordan Goldwire for a lay-up.

One of the challenges tonight is that Zion was saddled with foul trouble for much of the game and only played 30 minutes. It appears the referees are not use to seeing a college basketball players make plays that Zion does, don’t believe what they are seeing, so are making some phantom calls or calls better ignored, because they do not affect the outcome of the play. Tonight, for instance, Williamson skied and torqued his body in a reverse “C” far above C.J. Bryce to snatch a rebound one handed. Bryce was not impeded, had no chance for the ball, and there was barely any contact but, nevertheless, Zion got called for the foul. Fortunately, Captain Jack White, who was substituted for Zion, broke out of a slump and contributed as he had in the beginning of the season. He started with an athletic chase-down block of a Johnson layup, followed by a cut to the basket for a dunk, and pulled down an offensive rebound in traffic before converting a put back to give Duke a double-digit lead with eight minutes left. The Australian forward then ran the floor on a three-on-one fast break to slam home an alley-oop off an assist from Barrett. Bolden( 9 pts, 8 rebs, 3blks, 4 stls) and DeLaurier 6 rebs, 3 blks, 2stls) were very active defensively as Duke controlled the glass, out-rebounding State 44-26, and a 17-2 edge on second-chance points. Cam Reddish was inconsistent: some very exciting creating drives but 1-7 from beyond the arc.

Coach Krzyzewski said his team is tired– back-to-back road games plus Barrett and Bolden have been sick this week.

Miscellaneous Comments:

Mike Krzyzewski became the all-time winningest college basketball coach on Saturday with 1,123 career wins. Mike was tied with McKendree legend Harry Statham for the most wins in college basketball history. He  already had the most NCAA victories of any basketball coach, as a portion Statham’s 1,122 wins came in the NAIA (The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) a college athletics association for small colleges and universities), not the NCAA.

Kentucky dominated  #1 Tennessee 86-69 at Rupp Arena. I don’t pay much attention to polls but the last time I looked at the Coaches Polls,  #2 Duke only received 2 first place votes. Tennessee, which until tonight has played the easiest schedule of any top team received all the others—a little bit of coach’s envy?

Johnny Tar Heel mentioned he was surprised that Coach K had not employed the full court zone press more often this year as UCLA Coach John Wooden had done in 1964 & 1965 winning the first two of his ten NCAA Championships. We recalled that that he had only one tall (at that time) player, Keith Erickson, who was  6’4”, but a world class volleyball player, and very skilled, quick players, like Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich, who caused havoc with taller but less agile opponents. As a matter of fact, in the 1964 NCAA Finals, the Bruins zone press  was instrumental in beating the Jeff Mullin led Duke  98-83. His point was that the pressing defense played right into the strengths of both teams then and now.

Because of Zion Williams sensational athleticism and skill set plus his precocious teammates, this Duke team is the face of college basketball  both in person and on television. Tonight, Boxer Floyd Mayweather was sitting directly behind the Duke bench and next to former Blue Devils guard Quinn Cook. Among other NBA players in attendance was Minnesota’s Tyus Jones, the older brother of the current Duke point guard, Grayson Allen, Lance Thomas, Tyus Jones, Amile Jefferson, Quinn Cook and Gary Trent Jr., who have all played for Duke this decade, as well as Phoenix’s T.J. Warren, a Durham native and former N.C. State star. When asked about it, Williamson modestly commented: ”I think that’s just the Duke effect. You’ve got to understand, (Mike Krzyzewski) is the greatest coach of all time, so a lot of people want to just come and experience Cameron. We appreciate Floyd and especially the former players who came back, because you know, they’re part of the brotherhood.”

“As great a basketball player as he is, he’s a better person,” said Brennan Besser, a fourth-year Duke walk-on guard who graduated from Chicago’s Latin School. “I’ve seen a number of unbelievably talented players who are now in the NBA, and he is the first teammate to leverage his star power to create a more equitable space for everyone on the team. Zion does this in a number of ways: by including Buckmire, a little-used guard, in interviews. By giving teammates such as Besser a shout out in Duke-produced (“Duke Blue Planet”) videos. Duke recruits great players. A lot of times these guys are very basketball-centric. Zion is the most multidimensional player and friend that I’ve come across. It creates a culture where everybody feels loved. He does it because he’s a nice guy and he knows that if he were a walk-on, he’d want to be treated that way. He has that sixth sense. He cares about other people.”

Alan Adds: 

This 16 point win was a much better win than it seems on the surface.  On the surface, Duke won at home against a Wolfpack team that is not contending for the ACC title.  But, this was a situation where very good teams have lost.  Duke is playing a six game stretch that is beyond difficult.  Last week, the Devils had their two best wins of the season, beating UVA on the road and creating the “Comeback of the Year” on Louisville’s home court.  Both R.J. and Bolden were sick, and Coach K said his team was “tired”.

In those difficult circumstances, Duke’s lead was never less than 7 and was frequently in double figures.  Defensively, Duke gave up the lanes to stop the 3.  (State was 1-9 in the first half).  When Duke doubled onto the ball handler to drive him off the 3 point line, the roll man was open.  State was scoring with the roll man or the roll man making the next pass that enabled State to score 78 points.  Not a defensive gem in total, but many defensive gems – none better than Jack White chasing down an open fast break with a LeBron-like block from behind, racing full court.  Duke dominated the backboards, outrebounding State 44-26.  Barrett had 11 (9 defense); he has been a stalwart had deterring other teams offensive rebounding.  Bolden had 8 in 22 minutes; Cam had 7, while both Javin (in 13 minutes) and Zion (in 30), had 6.

You cannot complain about an offense that score 94 points (48 in the first half).  Duke played excellent half-court offense.  R.J. had a stat line for the ages (23 points; 10 assists and 11 boards).  He seemed to find Zion consistently – almost all of his 10 assists were to his roommate.  Coach K pointed out how young he is (reclassified; he could still be in high school), and how he is still so advanced.  R.J. won the national high school championship last year and is on the Canadian National Team (the only non-NBA player on it).  Zion picked up his fourth foul (again) with 12:50 left to play.  He did not return to the game until 6:18 remained.  Then, he scored 13 in those last minutes.  Other than some missed free throws in the second half, he was a beast for whom the Wolfpack had no answer.  He scored 32 points in 30 minutes of action (12-16; 0-1 from deep; and 8-13 from the line).  Four turnovers, but 3 steal (0 blocks).

The shot distribution is evening out: R.J. 17, Zion 16, Cam 15, and Tre 9.  Jack White was 3-4 in 14 minutes.  He may have broken out of his slump.  Cam was off (2-15; 1-7 from deep; 4-5 from the line).  He had a 4 point play early on his only made 3.  He played well; just did not shoot well.  Tre was wonderful with 5 assists and only 1 turnover.   He scored 13 (6-9; 1-3).  He had 2 steals.  The last one captured the spirit of this team in a play.  There were only a few seconds left in the game that Duke led by a lot, when Tre dived to create a steal and made a pass to Goldwire for the layup as the game ended.  I thought that play was what this team is about both on and off the court.  Jack King of Dukebasketballreport.com, wrote, “But no matter what happens on the court, these guys are the best representation of Duke basketball and what most of us would like it to be since Shane Battier graduated, and you just can’t pay a much higher compliment than that.”

UNC in Cameron on Wednesday at 9 pm (EST) on ESPN

Duke 72-  North Carolina 88 

 

 

 

On the first possession of the game, millions of people saw Zion Williamson slip into a split and go down clutching behind his right knee, then looked incredulously at his exposed left foot protruding from his exploded Nike sneaker– the game, the season, and, possibly, his career, flashed before everyone’s eyes. At the time, reaching for his MCL (Medial Collateral Ligament) not his ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) combined with the fact that he walked unassisted to the locker room with only a slight limp indicated, hopefully, that the injury was not as serious as first feared. This was somewhat confirmed after the game by Mike Krzyzewski stating that  Zion Williamson has a “mild knee sprain” and that his knee is “stable.” He did not yet know how long Williamson be out. However, a note of caution–the knee has yet to be thoroughly examined. But Zion remained in the locker room with his parents for the entire game and if the prognosis was serious, one would think he would have gone straight to the Duke Hospital.  No matter the case, there will be endless discussion about whether Zion should risk playing college basketball again. If he listens to Scotty Pippen advice, his career at Duke is over—why put your career at risk?

One way to explain what transpired for the next two hours is that Duke’s players were emotionally devastated by the seeing their seemingly indestructible superstar suddenly struck down. However, the blunt truth is that it made crystal clear that Zion means much more than just 25 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 4 steals (or whatever) to the team and without him, tonight they were are a shell of what they were with him. Barrett (33) and Reddish (27) aside, there was no offensive threat: Jones 1-11, Bolden 0-1,  White 0-5,  O’Connell 0-4  Goldwire 0-3. For whatever reason, these players did not step into the breach. Maybe, this is one of the weaknesses of relying on multiple one-and-done players. Maybe, the bench players are just not that good. At times, White and O’Connell have produced. Goldwire can play defense but he is an offensive liability. He is 1-23 for 3’s. Going forward, I am confident we will see a much more competitive Duke team than the one we saw tonight.

As they say in the service: “Sh*t happens. Deal with it!” The Blue Devils didn’t but Coach Williams and his  players did as we would expect—ruthlessly and efficiently. The Carolina Way carried the day—and looked terrific doing it. Ol’ Roy had his players ready to play and the two seniors, Luke May (30) and Cam Johnson(26)  surgically dissected what passed as a Duke defense.  Every time Duke mounted a mini-run at the deficit, they either self-destructed — a missed foul shot, a charge, a turnover or Carolina countered with the fundamentally solid basketball we have come to associate with them over these decades as evidenced by the stats– Duke had only 9 assists, a  season high 20 turnovers, and lost the rebounding battle 46-41. Actually, it could have been a lot worse. Carolina uncharacteristically only hit 2-20 (10%) from three point land but it didn’t matter because their surgical passing and solid fundamentals made them lethal in the paint.

Whatever the case, I am confident Coach K will have a game plan and a better prepared team until or if Zion returns. 

Miscellaneous Comments: 

While Zion is amazing, how many people blow out a sneaker? Admittedly, I am not fan of Nike shoes. I stopped wearing them decades ago after injuring my Achilles tendon playing tennis. Carlos, Boozer, Elton Brand, Ryan Kelly (2x), Seth Curry, Kyrie Irving, Emile Jefferson (2x), Zion Williamson  all have endured foot, heal, toe, ankle or knee injuries wearing Duke’s Nike shoes.

There had been rumors that the bidding for a Zion’s shoe contract would be over $100,000,000. Puma Basketball tweeted a snarky post (quickly deleted): “Never would have happened in Pumas.”

Celebrities were out in numbers: President Obama with his former aid and former Duke football/basketball player, Reggie Love, Spike Lee, Ken Griffey, Jr, Todd Gurley, Greg Olson. Tickets were scalped from $3,000 to $10,000—no refunds.

Alan Adds:

I am in Los Angeles and left for dinner (with my non basketball fan / hostess) right after the game, trying to keep a brave face in order to facilitate a pleasant evening.  My heart soared as I walked into the restaurant (with a TV over the bar) and saw the ESPN tape that had the words “mild sprain”.  The word “mild” salvaged what had been a nightmare of a game  to watch.  Coach K said, “We are drawing no conclusions from this game except that we lost.”  We have to figure out the plan for going forward without Zion; we do not know for how long.”  Carolina played superb basketball; best of the year.  I believe they would have beaten any team the way they played – passing, attacking the rim; stealing the ball (usually just after Duke had made a steal), aggressive on the glass, and defending.  Duke had NO ANSWERS.  But they do have a re-match left.

Coach K lauded his team for playing hard – especially in the last 16 minutes – though by then Duke was down 22.  Duke never reduced the lead significantly (down to 13 with a little over two minutes left to play was the closest the Devils got).  The offense relied on RJ, Cam, and going one-on-one.  But no other teammates stepped up to make it a team offense.  Tre was hustling and defending, but was not the scorer that Duke needed him to be.  Besides RJ and Cam, everyone else flamed out badly.  The defense was beyond horrible (though UNC’s offense deserves much credit).  The ‘Heels pounded the lane and finished consistently at the rim.

It is the only game so far that Duke was never competitive.  The shooting was horrible.  Duke was stuck on 17 (points scored) from 10:06 until only 5:24 remained in the first half.  With 2:12 left in the first half, Duke trailed by 9.  :41 seconds later, Duke had the ball, trailing by only 5.  R.J. missed an open 3 that would have cut the lead to 2 with 1:19 left.  But, he missed.  DeLaurier committed 2 fouls in 20 seconds and Cam turned it over that gave Carolina an easy deuce and a 10 point half time lead.

But the nightmare of a season ending knee injury to Zion is evaporating.  “Mild sprain”!  There are five regular season games remaining – Syracuse and Virginia Tech on the road are next, the last two games of “the gauntlet”.  Duke returns to Cameron for games against lesser teams – Miami and Wake – after running the 6 game gauntlet (so far 3-1).  The final game against UNC in Chapel Hill on March 9 assumes (at least in my mind) a much greater importance after last night’s spanking by UNC.

Duke, UVA and UNC are tied at the top of the ACC with 11-2 records.

Zion is out for a while.  NEXT PLAY.

 

Duke 75 – Syracuse 65

 

Mayday! Mayday!

Coming off the game against North Carolina in which Duke lost Zion Williamson and all the other Blue Devil players except Barrett, Reddish, and DeLaurier played like walk-ons, this game in front of a record 36,642 emotional fans was a test of nerve and resiliency. Most of us were confident that Coach K would have his team well prepared. He started Alex (AOC)* O’Connell for Zion (OMG) Williamson’s spot and DeLaurier, who had not started in a month but has played well in off the bench, for Marques Bolden, who has been inconsistent. OK, that makes sense. Then, what’s up with this?  Has Coach K morphed into Captain Queeg? His first substitutes where little used big man Antonio Vrankovic and presumed red shirt Joey Baker, who has not played a minute in a real game this year. That didn’t last long. If you blinked you missed their cameos. Co-Captain Jack White, who played so well for the first month of the season but who has missed 25 straight threes, never left the bench and Marques Bolden didn’t either until deep into the second half. He apparently got the message, because Marques was magnificent in his ten minutes down the stretch with 8 rebounds and 4 points. DeLaurier, whose athleticism, quickness, and fight are his strengths, and Bolden combined for 15 rebounds, as Duke edged Syracuse on the boards 44-40.

Patiently, almost casually, as is his style, RJ Barrett carried the team with 30 points, 17 of which were in first half when he had little offensive help, 5 rebounds, & 7 assists. Reddish shot was again on vacation (5 pts) but his defense was not. Tre guarded Syracuse’s much bigger  Battle, who had 16 points but was only 4-of-17 from the field. And while Tre hit his first three pointer, then missed his next 5 but recovered to go 6-6 from the free throw line when the game was on the line. Fortunately, it was Alex O’Connell who stepped up big time with 20 points (17 in the second half) to play Robin to RJ’s Batman as Duke outscored Syracuse 46-31 in the second twenty minutes. It was not a flawless performance but it was a gutsy, critical one.

At half time, Alan reminded me that Duke was a second half team, often because of Coach K’s halftime adjustments. Both Carolina and Syracuse dared a reluctant Tre Jones to shoot a three from too top of the key. So, to start the half, Coach had Tre rather than R.J. flash from the side to the high post. Tre is obviously much more comfortable with that shot and once he made a few of those, the zone started to collapse. It helped open up AOC, who  was primed to shoot. Once that was established, RJ was able to do more work in the soft interior of the Syracuse zone. It also helped that all the players remembered that quick ball movement combined with ball fakes is the best way to beat a zone. The Blue Devils had 13 turnovers. There were a half-dozen lobs that normally would’ve gone to Zion for dunks that instead were misfires. Those are great passes when Zion is playing, not so much when he is not.

Krzyzewski cited two key sequences in the second half. The first came with Duke down 43-41, about five minutes into the half. DeLaurier dug out a couple of tough balls from an offensive rebound scrum, eventually finding O’Connell open in the corner. AOC buried the three, drew a foul and completed the four-point play. Syracuse tied it at 50 but never again led. The second came with Duke up 58-56. With only two seconds left on the shot clock, Barrett somehow created space with a ball fake and hit the three-pointer.

Miscellaneous Comments: 

  • Talking to Johnny Tar Heel after the game, he said that he has always admired Coach K’s ability to identify a hot player—think Andre Dawkins and Grayson Allen—but often wondered why he has not played Alex O’Connell more. His assessment is that Alex has too many skills, especially scoring the ball, not to be a valuable sixth or seventh man this year and a star next year. He just need minutes to get experience and confidence. I said that apparently it is his defense—and you know how coach is: If you do not play solid defense, you don’t play. “Well, that’s fine,” he replied, “but you all are by far the worst three point shooting team in virtually all of Division I basketball—some of your guys can’t hit the ocean from a boat–  and it could cost you the Championship. Besides, I’ll trade threes for twos all day long.” We finally agreed it was probably AOC finally settling on a military style haircut that got him on the floor.
  • Speaking of shooting, Duke has become a pretty good free throw shooting team. Tonight, they were 14-16 and are now shooting 70% for the season.
  • I don’t have any inside information and I do not want to start any rumors, but one possible reason the decision was made to blow Joey Bakers red shirt year is that watching Zion walk off the floor, he appeared to be favoring his right leg, so he may be out longer than a game or two. In any event, to run the table Duke has to score better from three point land and Baker is one of their best shooters.
  • When asked if he wanted to make the trip to Syracuse, Zion said: “Of course I do. I want to be with my guys.” 
  • Duke is always a huge draw on the road. Tonight’s game was played before a crowd of 35,642, which established a new record for the largest attendance for an on-campus NCAA college basketball game.
  • *AOC = Alex O’Connell. Not to be confused with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the congressperson from New York’s 14th congressional district.

Alan Adds:

I am ecstatic over Duke’s performance last night in circumstances that could easily have produced a second straight loss while Duke is playing without Zion.  This was as good a coaching job as Coach K has produced in his Hall of Fame career.  The circumstances were daunting.  First, and perhaps foremost, the emotional support for Coach Boeheim after his innocent involvement in the fatal traffic accident had the arena and the Orangemen on an even higher emotional plane than the normally high emotional plane for this encounter.  Second, (but also maybe foremost), Duke totally collapsed last Wednesday on both ends of the floor against Carolina after Zion’s injury took him out of that game.  Coach K said that Thursday was one of the worst 24 hours of his Duke career.  Zion’s injury produced an avalanche of sports news and commentary that focused on the whole issue of amateurism in college revenue sports and the role of the shoe companies and player exploitation.  His team had been, in his words, totally knocked back.  He spoke with each of the players individually and with the 3 freshmen stars collectively.

Difficult circumstances.

In that difficult situation, what is beyond remarkable is this post-Zion team found its own identity in the second half.  After stumbling through the UNC game and the first half against Syracuse (only 29 points, and being destroyed off the backboard), Duke regrouped and became Duke again, scoring 46 points and holding Syracuse to 31 while regaining control of both backboards.  In the first half, Duke hung around because R.J. Barrett was All-World.  He scored 17 (8-11; 1-2 from deep) of Duke’s 29 points. but got no help on offense — Javin had 4 (1-3), Tre (1-6; 1-5 from deep) and Alex (1-2 from deep) each scored 3, while Cam was held to 2 (1-7; 0-5 from deep). Duke defended well … until Syracuse missed the first shot.  Syracuse’s lead was built almost exclusively on second chance points after Orange retrieved offensive rebounds.  Javin played 15 minutes; Bolden only 2.  Coach K put Vrankovik in for 3 minutes to help off the defensive board.  He also played Joey Baker hoping to give Duke some outside shooting.  Nada.

Let’s talk about the second half where this team forged its new identity.  R.J., Alex, Tre and Cam each played all 20 minutes.  Javin logged 12 minutes (committing 4 fouls, grabbing 4 boards and scoring a point on 0-2; and 1-2 from the line), while Bolden came alive in the final minutes grabbing 7 rebounds in his 8 minutes; 6 of them in the final 6 minutes of the game, where he turned into a star.  He was also 1-1 on a key dunk and 2-2 from the line at game’s end for 4 points.  The team found its identity because everyone contributed, but nobody contributed more than Alex O’Connell.  Alex scored 17 second half points to lead Duke (5-7; 4-6 from deep; and a critical 3-3 from the line) to go with 3 rebounds and a steal.  Coach K said he was also instrumental in Duke defense.  He helped hold Howard scoreless in the second half even though Howard played 16 minutes.  Battle, who destroyed Duke in Durham was held in check by Tre’s ferocious defense.  RJ, who usually guards on the perimeter played superb interior defense, guarding Brissett, who scored only 7.  K rightly deemed RJ’s performance as “spectacular”.  He scored 13 in the final stanza (6-9; 1-3 from deep).  That 3 was critical with the shot clock winding down.  He also dished out 5 assists and got 3 tough rebounds.  Alex was absolutely superb. By far his finest game at Duke. Tre added 8 points (1-6 from the field, but 6-6 from the line).  Alex, RJ and Tre scored 38 of Duke’s 46 second half points.  While Cam had a terrible offensive game (2-11; 1-8 from deep) for 5 points, he was a very valuable contributor.  He played all 40 minutes, grabbing 7 boards and playing absolutely phenomenal defense. RJ and Cam protected Duke’s defensive board in the second half.  Bolden went wild on the boards down the stretch and ended up leading Duke in rebounding in only 10 minutes with 8.

With 15:15 left in the game, Duke took its first lead – 44-43 on Alex’s 4 point play.  Syracuse never led again, though the score was tied at 50 with 12:46 left before Duke began to slowly pull away.  Duke led by 1 with 10:29 left when the Devil’s run started.  Alex hit a 3; RJ hit a jumper before the Orange scored.  Hughes made two free throws, cutting the lead to 58-56 with 6:43 left when Bolden entered the game and changed it by dominating the boards.  R.J. hit his clutch 3; Alex stole the ball for a dunk; and Tre fed R.J. for a dunk that gave Duke a 9 point lead (65-56) with 4:19 left.  Battle made 2 free throws to cut the lead to 7 with just under 3 minutes left.  Then, Bolden made his play of the game after grabbing a slew of rebounds.  With two minutes left, he grabbed an offensive rebound got the ball to Barrett, who got it back to Bolden for the dunk that locked up the game.  In the last two minutes, Duke preserved its lead by hitting its last 8 foul shots – 4 by Tre; 2 by Alex and 2 by Bolden.

It was a very significant win for Duke under adverse conditions.  Players and Coaches should justifiably feel pride in this accomplishment.

 

Duke 72- Virginia Tech 77 

You could feel this coming since the last thirty-nine minutes of the North Carolina game. As talented as Duke’s freshmen are and as hard as every player competes, it is crystal clear that the team and the role players had some weaknesses—shooting threes, free throws, and defensively– that Zion Williamson’s transcendental talents obscured and the grind of a long campaign has magnified. With Zion on the floor, the team is +13, when he is not on the floor, they are +3.  For instance, Kerry Blackshear, a multi-talented center, was the difference tonight. But with Zion in the game, there is no way he goes 7-11 for 23 points and 10 rebounds. However, this loss should come as no surprise. It is the third consecutive Virginia Tech win over Duke in Blacksburg.

Gonzaga, Syracuse, and especially Carolina showed opponents how to play Duke. Drop a defender off Tre Jones, who appears to be running on fumes and is not the defensive lynchpin and disrupter he was earlier in the season, daring him to shoot, jam the lane, and double RJ and Reddish. Marquis-DeLaurier combine for flexibility at center. Tonight, they had 15 pts, 6 rebs, 3 blks against a lethal center and blocked out well enough for Duke to hold their own on the boards (29-28). However, uncharacteristically, the Devils had 12 turnovers and allowed 6 steals—that’s not Duke basketball. RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish  combined for 38 points but Bolden was the only other player in double figures. To their credit, the team has become a decent free throw shooting team that is no longer leaving a lot of those points off the board but they are still inconsistently subpar scoring threes. In this day and age, that is a lot to overcome.

Usually, at this time of the season, Duke’s rotation and roles are clearly defined. Zion’s injury combined with co-captain Jack White’s sudden inability to shoot a three accurately apparently scrambled that. Jack can play defense but has not hit a three point shot in the month of February. Alex O’Connell is the best three point shooter on the team but is vulnerable defensively. He was invaluable in the comeback against Syracuse but was in and out of the lineup tonight and only scored 6 points (on two shots). If you blinked, you missed former red shirt freshman Joey Baker’s one minute cameo.

It was amazing that Duke was still in the game until Ty Outlaw drilled an wide open  3-pointer from the corner with 1:20 left. Congratulations to Virginia Tech. They are a talented, veteran team with few weaknesses, playing without their injured, talented point guard, and were ahead most of the way. They certainly deserved the win.

On top of everything else, RJ Barrett, who was suffering from a stomach virus, only had four first half points but after getting sick at halftime, recovered for a stellar second half performance. It is not inaccurate to point out that given the brutal stretch of schedule  for Duke, multiple Saturday, away Tuesday games, this  the only away game they have lost all season. Beyond  Zion’s availability, the question is: Can the team—and I think Tre Jones’ defense may be the key to this– recover and play their best basketball for the tournament runs. The game with  North Carolina, which is playing their best basketball, in Chapel Hill will certainly be a good indication.

Alan Adds:

The Gauntlet finally got Duke!  The six games that Duke would play from February 9 to February 26 – four of them on the road (against 3 ranked teams) + UNC and NC State at home plus last night final gauntlet game, constitute the gauntlet context.  It is within that context that the loss to the Hokies needs to be analyzed.  The pundits agreed that no team had faced such a gauntlet this year, and maybe not ever.  Duke was superb in the first 3 games of the gauntlet, scoring significant wins at UVA and at Louisville (The Comeback) before beating NC State at home.  The Devils were on an amazing roll until 33 seconds into the Carolina game.  Not only was Zion lost for the remainder of the gauntlet, but the publicity surrounding the injury, Nike reputation, amateurism in college sports, and the fact that the team had just been blown out in disarray after Zion’s injury made for an unprecedented difficulty in an already tough situation.  This Duke team (without Zion) found its identity and played a superb second half to take down Syracuse on the road in the fifth gauntlet game.  Then came last night – the final gauntlet game in what has historically been a uniquely difficult venue for Duke.  The Blue Devils were the only team in the country that was undefeated in true road games before losing last night.

Kudos go to Buzz Williams and his Hokies.  Williams had his team ready to play Duke with a great game plan.  He was willing to give up corner 3s in order to keep Duke out of the lane.  When Tre (1-4) and Jack White (0-3; what a disastrous shooting slump) could not make the corner 3, Duke’s offense was in trouble.   Add R.J.’s 1-6 from deep, and Buzz’s strategy was successful.  The Hokie offense depended on good ball handling and an unstoppable Blackshear in deep.   So what follows is not meant to deprive Virginia Tech of credit for playing a great game.  Duke did not lose so much as Virginia Tech won.  Duke played hard and fought back all night.  Duke tied the game on a superb dunk by Bolden at 70 with 1:51 left.   Outlaw hit a wide open 3 when Alex left him wide open, ostensibly to help down low if the ball went to Blackshear.  It is that kind of defensive mistake that has limited Alex’s minutes in spite of his being the best long range shooter on the team.  Twenty seconds later, Cam had a wide open 3 to tie, but he missed.  The game was that close.

However, in my judgment, the gauntlet had taken its toll.  Duke seemed tired to me.  The tell-tale stat is how few turnovers the defense forced; how few deflections Duke caused (compared to their normal games).  There was just a spring in the step that seemed a split second delayed.  I thought that showed in the second half when Duke began fouling at an alarming rate.  Duke committed only 5 fouls in the first half; 14 in the second half.  The Hokies won the game from the free throw line in the closing stanza going 16-19 (23-29 for the game).  Not only did Duke fail to force turnovers, as it has done all season, but Duke also turned the ball over (one more turnover than assist).  Tre had 3 and shot 3-9 from the floor.  He looks worn out to me.  Duke needs his shooting – especially with Zion out.  Teams are allowing him open looks, which he has to start making.  He was a good shooter in high school last year.  Being worn out may be the reason he is missing open shots.

The Gauntlet is now behind Duke, and though Duke lost 2 of the 6 (2-3 without Zion), both Coach K and I think the team was heroic in this stretch.  Duke finally comes home for rejuvenation – Miami on Saturday (March 2) and Wake next Tuesday (March 5) before the season finale in Chapel Hill on March 9.  Duke is now in third place in the conference, and unless someone beats UVA (and Duke beats UNC on the road), there will be no regular season ACC championship this year.   Still the UNC game looms very large after the humiliation Duke suffered at Cameron.

And there still are a couple of tournaments coming up that should hold our interest.

Duke 87 – Miami 57 

Captain Jack’s back !!!  Freshmen celebrate co-captain Jack White’s three.

There is nothing like being back home in familiar surroundings, sleeping in your own bed, and playing an overmatched opponent in front of the Cameron Crazies to find that winning feeling. The Blue Devils mojo was working so well that Jack  White not only ended his streak of 28 consecutive missed 3-point shots dating all the way back to Jan. 12, but he also actually hit three in a row. (Before his mysterious slump, Jack was the most accurate three point shooter on the team.) However, it was the defense led by Tre Jones (6 steals, 6 pts, 6 assists) on Cris Lykes (1-5, 4 pts, 4 to’s), one of the leading scorers in the ACC, who torched us last year that energized the offense by disrupting the Hurricane offense and creating open court opportunities for the Devils. In addition, the half-court offense was effective as both BJ and Cam spelled Tre Jones at the point and that led to balanced scoring (19-19-15-11-9-6-6). Bolden and O’Connor appear to have benefited from Zion’s absence as they are both are playing with much more confidence. And that’s important because, as RJ said: “We’re waiting for him to come back, but meanwhile we’ve got to figure out how to win games.”

And on Zion Williamson’s return, Mike Krzyzewski offered the same glass-half-full, glass-half-empty explanations we’ve had since Zion  injured his knee. There was never a chance he was going to play today. He’s getting better and moving well. It’s still a question of when, not if. But he hasn’t practiced yet, there are no time pressures, and Duke isn’t going to play him until he’s one hundred percent.

Miami Head Coach Jim Larranaga a very good coach. However, his cupboard is rather bare this year and  this was the worst defeat in his tenure at Miami.  “That was a disappointing performance for us. I thought Duke played really well, their pressure defense really bothered us from the start.” On whether the team was overwhelmed: “I hadn’t seen that before. We’ve played at Syracuse, at Carolina, at Louisville, and we were fine, but here, I don’t know if we were just too jacked up or what, but we couldn’t make simple plays and it ended up a disaster.”

Alan Adds:

Miami is just not a very good basketball team.  We were privileged to watch a very good basketball team explode in the first half on an inferior team in a fashion so dramatic as to take our Devilish breath away.  Duke had been rocked by the Virginia Tech loss, the final gauntlet game, where the Blue Devils appeared to me to be exhausted.  The loss probably cost Duke a chance at the regular season ACC title, and – this is true – perhaps a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament.  If Duke loses to UNC on March 9 and does not win the ACC tournament, Gonzaga, UVA, UNC, Kentucky/and or Tennessee (whoever wins the SEC tournament) will be the top seeds.  But Duke finally got a chance to practice and make a game plan that did not include Zion.  If Duke can play like this against top competition, it won’t matter what the seeding is.

Krzyzewski credited the defense and time to practice.  “We finally had some practice. We had two really good days of practice, especially our defense. Our defense was outstanding. Everyone helped us. However, Tre’s defense of Lykes was the starting point. We scored on defense. We had transition and it lent itself to guys getting shots. Overall, it was the defense that set the tone.”

The tone was set in a first half where Duke played an almost perfect game.  Duke led 47-19 at the close of the first stanza, and put together a final 8 and a half minutes that were absolutely pure, outscoring the ‘Canes 29-8.  With 8:18 left in the half, and Duke’s lead at 18-11, the onslaught began.  Duke’s defense triggered steals, while  the team moved the ball as if it were a ballet company.  RJ had 4 assists, Tre had 3 and Reddish 2 in that brief period.  Tre had 4 steals in that stretch.  The first one led to an RJ bucket, assisted by Reddish.  Tre stole the ball and fed (an assist) O’Connell for a layup. Alex followed the layup with a three assisted by Tre.  Reddish hit a three with an assist from RJ.  Alex hit another 3 with another assist from Tre.  RJ scored on a drive and followed that with a nifty pass to Bolden for a dunk.  Tre stole the ball, passed to RJ, who fed Bolden for another deuce.  Along the way RJ made 4 free throws and Cam made two.  Tre got another steal, and Reddish got another assist when he fed Bolden for a bucket.  Then, Reddish dropped yet another 3 point bomb off a nifty assist from RJ. The 28th and 29th points came on an RJ layup after Bolden hauled in another rebound to close out a brilliant half and an almost perfect 8 and a half minute stretch.  Miami scored only 8 points in that stretch and only 19 in the entire half.  No wonder Coach K lauded the defense.

Human nature eroded Duke’s defense somewhat in the second half, but Duke’s lead never dipped below 21 and got as high as 32.  Let’s look more closely at the delicious first half, where the starters logged virtually all the minutes.  There were cameos by Baker (1 minute) and Goldwire (2 minutes).  The co-captains made only brief appearances – White (4 minutes and his first 3 pointer since late January) and DeLaurier (5 minutes, 2 rebounds, a block but he committed 2 fouls in that five minutes).  Otherwise it was all the starters – Tre, RJ, and Cam each played 19 minutes.  Alex logged 16 while Bolden played 15 scintillating minutes (his best of the season, I thought).  Alex and Marquis were a combined 8-10 (Alex was 4-5; 1-2 from 3land with 3 boards; Marquis was 4-6 – including a missed 3; what was he thinking? – to go with 5 rebounds and 2 steals).  Each scored 9 first half points.  That is outstanding support from the role players.  Tre didn’t score in the first half, but neither did Lykes, who was absolutely hounded by Tre into 0-8 shooting and 3 turnovers.  RJ and Cam each scored 13 first half points.  RJ was 5-10; 0-2 from deep; and 3-4 from the line to go with 5 rebounds and 5 assists.  Critically, he played point forward, who started the offense at the top with the ball (the role usually played by Tre).  It was an interesting change, perhaps forced by Tre’s shooting woes, the desire to let him spend his energy on the defense of Lykes, and/or by R.J.’s superior ability to penetrate where he can either score or dish.  It is hard for anyone to play a better game than RJ did in the first half against Miami.  Cam was almost as good.  He made one spin move and drive for a layup that no one – but no one — else on the court had the capability of executing.  You got an idea of just how good Cam can be.  He was 4-8; 2-4 from deep with his only ding being 3 missed free throws – 3-6.  He had 3 boards, 2 assists and a block.

The Miami game was just what the doctor ordered for the Blue Devils as the team revived after running the six game gauntlet – without Zion for four of them.  Hopefully, Wake (having a truly dismal season) will cooperate on Senior Night next Tuesday.

After that, the games that will end up defining this fascinating season will begin with the regular season finale against UNC before it is tournament time.

Duke 71 –  Wake Forest 70

This was Senior Night in Cameron but Duke played like freshmen and did just about everything they could to lose the game including, but not limited to, stepping onto the court with the ball after a made basket with 7 seconds to go for a turnover that handed Wake a last point blank shot which danced around the rim and defied gravity by not falling in for the upset of the year. Except for the three minute rally from ten points down with sixteen minutes to go to tie the score, the Blue Devils were less than impressive especially when they had the opportunity to decisively put Wake away. We have commented all year about foul shooting being their Achilles Heel that could cost them dearly. Well, tonight it almost did. RJ Barrett’s 28 points carried a sluggish offense all night but he missed 8 free throws, 3 in the last minute, as well as committing 7 turnovers. Except for two second half threes, Cam Reddish was rendered a non-factor. He accomplished something you rarely see—committing three charging fouls in the first half. With Zion out, Cam is the second option but must be on the floor. Only Tre Jones (13pt. 8reb. 3stl.) hitting all four of his free throws down the stretch and co-captain Jack White, who hit 3 threes and had 9 rebounds, but made the careless turnover in the last 7 seconds that almost handed the game to the Demon Deacons on a silver platter, brought much intensity to the floor.

As Johnny Tar Heel reminded me after the game, Alex O’Connell contributed two critical three point plays—one the old fashion way—down the stretch.

Bolden left the game early in the second half with a leg injury. Jones went the locker room briefly in the second half with a right thigh injury but returned.

The less I write about this game, the happier I am.

Observations: 

Without Zion, this Duke team is a pretender not a contender. Forget the +12 stat, he is easily worth another 10 for the intimidation and OMG factor.  As for when he returns, my guess is: Not against North Carolina but rather working him back in during the ACC Tournament so that he and the team is primed for the NCAA run.

Alan Adds: 

Let’s start by acknowledging that Wake played better than it has at any time this year.  The Deacons have a terrible record and the program is in shambles.  So, Wake comes to Cameron and plays the game of its season.  They did not play like a team with a poor record.  They were damn good.  Coach K: “We thought it would be easier.  When it wasn’t, we are not old enough, and this group (without Zion) has not played together enough” to handle it.  “We are not there yet.”  Coach K said Duke was fortunate on the last play but not fortunate to win.  That he said was earned.  I’m not so sure.  Surely, as the Coach conceded, “nobody played well in the beginning.”  Nobody except R.J.  He was Duke’s whole offense in the first half – 15 points (6-11; 0-2; 3-5 from the line) in the full 20 minutes.  Jack White added 8 points in 13 first half minutes, but they are somewhat illusory.  He was 2-4 from deep, but his second was a lucky shot off the backboard. He missed two shots from in close (2-6 and 2-2 from the line) to go with a team leading 5 boards.  Cam failed to score in his foul plagued 8 minutes.

The second half is where the game took shape.  The Duke malaise continued until with 16:20 to go, Duke trailed by 10 and called time out.  From that point, Coach K said Duke played extremely hard and better than the Deacons.  It’s just that good shots did not go down.  Duke roared back to tie the game at 49 with 13:47 left.  The game see-sawed with the largest lead for either team being 2, and the game being tied 4 times in that 9 minute span, the last time at 62 with 4:34 left.  Then Alex hit what both Bill and I think was the shot of the game – an open 3 from the corner with 3:38 left.  Tre, who bumped knees and had to leave the game with 6:56 remaining, returned with 3:15 left.  He was Duke’s best player from there to the end.  He was fouled on a drive and converted both free throws – Duke 67; Wake 62.  With 2:06, remaining, R.J. was fouled and had a chance to give Duke a 3 possession lead, but instead missed both free throws, which is like a turnover.  After a Childress jumper cut the lead to 3 with 1:48 left, R.J. drove the lane for a great bucket, but failed to convert the 3 point play when he missed yet another free throw (4 in a row at crunch time).  69-64 with 1:26 left.  DeLaurier fouled Brown who made both.  69-66 with 1:16 left.  R.J. turned it over with a wild pass with 1:02 remaining.  With 44 seconds left, Duke could not get a defensive rebound. Wake grabbed three offensive boards– Wright and Brown 2.  He was fouled after grabbing the second one and made both free throws.  69-68 with 31 seconds left.  With 17 seconds remaining, R.J. made a fabulous layup for Duke’s final points.  71-68.  White and Goldwire replaced Alex and DeLaurier and Duke called time out to set up its defense.  That clearly did not work as Childress drove for a virtually uncontested layup with 7 seconds left.  Then came White’s “inexcusable” (Coach K’s word) gaff ,giving the ball back to Wake for the final miss.  I’m not so sure that Duke deserved to win.  I am sure it was a gallant but heart breaking effort by Wake.

Zion – he did his first basketball workout before the game.  Coach K said he did not think Zion would play against UNC, but would make the official announcement on Friday.  He does expect Zion back for the ACC tournament.

The Stars

I though R.J. simply got tired at the end.  He carried the team for so much of the game (playing all 40 minutes), but committed bad turnovers and missed free throws down the stretch.  Still, as Coach K correctly assessed, “Without him we were nowhere.”  Cam made 2 important 3s in the second half, but had a terrible game.  He did play 18 second half minutes (26 for the game) making only 2 from behind the arc: (2-9; 2-6 from deep) without getting to the line or recording a block, steal or assist.  He turned it over 3 times.  These are not the stats of an NBA lottery pick.

The Bigs

Bolden had a good first half (4 points; 4 boards and 2 blocks in 16 minutes) but was apparently injured toward the end of the first half.  Coach K was weird about it. He said it was something like a hip pointer, but he also said that Bolden could have gone back in the game (he did but only for 2 minutes, grabbing one board).  However, he thought DeLaurier and White were better defenders on the perimeter since Wake was playing 5 out.  In 17 minutes, Javin was 1-1 from the field and 1-2 from the line.  3 points; 3 fouls, a turnover and 2 boards.  White had all of his points in the first half (0-4; 0-1 from deep) but had 5 second half rebounds in 8 minutes.

The guards

Coach K acknowledged Goldwire’s contributions on defense though he did not take a shot or score in 13 minutes. Alex played well, logging 26 minutes, scoring 9 and coming up with 4 boards.  His two 3 point plays in the second half were big.

Tre

Which brings me to Tre, who was tremendous.  He shut Childress down in the first half and supplied scoring in the second half – 8 in the second stanza; 13 for the game (4-8; 1-1 from deep; 4-4 from the line to go with 8 rebounds (for a guard), 3 assists and 3 steals.  His return to the game after missing 4 minutes with his knee injury sparked Duke.  As Coach K said after the game, “he is just a winner.”

Next Play

The UNC game will be interesting – a different kind of interesting depending on whether or not Zion plays.  Duke can win the ACC regular season by beating UNC if Virginia falls to Louisville in Charlottesville.  Unlikely.  Last game of the regular season..

 

Duke 70 – North Carolina 79 

I was not optimistic about Duke’s chances tonight. Carolina was playing at home on an impressive 14-1 roll and, without Zion Williamson, Duke has been an unbalanced, vulnerable team. I was just hoping no one would be injured. Then, the Carolina Curse hit for the second time this season as Bolden went down with a sprained MCL. Nevertheless, Duke, led by Cam Reddish at his best, was up two at the half. I texted Johnny JTH that we can’t play much better but Carolina can. Right on Que, Carolina started the second half with a 12-2 run and, although Duke made a late run to cut a fifteen point deficit to five, the Blue Devils did not have enough octane or gas left in the tank to pull off a Louisville-type upset.

Barrett and Reddish, who cooled off dramatically in the second half, combined for 49 points on 50 shots and, tellingly, were Duke’s only double-digit scorers. North Carolina’s Kenny Williams drew four offensive fouls, three of which were committed by RJ. Duke and North Carolina each had 48 rebounds. But Carolina had a 22-11 edge on second-chance points. Barrett (12), DeLaurier (10), Luke Maye (16) and Cam Johnson (10) all had double-figure rebounds. However, Duke shot 25-73 (34%), 8-32 on 3’s (25%). Those stats won’t win games many games.

You have to congratulate Coach Williams and his players. Led by seniors Maye, Williams, Johnson, freshman sensation Cobie White, and a productive bench, they have overcome a stumbling start to become a very formidable contender—and this is not the first time Ol’ Roy and his staff have pulled this off.

Can Duke hit the reset button and also become a contender? Time is running out but at tournament time anything can happen. A healthy Zion Williamson is a game changer. However, the complimentary players have to produce. Tonight, DeLaurier did not foul out, nearly had a double/double to go with four blocks and played the best game of his career. However, the stage seemed too big for a disappointing Alex O’Connell and while Jack White was a tough defender, he was 1-6 from the field. If, and this is a big if, Duke can hit just in the mid thirties from three point land, keep shooting in the 70’s from the line, and quit getting in foul trouble with charging fouls, they have a shot. If not, probably not. Consider this: When Maye, Williams, Johnson  were freshmen, they were getting few minutes off the bench. Right now, they are the core of the Carolina team. Experience and time in a program matters (ref. Virginia & Villanova). The bottom line: Duke has more lottery draft picks. North Carolina has a deeper, more diverse, more experienced, and better team. However, tournament time is a heartless one-and-done affair. Hot teams can go cold and cold teams can get hot. Just ask Virginia.

Other Observations: 

  • Duke matches up better against Virginia than Gonzaga or North Carolina.
  • White, who has a 3.38 GPA, was  recognized as an Academic All-American. This marks the 25th consecutive season Duke has had at least one selection to the All-ACC Academic Team, and White is Duke’s 94th all-time selection.
  • A sad note: Debbie Jones, mother of Tre and Tyus, has been diagnosed with breast cancer. 

Alan Adds:

Duke opens its pursuit of tournament titles next Thursday at 9:00 EDT as a result of the double bye (#3 seed) into the quarterfinals.  The winner of BC-Pitt will play Syracuse for a quarterfinal berth against the Blue Devils.  The expectations are that Zion will be in Duke’s starting lineup for that game, however that is not yet a certainty.  Zion returns to full five on five practice on Monday.  How he handles the three days of practice will be determinative.  Meanwhile, Louisville will play the winner of the Georgia Tech-Notre Dame game for the right to fact the heavily favored Tarheels in the quarterfinals.  If the heavily favored Devils prevail in the quarterfinals (they would be favored even without Zion), there will, in all likelihood, a third matchup with Carolina (but the first where Zion plays) on Friday at 9:00 p.m.  That will be the game of the season…up to that point.  A Duke win will signify that the reset button has been successfully pushed.  A third loss to Carolina would be deflating, push Duke out of a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and leave everything up to the NCAA tournament result to assess the season.  That semi-final game actually dwarfs the championship game for either Duke or UNC (when the winner would likely face UVA at 8:30 on Saturday night).

I have been telling Bill all year that UVA is the best team in the country.  They tied for the ACC regular season title (beat UNC at home), losing only to Duke.  They are my predication to win both tournaments.  Last year’s dramatic flame out as the first #1 seed to lose to a # 16 seed is a motivating factor.  Coach K pointed out what a power conference the ACC has been this year.  Three teams competing for a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament; 4 teams with 25 or more wins is impressive.

OK, I will now face the depressing task of assessing last night’s performance against an excellent UNC team.  It was a tale of two halves – they were so different.  Duke played an excellent first half, marred only by lazy transition defense (especially after Duke scored), and R.J.’s 3 fouls (on charges).  Marquis’s injury came as he tried to catch up to a streaking Tarheel after a made Duke basket.  R.J. was “held” to 9 points (4-10; but 0-3 from deep; 1-1 from the stripe) to go with 4 boards and 3 assists (2 turnovers).  Cam was the star of the first half, scoring 17 points on a variety of breathtaking moves and outside shooting (5-11; 3-6; 4-4 from the line).  He and R.J. took 21 of Duke’s 34 shots and scored 26 of Duke’s 40 points.  Tre had a superb first half (3-5 on 2 acrobatic drives and a neat pullup) to go with 4 rebounds (tied with R.J. and Javin for team lead), 3 assists and a steal.  Javin picked up any slack from Marquis’s injury, logging 11 minutes and scoring 8 on 4-4 at the rim, a block and those 4 rebounds.  That was all the players who scored for Duke.  Alex was 0-3 in 13 minutes while White was 0-1 in 11 minutes (3 boards and an assist).  Goldwire spelled Alex for 5 minutes without attempting to score.  Duke scored 40 points on 47% shooting, despite a terrible 3-12 from deep.  Alex and R.J. were 0-3; Cam a 50% 3-6.  However, it all turned around on Duke in the second half when R.J. was gallant, but Cam, Tre, and Javin disappeared (on offense).  Leaving aside R.J.’s gallantry – 17 points (6-17; 4-8 from deep and  1-2 from the foul line), while grabbing 8 second half rebounds and not fouling out in his full 20 minutes after 3 first half fouls — the rest of the team was a horrible 3-22 (1-12 from deep) and a horrifying 58% from the line (7-12).  Alex played only  5 minutes in the second half, missing his only shot and otherwise failing to notch a statistic.  Cam’s regression was dramatic (1-12; 0-6 from deep; 4-6 from the stripe in the full 20 minutes).  NBA lottery?  Javin played a great floor game – 6 boards and 3 blocks in 17 minutes, while committing only 2 fouls — but he did not attempt a shot and missed both free throws.  Tre made 1 of his 3 point attempts (1-4 from the field without getting to the line).  His opposing point guard led Carolina’s second half scoring with 14 (on 12 shots).  Finally, Jack White played 18 minutes, grabbing 6 boards,  blocking a shot, and made both free throws, but was only 1-5 from the field and 0-2 from deep.

Still Duke fought back from a 15 point deficit to down 5 with 2:19 to go on a Barrett 3.  Duke got a stop.  But R.J. missed.  Javin stepped up and blocked a shot and secured the rebound.  R.J. missed from 3 with 56 seconds left and that was Duke’s last gasp.  In short, even though Duke shot terribly (23% in the second half for example), was missing the inside presence of Zion and Marquis, this team displayed unmistakable heart.  That is the best takeaway going into tournament season.

Duke 84 – Syracuse 72

He’s Baaaaack! Better than ever!

With 21 points, 9 rebounds, 5 steals and 4 highlight-reel dunks, Zion (OMG) Williamson answered all the questions about whether he was fully healthy and ready to play —and that was just in the first half!  However, the puzzling question remains why the rest of the team except for RJ Barrett (23 points, 6 rebounds) was not ready as they were sloppy (18 turnovers) and allowed a scrappy Syracuse team playing without their best player but with Frank Howard’s 28 points almost single-handedly carrying the offense to stay so close for so long. Interestingly enough, it was little used Jordan Goldwire, overlooked Javin DeLaurier (8 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 fouls) and poor shooting Trey Jones (15 points and 8 assists) who made the plays at critical times midway through the second half that give the Blue Devils separation and then protect and expand  the lead by hitting free throws. After Javin DeLaurier hit a pair of free throws and Jordan Goldwire forced a steal and converted an old-fashioned 3-point play to stretch the lead back to six. Jones (15 pts, 8 assists)  hit a triple, a pair of free throws, and drew a charge to get Duke back ahead by double digits.

Tre Jones spent the first 25 minutes as a facilitator. But with Reddish in foul trouble and no one other than Williamson and Barrett providing offense, Jones started looking for his shot and playing offense more like his brother Ty—especially going 8 for 8 from the line. “My teammates kept believing in me, coaches kept believing in me as well, kept telling me to take my shot when it comes, keep being aggressive. I knew that I was going to have to step up in the second half for us to get back to playing how we want to play.”

Other Observations:

  • Here is an example of why Coach K has such a great feel for his players and the ebb and flow of a game: Led by Howard and Buddy Boeheim, the coaches son, Syracuse rallies from 17 points down and ties the game with thirteen minutes to go. K substitutes not co-captain Jack White but rather benchwarmer Jordan Goldwire for Alex O’Connor to guard Boeheim. So, Jordan not only shuts Buddy down but makes important offensive plays. Go figure? That’s why Mike has won 1,000+ games and I write about it.
  • IS THERE ANYTHING THIS GUY CANNOT DO? After going an historic 13-13 from the field, late in the game, Zion threw a perfect three quarter court touchdown pass to a streaking Jordan Goldwire, who casually dribbled to the perimeter of the three point line, then fed RJ Barrett for a dunk. Try making that pass yourself sometime.
  • In an interview after the game, Zion said: “I was ready two games ago but the coaching staff wanted to be sure I was 100% healthy…there was never any thought of shutting down for the rest of the year, because I can’t leave my guys hanging. We want to win a championship…Was I ready? I come to kill every game.”
  • As exciting as Zion was tonight, the blunt truth is that this team’s season will be shorter than anticipated if Williamson and Barrett don’t start getting some help. Without Marquis, Duke is small and shorthanded. Javin has to stay out of foul trouble; Trey has to shoot like he did in the second half; Jack’s shot has to come off vacation; And, most of all, Cam has to start playing 40 minutes like he does for about five a game.

But whatever you do, do not miss however many games are remain for this Duke team, because Zion Williamson is once in a generation talent.

 Alan Adds:

Once again, this was a game of two very separate halves.  Syracuse had a good streak that extended for the last 3:40 of the first half (trimming Duke’s 17 point lead to 6 in that span) and for the first 7 minutes of the second half (The Orange tied the score at 46 with 13 minutes left to play in the game).  Duke looked badly out of sync on offense (turnovers bedeviled The Devils); they had 4 to open the second half.  If Duke does not clean up the turnovers, Carolina will be playing in the ACC tournament finals.

This is the game of the year for Duke so far.  It is unthinkable for Carolina to thump this Duke team 3 times in a row, but the oddsmakers say that is more likely than not.  Of course, this is the first game in which Duke will have Zion, which is one of the aspects that make the game so intriguing.  Duke’s second half as encouraging as the first half was disappointing.  Duke scored 50 second half points against the vaunted Syracuse zone.

The first half

Zion was other-worldly, but where was the rest of Duke’s talented team on offense?  Jones (0-5 in 19 minutes), Javin (0-1 in 19 minutes), Jack White (0-1 in 9 minutes) and Goldwire (0-0 in 1 minute) were scoreless.  Four players, who logged a collective 48 minutes did not score a point.  Reddish scored a single point (0-4 in 15 minutes; 1-2 from the line; 2 fouls and 3 turnovers), while Alex hit a 3 in 6 minutes (2 fouls and 2 turnovers).  Six players in 69 minutes scored only 4 points!  Duke committed 11 turnovers against 7 assists.  Only R.J. complemented Zion with 9 points (3-6; 1-3 from deep and 2-2 from the line in only 14 minutes – 2 charging fouls) to go with 2 rebounds, assists and turnovers.  Zion was even better than before he was hurt – he played like a man among boys.  But no matter how other worldly Zion is, this is a team sport and the rest of the Duke team needs to play up to its potential or this will be a short tournament and a hopeful year (remember the opening destruction of Kentucky) will end in disappointment.  However, the Duke team did play up to its potential in the second half.

The Second Half

Duke had 6 players contributing to a superb second half.  Neither Jack White, who played only a single minute (1 rebound) nor Alex, who played 3 (0-1) contributed.  R.J. and Tre played all 20 minutes and Zion logged 19. Cam (four fouls) and Goldwire (surprise key player) played 13 minutes while Javin played only 11.  So, for a substantial part of Duke’s second half, Zion was the post presence and rim protector.  He was 4-4 for 8 points (he missed both free throws, 2 of Duke’s 3 second half misses (Duke was a gaudy 14-17 for 83% from the line in the closing stanza), grabbed 5 boards while contributing a key block and an assist.  He also threw “the pass” to Goldwire to beat the press and sew up the game.  He was terrific, but not the whole show, — a contributor to the whole.  Tre Jones led the second half scoring with 15, the most crucial part was 8-8 from the line to keep Syracuse at bay (3-7; 1-4 from 3land) with 6 assists a steal and a rebound.  He was simply superb.  I know he can shoot; I saw him several times in high school.  He needs to play as he did in the second half if Duke is going to make a serious post-season run. R.J. was Tre’s scoring mate with 14 in the second half (5-10; 1-4 from deep and 3-4 from the line) to go with 4 boards (but 4 turnovers – mostly in the early going in the half).  Did anyone ever score a quieter 23 points than R.J. last night!  Cam hit 2 3s in his 13 minutes. His defense was crucial.  Javin did not attempt a field goal, was 2-2 from the line while he snared 5 rebounds, blocked a shot and made a key steal.  Time to talk about Jordan Goldwire’s valuable contribution to the Duke win.  He had 5 points (2-2 from the field and 1-1 from the line) to go with 2 assists and 2 steals.  He played the last 12 minutes of the game when Duke went from tied to the 12 point win.

Buddy Boeheim had tied the game at 46 with a 3 pointer with 12:49 left in the game.  Goldwire replaced Alex as R.J. took a feed from Tre for a layup giving The Blue Devils a 2 point lead.  Goldwire, who was put in to guard Buddy, got a steal; and then made what for me was the game changing play.  With Duke ahead by 3 with 10 minutes left, Tre missed a 3; Zion deflected a Syracuse pass that Jordan corralled and then hit a layup in traffic before completing the 3 point play.  Duke led by 6.  After Zion missed both free throws and Hughes hit a jumper, Duke’s lead was 5 with 7:16 left.  Then Tre took over.  He hit a 3 and converted 2 free throws to give Duke a 10 point lead with 6:24 left.  Syracuse would not go away.  Hughes hit another to cut the lead to 7 before Jordan hit a jump shot in the paint to put Duke almost out of reach.  69-60 with 4:44 left.  Reddish hit a key 3, Tre and R.J. dropped 4 free throws in a row.  Then another play of the game: Zion threw his home run pass to Goldwire, who turned it into a dazzling assist to R.J., thundering down the lane for a dunk that removed all doubt about the outcome.  Tre hit 2 more free throws for a 13 point lead with 1:44 left and the Orange were done.  A Barrett dunk after a steal by Tre, followed by 2 more free throws by Tre and Duke led by 15 with under a minute to go.

UNC

Duke’s second half was truly encouraging.  UNC is playing as well as any team in the country.  It is entirely possible that the 3 best teams in the country play in the ACC and are in the tournament semi-finals.  What an intriguing game this will be.  Duke will miss Marquis against UNC’s rebounding and penetration.  Moreover Duke’s transition defense will be tested, as well as the ball handling.  The careless turnovers have to be mitigated.  UNC has looked sooo good.  But so did Duke in the second half.

This is a game worth watching.  We’ll be back tomorrow to dissect  it.

 

Duke 74 – North Carolina 73

North Carolina is the deeper, better team but Duke has Zion and Coach K. Even so, I still don’t know how the Blue Devils won this game, because Cam Johnson, who began the game on fire and who leads the ACC in triples, had a wide open three in the last :18 seconds that he “would bet $1,000 was going in”—but didn’t; Zion missed his first three shots as Duke fell behind by double digits, rallied, then gave Carolina every chance to win by missing the front end of a one-and-one with four minutes to go that would have put the Devils up by four. Then, RJ Barrett missed two free throws with Duke up one point with :12 seconds left. It drives my friend Johnny Tar Heel crazy that Roy takes pride in not calling plays but clearly talented, speedy freshman Koby White, who drove though Duke’s defense practically at will, needed some guidance as he raced down the court and with Maye giving him a pick and rolling open to the side, Little and Johnson in the paint calling for the ball, but being dogged by Jones chose to jack up an off balance, one footed three as time was running out. Nassir Little missed a slap/tap contested by DeLaurier.  Cam Johnson got a slow motion put back, but well after the buzzer. I guess the only explanation is  the old coaches adage that it is tough to beat a good ACC team three times in a row.

As if this rivalry isn’t stressful enough, Coach Roy Williams, who is usually very generous at difficult times, somewhat testily and dismissively said that he didn’t care who his team played—Duke or the Warriors—they were ready. Well, they were for 39 minutes and :50 seconds. In all fairness, this was a very enervating game to play. Forget each team’s record and stats. This is the Hatfields and McCoys with a basketball not guns for bragging rights to Tobacco Road and beyond. The fact that there are more Carolina graduates in North Carolina than Duke graduates in the world only exacerbates the rivalry—and, like tonight, it usually is too close for comfort and seldom disappoints.

Because of the flow and direction of the game, Coach K, who is often criticized for playing a short rotation, actually used more players than Carolina before settling upon sophomore Jordan Goldwire and senior Antonio Vrankovic to play significant minutes, even starting the second half “because they deserved it”. Although giving up height, J-Gold’s athleticism in getting back to negate the Tar Heel’s patented fast break and sticking like glue to the taller Cam Johnson was instrumental in turning this game around. He must be a good luck charm because late in the game, he was immobilized by leg cramps but K was reluctant to call his last timeout because he wanted to save it—just in case. J-Gold was just standing around near the basket when a rebound fell into his hands for an uncontested, flat footed layup. Then, “Just in case” happened. Coach K called a time out to draw up the winning play—give the ball to Zion. While Duke’s defense sparked the comeback, to no one’s surprise Zion Williamson carried the offense with 31 points, including the game winner. He dribbled into traffic, took the ball behind his back, spun, went up in traffic, missed the shot but bounced right up between three Tar Heels to tip in the rebound  to give Duke the one-point lead, which miraculously held up.

These back to back tournament games only embellished the legend of Zion Williamson. Tonight, he was 13-19  ( 2-3 threes, 3-3 free throws), had 11 rebounds, a steal and a block. Zion doesn’t look or play like any other college player. In addition, he is totally ambidextrous. Check it out. He is capable of jumping off either foot while dunking with either hand.

Other Observations:

  • If you remember, Jordan Goldwire first appeared on the radar screen with his instrumental defensive role in sparking the epic 23 point in ten minute comeback against Louisville as well as closing out Syracuse last night. Coach credits the athleticism, energy and enthusiasm that he brings to the floor.
  • I wish someone could explain to me why more teams do not utilize the Tar Heel “Primary & Secondary Break”, which produces so many easy baskets.
  • Neither Duke nor Carolina is a very polished half court team. Duke’s is “Give the ball to Zion or RJ”. Carolina’s is “No one shoots until every player touches the ball two times.”
  • Duke looked exhausted at the end of the game and gives up a lot of size to Florida State. They will really miss Marques Bolden.

Alan Adds: This was simply a great college basketball game, or as Coach K put it, “a vintage Duke-UNC game”.  The quality of play was absolutely breathtaking.  UNC is so good.  They are as fast on the break as Tarkanian’s 1990-91 UNLV teams – even after a made basket.  The Tarheels had destroyed Duke’s transition defense in both regular season games against Duke, and surely looked as if they would do it again in the opening minutes of last night’s spectacular contest.  Zion played an astounding game at both ends of the court.  R.J. scored a quiet 15 points while being a bulwark in every aspect of the game.  But Duke owes this win to Jordan Goldwire ( “J. Gold” as Coach K called him) and an incredible second half team defense.  Both teams lit it up in the first half (44-44), but both teams turned to lock down defense in the closing stanza, won by Duke 30-29.  For example, in the first half, Duke had 10 assists against 5 turnovers; in the second half, Carolina forced 7 Duke turnovers (3 by R.J. and 2 by Cam) while Duke made only 5 assists (3 by R. J. and 2 by Tre).

In the second half, Zion scored 15 (7-9; 1-1 from the free throw line; one miss was followed up with the game winner) while R.J. added 7 (2-7; 1-5 from deep; 2-4 from the line).  R.J. also led Duke with 6 defensive rebounds.  That’s 22 of Duke’s 30 second half points.  Reddish 4, Tre 2 (after 9 first half points) and Goldwire’s lucky layup were the other second half points.

Carolina’s offensive rebounding was very effective.  UNC often scored on second and third chances after Duke’s defense had stopped the first Tarheel foray.  With Bolden out and DeLaurier in foul trouble (he played only 4 second half minutes, but he made the game saving defensive play as time ran out), and Vrankovich also playing only 4 second half minutes, Duke went 12 winning minutes with Zion as the big in the middle on defense and in the post on offense.  With Zion, Cam and R.J. defending the interior while Tre and Jay Gold put tremendous pressure on the UNC perimeter, Duke’s defense rose to the occasion.    Critically, Duke stopped fouling in the second half (only 6; 10 in the first half), which can be attributed to the tough perimeter defense that kept Carolina out of the driving lanes.  It didn’t hurt that Carolina was 1-12 from deep with open looks in the second half (Johnson was 0-3 from behind the arc after being on fire early in the first half).

Which properly brings me Jordan Goldwire and his 28 scintillating minutes (16 in the second half).  Tre and R.J. never came out (40 minutes each); Zion played 35 minutes.  Next was J-Gold’s 28 (more than Cam’s 23; more than Javin’s 15 and Antonio’s 10 — for a combined 25 minutes of playing with a center).  Alex (3 minutes; 0-1) and Jack White (6 minutes; 0-1) had cameos only.  Goldwire was the antidote to the Carolina fast break and the catalyst for Duke’s defensive efficiency.  Coach K was effusive: “He was a significant factor defensively. It wasn’t just his defense on Johnson (who was demonstrably cooled off by J. Gold’s pressure), it was his ability to get back on defense to stop their transition.  He was always the first guy back.”  “He and Tre put such good pressure on the ball.”  Coach K emphasized Goldwire’s athletic ability that enabled him to fill that valuable role off the bench.  Vrankovich played really well in his 10 very unexpected minutes.

The game ending was dramatic – vintage UNC-Duke drama.  With 2:48 to go, Luke Maye drove on Zion, scored and was fouled.  71-67 for the ‘Heels.  But he missed the free throw; R.J. rebounded, raced down court and hit Zion for a layup and his own 3 point play, which also fouled out Carolina big guy, Garrison Brooks.  Zion made the foul shot.  UNC 71-70 with 2:32 to go.  Little replaced Brooks and missed a jumper.  Tre got the rebound and J. Gold took advantage of the ball coming to him for a layup.  72-71 Duke with 1:46 to go.  Maye and Barrett exchanged misses before White fed Little off an offensive rebound in the paint for a dunk that gave UNC a 73-72 lead with 47 seconds left.  Duke called timeout and DeLaurier replaced the cramping Goldwire with 43 seconds left.   The play called was for Zion to set the screen and R.J. take it to the basket, but Kenny Williams cut off the drive beautifully.  R. J. then got it to Zion for the miss, and then the put back that gave Duke a 74-73 lead with 31 seconds left.  Cameron Johnson got a good look with 18 seconds left, but failed on his 3 pointer, which R.J. rebounded.  He was fouled immediately with 12 seconds left.  Horrifyingly, R.J. missed both free throws, giving Carolina one last chance to win.

White brought the ball up against Trey’s intense pressure.  It took valuable time off the clock and left the superb Carolina point guard with only a desperation heave with 3 seconds left.  Little looked as if he were in perfect position to tap the offensive rebound in, but DeLaurier got a hand on it and it missed.  The clock expired before Johnson grabbed the rebound for one more failed attempt.  What a great win!

Florida State beat UVA (there goes my first prediction) impressively.  The Seminoles are deep and long, and are better constructed to handle 3 intense games in 3 days.  Still, an ACC tournament win is heady stuff and this team has proved it has the indispensable commodity of heart.  What a season!

Duke 73 – Florida State 63 

Back together again, the precocious Duke Basketball Band of Brothers played their most beautiful music since the first game of the season against Kentucky in winning the university’s 21st ACC Tournament Championship by knocking off formidable Florida State, which had won 14 of  15 games including decisively taking out regular season champion Virginia in Friday’s semi-final. After a rather off key first half that left the score tied 36-36, the Blue Devils got rocking in the opening minutes of the second-half and used a 25-11 run to break open the game by holding the Seminoles to only 27 points on 25% shooting. The omnipresent Zion Williamson deservedly was the Tournament MVP but tonight Trey Jones was really the straw that stirred the drink on a more balanced offense (starters: 21,18,17,11,6 points). R. J. Barrett was his usual efficient double-double self and even the enigmatic Cam Reddish emerged from his offensive funk to contribute timely offensive baskets. Junior co-captain Javin DeLaurier (6 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals,1 assist, & 1 block) was the unsung hero as he battled the bigger, taller Seminole front line to more than a draw and was instrumental in fueling the early second half run with quickness, tenacity, and strength in the paint—without fouling out.

Off the tournament results, it would seem, except for the injury to center Marquis Bolden, Duke is well positioned for a serious run at another national championship. They certainly are precociously talented, are mature beyond their years, have overcome an injury to their once-in-a-lifetime teammate, have hit and run through the proverbial wall to be a tested, mature contender. However, a note of caution: Enjoy the moment because success at tournament time is elusive, fragile, and can be fleeting. In 2017, Duke won the ACC Tournament, yet North Carolina won the NCAA Championship. The Duke 1991 NCAA Championship team was throttled by North Carolina in the ACC Tournament.  Duke is just another injury or a three point shot away from going home. As Coach Williams told his Tar Heels: ”Our season is not over.” Neither is Virginia’s, Florida State, Kentucky, Tennessee or a host of others.

An overlooked but important component this highly anticipated but challenging season has been the way in which the coaching staff has managed the all the issues—especially those surrounding  Williamson’s injury. Coach K has emphasized what a pleasure it is coaching these players because they are good kids and students who have loving families.

Other Observations:

Zion Williamson’s final stat-line for the tournament was record setting. The tournament MVP ended with 81 points in three games. That breaks the ACC Tournament freshman scoring record of 75 points set by Phil Ford in 1975 and the Duke ACC Tournament scoring record of 80 set by Art Heyman in 1961. He converted 33-of-43 from the field and made 10-of-13 from the foul line over the final two games after a poor foul-shooting effort against Syracuse. His response: “When you’re a little kid, watching Duke on TV cutting down the nets, and you want to be a part of it. Then you grow up and to be a part of it, that’s why you come to Duke.” Zion had another pass to rival the one against Syracuse. While leading a fast break, he threw a left handed ten yard 100 mile an hour bounce pass to Trey Jones for a layup. It’s the OMG plays like this that have made Zion a one name trademark. When you are recognized by one name you are really famous—Zion has dominated college basketball both offensively and defensively like no other college player in history- especially a freshman.

Alan Adds: Zion is not only a great player, but he has a way with insightful words: “This tournament’s been great. I mean we’re ACC champions. But, I think that if we didn’t win it then the tournament wouldn’t have been great, so us winning this makes it great.”  (Emphasis added)

As I have told Bill all year (usually at our half time conversations after Duke had played a particularly disappointing first half), “this is a second half team.”   Duke’s second half was so special it is worth examining by itself.

The Second Half

Duke was indeed special against Florida State in the closing period of the championship game.  Duke’s offense became a smooth functioning machine with contributions from all five Iron Men.  I say Iron Men because Duke had only 5 minutes of bench player time (Goldwire for 2 minutes and Jack White for 3 minutes, with a block and a rebound); the four freshmen and Javin were the Iron Men.  Javin played 16 superb minutes in the second half after only 7 in the first half.  Coach K’s praise, “I thought Javin had his best game tonight, especially against their big guys. He rebounded well (7). He was talking on defense. He came up with some — he finished (6 points on 2-4 from the field and 2-2 on important free throws) . He’s played well, but tonight I thought was one of his best games, if not his best game.”  (His best game included an assist, a block and 2 steals, both the block and the 2 steals were crucial in the second half).

It was, of course, Duke’s second half pressure defense that made 8 steals and 3 blocks while creating havoc with Florida State’s offense, which had functioned so efficiently in the first half (39% from the field) that was the difference.  Even though Duke allowed 4-9 from behind the arc – all that kept the Seminoles within striking distance – The Devils reduced the Florida State offense to a meager 4-23 from inside the arc.  Take away the last meaningless Seminole 3 at the game ending buzzer and Duke held Florida State to a paltry 24 second half points and under 25% shooting.  Great team defense by all five of the Iron Men.  Although Florida State was taller, Duke controlled the backboards (20-16; with 18 defensive boards compared to 6 Seminole offensive boards). Duke second half rebounders were led by Barret’s 5, Javin’s 4, Zion’s 3, Cam’s 2 and Trey’s 1 (I could swear Tre had more than 1 rebound in the second half).

Not only was Duke especially formidable on defense, but the Devils were cohesive, efficient, and team oriented on offense.  Take away the 1-5 from deep (Cam was 1-3, but it was a biggie; and R.J. 0-2), and Duke was 13 for 19 from the field.  Wow!  Only Cam was under 50%, missing his only interior shot, but making both of his second half free throws.  Tre had a simply brilliant second half, scoring 13 of his game total 15 points in the closing stanza.  It was a very efficient 13 points on 8 shots (6-8 on a series of acrobatic drives and pull ups; 1-2 from the line) to go with 2 assists, a steal, and crushing on the ball defense.  In short, if Trey plays that way, it will be extremely difficult to beat Duke.  His performance was close to as dramatic as Zion’s.  OMG was 3-4 from the field and 3-4 from the stripe for 9 points to go with an assist (what an assist it was – the full court bounce past to the streaking Trey!) and a steal.  R.J. remains a superb finisher on the break, reliable ball handler, great defensive rebounder and excellent defender.  He scored 6 in the closing stanza (3-6; 0-2 from behind the arc) and a steal. So the balanced second half scoring was 13 for Tre; Zion, 9; R.J 6; Cam 5; and Javin 4.

NCAA Tournament

“Earn Everything”.  As UVA learned last year, nothing can be taken for granted in a championship run.  Coach K believes there are three four team weekend tournaments that comprise the big dance.  A team has to play two tough games in a 3 day period on each weekend.  The second weekend where “The Sweet 16” is reduced to “The Final Four” is usually crucial.  If Bolden returns (even if for the second weekend), it would put Duke at full strength for its title run.  Duke wants to be playing on all three weekends.

Next Play

Duke 85 – North Dakota State 62

BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELTS. TAKEOFF IMMINENT.

For most of the first half, I thought I was watching a re-run of last year’s NCAA first round #1 Virginia vs. #16 University of Maryland-Baltimore County matchup as the Blue Devils unsuccessfully attempted to show the country they are not an inconsistent, subpar  jump shooting team. They trailed 12-5, and were tied with two minutes to go before  making a mini-run to lead 31-27 at the half. Normally, if the Devils hold an opponent in the 20’s, they are up by 20. Not tonight. However, to start the second half, the Human Highlight Show went to work. Williamson hit a layup, threw down a slam, and introduced a rarely seen four point play (basket, fouled, miss free throw, get rebound, dunk ball). Then, there was the piece de resistance. Zion knocked a ball loose from  Bison point guard Vinnie Shahid, kept  it alive by beating the smaller, quick guard to the ball, which then he dribbled behind his back while almost falling down, then hop skipped to the basket for a layup. Suddenly, two minutes into the second half, Duke was up 40-27 The rest of his teammates got the idea and even the offensively enigmatic Cam Reddish started hitting as the  top-ranked Blue Devils went on a seven minute 25-6 run, eliminating any chance of another historic upset. Duke outscored North Dakota State 25-6 in the first seven minutes as the shots started falling, the dunks started thundering, and the audience got what they paid to see: Williamson posting up for a dunk, Barrett with a reverse jam on a break, Williamson trailing behind and jumping simultaneously with him as the two combined for 51 points.

The two halves were in stark contrast to one another. However, the commentators made some interesting points: Duke has been such a successful, high profile program for so long that it gets everyone’s best shot and the NCAA Tournament is especially treacherous (today at the half: Carolina was down 38-33 to Iona and Virginia was down 36-30 to Gardner-Webb) and players who come here have to be ready to play their best every game, not just a few times a year as they did in high school. And, as talented and physically mature as they are, it’s easy to forget four years ago, these freshmen were in the eighth grade, so they may be adolescent inconsistent. The difference between a basket and a miss can be just a fraction of an inch—and that was the margin by which many of Duke’s first half shots were missing.

Sunday night’s game is against Johnny Dawkins UCF (University of Central Florida) Knights, which is a long way from Stanford, and which features Taco Fall,  a 7’6” center, not a Democratic presidential candidate, and Johnny’s son Aubrey, a transfer from Michigan. If they win that game it looks like the Blue Devils will meet the dangerous Virginia Tech, which consists of the kind of team constructed to be Duke’s worst nightmare—a talented center and very  accurate three point shooters. The only good news is that the game is in Columbia, South Carolina not Blacksburg, Virginia

Other Observations:

  • Zion Williamson is playing even better than he was before his knee injury.
  • Jack White did not play because of a pulled leg muscle but Marques Bolden played  18 minutes and seemed fully recovered from his knee injury.  Jordan Goldwire has become an important part of the bench rotation as he again demonstrated tonight.
  • When answering some of the questions from  press (How do you feel about coming back home to play? Is it an advantage to your relationship for both of you to be left handed?), it is sometimes difficult for Zion and RJ to keep a straight face.
  • The win moves Duke to 30-5, the program’s 15th 30-win season under Krzyzewski. Coach K is now 95-29 in NCAA Tournament games. Duke is 112-37, with a .752 winning percentage, the best percentage in tournament history.

Alan Adds:

I watched North Dakota State beat NCC on Wednesday night and advised Bill that NDS had played heady well coached basketball.  As NDS was beating Duke in the opening half, I texted Bill “I told you NDS played excellent hoops.”  Bill’s response at half time was, “We are playing like UVA” (which at that time trailed Gardner-Webb).  At game’s end, I texted a familiar refrain, “A second half team.”  And so Duke was.

After a lethargic first half (the teams were tied at 25 with less than 3 minutes to go), Duke blew the game open in the early moments of the second half and continued to pull away throughout, with the lead reaching 31 with 4:35 left in the game before Coach K emptied his bench.  In the first half, Duke played only 7 players (Javin started, but played only 5 disappointing minutes; he turned that around in the second half).  Bolden played 12 first half minutes off the bench (welcome back!), but it was Jordan Goldwire’s 9 first half minutes that changed the game and brought Duke back.  Coach K said, “he’s been part of our rotation since the Louisville game.  He plays great defense on the ball and off the ball.  He doesn’t turn the ball over.  He hit a key 3 tonight (1-1 from deep).  He’s earned everything, and it has given him confidence.”

The First Half

Coach K: “We started out taking jump shots; many of our possessions had no passes, which meant no rebounds [NDS out rebounded Duke in the first half and controlled the boards in the early going.] We played poor offense.  Duke’s poor offense gave NDS confidence.  In the last 10 minutes of the opening stanza, Duke began to play intense defense, which turned the tide until the offense regrouped in the second half.  Duke played dazzling defense throughout the rest of the game. 

The Second Half

“In the second half”, Coach K said, “we played beautiful basketball for 12 minutes and then began to substitute.”  When he was asked to give some examples of what was beautiful, Coach K said it perfectly: “It was beautiful because we were winning.  We grabbed a double digit lead and we were still hungry and wanted more.  To me that’s beautiful.”  Remember Zion’s comment about the ACC tournament: “It was a great experience because we won.  If we didn’t win it wouldn’t have been a great experience.”  Attitude means a lot.  This team is single minded.

Duke went inside and overwhelmed the less talented Bisons, and then devastated them from the perimeter.  Cam (2-3), R.J. (1-1) and Zion (1-1) were a combined 4-5 from behind the arc.  Duke was 6-10 from deep (Alex was 1-2 and Joey Baker was 1-1 in a cameo appearance).   Zion was 7-8 from the field in the second half; Cam 3-4 and R.J 5-9 (a combined 15-21) to essentially blitz NDS.  R.J. led in rebounds with 9 in the second half (14 for the game).  He also had 3 assists and a steal for a complete game.

R.J. and Zion

In the press conference, R.J. and Zion were the Duke players to appear.  They are sophisticated well beyond their years.  Zion was team oriented and deflected any question about his personal aspirations or satisfactions.  He and R.J. are clearly having fun.  [See Zion celebrating R.J.’s gaudy dunk in the open court].  R.J. said Zion is always bailing him out.  “Whenever I’m in trouble he bails me out.  He makes a cut and I just have to get the ball somewhere near him.”

My favorite response to an idiotic question: “Does your both being left handed contribute to the relationship?”  Much laughter and talk.  The Zion answered in a way that mocked the question gently with dry wit, as he laughingly responded, “It makes the connection deeper.”

Next Play

UCF at 5:15 on Sunday.  I watched Fall and he absolutely dominated VCU with 18 rebounds and 13 points.  He runs the floor well and completely controlled the paint on defense against VCU.  His dramatic improvement in the last six weeks (according to Coach Dawkins) has transformed his team.  If Duke does not shoot well from the perimeter, Fall is capable of disrupting Duke’s inside game.  He has said that Zion won’t dunk on him.  No thinking about next weekend.  UCF beat Houston and are playing at their peak.  Duke has to win to get to next weekend.

Duke 77 – University of Central Florida 76

I saw it but I didn’t believe it! I had to check my pacemaker and replay the last :30 seconds before I was sure I wasn’t hallucinating and Duke actually won. The only possible explanation is this: Who knew referees and basketball rims both have a conscience? After a very physical game of several questionable non-calls on Zion Williamson drives and an errant shot that was ruled to have skimmed the rim not the backboard, negating a time clock violation that led to a Tacko Fall dunk and UCF going up by four points, the referees gave Zion the benefit of the doubt. Depending upon your perspective, Williamson either drove through or by two defenders to score but a foul, his fifth, was called on Tacko, who did have  defensive position but whose both feet were clearly inside the foul cylinder. The giant 7’ 6” center not being on the floor in the last minute changed the entire dynamics of the remaining two, decisive possessions. Williamson missed the free throw but RJ Barrett grabbed the rebound in a scrum and put it up and in (another version of a four point play), giving Duke a one point advantage with a long :14 seconds to play.

A UCF timeout gave the Knights the ball at half court with just :11 seconds left. In those final seconds, which seemed much longer, the Knights, who were in the double bonus, had two great chances at a potential game winning shot.  B.J. Taylor, hounded by Trey Jones, threw up an off balance, baseline runner that was a little too hard and a little too high—much like Grayson Allen’s final shot against Kansas last year. It hit the backboard, bounced around, then off the rim and Dawkins, flying across the lane and with one hand  tapped/scooped the ball back up but it also danced tantalizingly on the rim, hesitated, then rolled out of, not in, the basket and into Zion’s hands as the buzzer sounded. The inescapable conclusion is that in the final minute, both the refs and the rim deferred to the basketball gods as to which team would be victorious in this sensational, one-and-done NCAA Tournament game. In all seriousness, this game was just another example of what Duke fans have come to expect from Coach K’s teams. They never, ever stop competing hard and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat an astonishing number of times—just remember a few weeks ago rallying late in the game from 23 points down at Louisville—and are consistently so good, love them or hate them, since the UNLV and Kentucky games in 1991-92, they have been the most captivating team in college basketball.

Although this latest Blue Devil version starts four uber talented freshmen, they have survived playing six games without Zion Williamson, the National Player of the Year, and yet going into tonight’s game were still 30-5 with tight, one-possession wins over Florida State, Virginia, Louisville, Wake Forest, and North Carolina that has accelerated their maturity and made them battle tested beyond their years. And then there is this: “When the greatest coach of all time looks at you and tells you that you’re made for this moment, it’s like the most confidence you can be given,” Zion Williamson said after the game. “So when I went to the basket, I knew it was going in.”

Other than that, it was a terrific chess match between the old master and the first great player Coach K recruited at Duke and who was the foundation of  the thirty year franchise that is Duke Basketball. After a professional career cut short by injury, in 1998 Mike hired Johnny as an assistant. Two years later, he promoted Dawkins to associate head coach. The following season, the Blue Devils won their third of five NCAA National Championships. Dawkins left ten years later to be head coach at Stanford. Not coincidentally, Dawkins son, Aubrey, played the game of his life (“not just outstanding, but truly magnificent” according to Coach K) and was a final tip (about the only shot he seemed to miss in scoring 32 points) away from upsetting the school where he grew up and learned to play. Sort of begs the question of why he went to Michigan before transferring to UCF?

Three other players deserve to be acknowledged: Cam Reddish, the often enigmatic X factor, had 13 points including 3 three pointers, the last of which was in the last two minutes and without which—like the Florida State and Louisville victories– the comebacks would not have been possible. Jordan Goldwire was instrumental in the 3-2 press that gave Duke a 13-2 run leading to a crucial 44-36 halftime lead as well as hitting a “no, no, yes! three point shot. And Javin DeLaurier had 8 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 blocks in holding the game changing Tacko Fall to 15 points and 7 rebounds—and set the pick for Cam’s late three point shot. In addition, he fought hard for two important rebounds in the last frantic minute.

Alan Adds:

This was a superb college basketball game.  It is easy to mistake this great game for a disappointing performance by the top seed against a #9 seed, over whom the Blue Devils were a prohibitive favorite.  That was not reality.  Reality was Duke played an opponent that “played at as high a level as any team we played this year.  Nobody played better against us.”  Coach K wasn’t just giving his usual spiel; UCF played brilliantly.  Aubrey Dawkins “was not just outstanding, he was magnificent.  He was the best player on the court,” K said.  Even though Duke played a superb first half, scoring 44 points on 55% shooting (18-33; 5-11 from deep and 3-3 from the line), UCF was still in contention.  When the shots Duke was making in the first half stopped falling in the last stanza, UCF came roaring back and took control of the game.  Fall, whose 2 first half fouls limited him to 9 minutes, played 16 minutes in the second half, which made the difference.  His second half presence enabled UCF to shut down the Duke offense with a brilliantly conceived defense.

Fall, at 7’6” was guarding (not guarding) Tre.  Thus, he camped out in the lane – a one man zone — daring Tre to shoot wide (I mean wide) open 3s.  In 20 second half minutes, Tre was a disappointing 1-7 from the field (1-6 from deep), which made the strategy look brilliant.  Fall was able to completely clog the interior, where Duke had feasted in the first half while Fall sat with 2 fouls.  When Duke’s accurate first half shooting deserted the Devils  —  Jones 1-7; Barrett 1-7 before the game winning put back, which gave him a second half of 2-8 shooting; and Reddish was held to only one other shot (a miss) before his crucial 3 – the Knight’s brilliantly conceived defense held Duke to 33 second half points.

The game divided into 3 sections: first half, second half up until the stoppage at 2:09 to determine if a shot clock violation would wipe out Fall’s offensive rebound dunk.

The first half

Once Fall headed to the bench with 2 fouls, Duke began to play.  The opening minutes knocked the young Devils back.  Duke did not secure its first lead until there was only 8 minutes left in the half after trailing by as much as 6 several times.  The lead changed hands before the game was tied at 34 with 3:35 to go.  Then Duke unleashed its defense that leads to offense.  Zion scored 3 the old fashioned way, a Goldwire steal led to Trey’s layup, Barrett scored 3 the old fashioned way and Duke led by 8 with 1:13 left in the half.  Another steal by JGold, who passed to Zion, who delivered a sensational long bounce pass  to Tre for a half closing layup.  44-36.  Both teams had played superbly.  Dawkins dropped in 18 points (half of the Knight’s 36) to go with 3 steals.  The Duke scoring, on the other hand, was balanced – Zion, 15 (6-10; 1-2 from deep and 2-2 from the line); R.J. 11 (4-7; 2-3 from deep; 1-1 from the stripe); Cam, 10 (4-6; 2-3 from deep) and Tre, 8 (4-8; 0-2 from deep).  Duke had 11 assists (R.J., 4; Zion, 3; Reddish and Trey, 2 each) with only 4 turnovers, while forcing 8 turnovers from UCF.  Goldwire spelled Reddish for five minutes (Reddish picked up 2 fouls) and Bolden (7 minutes) spelled Javin (13 minutes) for Duke’s only substitutions.  The bench did not score.  Zion, R.J. and Tre played all 40 minutes.

The Second Half

The Knights came out of the gate and cut Duke’s lead to 1 almost immediately.  The teams battled back and forth until UCF tied the score at 54 on a Dawkins jumper with 11:19 left.  When JGold fed Zion for a layup, Duke led by 7 with 7:30 to go (66-59).  Aubrey led a sizzling Knight run, which got them within 2.  Then Griffin and Taylor hit 3s to give UCF its first lead since early in the first half 72-70 with 3:09 to go.  Zion tied it before Aubrey put UCF back in front 72-70 with 3:09 to go.  Zion was called for a foul  (his 3rd foul and the team’s 10th), setting the stage for the dramatic last 2:09.

The last 2:09

Taylor missed a jumper as the shot clock ran down that did (or did not) hit the rim.  Dawkins got the rebound and fed Fall for a dunk, which was determined to be good when the referees did not overturn the call after a lengthy review.  74-70.  During the long time out for review, Coach K imparted wisdom to his troops. “No matter what the ruling, there are 8-10 possessions left, maybe more.  You guys were made for these two minutes.  Just be yourselves.”  Coach K later said that R.J. and Zion’s will to win “cannot be measured.  It’s just there.”

The Knight defense worked when Tre was dared to shoot a 3 from the corner, which missed with 2:08 left.  Then came the play of the game that is not shown on Sports Center.  Dawkins got the long rebound and UCF had a 2 on 1 fast break for a 6 point lead, but inexplicably turned it over carelessly (steal credited to DeLaurier).  Cam then scored his only points of the second half with an in rhythm 3 that cut the lead to 1 (74-73) – basically a 5 point swing.  The play that I thought might cost Duke the game ensued.  DeLaurier was first heroic.  He got the defensive rebound when Dawkins missed a jumper.  He got the offensive rebound when R.J. was blocked on a layup and he was fouled.  With 1:09, he went to the line with a chance to give Duke the lead.  But, he missed them both and Fall rebounded the miss.  When Taylor drove the lane, Zion picked up his 4th foul.  Taylor made them both giving UCF a 3 point lead with 45 seconds to go.  Zion tried to tie the game with a 3 that missed, but DeLaurier grabbed the critical offensive rebound.  Tre saw Zion was going to try again from 3land and shouted at him to go to the basket.  Zion drove for the layup, which fouled Fall out, and R.J. grabbed the rebound from Zion’s miss from the free throw line for the winning basket.

The heartbreak for the Knights at the other end was essentially the heartbreak for Duke last year when Grayson’s winning basket against Kansas in the Elite 8 rolled out just as the 2 UCF attempts did.  Oh those basketball gods!

Wrap up Thoughts

While UCF was clearly deserving of winning and may have even been the better team yesterday, there is simply no denying the heart (which can be synonymous with “will to win”) that this young team has displayed in admirable abundance.  Still no other # 1 seed was even slightly pushed in the first two games.  Duke’s vulnerability was dramatically visible.  Zion scored more than half of Duke’s second half points (17 on 6-14; 2-5 from deep and 3-5 from the line) to go with 7 boards and an assist.  He did not get much offensive help in the closing stanza until Cam hit his big three.  Even so, R.J. was the second leading scorer in the closing stanza with 5 points.  Javin scored 2 and Tre 3 on his 1-7 second half.   Bolden played only 2 minutes in the second half.  JGold’s wonderful defense in his 10 second half minutes were critical to Duke’s win.  Those 12 minutes were the only substitute minutes in that half.  Goldwire’s 3 was the only scoring contribution from the bench.

Next Play

Duke plays Virginia Tech in D.C. on Friday (March 29) in the late game (scheduled for 9:39 on CBS).  In the Sweet 16, there are 5 ACC teams, 4 SEC teams, 3 from the Big 10; Texas Tech, Gonzaga, Oregon and Houston.  There are almost no surprises.  All 4 of the #1, 2 and 3 seeds made it.  Only 2 of the 4 seeds qualified; Auburn (#5) and Oregon (#12) are the only participants in the Sweet 16 seeded under #4.

 

I saw it but I didn’t believe it! I had to check my pacemaker and replay the last :30 seconds before I was sure I wasn’t hallucinating and Duke actually won. The only possible explanation is this: Who knew referees and basketball rims both have a conscience? After a very physical game of several questionable non-calls on Zion Williamson drives and an errant shot that was ruled to have skimmed the rim not the backboard, negating a time clock violation that led to a Tacko Fall dunk and UCF going up by four points, the referees gave Zion the benefit of the doubt. Depending upon your perspective, Williamson either drove through or by two defenders to score but a foul, his fifth, was called on Tacko, who did have  defensive position but whose both feet were clearly inside the foul cylinder. The giant 7’ 6” center not being on the floor in the last minute changed the entire dynamics of the remaining two, decisive possessions. Williamson missed the free throw but RJ Barrett grabbed the rebound in a scrum and put it up and in (another version of a four point play), giving Duke a one point advantage with a long :14 seconds to play.

A UCF timeout gave the Knights the ball at half court with just :11 seconds left. In those final seconds, which seemed much longer, the Knights, who were in the double bonus, had two great chances at a potential game winning shot.  B.J. Taylor, hounded by Trey Jones, threw up an off balance, baseline runner that was a little too hard and a little too high—much like Grayson Allen’s final shot against Kansas last year. It hit the backboard, bounced around, then off the rim and Dawkins, flying across the lane and with one hand  tapped/scooped the ball back up but it also danced tantalizingly on the rim, hesitated, then rolled out of, not in, the basket and into Zion’s hands as the buzzer sounded. The inescapable conclusion is that in the final minute, both the refs and the rim deferred to the basketball gods as to which team would be victorious in this sensational, one-and-done NCAA Tournament game. In all seriousness, this game was just another example of what Duke fans have come to expect from Coach K’s teams. They never, ever stop competing hard and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat an astonishing number of times—just remember a few weeks ago rallying late in the game from 23 points down at Louisville—and are consistently so good, love them or hate them, since the UNLV and Kentucky games in 1991-92, they have been the most captivating team in college basketball.

Although this latest Blue Devil version starts four uber talented freshmen, they have survived playing six games without Zion Williamson, the National Player of the Year, and yet going into tonight’s game were still 30-5 with tight, one-possession wins over Florida State, Virginia, Louisville, Wake Forest, and North Carolina that has accelerated their maturity and made them battle tested beyond their years. And then there is this: “When the greatest coach of all time looks at you and tells you that you’re made for this moment, it’s like the most confidence you can be given,” Zion Williamson said after the game. “So when I went to the basket, I knew it was going in.”

Other than that, it was a terrific chess match between the old master and the first great player Coach K recruited at Duke and who was the foundation of  the thirty year franchise that is Duke Basketball. After a professional career cut short by injury, in 1998 Mike hired Johnny as an assistant. Two years later, he promoted Dawkins to associate head coach. The following season, the Blue Devils won their third of five NCAA National Championships. Dawkins left ten years later to be head coach at Stanford. Not coincidentally, Dawkins son, Aubrey, played the game of his life (“not just outstanding, but truly magnificent” according to Coach K) and was a final tip (about the only shot he seemed to miss in scoring 32 points) away from upsetting the school where he grew up and learned to play. Sort of begs the question of why he went to Michigan before transferring to UCF?

Three other players deserve to be acknowledged: Cam Reddish, the often enigmatic X factor, had 13 points including 3 three pointers, the last of which was in the last two minutes and without which—like the Florida State and Louisville victories– the comebacks would not have been possible. Jordan Goldwire was instrumental in the 3-2 press that gave Duke a 13-2 run leading to a crucial 44-36 halftime lead as well as hitting a “no, no, yes! three point shot. And Javin DeLaurier had 8 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 blocks in holding the game changing Tacko Fall to 15 points and 7 rebounds—and set the pick for Cam’s late three point shot. In addition, he fought hard for two important rebounds in the last frantic minute.

Alan Adds:

This was a superb college basketball game.  It is easy to mistake this great game for a disappointing performance by the top seed against a #9 seed, over whom the Blue Devils were a prohibitive favorite.  That was not reality.  Reality was Duke played an opponent that “played at as high a level as any team we played this year.  Nobody played better against us.”  Coach K wasn’t just giving his usual spiel; UCF played brilliantly.  Aubrey Dawkins “was not just outstanding, he was magnificent.  He was the best player on the court,” K said.  Even though Duke played a superb first half, scoring 44 points on 55% shooting (18-33; 5-11 from deep and 3-3 from the line), UCF was still in contention.  When the shots Duke was making in the first half stopped falling in the last stanza, UCF came roaring back and took control of the game.  Fall, whose 2 first half fouls limited him to 9 minutes, played 16 minutes in the second half, which made the difference.  His second half presence enabled UCF to shut down the Duke offense with a brilliantly conceived defense.

Fall, at 7’6” was guarding (not guarding) Tre.  Thus, he camped out in the lane – a one man zone — daring Tre to shoot wide (I mean wide) open 3s.  In 20 second half minutes, Tre was a disappointing 1-7 from the field (1-6 from deep), which made the strategy look brilliant.  Fall was able to completely clog the interior, where Duke had feasted in the first half while Fall sat with 2 fouls.  When Duke’s accurate first half shooting deserted the Devils  —  Jones 1-7; Barrett 1-7 before the game winning put back, which gave him a second half of 2-8 shooting; and Reddish was held to only one other shot (a miss) before his crucial 3 – the Knight’s brilliantly conceived defense held Duke to 33 second half points.

The game divided into 3 sections: first half, second half up until the stoppage at 2:09 to determine if a shot clock violation would wipe out Fall’s offensive rebound dunk.

The first half

Once Fall headed to the bench with 2 fouls, Duke began to play.  The opening minutes knocked the young Devils back.  Duke did not secure its first lead until there was only 8 minutes left in the half after trailing by as much as 6 several times.  The lead changed hands before the game was tied at 34 with 3:35 to go.  Then Duke unleashed its defense that leads to offense.  Zion scored 3 the old fashioned way, a Goldwire steal led to Trey’s layup, Barrett scored 3 the old fashioned way and Duke led by 8 with 1:13 left in the half.  Another steal by JGold, who passed to Zion, who delivered a sensational long bounce pass  to Tre for a half closing layup.  44-36.  Both teams had played superbly.  Dawkins dropped in 18 points (half of the Knight’s 36) to go with 3 steals.  The Duke scoring, on the other hand, was balanced – Zion, 15 (6-10; 1-2 from deep and 2-2 from the line); R.J. 11 (4-7; 2-3 from deep; 1-1 from the stripe); Cam, 10 (4-6; 2-3 from deep) and Tre, 8 (4-8; 0-2 from deep).  Duke had 11 assists (R.J., 4; Zion, 3; Reddish and Trey, 2 each) with only 4 turnovers, while forcing 8 turnovers from UCF.  Goldwire spelled Reddish for five minutes (Reddish picked up 2 fouls) and Bolden (7 minutes) spelled Javin (13 minutes) for Duke’s only substitutions.  The bench did not score.  Zion, R.J. and Tre played all 40 minutes.

The Second Half

The Knights came out of the gate and cut Duke’s lead to 1 almost immediately.  The teams battled back and forth until UCF tied the score at 54 on a Dawkins jumper with 11:19 left.  When JGold fed Zion for a layup, Duke led by 7 with 7:30 to go (66-59).  Aubrey led a sizzling Knight run, which got them within 2.  Then Griffin and Taylor hit 3s to give UCF its first lead since early in the first half 72-70 with 3:09 to go.  Zion tied it before Aubrey put UCF back in front 72-70 with 3:09 to go.  Zion was called for a foul  (his 3rd foul and the team’s 10th), setting the stage for the dramatic last 2:09.

The last 2:09

Taylor missed a jumper as the shot clock ran down that did (or did not) hit the rim.  Dawkins got the rebound and fed Fall for a dunk, which was determined to be good when the referees did not overturn the call after a lengthy review.  74-70.  During the long time out for review, Coach K imparted wisdom to his troops. “No matter what the ruling, there are 8-10 possessions left, maybe more.  You guys were made for these two minutes.  Just be yourselves.”  Coach K later said that R.J. and Zion’s will to win “cannot be measured.  It’s just there.”

The Knight defense worked when Tre was dared to shoot a 3 from the corner, which missed with 2:08 left.  Then came the play of the game that is not shown on Sports Center.  Dawkins got the long rebound and UCF had a 2 on 1 fast break for a 6 point lead, but inexplicably turned it over carelessly (steal credited to DeLaurier).  Cam then scored his only points of the second half with an in rhythm 3 that cut the lead to 1 (74-73) – basically a 5 point swing.  The play that I thought might cost Duke the game ensued.  DeLaurier was first heroic.  He got the defensive rebound when Dawkins missed a jumper.  He got the offensive rebound when R.J. was blocked on a layup and he was fouled.  With 1:09, he went to the line with a chance to give Duke the lead.  But, he missed them both and Fall rebounded the miss.  When Taylor drove the lane, Zion picked up his 4th foul.  Taylor made them both giving UCF a 3 point lead with 45 seconds to go.  Zion tried to tie the game with a 3 that missed, but DeLaurier grabbed the critical offensive rebound.  Tre saw Zion was going to try again from 3land and shouted at him to go to the basket.  Zion drove for the layup, which fouled Fall out, and R.J. grabbed the rebound from Zion’s miss from the free throw line for the winning basket.

The heartbreak for the Knights at the other end was essentially the heartbreak for Duke last year when Grayson’s winning basket against Kansas in the Elite 8 rolled out just as the 2 UCF attempts did.  Oh those basketball gods!

Wrap up Thoughts

While UCF was clearly deserving of winning and may have even been the better team yesterday, there is simply no denying the heart (which can be synonymous with “will to win”) that this young team has displayed in admirable abundance.  Still no other # 1 seed was even slightly pushed in the first two games.  Duke’s vulnerability was dramatically visible.  Zion scored more than half of Duke’s second half points (17 on 6-14; 2-5 from deep and 3-5 from the line) to go with 7 boards and an assist.  He did not get much offensive help in the closing stanza until Cam hit his big three.  Even so, R.J. was the second leading scorer in the closing stanza with 5 points.  Javin scored 2 and Tre 3 on his 1-7 second half.   Bolden played only 2 minutes in the second half.  JGold’s wonderful defense in his 10 second half minutes were critical to Duke’s win.  Those 12 minutes were the only substitute minutes in that half.  Goldwire’s 3 was the only scoring contribution from the bench.

Next Play

Duke plays Virginia Tech in D.C. on Friday (March 29) in the late game (scheduled for 9:39 on CBS).  In the Sweet 16, there are 5 ACC teams, 4 SEC teams, 3 from the Big 10; Texas Tech, Gonzaga, Oregon and Houston.  There are almost no surprises.  All 4 of the #1, 2 and 3 seeds made it.  Only 2 of the 4 seeds qualified; Auburn (#5) and Oregon (#12) are the only participants in the Sweet 16 seeded under #4.

Duke 75 – Virginia Tech 73

You have watch the end of these last two Duke games over and over in slow motion to believe the outcome. Suddenly, the basketball that seemed to have eyes only for the bottom of the net from 23 feet and beyond, in the last seconds, whether dancing on the rim or shot just inches away, would not drop through the net. Tonight, the Hokies, who usually execute and shoot so well, missed on three last chances in the final :30 seconds to tie or take the lead. The first two jump shots were defended well and were bricks that bounced awkwardly to Tech players. The last one was not defended at all but Ahmed Hill missed an open inbounds lob at point blank range (but fading away from the rim) with 1.0 second left. It might have been only fair as on the second miss, Blackshear chased down the misfire to the sideline but his foot came down on the out-of-bounds line with the referee also standing right on the line looking directly at him but not his foot. Had the violation been called rather than missed, the game would have been over as there was only 1.1 seconds left.

Coulda, shoulda, woulda. A long time ago, Don Henson, my coach, told me something that has proven true time and again: “The better the player, the luckier they are.”  It should not be overlooked that for the umpteenth time this season, Duke’s young freshmen found themselves in a game that went down to the final buzzer, yet found a way to beat an older, more experienced team. Tonight, it was a very talented, balanced, and well coached Virginia Tech team featuring four graduate students. However, the result wasn’t a fluke. In the second half, the Blue Devils led the final twelve minutes by making more plays offensively and defensively. Zion and RJ’s play should surprise no one, but….. O’Connell led the team in rebounding; Bolden made two important free throws; Javin and Marques limited Blackshear to shooting 5-14 for 18 points. The win was the sum of the disparate parts.

Perhaps buoyed by the thought they had already beaten Duke this season, the Tech players might have not fully comprehended what Zion and a healthy RJ bring to the team, as well as that all season Duke has been a second half team, because the Hokies came out playing like a team that believed they could do it again as they led 38-34 at the half. However, utilizing the UCF strategy of sagging off Trey Jones to jam the paint was not paying the dividends they anticipated as Trey was knocking down his jumper, Tacko Fall was not on the floor, but Zion Williamson  doing his Flyin’ Zion thing was, and the game was not in Blacksburg.

The Blue Devils were a different team in the second half as the Three Freshmen Musketeers went to work ultimately scoring 63 of Duke’s 75 points: RJ Barrett went on a run and the Capital Arena saw why the talented freshmen, even missing Cam Reddish, are—well, the most celebrated freshman class since the Fab Five. Barrett had 18 points, 4 rebounds, & 11 assists. Jones had 22 points & 6 assists, and Zion Williamson had among 23 points, 5 rebounds, & 3 blocks the usual variety  of “OMG, I don’t believe that,” plays seldom, if ever, seen in college basketball. Sophomore Alex O’Connell started in place of Reddish, played 36 minutes had a team high 7 rebounds and 4 points.

Other Comments:

  • Tough love. In yesterday’s practice, Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer told Trey Jones: “Teams aren’t not covering you because they think you’re a not a good shooter.’” The message was blunt. If Duke’s opponents want to double-team Williamson in the post or Barrett when he starts to drive, he was going get open shots. Prove them wrong.
  • Cam Reddish missed the game for the Blue Devils due to a left leg injury. His injury and status for Sunday’s game is unknown. In case you’re counting, it has been since February 16, against NC State in which Duke’s core players were all healthy.
  • Unfortunately, for those of us hoping for a Duke-North Carolina final, the Tar Heels, several of whom were hit with a flu bug, ran into a red hot Auburn team that made 17 three pointers and were eliminated.

Alan adds:

Years ago, the Yankees star left handed pitcher, Lefty Gomez, famously said, “I’d rather be lucky than good any day!”  This Duke team is certainly good, and even very good, but there is no denying they have been lucky — with opponents missing game open winning or tying shots at the buzzer.  As for Hill’s final undefended point blank shot at the rim that came off a brilliantly designed out of bounds play with 1.1 seconds left, Coach K said, “ Our guys played great defense to put us in a position where they have to make that play. In other words, we played two good defensive exchanges before that, with 29 seconds to go, then with 5.8 seconds to go. So you can elaborate on the last one. I’ll elaborate on the three. And all three proved to be successful for us.  I forget, sometimes the old thing — the operation was a success, but the patient died. And their play was a success but it didn’t work. But the three in a row for us, that’s a hell of a thing for our team.”

Bill and I are establishing a ritual.  He calls me at half time (Duke has lately been behind and not playing its A game), and asks, “who is going to win?”  I reply, “Duke is a second half team.”   And so it was last night against the Hokies.  The Blue Devils rose to the occasion, taking the lead and never trailing again in the game’s final 12 + minutes.  Zion, Tre and R.J played 59 minutes (R.J. sat for a minute after picking up his 4th foul) and scored 37 of Duke’s 41 second half points.  Alex also played 20 second half minutes.  Though he did not score (0-2 from deep), he got 3 rebounds, dished out an assist and had a steal.  Interestingly, even with Duke’s lead was shrinking as the game wound down, Coach K went with Alex over JGold (who did not play in the second half).  Even though Marquis committed 3 first half fouls he played 14 second half minutes without fouling out and scored the other 4 points (on a beautiful post move past Blackshear plus 2-2 on clutch free throws with under a minute to go).  His 5 second half rebounds were critical.  He was far more effective against Blackshear than DeLaurier (6 second half minutes).  Each played 20 minutes in the game.  Duke switched and fronted Blackshear making him far less effective in the second half.  Duke played almost excellent defense all game, and really excellent when it counted most.

What was on display was what Coach K calls “the will to win”.  Some would label it heart.  Detractors might use luck.  Whatever it is, it has produced a series of remarkable wins for this very young team this year.  Moreover, adversity has been a constant.  Duke practiced and game planned with Cam, but once again a key starter didn’t play.   Coach K put it in perspective, “We got a bunch of young guys, man. And Alex hasn’t played. It’s a hell of a win for us. It’s a great win. Our kids were terrific tonight. They were so damn good to coach. They rose to the occasion. And with that adversity. We’re a young, not a deep team. So we have kids that, all these kids are really good now. They’re going to be really good, unbelievable later. But they’re doing a great job while they’re 18. And two of these guys are 18. Do you remember 18? It’s hard for me to remember 18. And they’ve never backed down — they’ve never been afraid the whole year. And we played this amazing schedule. And the spotlight’s on these kids from day one to now. So to have that on them and still respond the way they do, it’s really terrific for these kids. And again they’ve been such a joy to coach.”

Zion was 6-6 for 12 second half points.  Don’t you love Bill’s “doing his flyin’ Zion thing”?  But that is precisely how Zion flew for 100% field goal accuracy in that half.  R.J. was 6-11; and 3-3 from the line (but 0-4 from deep) to lead Duke’s scoring in that stanza with 15 points.  Tre was beyond spectacular scoring 10 on 7 shots (4-7; 2-3 from deep, but 0-1 from the line that needs further description).  He had 4 rebounds, 5 assists without a turnover and a spectacular steal.  However, he must have been more relieved than any other Blue Devil when Hill’s shot missed.  With Duke up 75-71 and the shot clock off (29 seconds left), Jones committed a bad foul on Robinson far from the basket.  He grimaced guiltily as Robinson made both shots to cut the Duke lead to 2.  The Hokies had to foul.  Duke got the ball to Jones (would have been Reddish if …), who was fouled immediately.  It was only the Hokies’ 9th foul, making it a 1 and 1.  Tre missed the front end, giving the Hokies the ball back and a chance to tie or win with 29 seconds to go.  Whew!  Otherwise, he was the straw that stirred the amazing (and lucky) drink.

Is this Duke team “a team of destiny”?  Again Coach K is the voice of wisdom: “I don’t really believe that. I believe that we just play hard and you stay resilient and play until the end. We’ve had balls roll off, too. We got eliminated from the Final Four last year with that.  So the game is a great game. And it has amazing endings. And the last two endings for us have been for us. But our guys hung in there until the very end in both of them. And I don’t think you’re going to have an ending that’s favorable if you don’t hang in there until the end.”

Next Play: Michigan State in the elite 8 on Sunday at 5:05  p.m. on CBS.

 

Duke 67- Michigan State 68

Except for the first game of the season against Kentucky, this young but uber talented Duke team won 32 games including an ACC Tournament Championship despite being subpar at free throw and three point shooting as well as rarely playing at full potential for forty minutes. However, for most of the season those flaws were masked by the transcendent talents of Zion Williamson (they were 3-3 when he was injured). But not today. It was a close game of runs but those inconsistencies and the law of averages caught up with them against Tom Izzo’s tough Michigan State team that made one play more—ironically, a three– at the end than the Blue Devils did. It is amazing that the game was even this close. No matter how talented a team is, it cannot have 17 turnovers (11 steals), miss 5 free throws, give an opponent 70 shots at the basket, have only three players in double figures (24, 21, 10), and expect to win an a NCAA Elite Eight matchup against an experienced, battle tested, well coached opponent. The bottom line: Michigan State played more maturely than Duke. There is also the Basketball Gods factor. Down two points with 15 seconds left, Barrett, who has produced so many times in critical situations, was on the line with two shots. He missed the first, tried to miss the second but (unlike the Virginia – Purdue game) the ball bounced straight up and dropped straight down and in. As UCF and Virginia Tech can attest, the ball takes some crazy bounces.

After the game, Johnny Tar Heel called and said the good news is that this year Duke and Zion Williamson brought more excitement and interest to college basketball than any time in its history. In truth, Zion made more “OMG, I don’t believe that” plays seldom, if ever, seen in college basketball and rarely disappointed for very long, much less a full game. Today, he had 24 points, 14 rebounds, 3 steals, &  3 blocks– as well as innumerable shot intimidations at the rim. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, he only took only one shot in the last six minutes.

The Spartans are a battle tested, old school squad without a lottery pick. Truthfully, Freshman Trey Jones, the key to the Duke defense, and his teammates could not contain Junior PG Cassius Winston (20 points, 10 assists, 1 turnover) and enigmatic Freshman Cam Reddish did not rise to the occasion as he often has in tight games. Then, there were the missed  free throws and sloppy passing. Duke played like a young, tired team. Interestingly, Junior Javin DeLaurier (10 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks) was the most consistent player in Blue & White.

Undoubtedly, the question will be: If  Mike Krzyzewski with the most celebrated freshman class since the Fab Five (who also did not win a NCAA Title) and the once-in-a-lifetime talent of Williamson as well as RJ Barrett, the presumptive second pick in the NBA draft, cannot win the NCAA Championship, will Duke always be less than the sum of its parts in this one-year life cycle of starting over every season? My answer to that is this: The draft rules are established by the NBA contract with the Players Association. Would you recruit and coach the best players available—like Kyrie Irving, Jabbari Parker, Jason Tatum, RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson—or let them play for another program?

A more interesting question may be: Is Coach K’s strategy of playing his best players for most of every game more suitable for older, stronger players like he had before the one-and-done era than less physically mature 18 & 19 year old’s? Trey Jones, who was tasked with picking up and hounding point guards from half court or more, clearly has not been as effective late in the season as he was earlier. As I texted to Alan in the middle of the second half (just before Coach K called a timeout): “Even the indefatigable Zion seems gassed.”  Then, there is the ACC Tournament. As originally conceived, it meant more than a banner. The winner was the only ACC team that qualified for the NCAA Tournament. Now, an ACC team can play three or four games in a row, then immediately face rested run-and-gun teams in the NCAA Tournament that cannot wait to play against a Blue Blood Program. And it cannot be overlooked as how the three point shot has levelled the playing field. But all this is a conversation for another time and place.

Final Thoughts:

  • While on one hand, it is a cruel twist of fate that Tom Izzo and Michigan State, who are now 2-11 against Coach K’s teams, is headed to the Final Four along with three teams– Auburn, Texas Tech and Virginia (twice)– Duke beat by an average of 7.3 points in the regular season. This game may have been the de facto national championship. On the other hand, Coach Tony Bennett and Virginia, who have been so successful in the regular season but not so much in this tournament and were eliminated by a#16 seed last year, have an opportunity to run the table and win it all this year.
  • While this was a disappointing loss, it should not be considered a disappointing season. These young players were outstanding representatives of their school, always played hard through a difficult schedule and an injury to their best player. By almost any standard, this was an outstanding season of which any fan should be proud.
  • However, one thing is for certain. No matter your team allegiance or if you even are a basketball fan, the NCAA Basketball Tournament has become as compelling, exciting, and egalitarian a sporting event as any in America and, perhaps, the world.
  • Alan Adds:

The Season

Zion was asked how he felt.  His reply speaks in some ways for how I felt after the final whistle of this amazing Duke season.  “ I looked around the locker room and see teammates and brothers and know this group will never play together again.  I’m not ready to look back at the moment.  We just lost the game, obviously.  I have to get through this emotion first.  After a few days maybe I will look back on how great of a season we had.”

And it was an amazing season.  Coach K put in perspective: “We accomplished so much. We had the lead the whole year, with attention focused on us, the schedule we played, and everything else.  They handled things so beautifully.  They were deserving of special things and this year has been special.  But not going to the Final Four is a huge disappointment for us.”

R.J. was simply devastated at the post-game press conference.  He was almost catatonic, but somehow managed to keep his poise.  He was asked about his feeling: “Just that it’s over.  Every day we came in and worked our butts off.  We gave everything that we had all season long.  We had so much success.  To see that happen at the end … for it to be over for us is heartbreaking.”  When asked about the last play, he was almost Hemingwayesq: “They hit a big shot.  We came down and weren’t able to score.  I had 2 free throws. Missed them.  That was about it.”  And so it was.

The Game

Both teams played only six players (except for a few 3 minute cameos by each team).  The four starters on each team played virtually the whole game.  Each team alternated bigs – DeLaurier (23 minutes with a valuable double double – 5-5 for 10 points and 10 boards) and Tillman (29 minutes of great defense on Zion; 19 points and 9 boards) were the main players with Bolden (17 minutes without a point, block or assist and only 2 boards) and Ward (13 minutes with 6 points and 5 boards) backing up the starters.

Michigan State had 13 more field goal attempts, 18 assists to 7 turnovers (Duke had 17 turnovers and 14 assists).  For me, the telling statistic was fast break points.  All year, Duke made up for its sub-par 3 point shooting and erratic foul shooting with its ball hawking defense that created steals that led to transition fast break points.  It was Duke’s strongest of strong suits.  Last night Michigan state had 15 fast break points to Duke’s 0.  Duke did not record a single fast break point last night, and forced only 7 Michigan State turnovers.  Michigan State had 24 points off Duke turnovers while Duke managed only 9 from Spartan miscues. 

Coach K credited Winston for the Michigan State win.  He scored 20 (but on 23 shots) while handing out 10 assists with only a single turnover.  “Winston is the best guard we played against.  10 assists and 1 turnover.  He can make the right play at the right time.  Tre playing crazy on him.  Winston could handle the pressure and still run his team.  He’s as good a player as we’ve played against.”

It’s hard not to conclude that the better  team won this game.  Coach K again, “They played older than we did.  We are young.  In the first half, we were not ourselves.  We wanted it too much.  I spent most of the first half not x and o ing. I told them to just settle down and be you.  In the second half we did.”  The Spartans made the winning plays at the end.  Duke gave up the open three and then could not answer.  I did text Bill that I favored trying for a Cam three and the win on the last play (ala Florida State).  However, R.J. got to the rim and the line with a chance to tie.

My Wrap-Up

I admit that I expected this team to advance further than last year’s group of 1 and done stars.  It did seem a team of destiny, which made last night’s heartbreaking loss even a bit more heartbreaking.  However, it was a glorious season.  I echo Coach K’s wisdom.  It was a very disappointing loss as was the failure to get to The Final Four.  But the season was a very long way from being a disappointment.  After a few days, as Zion said: “We will look back on how great of a season we had.”

for the first game of the season against Kentucky, this young but uber talented Duke team won 32 games including an ACC Tournament Championship despite being subpar at free throw and three point shooting as well as rarely playing at full potential for forty minutes. However, for most of the season those flaws were masked by the transcendent talents of Zion Williamson (they were 3-3 when he was injured). But not today. It was a close game of runs but those inconsistencies and the law of averages caught up with them against Tom Izzo’s tough Michigan State team that made one play more—ironically, a three– at the end than the Blue Devils did. It is amazing that the game was even this close. No matter how talented a team is, it cannot have 17 turnovers (11 steals), miss 5 free throws, give an opponent 70 shots at the basket, have only three players in double figures (24, 21, 10), and expect to win an a NCAA Elite Eight matchup against an experienced, battle tested, well coached opponent. The bottom line: Michigan State played more maturely than Duke. There is also the Basketball Gods factor. Down two points with 15 seconds left, Barrett, who has produced so many times in critical situations, was on the line with two shots. He missed the first, tried to miss the second but (unlike the Virginia – Purdue game) the ball bounced straight up and dropped straight down and in. As UCF and Virginia Tech can attest, the ball takes some crazy bounces.

After the game, Johnny Tar Heel called and said the good news is that this year Duke and Zion Williamson brought more excitement and interest to college basketball than any time in its history. In truth, Zion made more “OMG, I don’t believe that” plays seldom, if ever, seen in college basketball and rarely disappointed for very long, much less a full game. Today, he had 24 points, 14 rebounds, 3 steals, &  3 blocks– as well as innumerable shot intimidations at the rim. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, he only took only one shot in the last six minutes.

The Spartans are a battle tested, old school squad without a lottery pick. Truthfully, Freshman Trey Jones, the key to the Duke defense, and his teammates could not contain Junior PG Cassius Winston (20 points, 10 assists, 1 turnover) and enigmatic Freshman Cam Reddish did not rise to the occasion as he often has in tight games. Then, there were the missed  free throws and sloppy passing. Duke played like a young, tired team. Interestingly, Junior Javin DeLaurier (10 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks) was the most consistent player in Blue & White.

Undoubtedly, the question will be: If  Mike Krzyzewski with the most celebrated freshman class since the Fab Five (who also did not win a NCAA Title) and the once-in-a-lifetime talent of Williamson as well as RJ Barrett, the presumptive second pick in the NBA draft, cannot win the NCAA Championship, will Duke always be less than the sum of its parts in this one-year life cycle of starting over every season? My answer to that is this: The draft rules are established by the NBA contract with the Players Association. Would you recruit and coach the best players available—like Kyrie Irving, Jabbari Parker, Jason Tatum, RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson—or let them play for another program?

A more interesting question may be: Is Coach K’s strategy of playing his best players for most of every game more suitable for older, stronger players like he had before the one-and-done era than less physically mature 18 & 19 year old’s? Trey Jones, who was tasked with picking up and hounding point guards from half court or more, clearly has not been as effective late in the season as he was earlier. As I texted to Alan in the middle of the second half (just before Coach K called a timeout): “Even the indefatigable Zion seems gassed.”  Then, there is the ACC Tournament. As originally conceived, it meant more than a banner. The winner was the only ACC team that qualified for the NCAA Tournament. Now, an ACC team can play three or four games in a row, then immediately face rested run-and-gun teams in the NCAA Tournament that cannot wait to play against a Blue Blood Program. And it cannot be overlooked as how the three point shot has levelled the playing field. But all this is a conversation for another time and place.

Final Thoughts:

  • While on one hand, it is a cruel twist of fate that Tom Izzo and Michigan State, who are now 2-11 against Coach K’s teams, is headed to the Final Four along with three teams– Auburn, Texas Tech and Virginia (twice)– Duke beat by an average of 7.3 points in the regular season. This game may have been the de facto national championship. On the other hand, Coach Tony Bennett and Virginia, who have been so successful in the regular season but not so much in this tournament and were eliminated by a#16 seed last year, have an opportunity to run the table and win it all this year.
  • While this was a disappointing loss, it should not be considered a disappointing season. These young players were outstanding representatives of their school, always played hard through a difficult schedule and an injury to their best player. By almost any standard, this was an outstanding season of which any fan should be proud.
  • However, one thing is for certain. No matter your team allegiance or if you even are a basketball fan, the NCAA Basketball Tournament has become as compelling, exciting, and egalitarian a sporting event as any in America and, perhaps, the world.
  • Alan Adds:

The Season

Zion was asked how he felt.  His reply speaks in some ways for how I felt after the final whistle of this amazing Duke season.  “ I looked around the locker room and see teammates and brothers and know this group will never play together again.  I’m not ready to look back at the moment.  We just lost the game, obviously.  I have to get through this emotion first.  After a few days maybe I will look back on how great of a season we had.”

And it was an amazing season.  Coach K put in perspective: “We accomplished so much. We had the lead the whole year, with attention focused on us, the schedule we played, and everything else.  They handled things so beautifully.  They were deserving of special things and this year has been special.  But not going to the Final Four is a huge disappointment for us.”

R.J. was simply devastated at the post-game press conference.  He was almost catatonic, but somehow managed to keep his poise.  He was asked about his feeling: “Just that it’s over.  Every day we came in and worked our butts off.  We gave everything that we had all season long.  We had so much success.  To see that happen at the end … for it to be over for us is heartbreaking.”  When asked about the last play, he was almost Hemingwayesq: “They hit a big shot.  We came down and weren’t able to score.  I had 2 free throws. Missed them.  That was about it.”  And so it was.

The Game

Both teams played only six players (except for a few 3 minute cameos by each team).  The four starters on each team played virtually the whole game.  Each team alternated bigs – DeLaurier (23 minutes with a valuable double double – 5-5 for 10 points and 10 boards) and Tillman (29 minutes of great defense on Zion; 19 points and 9 boards) were the main players with Bolden (17 minutes without a point, block or assist and only 2 boards) and Ward (13 minutes with 6 points and 5 boards) backing up the starters.

Michigan State had 13 more field goal attempts, 18 assists to 7 turnovers (Duke had 17 turnovers and 14 assists).  For me, the telling statistic was fast break points.  All year, Duke made up for its sub-par 3 point shooting and erratic foul shooting with its ball hawking defense that created steals that led to transition fast break points.  It was Duke’s strongest of strong suits.  Last night Michigan state had 15 fast break points to Duke’s 0.  Duke did not record a single fast break point last night, and forced only 7 Michigan State turnovers.  Michigan State had 24 points off Duke turnovers while Duke managed only 9 from Spartan miscues. 

Coach K credited Winston for the Michigan State win.  He scored 20 (but on 23 shots) while handing out 10 assists with only a single turnover.  “Winston is the best guard we played against.  10 assists and 1 turnover.  He can make the right play at the right time.  Tre playing crazy on him.  Winston could handle the pressure and still run his team.  He’s as good a player as we’ve played against.”

It’s hard not to conclude that the better  team won this game.  Coach K again, “They played older than we did.  We are young.  In the first half, we were not ourselves.  We wanted it too much.  I spent most of the first half not x and o ing. I told them to just settle down and be you.  In the second half we did.”  The Spartans made the winning plays at the end.  Duke gave up the open three and then could not answer.  I did text Bill that I favored trying for a Cam three and the win on the last play (ala Florida State).  However, R.J. got to the rim and the line with a chance to tie.

My Wrap-Up

I admit that I expected this team to advance further than last year’s group of 1 and done stars.  It did seem a team of destiny, which made last night’s heartbreaking loss even a bit more heartbreaking.  However, it was a glorious season.  I echo Coach K’s wisdom.  It was a very disappointing loss as was the failure to get to The Final Four.  But the season was a very long way from being a disappointment.  After a few days, as Zion said: “We will look back on how great of a season we had.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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