Duke Basketball Playbook 2019-20

Welcome  to the eleventh edition of the Duke basketball Playbook. After watching only two exhibition games, it is difficult to make any definitive assessments about this year’s team, except that there is n0 Zion Williamson. But that has been true every year, because he is a once-in-a-lifetime player. However, there is more depth of talented … Continue reading “Duke Basketball Playbook 2019-20”

Welcome  to the eleventh edition of the Duke basketball Playbook.

After watching only two exhibition games, it is difficult to make any definitive assessments about this year’s team, except that there is n0 Zion Williamson. But that has been true every year, because he is a once-in-a-lifetime player. However, there is more depth of talented players than recently, just not an obvious top lottery pick—the kind of game changing talent to which we have become accustomed. That doesn’t mean one or two won’t develop into that kind of player. The question is: whom will that be and, more to the point, other than Tre Jones and, possibly, Vernon Carey and Mathew Hurt, whose  practice and play will deserve floor time?

Let’s hear what’s on Coach K’s mind:  “Well, Zion and RJ are not here. It’s a different approach every year. This group is going to be a unit, not a starting five. Everyone’s gotta be ready to play. I’d call it old school. Like older Duke teams, from years past. Not the (Christian) Laettner, (Bobby) Hurley, or (Shane) Battier, or those guys, but a team that plays really good defense. Our kids want to do that.” [Translation: This will be a coach centric, not player centric, team.]

If history is any guide, unless you can shoot like JJ Redick, defense will be the key to minutes played. We know that Coach K loves point guards and Jordan Goldwire, a demon on defense but who has, shall we say, limited shooting range, has been starting with Tre Jones. That may be an early message to the more highly touted freshmen, because it is hard for me (but not Alan) to imagine he and Tre (who appears not to have improved his three point shot over the summer) playing a lot of minutes together– except if a Louisville-like comeback is needed. We know what Javin DeLaurier (if he stays out of foul trouble) and Jack White (if he found his jump shot in Australia this summer) can do. They are experienced co-captains and will get PT. Wendell Moore, Cassius Stanley (who broke Zion’s vertical leap record but is 100 lbs. lighter) are intriguing players as are the enigmatic but talented Alex O’ Connell and Joey (almost redshirted) Baker, who had a JJ like three point explosion (6-9), 22 points in 21 minutes against Ft. Valley State. It will be interesting to see if he can do that against Kansas in the Garden this Tuesday. As Johnny Tar Heel told me Friday at lunch: “O’Connell, Jack White, and seldom used graduate student Justin Robinson are the only other players who have demonstrated they can throw it in the water from a boat in the middle of the ocean.”

After these exhibitions games, I agree with Buzz Mewhort’s comment that free throw shooting and three point shooting may again be the Achilles Heel of this team– but with no Zion or RJ to bail them out. [Note: This year, the three-point line in college basketball moved from 20’ 9” inches from the center of the basket to the international basketball distance of 22’ 1 ¾”. Fortunately, the free throw line remains unchanged.]

Bottom Line: It’s a long season with more unknowns than knowns. These are teenagers blessed with exceptional physical and athletic skills and but burdened by often unrealistic expectations not only by themselves, but also by their parents, friends, neighbors, and classmates. Their success and failures are broadcast on television twice a week, sometimes more, for all to see and celebrate or critique on social media. Millions of dollars of NBA and shoe money are on the line. And, oh yes, there are classes, homework, term papers, and tests. Then, there is teammate and parental jealousies, girlfriend issues, and being away from the comfort of home. This is a lot of pressure for anyone much less a teenager, no matter how talented, to shoulder.

Stuff happens: Last year’s preseason #1Duke team played it’s best game of the year in the first game of the season destroying #2Kentucky 118-84. They looked hands down like the best team in college basketball. Then, Zion got hurt, RJ wore down, and, for mysterious reasons, Cam Reddish never again was consistently as good as advertised. They won the ACC Tournament beating UNC in the semi’s. At full strength, the last two NCAA Tournament games of the year against Central Florida and Michigan State, were among their worst.  In 1991, UNC beat Duke 96-74 for the ACC Championship but three weeks later defeated unbeaten UNLV then Kansas to win the NCAA National Championship. Try to explain these oxymoronic outcomes. They are just some of the fascinating mysteries that makes sports so compelling to follow.

Alan Adds:

Why am I smiling as I excitedly start to write about the upcoming season?  I admit I am totally psyched for the coming Duke basketball year.  My heresy: “this year’s team will be better than last year’s.”  Really?  No team has ever had three of the previous year’s starters as lottery picks.  How could this team be better?

Last Year

In spite of having Zion and RJ, Duke played a desultory end game in February and March last year.  Remember, after the heroic comeback against Louisville on February 13, Duke lost by 16 to UNC on February 21; to Virginia Tech by 5 on February 27; to UNC again by 9 in the season finale in March.  In the penultimate regular season game, Duke held off a terrible Wake team by a point on senior night in Cameron, after giving Wake a chance to actually win with 7 seconds left.  Winning the ACC tournament was a feat, but may have obscured obvious weaknesses.  Duke beat UNC in the semi-finals by a point before defeating Florida State for the title.   Florida State had beaten UVA in the semi-finals, which might have dulled their fires for the final.  In any event, the Blue Devils were far from impressive in the Big Dance: unimpressive in beating North Dakota State, almost lost to Central Florida (when Dawkins missed the open put back), winning by 1; beat Virginia Tech by 2 after Tre missed the front end of a 1 and 1, which gave the Hokies a wide open bunny at the basket to tie the game; and, finally the loss to Michigan State.  Duke’s problem last year is easy to identify.  In the modern game, Duke shot thirty percent from deep; last in the ACC by a wide margin and 317 out of 371 Division I teams.  Duke also shot under 70% from the free throw line 13th in the 15 team ACC.  Those two statistics were Duke’s Achilles heel last year.

My Optimism for This Year

We have seen one half of basketball in an intra-squad scrimmage; and two exhibition games against teams that had no real inside presence (or at least nothing comparable to ACC and National class competition).  We have seen 11 players with enough talent to make the rotation and enough inconsistent play to make predicting the starting lineup and rotation next to impossible.  Readers know that I love defense and believe it is the key to championships.  Duke has many high level defenders who could be part of an extraordinary defense.  The best news is that the headlines from coaches and players coming out of practice are all about defense.  Here’s my analysis of the pieces of the puzzle that are Coach K’s to use:

The Bigs

There are five:  Justin Robinson (6’9” 5th year senior), Javin DeLaurier (6’10” senior), Jack White (6’7” senior) as well as two highly regarded freshmen, Vernon Carey (6’10) and Mathew Hurt (6’9”).

Vernon Carey – rated 6th overall last year and 3rd rated center.  He’s down to 250 lbs. from 270 for speed and mobility.  In the Blue-White scrimmage, he was the best player on the floor, posting up DeLaurier, scoring inside and out.  Coach K said he played mostly on the perimeter in high school, and is just learning to score on the interior.  He’s coordinated and a shot blocker.  Then, in the first exhibition game, he simply laid a shocking egg, committing 3 offensive fouls in the very early going and only seeing 9 minutes of playing time.  In the final exhibition game against a dramatically inferior and smaller team, he started and played very well.  I believe he will be a stud by the time Duke is deep in the ACC season.

Mathew Hurt –is rail thin  at 215 pounds, but can do everything on a basketball court.  He is a scorer and smart player.  He can shoot from the outside, has nifty post moves, can pass, dribble, drive, rebound and defend.  More than any other player, I want to see how he handles playing against a Nationally ranked team like Kansas, with its powerful front line.  The jury is out, but I very much like what I have seen so far.

Jack White – is so valuable.  However, his shot deserted him in the second half of last year, which really hurt Duke.  He had, by all reports, an excellent summer with the Australian National Junior team.  He is best as a rebounder; he is a versatile defender, with no real weaknesses (if his shot goes in this year)

Javin DeLaurier – seems to have acquired the maturity he needs to stop fouling and stay on the floor as the team’s best defender among the Bigs.  He will play many crucial minutes.  He is not a scorer, but a valued contributor.

Justin Robinson – All laud his value in the locker room as a team builder. I (maybe alone) have seen enough to think there may be a time this year when he is in the rotation.  I was impressed that when he guarded Tre Jones on the perimeter in the Blue-White scrimmage when he blocked two of Tre’s shots.  He can shoot from the perimeter and is a good rebounder.

Wings and Off Guards

It is very possible that Matt Hurt will play as the small forward with two of the more traditional Bigs up front.  The others who will compete for playing time in those positions are Alex O’Connell (6’6”), Joey Baker (6’7”) as well as freshmen Wendell Moore (6’6”) and Cassius Stanley (6’6”).

Joey Baker – had played himself well out of the rotation in the intra-squad scrimmage and the first exhibition game.  He looked lost at both ends of the floor.  I had him least likely to play until the last exhibition game, when he demonstrated that his reputation as a long range shooter wasn’t an alternative fact.  His shot lit up the Duke offense as he led Duke’s scoring.  He will get a chance is my prediction.  There will be a lot of pressure on his first shot.  He clearly has the potential to shoot himself into the rotation.

Alex O’Connell – has shown flashes of skill and talent, but suffers from being inconsistent and sometimes not intense on the defensive end.  He has matured and will see time on the floor.  As with most, how he takes advantages of his opportunities will dictate his playing time.  He has demonstrated hops and driving ability.  He can be a bit sloppy with the ball, but has played very well in spots.  If he overcomes his inconsistency, he will be a valuable contributor.

Wendell Moore – might be the most athletic player on this squad.  He’s been a ball hawk and intense one on one defender on the defensive end.  He has played some backup point guard.  He is not shy; will shoot from anywhere.  He is a ferocious driver, but can be over exuberant.  He has perfected the behind the back pass to the press in the front row.  A warrior on defense and a work in progress on offense.

Cassius Stanley – the lowest rated of Duke’s freshmen coming out of high school (a 4 star recruit), he has been (to me) the surprise of Duke’s pre-season.  I love this freshman and believe that in spite of being the lowest rated, he may turn out to be the most valuable.  He’s smooth.  He has never seemed rattled to me and has not displayed a freshman like inconsistency.  He’s quick (and since he broke Zion vertical leap Duke record), it is clear he has remarkable hops.  I have liked his passing, ball handling and defense.  He has a terrific handle, makes his free throws and has a high shooting percentage.  I will go out on the limb and predict that if he doesn’t start (I think he will), he will be first off the bench.  I like my limb.

The ballhandling guards

Tre Jones and his backup (maybe) Jordan Goldwire.  When they play together, they make a formidable defensive duo.  They have acquired the nicknames: Thing One and Thing Two, for their ferocious pressing defense.

Jordan Goldwire —  we saw last season – especially against Louisville and UNC in the ACC tournament – he is a superior defender who can steal the ball, execute the trap, and has amazing intensity.  His three point shooting has been woeful, but he has shown an ability to get to the rim with the ball – even against Tre in the scrimmage.  I believe he will log major minutes this year.

Tre Jones —  as Tre goes, so will Duke go.  He has had a slow start.  He was outplayed in the scrimmage and has not shot well from the perimeter.  Of course, his defense is the best, he handles the ball with aplomb and skill, and has increased his scoring on drives and a pull up mid-range game.  Whether he can turn into the player his brother was will depend on his long range shot and his ability to hit free throws at the end of games.  He is the player that Duke will rely upon more than any other.

Musing About the Season

Coach K’s starting lineup in the last exhibition game is my bet on who will start against Kansas.  Thing One and Two will start in the backcourt with three freshmen up front – Stanley on the wing; Hurt and Carey up front.  I think (and fervently hope) that this will be a pressing team that substitutes freely to keep the defensive pressure on.  Coach K will do much experimenting before we know who is starting and what the various roles are by February and March (and hopefully April).

In the last years (since the 2015 championship), Duke has been better in November and December than at seasons’ end.  I predict that will change this year.  I think Duke will have trouble in the early going and jell at the best possible time.

That’s why I’m smiling.

Tuesday November 5 at Madison Square Garden: Duke v Kansas.  Game on.

Duke 68 –  Kansas 66

A year ago in this nationally televised season opening Champions Classic, Duke’s precocious freshmen played like they belonged in the NBA. Tonight, this new class of freshmen sometimes played like they were suffering from stage fright but the upper classmen led the way with retro Krzyzewski basketball– tough, aggressive defense that trumped (a bridge, not a political, term) sloppy, inconsistent offense. I don’t know if the Blue Devil defense is this good or Kansas big players have hands of stone but the Jayhawks committed 18 first half turnovers and 28 overall. For sure, the defense appears much better than that of the last few years when defense was a seven letter word that seemed like an afterthought and led to (gasp) Duke Playing Zone. While the savvy point guard from appropriately enough Apple Valley (15 pts, 6 assists, 3 steals) led the Blue Devils to this win in the Big Apple, it was the tough Australian senior and co-captain Jack White, who was the enforcer at closing time. Although he hit an important three, it was his shrewd defensive manuevers with 2 steals, a block, and an offensive rebound in the final minute and a half that clinched the win.

All the freshmen settled down and had their moments: Vernon Carey held his own against older, bigger players; Matthew Hurt, hit some big threes but was not a strong presence inside; and Wendell Moore demonstrated unusual versatility and athleticism but was often out of control. However, it was Cassius Stanley, the only Duke freshman who did not to make the McDonald’s All-America team, who stepped into the spotlight in the second half going 5-6, including 2 dunks and a three for 13 points to spark the second half resurgence. In addition, Alex O’Connell contributed both offensively AND defensively. Of the top ten players, only Joey Baker, coming off a sensational shooting performance, did not receive any playing time.

Other Comments:

Both teams struggled from the foul line with Kansas going 16 for 26 and Duke 14 for 23. Only Ty Jones’ 5-5 at the end made Duke’s semi-respectable.

The win ended a three-game Duke losing streak to Kansas and extends Duke’s all-time record in the rivalry to 8-5. It also ran Duke’s record to 6-3 in the Champions Classic.

At games in Madison Square Garden, Duke is now 36-18 all-time and now 70—27 when playing in the greater New York City area. Under Coach Krzyzewski, they are now 31-11 at MSG and 33-18 in games between top-five teams.

Alan Adds:

As the announcers make unnecessarily clear, this year’s Duke basketball team will be a work in progress for most of this year.  As Bill emphasized, Duke’s defense, which has been distressingly un-Coach K like in the past several years, looked exceedingly formidable.  The Devils doubled the post frequently and effectively (except for one stretch in the second half).  It was coordinated team defense, led, of course, by Tre’s on the ball defense.  But Tre had plenty of help from his energetic teammates, who pressed and switched, giving Kansas fits and creating the raft of Jayhawk turnovers.

The game began to answer the intriguing questions about this team.  Who will earn minutes, start the games, be on the court at crunch time are all open questions.  I thought last night’s game against Kansas, especially the second half, began to illuminate some answers.  The second half was winning time (obviously), but also where Duke faced its first real adversity of the season (down 9 as Kansas ran off 13 in a row).  How Duke responded to that, fought tooth and nail for the entire half, and prevailed at the end with Tre Jones doing his best Tyus Jones imitation.  With Duke leading 62-61 and 1:34 left in the game, Tre scored Duke’s last 6 points with a tough mid-range jumper followed by 4 clutch free throws to clinch it.  Duke also established a Big 3.  Tre played all 20 minutes (39 for the game), while Vernon Carey was on the floor for 17 minutes and Cassius Stanley for 16.  Both Stanley and Carey played exceedingly well and got timely help from Jack White (11 minutes of scintillating play after a sub-par first half) and Alex O’Connell (whose 12 minute second half contributions were on the floor and defense – a very good sign) and Matt Hurt.  Hurt made 2 huge 3 point shots in his 10 minutes on the floor, but had trouble competing on the interior (a single rebound).  Alex scored 9 in the game; 7 in the first half. Wendell Moore (6 minutes, a rebound, a foul and 2 turnovers), Jordan Goldwire (5 minutes; 0-1), and Javin (who managed to commit 2 fouls and miss his only field goal attempt and both free throws in just 3 minutes) contributed little in the final stanza.  Javin continued his foul prone defense committing 4 in only 12 minutes.

Cassius Stanley’s second half deserves special attention.  As I predicted in the pre-season edition of the DBP, in addition to his excellent defense Stanley was the Devil’s offensive stud in the second half.  One play stood out for me.  Stanley was after a loose ball heading out of bounds off Duke.  He grabbed it on the sideline and staggered for balance.  He maintained that balance enough to throw an accurate pass, giving Duke an extra possession.  Incredible athletic skill.  His second half was awesome (11 points on 4-4 shooting; 1-1 from deep; and 2-3 from the foul line).  He was Duke’s anchor facing that 9 point deficit.  With 14:35 left in the half, the Jayhawks had forged a 46-37 lead.  Carey and Hurt made back to back 3s (both on assists from Tre) to trim the lead to 3.  Cassius then scored 8 straight points – the first two on dunks (great passes from Tre on each) followed by 1-2 from the line and a 3 pointer.  Duke was back in the fray fighting toward the end.  With Duke trailing by a deuce with under 3 minutes to play, Stanley scored from the field on a tough shot and completed the 3 point play to give Duke the 62-61 lead that set the stage for Tre’s heroics.  Carey was the glue to Duke’s interior game.  He helped Duke answer another big question: does this team have the inside presence to compete with national class front lines.

The answer was a qualified yes, with the emphasis coming from Carey.  It was almost as if it took him a half to understand how big and powerful the Kansas front was.  Then Carey’s athleticism (2-2 on 3 point attempts) took over and he led Duke on the interior both on defense and offense.  His development will be a huge factor in how this season turns out.  Jack White was superb in the second half and Matt Hurt played well and will get better.  Let’s hope this was just an aberration for Javin.

It was a wonderful start to a season of questions.

Next game: Colorado State on Friday (11-8).

Duke 89 – Colorado State 55

After one very difficult game in a very difficult venue and one not so difficult game in a very friendly venue, Coach K stayed true to his word prior to the season that due to the team’s “balance” the Blue Devils would not have a go-to starting five. [Translation: There is no Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter or Jayson Tatum like there were during the last three seasons However, we have depth and talent,  so I am going have to be a real coach again.] Consequently, Krzyzewski will shift different players and/or groups of players in and out until he finds what works against a particular team on particular night. Krzyzewski’ somewhat puzzling analogy: “It’s like a musical. When you have a few guys that are NBA ready, they sing most of the songs and have all the dances. With this group,  is more like an ensemble. It’s, okay, knock our socks off with how you’re doing it. That’s why I said it’s more of an old-school, retro[team]. It’s built on defense.”

A case in point: In both games, defense kept the Blue Devils in the game until some one or two players developed an offensive rhythm and demanded the spotlight. Against Kansas it was Cassius Stanley, supported by Tre Jones, and Jack White. Tonight, it was a late first half surge  by starters Jones, O’Connell, & Stanley teamed with non-starters DeLaurier & White in place of Carey & Hurt. Suddenly, the lead doubled to 12 points. By the time the half was over, Duke had scored the game’s last 10 points to lead by 16. The Blue Devils forced 8 Colorado State turnovers over the first nine minutes of the second half. Think about that. A lead that was six points with 2:18 left until halftime was now 24 just 3:21 into the second half. In less than six minutes of actual play, Duke quadrupled its lead. That is a classic Duke Run to which Blue Devils fans have become accustomed from their best teams. “That group at the end of the half really played the best eight minutes of the game– the last four minutes of the first half and first four minutes of the second half,” Krzyzewski said. “Jack, Javin, Alex, Cassius, and Tre just found a rhythm defensively and offensively and boom we had it.”

This wasn’t a particularly good night for Carey and Hurt. The 6-10, 260-pound inscrutable Carey scored 11 points on 5-for-5 shooting but fouled out in just 15 minutes of play. Afterwards, he was very analytical: “I have to adjust to the calls, really, and the playing style, because, for instance, this game was completely different from the last game where we played Kansas just physical wise and call wise. I have to learn to adjust to that.” Hurt had 9 and 5 rebounds in 22 minutes. White and DeLaurier only combined for 7 points, but their play meshed well with Jones, O’Connell and Stanley.

The bottom line is that chemistry and defense usually win close games. Take another look at the picture above. Did you notice Jack White lying unconscious in the paint? He and roommate Javin DeLaurier crashed into each other lunging for a loose ball. Jack got the worst of it, but Javin recovered to contest the shot along with Alex O’Connell (aka. AOC). That, folks, is tough defense.

Other Comments:

  • Despite a team of McDonald All-Americans, three point shooting and free throws (60%) again appear to continue to be a frustrating weakness with the Duke Blue Devils.  Duke was 4-for-22 from long range against Colorado State. O’Connell made three of them. The rest of the team was 1-for-16.
  • Coach Mike Krzyzewski announced Thursday that fifth-year senior Justin Robinson has been named a captain for the 2019-20 season. Robinson, a graduate student at Duke University, is in his fifth year on the Duke men’s basketball team. He will join sophomore captain Tre Jones and senior captains Jack White and Javin DeLaurier on the Blue Devils’ newly-created Leadership Council. Robinson, whose NBA All Pro father David rarely misses a game, is from San Antonio, Texas, holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and is pursuing his master’s degree in management students in Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.
  • Highly touted Carolina freshman Cole Anthony (UNLV’s Greg Anthony’s son) has had an impressive two games, scoring in the 30’s. However, he took 40 percent of UNC’s shots against Notre Dame and 33 percent against ECU. When I pointed this out to Johnny Tar Heel, he said that is because nobody else on the team can shoot. However, Roy’s Boys have had a number of injuries and are short- handed.

Alan Adds:

The Defense

Before the Kansas game fades from memory, just how remarkable the Duke defense was in that game should be examined.  This was the first game of the season and Duke was a very different group from last year.  I went back to look at portions of the Kansas game.  The sophistication and cohesion of the Duke defense would have been remarkable at season’s end for a veteran team, like Virginia.  Duke negated Kansas’s inside advantage by doubling the post on almost every post possession.  Yet the post player could not find an open man … because there wasn’t one.  Duke’s switching and anticipation was almost magical.  I found myself a bit disappointed by the defense in this game.  There were missed assignments and Colorado State did get a bunch of open looks.  Duke played really hard, but there was a Kansas like intensity that was missing by a small notch or two.

But wait a minute.  Duke held the Rams to 26 first half points, and 32% shooting for the game, while forcing 18 turnovers (12 steals).  Moreover, the defense allowed only 2 offensive rebounds.  The reality of the rout is the defense simply gutted Colorado State, both physically and spiritually.  The Rams had to work so hard just to avoid steals on every possession.  After the early run in the second half, Colorado State was emotionally done.  The defense did all that; so, maybe I overreacted.

The Rotation

There is growing clarity to Coach K’s rotation.  Alex O’Connell has emerged and has played his way into starting.  He has been the most improved veteran.  It seems the coach has settled on a starting perimeter of Tre, Cassius, and Alex.  They all excelled last night.  Cassius has been a highlight; and Tre has been all we hoped for (except from deep).  Wendell Moore will be first off the bench on the perimeter.  He is so athletic and exuberant on the court that he will get minutes.  He can turn the ball over from anywhere, but he can also dazzle.  I believe Coach K will be patient with him and he will blossom before February.  Jordan Goldwire will spell Tre when there is that luxury, and come in for defense in pressing situations.  The interior is more muddled.

Coach K mentioned many players in his press conference, but not Matt Hurt or Vernon Carey.  The co-captains earned praise for their amazing performance in the 8 minutes that Bill described so well.  But Duke needs Vernon Carey.  He may have fouled out in his 15 minutes, but take a look at his stat line for those 15 minutes.  He scored 11 on an efficient 5-5 from the floor and 1-1 from the line.  He grabbed 3 boards, blocked 2 shots and had a steal.  He wasn’t mentioned because he turned it over 3 times while committing 5 fouls.  Coach K has many ways of motivating his freshmen.  White (especially if his shot ever returns) and Javin have great value, but for Duke to be a force at tournament time, the freshmen – especially Carey – have to mature and develop.

The Offense

While the offense overwhelmed an inferior team – gutted by early second half – the offense is developing.  But it seems like de ja vu all over again with the abysmal 3 point shooting and the sub-par foul shooting.  Last year we kept saying that the players were too talented to keep shooting so badly.  It should be fixable, but if it is not fixed it will be fatal to championship dreams.

An interesting insight

Coach K explained why he elevated David Robinson to captain.  He said that with Team USA, there was a “leadership council” of a few players.  “It doesn’t matter whether you call it leadership council or co-captains.  It gives a chance for analysis, planning and chemistry.”  They meet every Monday.  Another example of Coach K’s genius.

Central Arkansas on Tuesday (7:00 ACC Network) and Georgia State on Friday.

DUKE 105 – CENTRAL ARKANSAS 54

Duke’s Wendell Moore Jr. (0) forces a turnover by Central Arkansas’ Rylan Bergersen (1) during the first half on Tuesday, November 12, 2019 at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C.

Since this was such a lopsided game, we will summarize this and Friday’s Georgia State game on the weekend.

Of note: After a first half head to head collision, Tre Jones is apparently OK and, shockingly, #1 Kentucky lost at home to Evansville 67-64. (It’s still very early in the season.)

DUKE 74 – GEORGIA STATE 63

Attention to detail is one of the reasons Coach K is who he is. For instance, he schedules teams like Central Arkansas and  Georgia State, etc. for a reason. It is because there are a lot of talented basketball players who are not quite big enough or who, for some other reason, never were on the recruiting radar of the big programs (Stephen & Seth Curry) but who play at smaller schools like  Evansville, Wofford, Belmont, Lehigh, Davidson, and UMBC– small, quick talented teams who, with the benefit of the three  point line, play a different style of basketball (sort of a college version of the Golden State Warriors)  and on any given night can and have beaten the best teams in the country. Just ask Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia. These are the kind of teams a high seed often play the first rounds of the NCAA Tournament and  they benefit from the experience of defending a team much different than the typical ACC opponent.

The two games this week demonstrated the logic of this approach. The game against Central Arkansas was a no-problem blowout; the first half against Georgia State was anything but. The Blue Devils were fortunate to be up by two at the half as G State hit 50% of their threes, forced as many turnovers as Duke, had as many steals, and only Tre Jones and Vernon Carey seemed to be able to put points on the board. Fortunately, in the second half Joey Baker’s two consecutive threes sparked a patented Duke run that more or less put the game away.

Ever since Coach K has been successfully recruiting one-and-done players, I have been surprised by what relatively mediocre defenders, free throw and three point shooters many of these uber rated players generally have been. Perhaps, it is because until this level, they had been so much better than their competition, they could just out score opponents with sheer athleticism—or, perhaps, they had an eye on their NBA draft status. Whatever the reason, this year’s Duke class appears different, because defense is their calling card—and it is a good thing, because, as Friday’s game demonstrated, right now collectively they appear offensively underwhelming—especially for a top rated team with a target on their back. When Tre Jones is scoring half your points and has the only threes of the half,  and, for the entire game, the team only shoots 34% from the floor, 59% from the charity strip, and 25% from three–Holy JJ Redick, Batman, this team better be able to play defense! My take is that only Jones and Carey are irreplaceable starters and until any of the other eight candidates develop more confidence and consistency, the other three spots will be musical chairs. For a Duke fan, the frustrating aspect of all this is that what used to be a four year development process has, in many cases, been compressed into one year.

An early season assessment:

Tre Jones– A sheer joy to watch. The consummate point guard. A wonderful teammate. Sets the tone at both ends of the floor. Not to worry: Anyone who hits nearly 80% of their free throws has the skill set to hit threes.

 Vernon Carey – As large and strong as an NFL lineman but athletic and an unusually soft touch for a big man. Mature and analytical.  Needs to get more comfortable in the post (missed two point blank dunks last night) and not always go left. Has to be on the floor for thirty minutes or more in big games.

Cassius Stanley – Least highly rated of this year’s class but, perhaps, has the most upside. His 45” vertical leap broke Zion’s Duke record but is about 100 pounds lighter and a much different player. By far best frosh defender. Has multiple game changing skills. Doesn’t seem to quite understand how good he can be but stay tuned.

Matthew Hurt – Terrific touch and range for someone  6’ 9” but lacks strength. When that comes, he will have Laettner-like abilities to stretch the floor and impact the game.

Jack White – Aussie Tough but last year lost his shooting touch somewhere in the Outback. Nevertheless, look for this senior to be in at the end of close games. If his shot ever comes off vacation, he will start, because Coach K loves his physicality and toughness and ability to defend 1-5.

Javin DeLaurier – Tough defender in the paint and in the open floor but has difficulty staying on the floor and not fouling out. Really blossomed at the end of last year but has not attained that same consistency this year. I’m betting the senior co-captain will be a valuable contributor.

Alex O’Connell– The junior has improved his defense and could well start if he can hit open shots and maintain his focus. He and Stanley are the most explosive players on the team.

Joey Baker – Joey may be the wild card of the group. He appeared to fall out of favor early but may have shot himself back into favor Friday with his  two timely threes and intense defense. For sure, this team will see a lot of zone defenses and Joey may be the best available antidote to that.

Wendell Moore – Those who evaluate Blue Chip talent love his size and athleticism and aggressiveness. Except for flashes, he has been a bull in the china shop and until he relaxes and lets the game come to him, it is tough to see Coach K risk using him in close games.

Jordan Goldwire– Solid sub for Jones. Coach K loves him. A lot to admire, except his  shot. Cannot see he and Jack White on the floor at the same time as Jack is a more physical and versatile defender and rebounder.

Having proffered all the above, the reality is that right now Duke is undefeated, Kentucky & Kansas have one loss each and, for whatever it means, next week the Blue Devils will probably be ranked the number one team in the country. However, we will have a much better take on this team late December 3rd, after Duke plays pre-season #1 Michigan State in East Lansing. Whatever that outcome, Duke fans can anticipate another exciting season with high expectations but with the knowledge that it is a long, tough journey to another national championship. However, buckle your seat belt, the Blue Devils have a very deep, talented team, and a coach much like the legendary Alabama football Coach Bear Bryant of whom it was said: ” He can take his’n and beat your’n, and then he can turn around and take your’n and beat his’n.”   

 

Alan Adds: 
Duke maybe atop the polls at the moment, but do not be fooled.  Right now this is a team of potential, that may or may not jell into a National contender, but certainly not a team that has “arrived” and deserves to be considered as momentarily the best in the nation.  The ascendancy was fueled by: 1) Duke’s feisty performance and sophisticated defense displayed in the win over highly ranked Kansas; 2) the defensive full court pressure that produced turnovers at a jaw dropping rate against non-competitive Colorado State and the first on campus game of the tournament versus Central Arkansas.  Georgia State was a reality check and evidence that this team has a long way to travel toward the goal of National contender.  The first half of the Central Arkansas game illuminated the defensive potential (amazing) of this team.  Georgia State illuminated the strength of what Coach K calls “human nature”, as well as the nature of competition itself, and the danger of a team beginning to believe the press clippings about its prowess.

Central Arkansas first half: Duke 57 v CA 20

Duke unleashed a press of almost unmatched fury and played scintillating and suffocating defense.  Central Arkansas made only 5 field goals while committing 15 turnovers.  With 1:07 left in the half, Duke led by 41 (57-16).   CA scored the last 4 points in a minute to get to 20 at the half.  It was a tour de force (except for the 12 first half fouls committed by Duke).  The offense thrived off of the defensive pressure shooting 60% from the field; 50% from 3land; and 5-6 from the stripe.

I know my attitude was bad.  I invited my daughter to watch the game with me and told her “it won’t be a competitive game.”  I suspect that deep down, the Duke players believed that as well.  It made for (hopefully) a needed lesson for growth and allowed Coach K to explain to the press that no team “is supposed to win”.

Coach K’s Wisdom

“Nobody is supposed to win or supposed to lose, you’re not ordained to win or lose, that’s why it’s called competition. People who compete and work hard turn out to be winners, and those who don’t turn out to be the team that the winners beat. That’s just the way it is and that’s what makes competition so good.  In our sport, our sport is more prone to upset than any because there are just five people out there, so there’s age, athleticism, maturity, all those things, depth and a lot of things where people can make up differences.  That’s why there are a lot of so-called upsets in our sport.  A lot of people can win and you have to be ready to play all those people.”

Coach K’s point was Duke was not ready to compete against Georgia State.  “They didn’t approach [today] with the intensity they needed to.  I’m not saying they weren’t ready; they weren’t ready at the level they needed to play Georgia State. …In the past couple of games coaches have come in here and said how hard Duke plays, and those are great compliments.  That’s our calling card.  If you show up and don’t play hard that gives a lot of confidence to the other team – “Oh, they’re not who we thought they were”.  So, if we don’t come out and match or exceed that effort, we’re giving our opponent momentum right from the start.  I thought that was evident right away tonight because we weren’t strong with the ball.  Not that Georgia State wasn’t confident, but their confidence grew.”

“I thought they were tougher than we were by far in the first half.  We were not ready for that level of intensity from our opponent.  Obviously in the second half we matched or exceeded it, and that’s why we won.”

Georgia State

The Bad

Javin DeLaurier committed 4 fouls in his 6 minutes of playing time while missing both field goal attempts and committing 2 turnovers; (he did grab 4 boards and had a block; 1-2 from the foul line).  The five Duke players who logged 20 + minutes (Jones all 40; Carey, 34; Stanley, 28, Hurt, 22 and Jack White, 21) could be considered the starters.  While Tre and Carey carried Duke (scoring 51 of Duke’s 74 points), the other 3 scored only 14 points on a collective 4-20 from the floor including 1-10 from behind the arc and 3-6 from the line.  Duke had 17 turnovers against only 13 assists.  The Blue Devils shot 34% from the field; 25% from behind the arc and a demoralizing 59 % from the line.  Tre was 7-10 from the line but missed all 3 front ends of his 1 and 1 attempts.  The defense gave up 5-10 from deep in the first half.  Coach K pointed out that Duke allowed Georgia State open looks from the corner even though it was a point of pre-game strategy to stop that particular shot.  In the second half, Duke clamped down and allowed only 2 attempts from deep (they both missed).  Wendell Moore and Alex O’Connell had disappointing games.  In 12 minutes, Alex failed to score (0-3; 0-2 from deep) or get to the foul line.  He had an assist against 2 turnovers (4 rebounds), while Moore was 1-5 (0-1 from deep without a free throw attempt) in his 11 minutes.  His two steals were matched by his 2 turnovers.  He too had 4 boards.  Goldwire was 0-2 in his 11 minutes (0 points; no free throw attempts).  Duke’s defense revived in the second half.

The Good

Tre Jones had the best game of his career at Duke and virtually willed Duke to win.  With the score tied at 40 early in the second half, Jones took over, scoring 10 of Duke’s next 11 points.  Jack White’s only point (1-2 from the line) and Moore’s only field goal moved Duke out to a 13 point lead (53-40).   Joey Baker hit 2 key 3s from the corner to push the lead to 16.  In his 15 minutes, Baker had 8 points (3-6; 2-5 from deep).  He didn’t add any other stats.

Vernon Carey was a beast and Duke dominated the back boards.  In 34 minutes, Carey shot 50% from the floor (7-14) but not much better from the foul line (6-11).  He will be at the line frequently and must improve that part of his game.  He led Duke in rebounding with 14 (7 offensive).  He blocked 2 shots, and had a steal while he committed only 2 fouls (perhaps the freshman should be tutoring senior DeLaurier).  White had 10 rebounds and played just superb defense.  I believe he will start ahead of Hurt because of his defense and rebounding.  If only his shot would start to find the range.

Duke grabbed a monster 30 offensive rebounds (Coach K ruefully pointed out the downside of that positive stat, “we missed a lot of shots”).  Duke took 73 shots to score 74 points.  Inefficient at best.  But they won!  Kentucky lost to Evansville; winning is not ordained.  Duke overcame “human nature”; Kentucky did not.   Now it is back to New York and Madison Square Garden for the tournament finals.  Duke plays California while Texas faces Georgetown on Thursday November 21.  The winners and losers will meet the following night.

Coach K on playing at Madison Square Garden:

“It’s every kid’s dream to play there and every coach’s dream to coach there.  I still get a thrill.  Everything is different; the ball sounds different when it bounces; the public address announcer sounds different.  “The basketball gods play pick up there at 2-3 o’clock in the morning.” 

Note:  DBP has a new blog site: dukebasketballplaybook.com, which is a collection of all the Duke games starting with the 2010-11 championship season.

Duke 87 – University of California 52

Duke 81 – Georgetown 73

We learned a lot about this team and its players in this two game tournament in the spotlight of Madison Square Garden:

Whether against a mismatched Cal-Berkley or a very talented, very dangerous Georgetown team, Vernon Carey proved he a top NBA lottery pick and the one indispensable player for Duke to be a legitimate championship contender.

This team has a disconcerting habit of starting sluggish offensively but not defensively; however, it has a good habit of finishing off games at closing time—probably, in part, because they wear opponents down.

Wendell Moore had a breakout game which demonstrated why he was rated so highly by the scouts and why Coach K kept giving him an opportunity calm down and get comfortable with his teammates. He is tough, fearless, multi-talented, and seizes the moment.

Cassius Stanley can do a lot more than just elevate 46” from the floor. His stroke is silky smooth, he plays defense, and rebounds tougher than his choir boy appearance–he is a playmaker.

Although he had a SportsCenter dunk in the Cal game,  Alex O’Connell has not consistently taken advantage of the playing time given to him at the beginning of the season. However, Joey Baker is playing himself into  role as designated three point shooter.

Tre Jones may be offensively inconsistent but he more than makes up for it with his defense and leadership.

Coach Krzyzewski may be 71 years old but is still  one hell of a bench coach. He continues to shake up his starters, auditioning his fifth different lineup in the fifth game of the season but replacing the highly touted  Matthew Hurt when it was apparent tonight he was physically overmatched. And how many times did Duke score after a timeout on an out of bound’s play? Over the years, Duke players  take advantage of the rules and are rarely out of control. On the other hand, the Hoya players never did adjust to how the game was being called and were in the foul penalty  almost a quarter of the game, limiting the minutes of center Omer Yurtseven, Georgetown’s best player and talented guard Mac McClung. Granted offensive charges are tough, judgement call but best not put a ref in that position. Coach Ewing grew incensed over what he considered bad or inconsistent calls. In truth, they did effect the game as part of Duke’s plan was to get Georgetown’s 7-0 center Omer Yurtseven, the former N.C. State player, in foul trouble, which they did. In fact, he didn’t so much as take a shot in the first half but scored 21 points after the break—most of which were when Vernon “The Tank” Carey was on the bench with three and four fouls.

Think the freshmen are settling ? Stanley (21), Carey (20), Moore (17) and Jones (13) combined for 71 of Duke’s 81 points. Jack White played his usual tough all-around game and Joey Baker gave Duke five big first-half points. But Duke’s four upperclassmen combined for 5 points, 6 rebounds, 1 for 10 shooting and 8 fouls, with only White playing more than 13 minutes.

Alan Adds:

DUKE  87 –  CAL 52

DEFENSE!  Defense!  It was back in intensity, quickness and fluidity to the wonderful defensive effort of the Kansas game.  Dan Dakich (color announcer) was continually pointing out the sophisticated switches (“There were three beautiful switches on that one defensive set.”) and superb help that was the calling card of this defense.  (“Look how many players moved in to block that drive.”)  The defensive intensity just sucked the guts out of California.  Dakich: “Look how far out Cal has to initiate its offense.  That’s the Duke defensive pressure.”   Dakich played for Knight at Indiana and had this insight that resonated with me.  He said Duke was playing “old fashioned” defense, and cited the West Point teams coached by Knight when now Coach K (but then just Mike) was his captain and point guard.  I saw those Army teams, which were astounding defensively.  It made me smile in agreement.

Cal was a perimeter oriented, three point shooting team. Duke’s pressure took it away; Cal was able to launch only four attempts from behind the arc in the first half (10 for the game).  Open looks for the Golden Bears were very hard to come by.  Duke created turnovers and had many deflections.

For some reason the offense could not get untracked for almost half of the first half (causing Bill to call me wondering why the Blue Devils couldn’t shoot).  Duke had only 6 points after 9 minutes of play, and tied the game at 8 at the half way point of the first half.  You did read that correctly.  Then the offense started cooking.  The Devils scored 31 points in the second part of the opening half and 47 in the second half.  That’s 78 points in ¾ of a game.

I’ll write this before the Georgetown game, but readers will have the benefit of knowing how the Georgetown game went.  Georgetown presents a completely different type of team.  They are big inside and will test Carey (not to mention DeLaurier and White) as Cal did not have the horses to do.  Duke crushed Cal on the boards.  Carey was astounding – 31 points in only 23 minutes of action (11-18; 1-1 from deep; 8-9 from the stripe, to go with 12 rebounds (6 offense and 6 defense) and 4 blocked shots, defending the rim.  He was not only an offensive stud, he anchored the defense.  How he does in the second of back to back games against a powerful front line will be illuminating.

A rebound worth mentioning: Stanley soared so high for one rebound in traffic that it was replayed. After a breathless “Wow!”, Dakich said wistfully to his announcing partner, “Wouldn’t you like to have done that, just once!”

DUKE 81 – GEORGETOWN 73 

The First Half

Georgetown presented a very different and much more formidable challenge than did Cal.  It was simply a sloppy first half, in which Duke depended completely on Carey to remain competitive (tied at 33 at the half).  In 15 first half minutes, Carey scored 16 of Duke’s 33, grabbing 5 first half boards, and drew 2 quick fouls on Georgetown 7 foot center Omer Yurtseven.  Yurtseven, who transferred from NC State, was limited to 7 minutes and 0 points in the opening stanza.  Duke was winning inside even though both Carey and De Laurier committed 2 fouls – Javin in only 5 minutes of first half playing time.  He committed 3 more, fouling out in 8 second half minutes.  Duke committed 12 first half fouls – both Tre Jones and Cassius Stanley also had 2.  The Georgetown perimeter completely outplayed Duke; Georgetown guards torched Tre and held him completely in check (0-4; 0-1; 2-2) with 2 assists and 2 turnovers.  Georgetown starting guards scored 18 first half points.  The second half was the game, and illuminated both Duke’s strengths and weaknesses.

The Second Half

The Rotation

Except for a scoreless two minute cameo by Joey Baker (5 points in 8 first half minutes) and 8 foul plagued minutes from Javin, Duke played Carey (13 minutes), Tre (the full 20 minutes) Wendell Moore, Cassius and Jack White each logged 19 minutes.  Georgetown turned the interior around and dominated.  Yurtseven torched the Blue Devil interior defense for 21 second half points on 13 shots from the field in 17 minutes.  He reduced both DeLaurier and Carey to “ineffective”.  I think Carey was gassed.  He took only 4 shots (1-4) missed key free throws (2-6), which to me signified “tired”.  After Javin fouled out, he hung in with 4 fouls but his aggression was diminished on both ends of the floor.  Neither Hurt, O’Connell, nor Goldwire played at all in the second half, after each was scoreless in the opening stanza.  So much for the “new deep bench”.

The Offense

Duke scored 48 second half points and led by 14 (77-63 after a corner 3 by Cassius Stanley), with only four and a half minutes left.  Duke and its offense were humming.  (44 points in a little over 16 minutes).  The two freshmen, who just blossomed to lead this scoring burst were Stanley and Moore.  Cassius was beyond wonderful, scoring 20 second half points on 6-9 shooting that included 3-3 from deep (wide open good shots) and 5-5 from the foul line.  He added 7 second half rebounds to achieve a stat line he will remember.  Moore supplied much ball handling to help Tre and made some superb drives to the basket to keep Duke’s control of the game even as the defense was unable to stop the Hoyas’ inside game.  Wendell scored 11 in the closing period on 4-6 from the field (1-1 from deep and 2-2 from the line) and played superb defense.  Tre also had 11 second half points, scoring the first two field goals of the second half as Duke broke the tie and took a lead that was never relinquished.  He was only 1-7 after the two opening baskets, but was 5-6 in crucial foul shots.  Stanley, Moore and Tre combined for 42 of Duke’s 48 second half points (Carey’s 4 and Jack White was 2-2 from the foul line).

Duke’s lead shrunk from 14 with 4 and ½ minutes to go to 4 with 42 seconds left, before Tre and Stanley each went 2-2 from the line for the final margin.  It is an old axiom in basketball that pressing teams do not like to be pressed.  Georgetown’s desperate press in the last 5 minutes was frighteningly effective.  Duke started turning the ball over (Moore committing 4 and White 3 — The Devils had 11 second half turnovers).  I suspect that there will be some intense practices in the coming days to fix that obvious weakness.

Besides the lack of poise and ball handling against the Hoya press, a troubling aspect was the failure of the upper class players to score.  White had 5 (in 33 minutes).  O’Connell, Goldwire and DeLaurier failed to score in the game.  Add the 0 in 5 first half minutes for Matt Hurt (his only minutes of the game) and instead of a deep bench, the reserved gave little support.

The Defense

Duke gave up 40 second half points because Yurtseven was simply unstoppable on the blocks.  Double teams did not slow him.  But Duke continued to force turnovers and tightened up its perimeter defense to make for what would have been a comfortable win, if the offense had not succumbed to the Hoya press.

One More Concern Moving Forward

Duke committed 21 fouls, most either were on offense or trying to compete on the interior.   The offense turned it over 21 times – 10 in the sloppy first half and 11, primarily against the press in the second half.

Upcoming

Stephen F. Austin on Tuesday November 26 (at 9 pm EST) and Friday November 29 against Winthrop (7 pm EST) to get ready for a formidable December schedule.

 

Stephen F. Austin 85 – Duke 83 (Overtime) 

Duke 83 – Winthrop 70 

Washington, D.C., November 27th, 12:05 am. My cell phone rings. Immediately, I recall back in the day telling our teenage kids that nothing good happens after midnight, so best be home by that time. However, it wasn’t a teenager with bad news, it’s Johnny Tar Heel asking what is Stephen F. Austin and where is it? I tell him I don’t know and why is he asking. He replies that someone with this name  just beat Duke in overtime. I tell him it’s too late for jokes, I didn’t have video access to the game, but last I checked Duke was up 15, hung up, then check my ESPN app to find out it’s no joke nor bad dream. Duke had experienced one of, if not the, worst upsets in NCAA history– Right up there with Chaminade and Ralph Sampson’s Virginia.

Some weeks ago I wrote, in part, Coach K schedules teams like Central Arkansas and  Georgia State, etc. for a reason. It is because there are a lot of talented basketball players who are not quite big enough or who, for some other reason, never were on the recruiting radar of the big programs (Stephen & Seth Curry) but who play at smaller schools like  Evansville, Wofford, Belmont, Lehigh, Davidson, and UMBC– small, quick talented teams who, with the benefit of the three  point line, play a different style of basketball (sort of a college version of the Golden State Warriors)  and on any given night can and have beaten the best teams in the country. Just ask Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia. These are the kind of teams a high seed often play the first rounds of the NCAA Tournament and they benefit from the experience of defending a team much different than the typical ACC opponent. Now add Stephen F. Austin to those smaller, unknown schools who have upset a Basketball Powerhouse, ranked Number One no less.

That doesn’t totally explain what has happened in these two game in Cameron. Until this week, exceptionally good defense and timely plays have masked mediocre shooting and inconsistent play. Still several stats stand out:

  • Vernon Carey’s free throw shooting has regressed to the level other recent Duke centers—an ominous development. [I am unconvinced that someone with his touch is going to continue to be this inconsistent.]
  • Tre Jones assist-to-turnover ratio has flipped upside down.[I
  • nexplicable for someone who nearly led the nation in this stat last year.]Wendell Moore’s rapid improvement against Georgetown seems like a mirage. [He has been too productive in International Play not to excel at the collegiate level.]
  • Matthew Hurt responded to poor performances against Georgetown and S.F Austin by playing well against Winthrop….. but Winthrop is not big and strong like Georgetown or Michigan State. [Stay tuned.]
  • Do you see a pattern of young and inconsistent here. [Maturity often develops unevenly  in stages.]
  • The only good news about Cassius Stanley’s hamstring injury is that it does not appear too serious and that it gave Joey  Baker an extended opportunity to demonstrate the skills he can bring to the floor, especially the ability to hit threes and thereby extending the defense to open up the paint for Carey, Hurt , and Company.
  • It is easy to forget that these are exceptionally gifted athletes—but still are teenagers. However, DeLaurier and White are not. They are seniors. Jack’s reluctance to shoot limits his usefulness, (except for special occasions) and Javin’s maddening tendency to foul, limits his usefulness. And finally, with the popularity of basketball attracting the best athletes worldwide, the longer a better team let’s a less talented team hang around, the better chance there is for an upset. At the end of the S.F.A. upset, the point guard penetrated and got the ball to a big man. 49 of 50 times in the past, Duke converts, or there is a foul. But for the ball to emerge from a scrum under the basket to a guard fast enough to run 70 feet in 2.5 second and make a layup is 100-1. But that’s what makes basketball such an exciting game.

Alan Adds:

Overview

The two games dramatically demonstrated what I have written – at this juncture of the season, this edition of the Blue Devils is far from a #1 team; far from a top 5 team; and maybe only a top 20 team.  Coach K, as always, put it accurately: “We’re going to have to work through a bunch of things … with this group.  It’ll take time and we’re going to try and muck it out and we know we’re not a top five team – maybe not even a top 25 team in the country right now.  We’ve beaten good teams and we’ve played well.  But now it’s where do we go after a loss and a win this week. … Next week would be tough even if you were a top five team.”  [Next week is road games at East Lansing (Michigan State in the ACC-Big 10 challenge) and Blacksburg (opening the ACC season on the road).]

For me, the question is “what happened to the superb defense that Duke played in New York (especially against California).  In both games – far more in the SFA game – Duke gave up a startling number of points in the paint.  Even after allowing 64 points in the paint to SFA, Duke did not stop the penetration of Winthrop, which led to interior passing that produced easy layups at the rim.  When Duke doubled the post, Winthrop scored either on passes or offensive rebounds when the weak side was abandoned for the double team.  The sophisticated switching that was the Duke hallmark against Kansas and in New York was simply non-existent.  No, I don’t know what happened.  It will be necessary for the defense to reappear if losses next week are to be avoided.

Offensively, it was a mixed bag.  Duke’s offense revived against Winthrop, thanks to the re-emergence of Matt Hurt in the first half (18 in the half; only 20 for the game) and Joey Baker (Bill’s favorite; because he’s partial to seeing Duke shots go in the basket) for the game – 16 points in 23 minutes.  Jordan Goldwire also was instrumental in Duke getting untracked in the second half.  With Stanley’s injury and the terrific play of Baker and Goldwire, the rotation is completely in flux.

Duke v Stephen F Austin (written prior to the Winthrop game)

Duke was a 27.5 point favorite last night (and is an even heavier favorite against Winthrop for Friday’s game). Bill was away for the holidays, so we decided we would do one edition of the Duke Basketball Playbook to cover both games, “since they would not be competitive games”.  Apparently the Duke team also had the view that the games would not be competitive.  The first few minutes corroborated that feeling, but completely undid this young team.  With 9:03 left in the first half, Matt Hurt added a layup to give Duke a 15 point lead (33-18).  What happened for the next 36 minutes is exactly what happened to Kentucky against Evansville and in countless other spectacular upsets.  Stephen F. Austin (SFA) morphed into a team of destiny and played so well that I almost wanted to root for the 27 and ½ point underdog, playing in an arena of legend and just sticking it to Duke with intensity and energy.  “Up Yours, # 1!”

Not only did The Lumberjacks deserve to win, but Duke deserved to lose.  The second half and overtime are illuminating for any analysis of this game from Duke’s perspective.  Duke shot 11-24 from the free throw line in the second half and overtime.  SFA had 8 more field goal attempts than Duke and 7 more rebounds in the second half.  Duke turned it over an astounding number of times, including giving up the winning basket on the final of its 22 turnovers.  Worse, the vaunted defense was beyond porous – SAF scored 25 more points in the paint and grabbed 7 offensive rebounds (making Duke pay almost every time).  Coach K: “We gave up 60 [64, actually] points in the paint; we don’t give up 60 points for a game!”

Coach K: “They were better than we were.  They were tougher.  They had more poise.  They made so many layups (those 64 points in the paint).”  The Coach pointed out the terrible foul shooting and sloppy ball handling. Tre had 8 turnovers alone.  However, K gave full credit to the incredible performance of The Lumberjacks: “we played badly, but they made us play badly by their superb play.”

Coach K: “We were not deserving of winning.  The overtime, especially the last play, was symbolic of the game we played.”  Duke scored just 2 points in the crucial overtime, and that was on a put back by Carey (2nd offensive rebound of that scrum).  In the crucial 5 minutes of overtime, Duke turned the ball over 6 times!  Both Lumberjack overtime field goals came off of live ball turnovers in the open court leading to open layups.  Duke took 4 shots – a 3 and a put back by White, the put back by Carey to tie the game at 83 with 2:14 left and a missed short jumper by Tre with 16 seconds left.  When Tre missed a pretty open mid-range jumper with 16 seconds left on the clock, Moore grabbed the offensive board and got the ball to Hurt, who was stripped of the ball for the winning Lumberjack basketball.  Duke had not only failed to score in the last 2:14 of the overtime, but had only taken one shot (Tre’s mid-range miss)!

The second half was an illuminating nightmare for the Blue Devils, who gave up 41 points, committed 12 fouls and were outrebounded by 8 after dominating inside in the first half.  Vernon Carey was 2-9 from the free throw line.  Duke’s offense got the ball into him in good position.  He drew the foul.  But when you brick the free throws, it is just like a turnover.  Tre was 1-5 from the field and only 3-6 from the line.  There was no bench.  Javin played 2 minutes (only 1 foul); Alex was in for 4 minutes (1-1 from the field).  Neither Baker nor Goldwire made it on the floor in the second half.  Carey played 15 minutes (3-3 from the field with 3 rebounds and 4 blocks for 8 points.  Tre (6 points) and Cassius (8 points) played all 20 minutes, while Wendell Moore scored 7 in 16 minutes (5-6 from the free throw line; 1-2 from the field).  Hurt and White split the small forward time at 10 minutes each.  White played 3 minutes as the center with Carey getting a rest and Javin completely ineffective.  Hurt was 2-6 from the field (1-2 from deep and 1-2 from the line) for 6 points, but only 1 rebound.  White did not attempt a shot or foul shot in his 13 minutes.  He grabbed 2 boards.  Both Hurt and White committed 2 second half fouls.  It was very hard to watch if you were a Duke fan.

Coach K: “We did not respond well to winning in New York.  We assumed we would win.  Not that it would be easy, but that we would win.  We tried to tell them at half and at time outs.  We didn’t respond to a different emotion.  They outplayed us.”

It was about toughness.  SFA forces turnovers and dominated the interior to score and rebound.  K attributed the many turnovers to a lack of toughness.  “Duke was not strong with the ball.”  Understatement!

What’s next? [written before the Winthrop game].  Coach K: “I’m disappointed.  I’m going to wallow in that disappointment before figuring out what to do.  I’ve told my team, ‘it’s not ok to play like that.  We have to get tough quickly.”

Winthrop

The score was tied at 32 with 3:10 left in the first half, when Duke went on its first run (8-0) with Stanley and Tre hitting from the field (Tre’s only 3) and Hurt making 3 of 4 from the line.  Duke led 42-35 at the half (Duke also won the second half 41-36).  With 13:40 left in the game, Duke led by 11, when the wheels started to come off.  It felt just like the SFA game, where Duke’s 15 point lead started to shrink with alarmingly bad play.  Duke went 4:20 without scoring while Winthrop chopped the Devil lead to 4 with 9:45 left.  Sloppy play by both teams followed.  Duke expanded the lead on good plays by Hurt, Baker, Carey and Goldwire to lead by 10 with 5:31 left.  By then Winthrop was gassed and Duke rolled the lead to 16 before calling off the dogs.

The rotation

Cassius only played two minutes in the second half because of his injury.  Coach K said it was hamstring rather than knee, and hoped Stanley would return by Christmas.  Alex (6 minutes) and Jack White (8 minutes) played only cameos.  Matt Hurt played 17 second half minutes even though his scoring stopped (1-4 for 2 points). He had scored 18 in a spectacular outburst in the first half. In the second half, Matt earned his time with 4 boards and excellent defense.  The result was White played only 3 second half minutes to spell Hurt.

With Cassius hurt, one hoped Wendell Moore would step up, but exactly the opposite happened. It was a bad game for Wendell who failed to score in 19 minutes, missing his only 2 shots.  Eventually, Baker took his minutes.  Coach K gave Carey more rest, which produced excellent results.  Vernon played only 22 minutes to record his double double – 10 rebounds and 17 points (5-10 from the field and 7-10 from the stripe) to go with a block.  Tre found him with some great passes for easy lay ups.  Javin played 16 minutes (2-2 for 4 points) with 3 boards.  While he committed 2 fouls in his 7 first half minutes, he was in the game for 9 valuable second half minutes without fouling.  Major improvement.

Goldwire was simply a star.  Tre had big trouble guarding the quick Winthrop back court (the 5’8” other Jones gave Tre fits).  Jordan made 5 steals – 4 in the second half, where he played 13 scintillating minutes, scoring 6 (2-3 from the field and 2-2 from the line).  Baker played 14 second half minutes scoring 8 and playing superbly – diving on the floor, taking charges, and really making a case for getting significant playing time.  Let’s see if this was a true emergence or a flash in the pan.  Carey had 12 of his 17 points in his 10 second half minutes.

Tre had an odd week.  He committed 13 turnovers in these 2 games, and was significantly torched on defense by both SFA and Winthrop guards.  He is scoring and passing, but his floor game was off by a wide margin.  The test against Pre-Season Player of the year, Michigan State point guard Cassius Winston will be telling next Tuesday.  Tre could not contain Winston in last year’s elite 8 loss to the Spartans.

Next Week

This was the week where reality set in.  Coach K said Duke was playing with “inherited wealth” by being ranked so high this early in the season.  By “inherited wealth” he meant that Duke’s ranking was based in significant part on the past recent (and long term) success of K’s program rather on this team’s accomplishments (really just the opening night win over Kansas; think last year’s opening night win over Kentucky).  This team did not earn that high ranking, which was fully disclosed by this week’s games.

The Michigan State game will receive mega scrutiny, but I believe the most important game next week is in Blacksburg against The Hokies.  Virginia Tech beat Michigan State in the first round of the tournament before the clock struck midnight for the next two losing games.  The ACC will be such a gauntlet this year (4 teams in last week’s top 8 – Duke, Louisville, who will be #1 next week, UNC and Virginia, which held Maine to 26 points for an entire game).  Losing in Blacksburg would set a bad tone for Duke’s ACC championship hopes.

Michigan State is on ESPN; Virginia Tech on ACCN.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Duke Basketball Playbook: 2013-14

Alan and I welcome you to our analysis of another interesting and exciting college basketball season for the Duke University Blue Devils.

In that memorable scene from “ On the Waterfront”, Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, a physically and spiritually broken ex-fighter, sorrowfully confronts  his mob-corrupted brother Rod Steiger:  “It was you, Charley. That night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said: Kid, this ain’t your night. You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been somebody. I coulda been a contender.”

Well, not to worry Duke fans, you don’t have to be concerned about that sort of thing again this year. While this is a young, inexperienced but talented and deep squad, by the end of the season the Blue Devils  should be a contender for another national title yet again—and here is why:

Over the years, one of the joys of watching Coach K is  appreciating how he adjusts his offensive and defensive game plans to his talent to win so many games. This is the most athletic squad Coach K has had since 1999-2000 Brand, Battier etc. teams (but without a dominant center) so we will see a more aggressive, pressing defense, and a spread offense with an open lane, much like his Olympic team or the current Miami Heat. There will be less ball dominance by point guards and shooting guards, more slashing drives to the basket by the forwards, and less living and dying by the three.

What to look for:

Ø  Are Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood as good as advertised?

Ø  Can the team overcome the lack of a dominant low post player?

Ø  Is Amile Jefferson strong enough to play the post?

Ø  Will Marshall Plumlee, a true big man, be a contributor?

Ø  Can Quinn Cook shut down opposing point guards?

Ø  Will Andre Dawkins become a complete player and fulfill his potential?

Ø  Will Rasheed Sulaimon be more consistent?

Ø  Are freshman Matt Jones and Semi Ojeleye ready for Prime Time?

Ø  Will this talented but young and inexperienced group develop the chemistry to reach their potential?

Ø  Will injuries again (Ryan Kelly & Kyrie Irving) keep this team from reaching the Final Four?

Note: JJ Redick starts in the back court with old Wake rival Cris Paul for the LA Clippers; Miles Plumlee is the starting center for the Phoenix Suns; and Mason has been getting minutes off the bench for the Brooklyn Nets.

For a more in-depth analysis: :

At this time last year, we analyzed a Duke team that was a huge question mark as practice began.  Primarily, Duke worried about its backcourt, which had lacked leadership at the point in 2011-2012 (with Thornton, Curry and Cook all failing to run the offense crisply, or defend against opponents’ quick penetrating guards) and had lost its leading scorer, freshman Austin Rivers to the NBA.  Mason was recognized as having great potential — as yet unreached – while Kelly was coming off a serious injury that had ended his (and in some ways Duke’s) 2011- 2012 season.  He completely missed the disappointing post season.  Gjinbe had transferred (to Syracuse; where he appears to have earned a starting job) and Dawkins left the team for emotional reasons.  The end of the 2011-12 season had been ignominious by Duke standards.  Duke flopped down the regular season stretch, being completely blown out by Carolina at Cameron on Senior night, losing to Fla State in the ACC semi-finals, and then being humiliated by Lehigh in the NCAA’s opening (I don’t care what they call the play in round) game as its perimeter defense shredded (yet again) by CJ McCollum.

Lots of great things happened for Duke, which had, in my opinion, a spectacular year in 2012-13 — far above expectations.  Duke was a contender (if not the favorite) for the national championship until Kelly got hurt again (15-0 at the time), even while Curry played heroically on a season long injury that eventually required surgery.  The three senior captains — Mason, Ryan and Seth — set a leadership tone and played with skill and intensity.  The backcourt varied between awesome (against Louisville in the first game in the pre-season tournament) and competent (the second game, the NCAA elite 8 game, in which Louisville completely outplayed Duke).  Quinn Cook made huge strides and controlled the Duke offense.  Rashid Sulaimon stepped in as both a defender and offensive threat (I think he was actually an improvement over Rivers,  because of his defense).  Coach K was asked to compare Sulaimon and JJ  as freshman.  Coach K said, “I can ask Rashid to defend 3 positions; I couldn’t ask Redick to defend even one.”  Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston became adequate — and sometimes better than that — backups.  Freshman Amile Jefferson began to blossom as Kelly’s main replacement.  Only Marshall Plumlee and Alex Murphy failed to make a real impact on a team that was slightly undermanned.  The lack of a major wing force on both ends was a problem all year, with Curry a bit too small defensively, and the lack of a slasher (like Rivers) telling on offense.

So what does 2013-14 look like?  Coach K has indicated that it will not be business as usual; rather he will use his Olympic team as the model.  He explained what he meant by an analogy to Chris Paul, considered by many to be the premier point guard in the NBA.  Coach K pointed out that Paul dominated the ball when playing with the Clippers, but when he had the option of getting the ball to LeBron, Durant, Melo and others, he moved the ball and played differently.  Coach K said that Quinn Cook would not be a traditional point guard this year, but would be getting the ball to the two new stars of the team (who have never played a game for Duke yet), freshman Jabari Parker and transfer Rodney Hood.  Coach K did not say Hood and Parker were LaBron and Durante, but he is as high on these two as I have ever heard Coach K be on a prospect who had not yet played for Duke, except for Kyrie for whom K changed his whole team concept (and he was surely right about Kyrie).   Duke will be swift and small; run and press; and use a larger rotation than has been traditional in the past.  Let’s analyze more closely.

The most obvious question mark for this year’s team is the lack of size in the middle, both defensively (who will defend the rim as Mason and Kelly did last year – the interior defense suffered significantly when Kelly was injured) and creating a post presence on offense.  Duke’s outside shooting (which tailed off after Kelly’s injury) was helped dramatically by the defensive concentration that Mason commanded from opponents in the post.  The second question mark is experience.  Much of the optimism that surrounds this year’s pre-season comes from the addition of  Parker and  Hood.  Both are 6’8″ athletic basketball players.  Hood, who sat out last year as a transfer (from Mississippi State) was named to the SEC All – freshman team two years ago and is said to have been the best player on the team in practice last year.  Significantly, Coach K named him one of the two (now 3 as of yesterday when Coach K named Hairston to join Hood and Thornton as) team captains, even though he is a redshirt sophomore and has never played a game for Duke!  He was invited to tryouts for the USA World University team, but injured his achilles and withdrew.  The achilles is now fine, but reminds us of how injuries — Kyrie and Kelly — derailed two potential national championship teams.  Parker is Duke’s highest ranking recruit since Danny Ferry, and comes with glowing notices about his character as well as his basketball skills.  Both are the kind of slashing scoring, good shooting, solid wing defenders that Duke lacked last year.  Still, Duke’s two stars for this year are both newcomers; so enthusiasm needs to be somewhat tempered.  Duke returns its starting backcourt of Cook and Sulaimon.  Sulaimon had a terrific summer as a starter on the USA under 19 team that won the gold medal.  If he steps up between freshman and sophomore year, as has frequently been done by others, he could be a major force in the college game.  However, he has been pushed by others for his starting spot in the pre-season.  Quinn Cook is a junior, who made dramatic strides between his freshman year (injured and a bit out of shape as a result) and last year, where he had some spectacular games and moments.  But he also had some games with too few of those moments.  He has reportedly been working hard, and aims to bring a consistency to his game that was missing last year.  Coach K has lauded his defensive improvement over the summer, and Al Featherstone thought he might have been Duke’s best player at Midnight Madness (Oct. 18) because of his improved on the ball defense (he forced Tyler Thornton into 6 turnovers in 14 minutes).  Quinn’s outside shot needs improvement, and he needs be getting to the foul line far more than he did last year, though he could be a spectacular penetrator at times.  Quinn, as he has been since he arrived at Duke, might be the biggest question mark of all.  He has the potential to solidify his game, and make Duke a national contender.  So, who will be the fifth starter and who else will be in the rotation.  Coach K said in late September after the first practice that if he had to name starters at that time, Amile Jefferson would be one of them.  He praised Amile and said he had made the biggest improvement over the summer.   The three exhibition games suggest that Jefferson will, indeed, be the fifth starter.

Jefferson has added 25 pounds of muscle and impressed the coaching staff.  He can run,  is very athletic and long, but he was certainly man handled  last year inside as a freshman.  He is Duke’s starting center this year.  (Think of how our Olympic team played when Tyson Chandler was not in the lineup).  Thornton and Hairston have already proved their mettle as valuable reserves in the rotation and each should be even better as co-captains for their senior years.  Solid.  Andre Dawkins returns from his red shirt year with a new positive attitude as a senior.  Coach K has gone out of his way to praise Dawkins, who was the sixth man on the White team at Midnight Madness (the starters were Hood, Parker, Jefferson, Sulaimon and Cook), but he played very little and not well in the exhibition games.  In his years at Duke, he has been inconsistent on offense (sometimes a potent shooter and sometimes a liability) and defensively inadequate.  He has generated excellent press regarding his new attitude, but that has not yet translated into efficient performance on the court.

So what does the rotation look like after the Midnight Madness scrimmage and the two exhibition games — against Bowie State on October 26 and Drury on November 2?  The starters are: Hood, Parker, Jefferson, Cook and Sulaimon.  It is clear that the two seniors, Thornton and Hairston, will play significant minutes based on their performance last year and their experience.  That’s 7.  How the remaining five will acquire playing time will be interesting.

In the Bowie State game, only Hood (28), Parker (24), Sulaimon (23) and freshman shooting guard Matt Jones (20) logged over 20 minutes.  Significantly, Jones had15 points on 4-9 shooting – 2–6 from the bonus sphere.  His impressive stat line included 4 boards, a steal and an assist.  Coach K has praised his defense, and he seems as if he will join the rotation.  Jefferson had 16 points to go along with 4 boards and a steal in 15 minutes of playing time.  Thornton logged a minute more than Cook (15-14) and 4 steals and 4 assists while Quinn 2 turnovers, 3 assists and only 2 points.  Alex Murphy (also 14 minutes), Josh (12 minutes), Ojeleye 11, Marshal 10, and Dawkins 9 rounded out the playing time.  Andre hoisted 7 shots in his 9 minutes (0-6 from 3). Not impressive.

Against Drury (reigning Division II champions, but small), Duke trailed 38-34 at the half before winning handily in the second half.  Sulaimon was ill and did not play.  Six players logged upwards of 21 minutes: Hood (36), Parker (28), Matt Jones (a surprising 28), Thorton 25 and Cook 24 with Jefferson playing 21 minutes.  Only two other players made double digit minutes: Hairston (13) and Ojeleye (10).  Murphy (6), Dawkins (6) and Plumlee (3) seem unlikely to make Coach K’s rotation, early in the season anyway.  Thornton started the game in Rasheed’s place.  Duke had four double digit scorers: Hood with a game high 21 led Duke, while Parker, Jefferson and Cook each had 13.  Matt Jones scored 9.  The box scores suggest Jones will be in the rotation.  That’s 8.

Coach K has broken the team down into 3 categories: Bigs, Wings, and Guards.

Bigs: Parker (that is what K announced, even though Parker was bringing the ball up like a point guard sometimes at Midnight Madness), Jefferson, Hairston and Marshall Plumlee. Marshall is intriguing, and Duke’s only true post player.  He’s now listed at 7 feet; and can run,  rebound and conduct great interviews.  Whether he can defend without fouling will be determined as the season unfolds.  His fouling last year reminded me of the underclass Zoubek.  He would enter the game last year, and either commit a turnover or foul, which returned him to the bench quickly.  Injuries have damaged both of his years at Duke.  Coach K said he thought Marshall might have been in the rotation last year if he hadn’t broken his foot in the pre-season.  He has had post-season surgery, and so may not be fully in shape yet.  Still, if he can play at a high level, and be a significant contributor, Duke’s national stature would be enhanced.  His stints in the exhibition games were limited.  Against Bowie State, he played 10 minutes (5-6 from the free throw line) with 7 points, 2 blocks, and a rebound, but against Drury, he played only 3 minutes (0-2 from the free throw line with a turnover and a rebound.  Not promising.  We will have to see how effective Jefferson is at protecting the rim and scoring inside.  Jefferson has had a good pre-season, but both Bowie State and Drury are undersized teams.  Kansas (2nd game) and Arizona (projected Pre-Season NIT fin as opponent) will be a valid litmus test for Amile.

Wings: Hood, Dawkins, Alex Murphy and freshman Semi Ojeleye;  Alex, now listed at 6’9″, has shown some athleticism and flashes of skill.    However, he did not earned significant minutes from Coach K, even after Kelly went down,  logged the fewest minutes on the floor at Midnight Madness, and has played sparingly in both exhibition games.  Semi is a chiseled 6’7″ wing player who broke the all-time scoring record in Kansas and has had many impressive things written about him.  While his offense has not yet flourished in the pre-season, his defense and rebounding did.  He will be one to watch, even if not this year.

Guards: Cook, Sulaimon, Thornton and freshman Matt Jones.  Jones, from Texas, is a highly ranked recruit, said to be an outside shooter that reminds the Duke staff of JJ (high praise, but I think we might wait and see what is shown on the court).  Jones has earned Coach K’s praise with his defense in the pre-season and has logged 20 and 28 minutes in the exhibition games.  He seems an early season surprise.  All four of the guards should see significant playing time. If Duke can defend the perimeter this year a bit better this year, it may make up for the perceived shortcoming on the interior.

Does that whet the whistle for this season, which kicks off with Davidson at Cameron this coming Friday, November 8?

DUKE 111- DAVIDSON 77

There is a rhyme and a reason as to how and why Coach K constructs each year’s basketball schedule. The season opens at home  against a good, well coached but somewhat overmatched team. And make no mistake, essentially this same group of Davidson players made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament last year so, this was no cupcake opener. Next game Kansas in Chicago. Who is from Chicago? Jabari Parker, Jon Scheyer,  Cris Collins, and Coach K, who recruits everywhere.

Did we find out any answers to my questions in our earlier season preview blog?

  • Are Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood as good as advertised? Oh my, yes!
  • Can the team overcome the lack of a dominant low post player? Yet to be determined.
  • Is Amile Jefferson strong enough to play the post? Not if he make silly fouls in the first few minutes and is on the bench.
  • Will Marshall Plumlee, a true big man, be a contributor? Yet to be determined, but I like his energy, physicality, and enthusiasm.
  • Can Quinn Cook shut down opposing point guards? He did last night
  • Will Andre Dawkins become a complete player and fulfill his potential? Not if he doesn’t play himself into the rotation.
  • Why is Will Rasheed Sulaimon apparently in Coach K’s dog house? He was “out of shape” and “not practicing well”. Last night should have solved  those issues.
  • Are freshman Matt Jones and Semi Ojeleye ready for Prime Time? If playing time is answer, Matt yes, Oly no.
  • Will this talented but young and inexperienced group develop the chemistry to reach their potential? There was a lot of offensive chemistry last night.
  • Will injuries again (Ryan Kelly & Kyrie Irving) keep this team from reaching the Final Four? Unknowable.

Most of the very best players make the game look easy. Parker has wonderful skills and is comfortable anywhere in the offensive set. Hood reminds me of Jamaal “Silk” Wilks of UCLA and the Lakers great Magic Johnson “Showtime” teams. He moves  smoothly and effortlessly and appears more advanced defensively than Jabari. Although their styles are different, Cook and Sulaimon both can break down their defenders. Cook is quicksilver and Sully five yards and a cloud of dust. Several sets were called for Rasheed last night and he either got to the hole or drew a double team and hit an open man.

During my first freshman afternoon at Duke, I walked down to Cameron, then to Wallace Wade Stadium and looked down at the field. There was a player and coach standing at the fifty yard line. The player was throwing at the  goal line flag and the coach was punting at it.  The coach punted closer more times than the player threw. I was amazed. Later, I learned that the player was Sonny Jorgensen and the coach Ace Parker, neither of whose names meant anything to me at the time. I eventually became  lot more familiar with both men.

The reason I bring it up is that Clarence “Ace” Parker died last week and if you didn’t know it, he was arguably the best all round athlete ever to play at Duke. Ace competed in three sports: football, basketball and baseball. From 1934 – 1936, he starred at tailback, doing most of the running and passing for Duke. He was second team All-American in 1935 and consensus All-American first team in 1936. He placed sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1936. Parker was a great open-field runner and one of the best punters in college football at the time. His 105 yard kickoff return against North Carolina is still a Duke school record. Ace also excelled as a baseball player at Duke, playing in 1935-1936– and later was the coach.

Parker was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1955. He was drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers as the third pick of the second round in the 1937 NFL draft. Sammy Baugh was the only passer drafted ahead of Parker. Parker also played Major League Baseball beginning in 1937, thus became a true two-sport phenomenon, playing both Major League baseball and NFL football in 1937 and 1938. He was also the first of only seven Major League Baseball players to hit a home run as a pinch-hitter in their first at bat.

This is not your father’s Duke football team. This afternoon, red shirt freshman DeVon Edwards scored three touchdowns (100 yard kick-off return, 45 & 25 yard returns of interceptions in the fourth quarter) to lead  Duke (7-2) to a 38-20 win over North Carolina State. If he isn’t the national defensive player of the week, there should be a recount!

Alan’s take:

Jabari Parker jumped center on the opening tip (even with Jefferson in the starting lineup).  That tells something about the fantastical Parker, but also the vulnerability of Duke on the interior.  Although Duke was not playing top 20 competition, Davidson looked like a good team, even if a bit undersized.  For example, Davidson was 23 for 41 on field goal attempts inside the arc (a disastrous 3-21 from the bonus sphere) and out rebounded Duke (31-27).  Of course, Duke had few offensive rebound opportunities (only got 3) as a result of the spectacular shooting.  And spectacular it was!  But it wasn’t just shooting; it was movement — ball and players.  Very few of Duke’s shots were contested.  The half-court offense was virtually brilliant, with the passing creating open shots.  Remember last year when the turnovers and assists were pretty close to even.  Duke had 16 assists and only four turnovers.  Cook, whose fabulous outing will end up being overshadowed by the performances of Hood and Parker, had 8 assists without a turnover to go with his 21 points on only 9 shots (7-9 including 3-5 from 3land and 4-5 from the line).  He drove; he got fouled; he played great defense in a game high 34 minutes.   Cook’s play will be central to Duke’s fortunes this year.  Can he be consistent and compete against the Big Time point guards such as he will face on Tuesday against Kansas?

As Bill has enthusiastically pointed out last year, Doris Burke is one of the, if not the (Sorry, Jay Bilas) most astute color commentators on the air.  She absolutely nailed what was happening on the court, especially on the defensive end.  Duke is not there yet, she advised, but this could be a signature Duke defensive team, as it becomes more defensively cohesive.  She is surely right on the perimeter because of the speed and athleticism of the defenders.  Davidson was efficient when they got the ball inside, but were able to work for very few clean looks from the outside (and they mostly missed even those).  Matt Jones has received much praise from Coach K for his defense.  K said that he was one of the three most defensively prepared freshman to arrive at Duke (the other two were Amaker and Hurley; not bad company).  Reputed to be a deep shooting threat, Jones missed both of his 3 point attempts and was only 1-4 (3-4 from the line) for 5 points and an assist.  Still, he was clearly the 8th guy in the rotation, logging 17 minutes with 3 of Duke’s 7 steals in that time.

The distribution of playing time minutes is illuminating.  After Cook’s 34 minutes, Hood played 33 minutes of jaw dropping hoops.  He is really something special. Hood was 9-10 from the floor with 9 boards, 2 blocks, an assist and a steal.  Parker (only 23 minutes because of some foul trouble) shot 8-10 from the floor including 5-5 for the first half.  Hood was 6-7 in the first half and rued (playfully) the shot he missed or the two of them could have been perfect from the floor in the first half.  As it was 17-20 (5-5 from 3land; 3 for Parker) was awesome!  Parker and Hood set an amazingly high standard for the games to come, and it was breathtaking pleasure to watch.  Tyler Thornton played 28 solid minutes while Sulaimon, whose resurgence was equally awe inspiring, logged 25 minutes and added 7 boards to his 20 points on 9 shots.  Thornton had 6 points (3 shots) while adding 2 assists and a block.  The offensive explosion obscured the lack of effectiveness of Duke’s big guys.  Jefferson played only 11 minutes; most of them were in garbage time at the end after Hood and Parker had left the game to cheers.  Amile picked up two quick fouls while playing lackadaisical defense, which earned him a seat on the bench after about two minutes in the first half (1 hoop on a gorgeous feed from Parker).  In garbage time, Amile really asserted himself and looked efficient (10 total points in 11 total minutes), although he failed to secure a rebound and was 2-6 from the free throw line.  The Kansas game will be as big a test for him as for any player.  Hairston accumulated four fouls in his 10 minutes (0-2 from the field including a 3 point try), no rebounds, no blocks, no steals, no assists.  Based on last year, there are better days ahead for him.  Marshall got two cameos in each half for a total of 5 minutes (1 missed shot; 1 block and 1 board).  Alex Murphy looked good in his 8 minutes with a hoop and a free throw (no misses) and an assist.  Dawkins played 2 minutes in the first half and none even in garbage time in the second half.  This feels like the Ricky Price story.  Ojeleye played four minutes (there goes the Red shirt) in garbage time.  So, it looks like an 8 man rotation with Alex having a chance to play meaningful minutes too.

Kansas is the late game on Tuesday, and it will be a better litmus test for this season’s edition of the Blue Devils.  No one could ask for a better opening performance than last night against Davidson.

DUKE  83-  KANSAS 94

Everyone has wondered how Duke would fare against a big, athletic team. Well, when you only shoot 57% from the line and miss 12 free throws, it is hard to tell because giving away 18 potential points (6 were the front end of one and ones), changes the complexion of and, consequently, your strategy to the game. You won’t beat a good large or small team shooting free throws like that. Another concern is rebounding. The Blue Devils were out-rebounded 39-24 in last night’s game and were even beaten on the glass in their first game against Davidson.

Ideally, the time for a player to put a team on his back is in the last ten minutes of a game, not in the first half. The downside is coaches can make adjustments at halftime, and in the final twenty minutes for a variety of reasons  a hot  player usually cools off  and/or gets fatigued and the rest of the players who have been sort of  uninvolved have to change gears—not an easy task.  Jabari Parker was All World in the first half but the rest of the team never seemed  in synch. Other than Sulaimon and Jefferson, Parker didn’t get much offensive help. Rodney Hood (11 pts.) and Cook (10 pts.) certainly didn’t rise to the occasion. To top it off,  they messed up an exchange on a  critical possession  with a little over a minute to go in a (then) four point game that led to a fast break dunk that fouled out Parker and sealed the deal for Kansas. It isn’t often that you see a Coach K team get outplayed so decisively down the stretch but I am sure it will be a learning experience.

There are many ways to sum up Jabari Parker’s impressive performance. At times, he reminded me of Kevin Durant and Paul Pierce with his quick jab-step and ability to lift and score from anywhere, of Michael Jordan with a fast break hanging drive through three defenders and creatively tossing in a falling down hook shot, and of Grant Hill with his skying for an ally-oop pass headed for the upper deck. He was more impressive than Kansas’s Andrew Wiggins, the most hyped freshman in many years. He outshined Kentucky’s Julius Randle, a contender for the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft. Coach Mike Krzyzewski, said Parker was “sensational.” But most impressive of all was his response to the question: “How would you grade your performance? (27 pts., 9 rebs., 2 stls.) He said: “C-minus. We lost. I want to win. Forget everything else. That’s all I’m looking for is winning. That’s all that matters to me.”

It is early in the season and this is a young, inexperienced squad. The rest of the players are going to have to figure out their roles to complement Batman. Rodney Hood is talented but seemed a bit passive, even intimidated. My nomination for Robin is Sulaimon. Down the stretch (and puzzlingly, off the bench) he proved once again that he doesn’t back down to any challenge. Cook has to become more consistent both offensively and defensively. Jefferson(17 pts.) has to stay energized and garner more than 2 rebounds and no blocks. And, of course, the team has to shoot free throws a lot better, because they are going be on the line a lot.

Comments:

Parker: “ I just need to get a little more experience and be hungry to learn. I’ve got a long way to go. Defense wins championships, and I didn’t show that.”

Hood: “I found myself getting lost in the game a bit when Jabari got hot,” Hood said. “It’s something to learn from. I’ve got to be more assertive. I can’t let the game come to me and just hope for opportunities. I’ve got to go take them and be more aggressive. It’s a learning period for me, too, being at the head of the team.”

DBP:  The only thing more annoying than the new foul rule is Dick Vitale. I’m sure he is a nice, well- meaning man but his constant stream of shouted shop worn platitudes are well past their shelf life  and add nothing to the enjoyment of the game.

ALLAN ADDS:

First of all, the Duke-Kansas game was a terrific early season game.  Stars made great plays, Andrew Wiggins owned the second half in a more understated way than Parker owned the first half, but was impressively efficient in teaming with Perry Ellis to beat Duke.  Parker put on some show, especially in the first half, which Duke ended in the lead.  It was nip and tuck, with the score tied at the 3:50 mark in the second half.  The game demonstrated Duke is a really good team.  In November, Kansas was better.  Last year Duke was better than Louisville in November.

As Bill emphasized, Duke was  disappointingly woeful from the foul line.  But also disappointing was the free throw opportunities Duke’s defense gave Kansas.   Kansas went to the line 35 times to Duke’s 28 (the missed front end of one and ones skews this stat a bit) and made 27 — an 11 point Kansas advantage from the line for Kansas (who won by 11).  In the first half, Duke shot better from the 3 point line (6-12) than from the foul line (6-13).  The fouling was a result of a combination of terrific Kansas offense and defective Duke defense (especially in the paint).  Moreover, Duke was destroyed on the backboard.  Kansas glommed 30 of the 35 rebounds off its defensive board, while Duke managed only 19 of the 28 defensive board opportunities.  Kansas shooting from the field was very efficient; again a combination of excellent offense and porous defense.  In the second half, Kansas shot 16 for 24 inside the arc (1-4 from 3land), which is 67%, and 19 for 26 from the free throw line.  I thought Duke got tired toward the end of the game.  The score was tied at 77 all with 3:50 left, and Kansas scored 17 of the last 23 points in the game.  As amazing as Parker was on offense, and as a rebounder, he was toasted as a post defender — especially by Perry Ellis (9-13 from the field and 5-6 from the foul line for 24 points).  Thornton fouled out in only 20 minutes; Parker in 33 minutes.  Hood, Cook and Sulaimon each had four fouls at game’s end.  While Duke’s defense needs work — especially against teams who have superior interior firepower, credit goes to a superbly coached Kansas offense (it’s also early in the season for the Jayhawks, who rely heavily on freshmen).

Duke’s rebounding woes are even more fundamentally troubling for a nationally contending team.  Consider that of Duke’s 19 defensive rebounds, Parker got 9 of them (also made Duke’s only block of the game).  Duke’s second best rebounder was Thornton (4 — 1 offensive — in his 20 minutes).  Amile, who had an impressive offensive game, retrieved only one offensive and one defensive board in his 26 minutes.  He, too, was toasted on defense in the paint. Hairston has not snared a rebound now in two games, though he only played 9 minutes (3 fouls; 0-2 from the foul line with 1 hoop).  Hood is counted on, like Parker, to be one of Duke’s major rebounders.  He playfully poked fun at Parker after the Davidson game because Hood had far more rebounds than Parker.  Yet, against Kansas, he had only 1 defensive rebound (to go with 2 on offense) in a game high 38 minutes.  Nor was Hood efficient with the ball.  Though he had 5 assists to lead Duke in that category; he also had 5 turnovers to lead Duke in that category.  He was an inefficient 3-8 from the field and 4-7 from the line for 11 points.  It was obviously a very disappointing game for Hood after his brilliant game against Davidson.  Time will tell who the real Rodney Hood is.  How that shakes out will have a large role in what becomes of Duke’s season.

I thought Duke’s fatigue showed on offense as well.  After 6-12 in the first half from behind the arc, the Devils were 1-7 in the second half.  Duke shot 56% from the field in the first half, but fell to 48% in the second half.  Still shooting 52% for the game is not a sign of an inferior offensive or shooting team.  Jefferson showed more than he ever has before, going 7-9 from the field for 17 points.  Quinn had a quiet game. He played the second most minutes (36 behind Hood’s 38), scoring 10 and dishing out 4 assists against only 1 turnover.  He missed all 3 of his 3 point attempts, but was otherwise 4-6 from the field and 2-3 from the line.  I thought he was Duke’s best defender, though the Kansas point guard, Wayne Selden scored 15 in his 37 minutes.  Duke’s rotation was very short in a close game.  Neither Dawkins nor Ojeleye saw any action.  Murphy (missing his only shot, a 3 pointer in 3 minutes), Jones (missing a 3 pointer and 2 foul shots in 4 minutes) and Marshall (1 assist in 3 minutes) made only cameo appearances.  Rasheed came off the bench and was effective, especially in the fourth quarter.  He had 13 points in 28 minutes (fourth most on the team) on 5-10 shooting (1-3 from 3land and 2-4 from the foul line).  He is a force, who plays starter minutes whether he starts or comes off the bench.

While this game showed that the pre-season worries about Duke weaknesses are very real, this is a good Duke team that will get better.  Coach K said, “We didn’t play a bad game tonight; we played well.  We didn’t play well on the defensive end in the second half, and in big moments, we weren’t able to get a stop.  Part of that is they’re good.  They’re really good.”

Next Play

DUKE 97 – FLORIDA ATLANTIC 64

This weekend was a very interesting time for both Duke Basketball AND Duke Football:

  • The nation’s top-ranked recruit in 2014, center Jahlil Okafor and No. 2-ranked point guard, Tyus Jones committed to Duke (over Kansas and UNC). In securing commitments from Jones and Okafor, the Blue Devils landed what some are calling the most significant recruiting “package deal” since Mike Conley and Greg Oden committed to Ohio State in 2005.
  • Rodney Hood was much more aggressive on the offensive end against FAU than he was against Kansas. It seemed in Chicago that Rodney was somewhat reticent and, perhaps, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the event.
  • The more I see of Parker, the more impressed I am with not only his basketball skills but also his maturity and the fact that he is a consummate team player. Last night, Rodney Hood was aggressive and  hot so Parker unselfishly helped Rodney have his time in the spotlight. I’m sure he realizes the better Hood plays, the less double teams he will see and the more dangerous his team will be.
  • Rasheed Sulaimon started tonight. I had been puzzled as to why Sulaimon hadn’t started the first two games, because he brings a versatility, physicality and intensity that helps compensates for a lack of front court size. Turns out he has had a head cold and it has been affecting his conditioning and performance in practice.
  • The feel good story of the night was Andre Dawkins, who had 17 points on 5-8 threes.  If you have followed Andre Dawkins perplexing career and have any curiosity why he hasn’t achieved more, you need to read Seth Davis’ article in this week’s Sports Illustrated.  ( I emailed it yesterday. If you didn’t receive it or couldn’t open the link, you may access it on dukebasketballreport.com.)  Seth, the son of ubiquitous cable TV political talking head Lanny Davis, is a Duke graduate and an analyst for CBS Sport as well as a writer for SI.) From the time I first saw him play, I thought Andre had the skills and athleticism to be a super star. His three point shot technique was as pure as any I had ever seen. He would occasionally light it up—two big threes just before the half against Baylor on the championship run and 27 points against Michigan State in the Garden in the game that Coach K broke Bobby Knight’s record. However, he not only didn’t progress, he seemed to regress. Lingering sadness over his sister’s death was mentioned but that occurred in his freshman year. Finally, after a disappointing junior year, Coach K had a meeting with him and told him that he was no longer either helping the team nor even a good teammate and cut him from the team. He would keep his scholarship but not participate in any team events or functions. K advised him to get some professional help (referring him to a mental health expert), regroup, then next year decide what he wanted to do with his life. Well, as you saw last night, HE’S BACK!
  • If you haven’t watched the Duke football team play this year, you are missing a very interesting transformation and a lot of excitement. Coach Cutcliffe has accomplished the impossible. He has turned this moribund program around. They are 8-2, after having spotted Virginia 20 points and won, come from behind in the fourth quarter to beat North Carolina State, and tonight twice spotted Miami  10-point first-half leads, fell behind late in the third quarter and answered with another dominant stretch run, 20 unanswered points over the final 18 minutes to beat the nationally ranked Hurricanes. Hey guys, this is not your father’s Duke football team!
  • Max McCaffrey a sophomore wide receiver on the Duke Football team, who made a difficult, crucial reception tonight, is the son of  Ed McCaffrey, an All-America receiver at Stanford (where he met his wife, Lisa, a soccer player for the Cardinals) and a terrific pro with the Denver Broncos. Billy  McCaffrey, Ed’s brother, was a valuable member of Duke’s 1991 national championship basketball team (before transferring to Vanderbilt) and Lisa is the daughter of Dr. Dave Sime, the premier athlete in the modern Duke era. He lettered in baseball, football and track and field in the late 1950’s and went on to win the silver medal in the 100 meters at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Scott Sime, Max’s uncle, played fullback for Duke in the early 1980s.

Alan adds:

Returning to the friendly confines of Cameron against an overmatched opponent, Duke figured to rebound after the loss to Kansas.  The game gave Coach K a chance to give more playing time to those who had few opportunities to play in the first two games.  The big news, of course, was “The Return of Dre”, The Revitalization of Hood, and the All Around Play of Jabari Parker.

The rotation, as usual, gives some clues as to Coach K’s current evaluation of his team.  I’ve divided into three sections: the stars, the bench, and the cameos:

Stars: Quinn Cook played a game high (again) 30 minutes.  Coach K went out of his way to laud Quinn’s on the ball defense, even while finding fault with it against Kansas.  Quinn scored only 8 points (2-4 from behind the arc, but only 3-8 overall, without a free throw.  However, Quinn had 5 boards (2nd for Duke) and 8 assists.  Efficient.  Parker played 28 minutes in putting up dazzling numbers: 4-6 from 3land to go with 7-13 from the field for 21 points.  The remaining impressive stats demonstrate what an all around player Jabari is: 10 rebounds (lead Duke), 3 assists (only Quinn with 8 had more for Duke), 2 steals, and a block while committing only 1 foul.  Only bad was 3-6 from the free throw line.  While amazing, Jabari’s impressive stats pale in comparison to Rodney Hood’s revitalized game.  Hood scored 28 points in 26 minutes on only 11 shots (that’s efficiency!), including going 12-13 from the free throw line.  He had 3 boards and 2 assists.  Rasheed played 24 minutes, though he was ill with a stuffed nose and flu like symptoms.  Coach K lauded his defense, especially in the second half, though his offense was absent (4 points on 6 shots and a missed free throw).

The Bench: Others who logged double figure minutes were Dawkins (19), Thornton (17), Jefferson (14) and Hairston (12).  Hairston continues to be foul prone, picking up 3 in his short time on the court.  He was 1-2 from the field with 2 boards (his first of the season) and 2 assists.  Efficient, but  for the fouling.  Jefferson also continues to have foul problems, picking up 3 in his short time.  The fouling of the two Duke bigs highlights the deficiency with Duke’s interior defense.  Otherwise, Jefferson had a great line: 8 points on 6 shots; 2-3 from the line; 5 boards, a steal and a block.  Thornton, too, was limited by fouling (3 in his 17 minutes), but had a hoop, a free throw (100% shooting), 2 boards and an assist.  Which brings us to the feel good story of the season so far.  Andre Dawkins played his first significant minutes and lit Cameron up, scoring 17 points in his 19 minutes (5-8 from 3land; 6-9 overall with 3 boards, 2 assists and committed only 1 foul.  Coach K was effusive about Dre’s performance, and disclosed that he was recovering from a back injury.  A very positive (and for me unexpected) development.

Cameos: The end of the bench got some playing time as well: Murphy (9 minutes), Jones (8), Ojeleye (7) and Marshall (6).  Jones was 2-3 (the miss was from 3land).  Ojeleye had a hoop, a board and a block in his short stint.  Alex missed his only shot and only free throw.  He corralled a board, committed a turnover and a foul.  Marshall missed his only shot and committed a foul.  The freshmen seem to be ahead of the red shirts.

On to the Pre-Season NIT, with two games in Durham Monday and Tuesday.  We’ll do one DBP to cover both games. Semi-finals and finals in The Garden.  If form holds, a Duke – Arizona Final.

DUKE  91– UNC ASHEVILLE 55

DUKE  83     —   EAST CAROLINA 74

I have seen enough. While it is not fair to compare players from different eras, Jabari Parker is the most talented offensive  player I have ever seen at Duke and Rodney Hood is the best second scoring option since Jeff Mullins as well as the best left handed player since Jack Marin. What makes Parker so impressive and lethal is that he can operate at any of the five positions from center to point guard. A lot of big men like to think they can play the point, but only Magic Johnson proved it day in and day out. The only first year player to have such a sensational initial impact at Duke was Art Heyman–and he was a sophomore because freshmen were not eligible in the 60’s– but Art was a total different personality and not nearly as collegial a teammate as Jabari. And that leads to another interesting characteristic of this team. The chemistry is terrific. It is obvious that these players really like one another and celebrate each other’s success.

And that brings me to Andre Dawkins. I have always felt that Andre was one of the most truly gifted players ever to wear a Duke uniform and was mystified as to why his career has been so sporadic and never took off. Reading Seth Davis’ terrific Sports Illustrated article and watching the accompanying video, which included thoughtful comments by Coach Wojo. You do not have to be a Duke fan, basketball fan, or a bleeding heart not to be touched by Andre’s journey back from debilitating depression (triggered by his sister’s death) which robbed him, among other things, of the enjoyment of playing basketball. The transformation of Andre’s demeanor is a pleasure to behold and watching the final year of his career at Duke will be fascinating.

The surprise of the N.C. Asheville game was the early insertion of 6’ 8” 235 lb. man child freshman Semi Ojeleye with  the starters. He responded with 10 pts. & 5 rebounds in 14 minutes. With rebounding being one of the few weaknesses of this team, Oje may be a pleasant surprise as antidote. The other surprise was the subpar performance of Sulaimon. Coach attributed it to a lingering cold but I wonder if it has more to do with his adjustment to a different role on this year’s team. Last year, he was the second or third offensive option. With this year’s team, his value will to be as a defensive stopper, strong rebounder, and the being the fourth or fifth option.

The two obvious weaknesses of this team have been defensive rebounding and free throw shooting, both of which contributed to the loss to Kansas. Free throw shooting is the easier fix. The East Carolina  Game demonstrated what can happen when the offense falters, the defense gets sloppy, and an opponent gets hot. The good news is that Parker and Hood rose to the challenge and sealed the victory. Parker made what was the signature play when the lead was cut to two points. After barely missing a very difficult ally oop, he made a block and went coast to coast for a jam. Hood sealed the deal by being perfect (15-15) from the line.

Comments:

  • I like announcers who tell me something I don’t know or at least confirm what I think I know. Doris Burke, Jay Bilas, Jay Williams, and Dino Gaudio (former Wake Forest coach) all played basketball and do their homework. They make watching a game much more interesting.
  • Coach K commented that Parker is unselfish and against Asheville tried too hard to force passes inside and that he would rather see him shoot.
  • Marshall Plumlee was a force against some players his own size. Like his brothers, he is a very good athlete and might surprise some people, if not this year before his career is over.

Alan adds:

Pre-Season NIT Regionals Overview

It was a fascinating two games for those of us watching the development and maturation of a team that has significant potential to be a force on the national scene.  The opener against UNC Ashville was as good an offensive performance as a Duke team has displayed,  Duke’s shooting was off the charts, the result of great ball movement without turnovers.   Yes, there was a little concern over the lack of defensive rebounding, but by and large Duke fans were wallowing in self-satisfaction at the New Devil performance.  It was especially delicious because — in satisfying contrast — UNC was beaten by Belmont!

The amazing run continued in the opening minutes against East Carolina.  Duke went 11-11 from the field and looked like a pro team led by pro caliber players.   With 3:41 left in the first half, Duke led 41-23.  Then the clock struck midnight and for a long period of time, Duke looked completely out of sync on both ends of the floor.  The offense stagnated and resulted in bad shots; East Carolina penetrated from the perimeter (as if they were Lehigh two years ago) and Duke’s switching looked ragged.  East Carolina attacked the rim with great success and even Jabari had a bad turn on both ends of the court.  The Pirates reduced the Duke lead to a mere point twice before Duke restored a semblance of order in the last 7 minutes.  The resurgence was gratifying and showcased Duke’s two emerging stars.  Parker made the physical and emotional plays that turned the tide.  He blocked some key shots at the rim and made the play of the game — blocking the shot, grabbing the loose ball, and weaving through the entire East Carolina team for a monster jam!  Hood was so clutch and efficient, scoring 30 points on only 10 shots, and going 12-12 from the foul line.  He scored 8 of Duke’s last 12 points (Rasheed had the other 4) as Duke escaped with a win and some valuable experience not only about winning close games, but also about the danger of taking your foot off the gas pedal too early.  Coach K put it, “”The last two nights, we’ve played our butts off,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “This is not about Duke not playing [well]. … Don’t undersell what they did. We were ready and we played hard. I thought we brought great energy but so did they. This was a really good basketball game.”

UNC Ashville

Duke was so efficient and so smooth that the outcome was never in doubt.  Coach K had a chance to play everyone for more than cameo appearances.  Only Cook (31) logged more than 30 minutes; and only Hood (27) exceeded 20 minutes.  Hood is a model of offensive efficiency.  He scored 18 points on only 8 shots (6-8, including 3-4 from 3land and 3-4 from the foul line).  Cook controlled the game with 5 assists and 0 turnovers.  He scored 10 points on 4-8 shooting, but was 0-3 from behind the arc. His driving was effective and efficient.  Even better was his on the ball defense.  He held Ashville’s leading scorer (averaging over 20 points a game coming in) to a single field goal in the entire game.  Jabari played only 19 minutes, but managed to get up 13 shots in that span as well as to corral 10 boards.  He finished the high scorer with 21 points.  His 6 turnovers were more his attempt to get his teammates points than bad ball handling.

The game showcased Semi Ojeleye for the first time.  He was 2-2 from behind the arc for 10 points in 14 minutes.  Impressively he had 5 rebounds and played excellent defense.  For the first time he looked a potential contributor as the season progresses.   The other double digit scorer was Andre Dawkins, who had 13 points in 18 impressive minutes.  Dre had 3 boards and played excellent defense.

Jefferson committed 3 fouls in his 19 minutes (3 points), but had 6 boards.  His defense in the post and deficiency at guarding the rim are limiting his playing time.  Rasheed played only 13 minutes (Coach K said he was slightly ill).  Tyler also committed 3 fouls in his 16 minutes.  Matt Jones played 14 minutes and Hairston 13 without significant box score statistics.  Murphy was in for 9 minutes and Marshall for 7.   Duke wasn’t pushed and the feeling was of great exhilaration after the game.

East Carolina

Doris Burke is truly a wonderful announcer.  She relished that East Carolina fought back to make the game a very good college basketball game.  She is also savvy about Duke’s defensive potential, and how far the team was from reaching it against the Pirates.  On offense, Duke had real trouble with East Carolina’s zone, which leaves me wondering why Jeff Lebo (coach of the Pirates and former Tar heel star) went back to the man to man for the last 6-7 minutes of the game.  Duke started scoring efficiently again when Lebo made that change.  Once again, whom Coach K played when the going got tough reveals whom he has confidence in.  Hood played 40 minutes, Quinn Cook 38, and Parker 35.  Thornton played 28 minutes before fouling out while Rasheed (still under the weather) played 22.  Surprisingly, Jefferson played only 12 minutes, even though he was 3-3 from the floor with 5 boards in that short stretch.  Jefferson simply cannot defend in the post and is late as a help defender.  His defensive liability highlights the difficulty Duke is having defending the interior and the rim.   Dawkins at 11 was the only other Duke players to log double figure minutes, playing good defense but scoring only a deuce on 3 shots.  Hairston (9), Semi (5) and Jones (2) made cameos.  Semi couldn’t follow up his excellent showing against Ashville.  None of those 3 made a box score impact.  Neither Murphy nor Plumlee left the bench.

The Duke change in fortunes (from up 18) was reflected in the play of Quinn Cook.  He had an all-world first half with 11 points, 7 assists and 2 boards, including some amazing drives.  In the second half, he hit only a single 3 pointer out of 7 shots, with only 3 assists.  His defense returned to the bad old days as he was consistently beaten badly off the dribble, allowing penetration which shredded Duke’s defense.  Hard to explain.  Hood and Parker led the Duke salvation.  Parker had a bad stretch of turnovers and missed shots to go with porous defense, and then turned his game and the game around.  His defense turned super — 6 blocks saved Duke; the dramatic ones came at “ winning time”— he grabbed critical rebounds (9 for the game)  He had 21 points on 18 shots (8-18); not his best shooting game, but one of his guttiest games.  And what can you say about Rodney Hood!  He was an unstoppable offensive machine when it counted, and clutch foul shooter.  He and Parker so complement each other.  They are a joy to watch.

So, much good; some bad, and a wonderful season looming.  Vermont next Sunday before Duke visits Madison Square Garden to take on Alabama in the semi-finals.  The cognoscenti are awaiting a potential final match up with Arizona (a top 5 team with its own heralded freshman).

Next Play.

Duke 91 – Vermont 90

Tonight, I kept thinking I had inadvertently hit the East Carolina game replay button, because I knew Duke couldn’t play such terrible man-to-man defense two games in a row. Then I realized it was Vermont making like Lehigh in the NCAA Tournament several years ago. When you score 83 & 91 points and East Carolina takes you to the wire, then 1-4 Vermont comes within less than a second of beating you in Cameron, there is an obvious defensive problem. What is Jim Boeheim’s phone number? Maybe Duke needs a quick lesson or primer on how to play the Orange 2-3 Zone defense—or not. Coach K lives and dies by man-to-man defense. So, the players better man up because, if not, their practices will make boot camp seem like a walk across the quad. You just can’t outscore everybody every night.

For good reason, Amile Jefferson’s minutes are going south faster than Obamas approval ratings. While Jabari Parker can play any position, he is much more effective offensively  than defensively in the post. Same goes for Rodney Hood. If effort was the sole criteria, Josh Hairston would be the answer but his size and skills are not those of a Final Four forty minute center.  And speaking of minutes, Dawkins and Semi Ojeleye (using Alan’s early on extrapolation theory that if Zoubek played nearly forty minutes, he would lead the nation in rebounding) are averaging about a point a minute and if they played forty minutes…well, you get the idea. But scoring is not the issue. Dawkins is playing significant minutes but the very athletic and strong Semi is still an afterthought. How much worse defensively can he be?

In addition to playing another incredible offensive game, Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood get it: “Little mistakes ended up biting us in the butt in the second half. We kept on letting those bad habits get to us. Just talking, communicating, being together, being there. We didn’t show up. You can’t just choose to turn it on when you want to.”

The good news is that the Blue Devils are shooting much better from the foul line—and it has saved them from two embarrassing losses.

Comments:

  • The Blue Devils shot 49.1 percent from the field and 83.3 percent from the line, with 16 assists and only seven turnovers. Duke outrebounded Vermont 30-24. Parker had 26 points and 9 rebounds. Hood 22 points and seven rebounds, Cook 14 points and eight assists. Andre Dawkins added 16 points off the bench.
  • Defensively, Duke allowed Vermont to shoot an unacceptable 64.8% from the field and forced only six turnovers. 21 of Vermont’s 35 field goals were via assists.
  • Let’s hear it for the Duke football team. They spotted Wake Forest 14 points, then again rallied late in the game to win and go 9-2. They have playmakers and momentum.

Alan Adds:

In deconstructing this game as part of Duke’s status and growth, I do not believe it is useful to talk about Duke’s efficient offense.  The Vermont game focused scrutiny on Duke’s defense.  How is this for a troubling statistic?  In the first half (when Duke kept the lead with its offense, even though giving up 43 points) UVM shot 15-19 from inside the arc (1-5 from 3land).  The percentage was so high because most of UVM’s shots were open looks at the rim.  In the second half, Duke was virtually as bad — worse when one considers the offensive rebounds that UVM began to collect.  For the game, UVM was 31-41 from inside the arc (3-8 from 3land in the second half).  That’s almost 75 %.  UVM got 5 key offensive rebounds in the second half.  Coach K was direct in his post game comments, “We didn’t talk because we didn’t think we needed to. I don’t think we respected them. When you’re playing this game, you should respect every opponent. One, they’re worthy of respect. . . . But more than that, you should always respect the game. If you respect the game and you give your effort, preparation, fight, night in and night out, then you can look at anybody, no matter what happens and say I respected the game, I gave my best. We can’t say that tonight and that’s upsetting to me because there aren’t many times that I’ve said that about one of my teams.”  Wow!

Amile Jefferson is a major liability on defense.  He was supposed to anchor the interior defense.  In the first two minutes he gave up an easy layup, and Coach K replaced him immediately.  He played only 12 minutes, and picked up 2 fouls while watching UVM players go by him without resistance.  Dawkins, who is a scoring machine (16 points in 20 minutes) is also a continuing defensive liability.  At game’s end, he was replaced by Thornton when UVM had the ball in offense-defense switch.  But Thornton was far from his usual effective defensive presence.  He committed 4 fouls in his 11 minutes, including one that was eye-poppingly dumb.  Duke finally played 35 seconds of sound defense, forcing a desperation 3 from UVM as the shot clock expired; Thornton committed a foul on the shot leading to 3 free throws.  Hairston committed 3 fouls in his 9 minutes.  Duke basically got no help from its bench with Alex playing 4 minutes, Semi, 5 and Matt Jones just a minute.  Marshall did not leave the bench.  Quinn’s vaunted on the ball defense was impossible to see against UVM’s classy point guard, Sandro Carissimo, who scored 16 points on 12 shots while handing out 9 assists.  He got past Quinn whenever he wanted to.  As great as Jabari has been (impressively great so far), he has a long way to go on the defensive end.  He is a shot blocker (but 0 last night), rather than a good post defender.  Ditto Hood, who failed to box out on key rebounds and was part of the porous interior defense that kept giving up open layups and follows (Clancy Rugg, UVM’s best interior player was 9-11 from the field).

While Duke did not win the Pre-Season NIT, the two games illuminated Duke’s defensive improvement, offensive skill, and fundamental weaknesses that will either be addressed or will derail the high pre-season expectations for this edition of the Blue Devils.  Duke had many good moments against Alabama, which is considered a top tier team.  In dropping its second game against a highly ranked foe,  Duke showed both resolve and weakness.   Tuesday is a big test against Michigan in the ACC-Big 10 challenge before Duke is off for a significant amount of time (December 19 back at Madison Square Garden against UCLA).

Duke   66 –  Arizona 72

A team rarely beats Coach K two times in a row, but Arizona did it by going on a 20-5 run at the eleven minute mark to break open a very even game. The good news is that the Blue Devils played better defensively. The bad news is that they faltered down the stretch against one of the biggest, most athletic best teams in the country. My fraternity brother Don, who has season tickets, emailed me that one possible explanation for the recent close games  in Cameron is that Parker and Cook appeared winded and tired in the final minutes of both games.

Another explanation is that Jefferson has been a huge disappointment and the mystery surrounding Sulaimon’ s scoring ineffectiveness. Whatever happened to his three point shot and pull up jumper? Without Mason Plumlee in the low post, his drives are much more defensible—beside Parker and Hood do it better. Coach K commented: “We have talked all year about how we don’t have a center. However, we have good players. We have to figure out how to be good with the players we have.”

To be a contender, this team must improve its pressing defense, which can help neutralize the lack of a dominant center. They did in the first 29 minutes against Arizona and were in a position to win. The interesting and provocative writer Malcolm Gladwell ( The Outliers, The Tipping Point etc.) has a new book, Davis and Goliath. In it he challenges how to think about obstacles and how to overcome them. One example he cites is Vivek Ranadive, a software CEO from India who had never played in or even had seen a basketball game but decided to coach his 12 year old daughter’s National Junior League Basketball team, which was composed of girls with a lot of enthusiasm but few basketball skills. He did it  by having his team press full court, creating chaos, steals, and turnovers. His team made it to the National Finals before losing. Vivek became hooked on the game and now is the co-owner and vice chairman of the NBA Golden State Warriors.

Comments:

The loss was probably my fault. I was in Pinehurst celebrating Thanksgiving with our children and grandchildren. Friday night we had early dinner  reservations. As we left the restaurant, I checked my cell phone and Duke was ahead by three at the half. When I returned to the Homewood Suites, Duke was still ahead. Once I started watching, Zona went on their decisive run. I should never have tuned in, because obviously I jinxed the Blue Devils. You didn’t have to have watched the wonderful baseball movie “Bull Durham” to know that during a win streak, you never change anything.

Unless my eyes deceived me, when Zona was on their run in the second half, Duke actually went to a zone for a few possessions. So this week, I have another suggestion: Why not a Three Headed Center 2—Jefferson, Hairston, and Plumlee? How much worse could the interior defense and rebounding be? Plumlee is big, athletic, and takes up a lot of space under the basket.

The Duke Football team (10-2) continued their very impressive season with another come-from-behind victory and second consecutive win over the North Carolina Tar       Heels. Who would have thunk it. This isn’t your father’s Duke football team.

Duke  79- Michigan 69

Apparently Coach K reads our blog. Let’s recall my comments after the Arizona game: “Unless my eyes deceived me, when Zona was on their run in the second half, Duke actually went to a zone for a few possessions. So this week, I have another suggestion: Why not a Three Headed Center 2—Jefferson, Hairston, and Plumlee? How much worse could the interior defense and rebounding be? Plumlee is big, athletic, and takes up a lot of space under the basket.”

Well, tonight Marshall Plumlee made an early cameo appearance and to quote the News Observer’s Laura Keeley (she’s a Duke grad, so she knows her basketball): “Marshall Plumlee was the first forward sub, and he showed promise in his four minutes. He grabbed an offensive and defensive rebound and made a nice hustle play, throwing a loose ball of a Michigan defender to maintain possession for Duke. Fired up, Plumlee was grabbed around the waist by Hood, who was equally excited. Plumlee made an immediate impact when he entered in the second half as well, about five minutes in. He blocked a LeVert lay-up and finished a nice pass from Cook on the other end. On the Blue Devils’ next possession, Plumlee grabbed an offensive rebound and drew a foul. Plumlee’s development could by key for the Blue Devils, as he has the size to protect the rim.”

While the Blue Devils were never behind, they also never let Michigan get too close. My man Andre Dawkins’s ability to hit 3-pointers—cold, off the bench—proved a key turning point in the second half. Michigan had cut the Duke lead to single digits,  but in 40 seconds, Dawkins hit back-to-back 3s to put Duke ahead by a dozen with just under eight minutes to play. Then, a Dawkins bucket off the dribble a few minutes later,  pushed Duke’s lead to 57-42.

I will let Alan, who was the first person on Quinn Cook’s bandwagon, tell you about his career night. While the defense (particularly on Nik Stauskas) and Dawkins instant offense set the table, it was Cook who cleared the table with some pretty spectacular point guard offense—and a perfect 10-10 from the line.

Comments:

  • The Blue Devils continued to experiment with their lineup, searching for the best combination of offensive efficiency and ability to defend. The starters remained the same from last week: Quinn Cook, Thornton, Hood, Parker and Josh Hairston. Matt Jones was the first sub off the bench and Rasheed Sulaimon did not play at all. “He knows what he needs to do,” Thornton said of Sulaimon, declining to go into specifics”. Krzyzewski has a similar answer: “He needs to play better than the guys that played tonight.”
  • Parker and Hood had, for them, mediocre nights. Jabari is taking one for the team by playing the post at both ends. He is not an ideal size as a post defender and has to be careful about getting into foul trouble. In addition, it is physically taxing.
  • I don’t want to be a broken record but Marshall Plumlee, while far from a finished product, not only takes up a lot of space in the lane but also gives Duke a muscular athleticism and physical presence—and the ability to block and alter shots. His mere presence on the court changes an opponent’s offense—and energizes the Cameron Crazies. He and Dawkins are real crowd favorites. And don’t forget that he gives the center position five more fouls.

Alan adds:

Optimism for Duke’s 2013-2014 basketball season returned to Blue Devil fans, as Duke defeated Michigan rather handily in the ACC-Big Ten challenge.  The pessimism produced by shoddy defensive performances and late game surges by opponents  (Kansas, ECU, and most important, Vermont) has evaporated with three consecutive satisfactory defensive performances.  While the defense was “satisfactory” — a great improvement — in the Pre-Season NIT, Duke’s defense against Michigan was not less than superb.  It’s hard to fathom that the team that destroyed Michigan’s offense was the same team that gave up 90 points to Vermont.  Rodney Hood said that in the early season each player was trying to stop his man, but now each player is helping out as well, making for a cohesive (Coach K’s word of the night in post-game interviews) defensive effort.

How good was it?  Coming in, Duke game planned to stop Michigan’s high scoring off guard, Nik Stauskas (averaging 20 ppt coming in) and Michigan’s huge center, Mitch McGary (who had sparked Michigan’s run through the NCAA tournament to the championship game last year, and was a pre-season All American candidate this year).  Stauskas faced amazing defense from the combo of Tyler Thornton (20 minutes) and Matt Jones (17 minutes), who made magnificent efforts to keep Nik from even touching the ball.  Result:  0 field goals for Michigan’s best scorer (4 points — 2 of the foul shots were technicals).  Thornton hit 2 huge 3s (though 1 of them was clearly after the shot clock had expired and should not have counted).  McGary scored 15 points, but that turns out to be a misleading statistic.  McGary had more than half of his points (8 to be precise) in the last 1:59 of the game, after Duke’s lead had reached 18 and the game was well out of reach for Michigan.  So McGary had 7 in 38 minutes.  This was team defense — hustle, effort, cohesion and rebounding — without excessive fouling.  Michigan scored 22 points in the first half.  Wow!  Although Michigan finished with 69 points (47 in the second half) that statistic is again misleading, and for the same reason.  In the same last 1:59 with the same 18 point Duke lead, Michigan scored 19 points after the game well out of reach.  So Duke gave up 50 points in 38 minutes while the game was still competitive.  Awesome!  Duke also reined in its defensive fouling, which has been a serious weakness in past games.  Duke put Michigan in the bonus with 10:31 to go in the first half, causing much concern.  But the Devils never let Michigan get to the double bonus, committing only 3 more fouls in the half.  Michigan did not get to the double bonus in the second half either.

Duke’s bench made significant contributions.  Though Dawkins played only 10 minutes and Marshall a season high 6 minutes, both were major contributors.  Dawkins’ two huge 3s in the second half, when Michigan had crept to within 6 points, effectively put the game away by driving the lead back to 12 in about 48 seconds.  Dawkins added a great drive for 8 points (and a steal) in his brief stint.  Plumlee was a force in his first effective appearance on the court in a Duke uniform.  He had 3 boards, a block, a defensive hustle play and a bucket (shades of Zoubek as a sophomore), while missing both free throws and committing one foul.  It was truly a 3 headed center for Duke with Hairston (4 fouls) logging 21 minutes.  Jefferson had his best game at Duke, though he was limited to 17 minutes because he too committed 4 fouls — but, it was a superb 17 minutes (3-3 from the field for 6 points; 6 boards, 2 assists, a steal and a block).  It was also Amile’s first defensively competent performance.  This team is improving rapidly.

The Big 3 — Parker (15 points on 14 shots in 33 minutes), Hood (14 points on 13 shots in 38 minutes) and Cook (24 points on 11 shots in 37 minutes; 10-10 from the free throw line with 9 assists) were the Duke mainstays again, but it was different in ways than earlier in the season.  Though Parker scored “only” 15, he had one of his best all-round games of the season.  He gave Duke inside scoring with superb post offense, and was a force on defense.  He had only 1 turnover, a sharp reduction from past games.  Hood was equally less flashy and equally fundamentally efficient all over the court, especially on the defensive end.  He hit 2 big 3s and had a key block.  But the MVP of this game was Quinn Cook, who scored all of his 24 points in the second half (Duke only scored 47 in the half, making Quinn’s second half scoring more than 50% of Duke’s total).  Cook orchestrated an offense that eschewed the fast break for a deliberate and efficient half-court offense.  I think dialing down the pace of the offense helped Duke concentrate on its defensive improvement.   I’ll refrain from repeating my early Cook predictions of Cook’s value and potential (based on what I saw of him at Oak Hill), and let Bill remind you.

Duke also had an efficient rebounding game, actually out rebounding Michigan.  It was a team effort with Parker and Jefferson leading the way with 6; Hood garnered 5, Cook 4 while Jones and Marshall had 3 each.

The game was a pure pleasure to watch from opening tip to post-game interviews.

 

 

 

 

Duke  74  –  Alabama 64

We witnessed a rare event in this game. Coach K actually went deep into his bench in close game to find a winning combination. It reminded me of the 2001 championship season went he utilized the Three Headed Center  (Sanders, Christianson & Love) in the early rounds on the NCAA Tournament until Carlos Boozer recovered from a broken foot. Now we are in the early part of a new season and Coach is looking for the complementary parts to Parker, Hood, (sometimes) Cook, and Company. Actually, this is looking more and more like Jabari Parker and any four others who will play defense will do.

Coach Bobby Knight, as Alan mentions, is the best college analyst. Listen carefully to him and you will learn a lot about the strategy, nuances, and psychology of the game. He is the anti-Dick Vitale. Here are two examples of his world weary I’ve-seen-it- all understated comments on Jabari Parker:  “Parker is a relaxed and refined talent—a rare combination in any player, college or pro” and after a fall away Michael Jordan late career jumper: “That was pretty good”—all from the great but caustic coach who throws compliments around like a man hole cover.

Just to be sure everyone understood how displeased he was, Coach started two of the senior co-captains Hairston and Thornton. Thornton was outstanding with 5 steals and a key baskets while Hairston proved that he is a reliable short term substitute but not the answer for a starting center on a Final Four team. However, it was freshman Matt Jones who plays long and larger than 6’ 4” who exceled with two consecutive threes and good defensive work that undoubtedly will earned more playing time.

While this game was an encouraging defensive improvement, it was also a disconcerting that when the Blue Devils were up mid double digits, they again were unable to easily close out an opponent—better but not championship caliber. However, especially with the new defensive rules all good teams make runs and to win a team cannot contribute to the runs by making sloppy, dumb mistakes like turning the ball over, fouling, and not blocking out.

Just a suggestion as on how to  decisively closeout  games— give the ball to Parker and get out of the way.

Alan Adds:

I agree with Bill’s friend Don, Duke is having trouble at the end of games because the Big Three are playing so many minutes that they are subtly worn down at “winning time”.  It seems to me that Duke is fouling quite a lot at the end of games.  In this game, Arizona shot 7 free throws in the first half but 19 in the second half.  Same in the Alabama game (14-17 in the second half).  Tired players commit more fouls.

Both Hood and Parker played 38 minutes a piece and are expending intense energy on the defensive end (both playing unnaturally out of position defending the post against bigger players, and rebounding to prevent opposition put backs) in addition to superb offense.  Hood bounced back from a subpar outing against Alabama with a terrific effort against the Wildcats scoring 21 points on 14 attempts (8-14 overall; 1-3 from deep; 4-5 from the stripe) and leading Duke with 8 boards.  However, for the first time this season, Jabari looked like a mere mortal — good player, but only that.  He took 21 shots (0-5 from deep; 7-16 from inside the arc;  5-7 from the line with only 3 boards and 5 turnovers.  His statistics went south as the game got late, suggesting to me that Duke’s fatigue was a factor in Arizona’s game winning surge at the end.  Cook was the only other Duke player to score in double figures (13) and play more than 30 minutes (31).  It seems to me that Cook has consistently had brilliant first halves and good second halves that deteriorate into turnovers, tired defense, and unsuccessful forays to the rim.  In this game, Cook failed to get to the foul line (a telling statistic for me).  While he shot well (6-9 including 1-2 from deep), he had only 3 assists (against 2 turnovers and 0 steals).

 

Neither Semi, Alex appeared in either game.  Marshall was in for just 1 minute against Arizona and 0 in the Alabama game.   Matt Jones, who made substantial contributions on Wednesday, played only 2 minutes against Arizona, while Andre Dawkins was on the court for only 4 minutes (hitting his only 3 point attempt after the game was effectively over).  It seem that these five players are not in the rotation for competitive games.  The pre-season mantra of running and pressing with a long rotation seems to have gone the way of political promises after winning elections.  In the backcourt, Tyler started and played 23 minutes while Rasheed played 24 minutes off the bench.  Up front, Hairston started and logged 20 minutes while Jefferson had 19 off the bench.  Hairston did not attempt a shot but did garner 3 boards (all offensive) and had an assist.  Jefferson missed not only his only shot from the field, but also all 3 of his free throws.  There seems to be consensus that thus far he has failed to live up to Coach K’s pre-season expectations (hopes?).  Sulaimon scored 8 (2-8; but 1-2 from behind the arc and 3-3 from the line).  No rebounds is a telling statistic for him.  Thornton scored 2 points (1-3; 0-1) without getting to the free throw line either.  Of the guards, only Rasheed even attempted a free throw.  Duke has traditionally made more free throws than the other team shot;  Arizona made 21 free throws (26 attempts); Duke shot only 18 (making 12).  Arizona’s 9 point edge from the stripe was significant.

 

 

Duke  74  –  Alabama 64

 

We witnessed a rare event in this game. Coach K actually went deep into his bench in close game to find a winning combination. It reminded me of the 2001 championship season went he utilized the Three Headed Center  (Sanders, Christianson & Love) in the early rounds on the NCAA Tournament until Carlos Boozer recovered from a broken foot. Now we are in the early part of a new season and Coach is looking for the complementary parts to Parker, Hood, (sometimes) Cook, and Company. Actually, this is looking more and more like Jabari Parker and any four others who will play defense will do.

 

Coach Bobby Knight, as Alan mentions, is the best college analyst. Listen carefully to him and you will learn a lot about the strategy, nuances, and psychology of the game. He is the anti-Dick Vitale. Here are two examples of his world weary I’ve-seen-it- all understated comments on Jabari Parker:  “Parker is a relaxed and refined talent—a rare combination in any player, college or pro” and after a fall away Michael Jordan late career jumper: “That was pretty good”—all from the great but caustic coach who throws compliments around like a man hole cover.

 

Just to be sure everyone understood how displeased he was, Coach started two of the senior co-captains Hairston and Thornton. Thornton was outstanding with 5 steals and a key baskets while Hairston proved that he is a reliable short term substitute but not the answer for a starting center on a Final Four team. However, it was freshman Matt Jones who plays long and larger than 6’ 4” who exceled with two consecutive threes and good defensive work that undoubtedly will earned more playing time.

 

While this game was an encouraging defensive improvement, it was also a disconcerting that when the Blue Devils were up mid double digits, they again were unable to easily close out an opponent—better but not championship caliber. However, especially with the new defensive rules all good teams make runs and to win a team cannot contribute to the runs by making sloppy, dumb mistakes like turning the ball over, fouling, and not blocking out.

 

Just a suggestion as on how to  decisively closeout  games— give the ball to Parker and get out of the way.

 

 

Alan Adds:

 

Matt Jones (13) scored more than Rodney Hood (8)!   Jones was the latest to significantly augment Duke’s Big Three (Parker, Hood and Cook).  Different players have done it at different times (Dawkins, Sulaimon for example).  Against Alabama, it was Jones who nailed 2 from 3land in the first half, and then went 5-6 from the free throw line down the stretch to cement Duke’s victory.  Perhaps even more importantly, in his 16 minutes, Jones played excellent defense, grabbed 3 boards, a steal and committed only 1 foul.  At “winning time”, with Hood(21 minutes) and Hairston (20 minutes) having fouled out,  Coach K went with Parker and four guards (Cook, Sulaimon, Thornton and Jones).

 

Duke had a tremendous first half defensively, holding Alabama to 22 points on 9-27 shooting, including holding Alabama’s leading scorer, Trevor Relevord (averaging 18.8 per game coming in) scoreless in the first half.  He finished with 11, including 7-7 from the free throw line down the stretch.  The Blue Devils forced the Crimson Tide into 11 turnovers in the first half, taking five charges in the first half alone, including three on Releford.  Duke’s second half was less successful; Alabama scored 42 in the second stanza on 14-30 shooting, which included 0-5 from behind the arc (14-25 inside the arc is reminiscent of the defense against ECU and Vermont).  Perhaps even more troubling was the Duke fouling, especially in the second half.  The Tide was 14-17 from the line in the last stanza.  Bob Knight, is, in my opinion the best color announcer (even better than Doris Burke).  He repeatedly gave his coaching mantra — the key to holding the lead is to not foul the other team.  In the clutch, Duke put Alabama on the line for four straight crucial possessions.  However, Coach K pointed out that Alabama scored 22 points off Duke’s 19 turnovers.  “I thought our defense overall — in fact, we gave up 22 points on turnovers, okay, and we only allowed 64, so that meant our halfcourt defense was very good. Our halfcourt defense gave up 42 points tonight. That’s the best that we’ve played halfcourt defense.”

 

The rotation was slightly skewed because of Hood’s foul trouble.  He picked up the second one in the first half and only played 9 minutes (3 fouls in 12 during the second half).  Hairston played 20 minutes (2 foul shots but 0-2 from floor, 2 boards, and 2 assists).  He does not seem to have grasped the new block-charge rule yet.  Cook played the full 40 minutes, underscoring Coach K’s assessment of his value to the team.  As a result, Cook seemed to tire at game’s end, leading to uncharacteristic mistakes — ball handling turnovers, missed layups, driving into set defenses at the rim, and fouling Releford.  He had a superb defensive game overall, though.   Parker put on a dazzling offensive (and rebounding) show in his 35 minutes.  He was jaw droppingly superb going 9-12 from the field and 8-8 from the free throw line (27 points), and pulling in 8 boards.  Parker did have 5 of Duke’s 19 turnovers — the Big 3 contributed 12 turnovers overall (Cook 4 and Hood 3).  Duke was careless with the ball, especially down the stretch.  Thornton played 32 minutes and had a great game, proving that scoring in bunches isn’t the only way to be instrumental for your team.  His only field goal was the game changer.  With Duke pressing, Tyler stole the ball and drove for the easy layup, icing the game.  He had four other steals (5 total), 4 boards and 4 assists and played great defense without fouling (only 2).

 

Jones was the “bench”.   The other 3 players who got minutes combined for only a single point (Sulaimon).  Jefferson was restricted to 10 minutes, grabbing 4 boards in his brief appearance, but committing 2 fouls. Sulaimon logged 18 minutes and played excellent defense without committing a foul.  While he missed both his shots from the field (1-2 from the line), he dished out 5 assists.  Dawkins reminded us of his inconsistency.  He played only 8 minutes (0-3, including 0-2 from behind the arc) without distinction.  Neither Ojeleye, Murphy nor Plumlee left the bench.

 

A reporter pointed out Duke’s 18 point lead evaporated to 6 in the latter stages of the second half, and asked, “Q. How do you help a team develop a killer instinct?”  Coach K’s answer was an instant classic, “First of all, by having killers. I mean, that’s the best thing.”  He then pointed out that in college basketball there were always runs and teams frequently cut into big leads with substantial runs.  “Are you suggesting that we don’t have a killer instinct?  Where a team doesn’t fold, it’s spectacular.  A lot of teams in that situation would lose a game. I guess we had enough “killer instinct” to survive and win by ten points.  I’m very, very proud of my team.”

 

 

Duke  79- Michigan 69

Apparently Coach K reads our blog. Let’s recall my comments after the Arizona game: “Unless my eyes deceived me, when Zona was on their run in the second half, Duke actually went to a zone for a few possessions. So this week, I have another suggestion: Why not a Three Headed Center 2—Jefferson, Hairston, and Plumlee? How much worse could the interior defense and rebounding be? Plumlee is big, athletic, and takes up a lot of space under the basket.”

Well, tonight Marshall Plumlee made an early cameo appearance and to quote the News Observer’s Laura Keeley (she’s a Duke grad, so she knows her basketball): “Marshall Plumlee was the first forward sub, and he showed promise in his four minutes. He grabbed an offensive and defensive rebound and made a nice hustle play, throwing a loose ball of a Michigan defender to maintain possession for Duke. Fired up, Plumlee was grabbed around the waist by Hood, who was equally excited. Plumlee made an immediate impact when he entered in the second half as well, about five minutes in. He blocked a LeVert lay-up and finished a nice pass from Cook on the other end. On the Blue Devils’ next possession, Plumlee grabbed an offensive rebound and drew a foul. Plumlee’s development could by key for the Blue Devils, as he has the size to protect the rim.”

While the Blue Devils were never behind, they also never let Michigan get too close. My man Andre Dawkins’s ability to hit 3-pointers—cold, off the bench—proved a key turning point in the second half. Michigan had cut the Duke lead to single digits,  but in 40 seconds, Dawkins hit back-to-back 3s to put Duke ahead by a dozen with just under eight minutes to play. Then, a Dawkins bucket off the dribble a few minutes later,  pushed Duke’s lead to 57-42.

I will let Alan, who was the first person on Quinn Cook’s bandwagon, tell you about his career night. While the defense (particularly on Nik Stauskas) and Dawkins instant offense set the table, it was Cook who cleared the table with some pretty spectacular point guard offense—and a perfect 10-10 from the line.

Comments:

  • The Blue Devils continued to experiment with their lineup, searching for the best combination of offensive efficiency and ability to defend. The starters remained the same from last week: Quinn Cook, Thornton, Hood, Parker and Josh Hairston. Matt Jones was the first sub off the bench and Rasheed Sulaimon did not play at all. “He knows what he needs to do,” Thornton said of Sulaimon, declining to go into specifics”. Krzyzewski has a similar answer: “He needs to play better than the guys that played tonight.”
  • Parker and Hood had, for them, mediocre nights. Jabari is taking one for the team by playing the post at both ends. He is not an ideal size as a post defender and has to be careful about getting into foul trouble. In addition, it is physically taxing.
  • I don’t want to be a broken record but Marshall Plumlee, while far from a finished product, not only takes up a lot of space in the lane but also gives Duke a muscular athleticism and physical presence—and the ability to block and alter shots. His mere presence on the court changes an opponent’s offense—and energizes the Cameron Crazies. He and Dawkins are real crowd favorites. And don’t forget that he gives the center position five more fouls.

Alan adds:

Optimism for Duke’s 2013-2014 basketball season returned to Blue Devil fans, as Duke defeated Michigan rather handily in the ACC-Big Ten challenge.  The pessimism produced by shoddy defensive performances and late game surges by opponents  (Kansas, ECU, and most important, Vermont) has evaporated with three consecutive satisfactory defensive performances.  While the defense was “satisfactory” — a great improvement — in the Pre-Season NIT, Duke’s defense against Michigan was not less than superb.  It’s hard to fathom that the team that destroyed Michigan’s offense was the same team that gave up 90 points to Vermont.  Rodney Hood said that in the early season each player was trying to stop his man, but now each player is helping out as well, making for a cohesive (Coach K’s word of the night in post-game interviews) defensive effort.

How good was it?  Coming in, Duke game planned to stop Michigan’s high scoring off guard, Nik Stauskas (averaging 20 ppt coming in) and Michigan’s huge center, Mitch McGary (who had sparked Michigan’s run through the NCAA tournament to the championship game last year, and was a pre-season All American candidate this year).  Stauskas faced amazing defense from the combo of Tyler Thornton (20 minutes) and Matt Jones (17 minutes), who made magnificent efforts to keep Nik from even touching the ball.  Result:  0 field goals for Michigan’s best scorer (4 points — 2 of the foul shots were technicals).  Thornton hit 2 huge 3s (though 1 of them was clearly after the shot clock had expired and should not have counted).  McGary scored 15 points, but that turns out to be a misleading statistic.  McGary had more than half of his points (8 to be precise) in the last 1:59 of the game, after Duke’s lead had reached 18 and the game was well out of reach for Michigan.  So McGary had 7 in 38 minutes.  This was team defense — hustle, effort, cohesion and rebounding — without excessive fouling.  Michigan scored 22 points in the first half.  Wow!  Although Michigan finished with 69 points (47 in the second half) that statistic is again misleading, and for the same reason.  In the same last 1:59 with the same 18 point Duke lead, Michigan scored 19 points after the game well out of reach.  So Duke gave up 50 points in 38 minutes while the game was still competitive.  Awesome!  Duke also reined in its defensive fouling, which has been a serious weakness in past games.  Duke put Michigan in the bonus with 10:31 to go in the first half, causing much concern.  But the Devils never let Michigan get to the double bonus, committing only 3 more fouls in the half.  Michigan did not get to the double bonus in the second half either.

Duke’s bench made significant contributions.  Though Dawkins played only 10 minutes and Marshall a season high 6 minutes, both were major contributors.  Dawkins’ two huge 3s in the second half, when Michigan had crept to within 6 points, effectively put the game away by driving the lead back to 12 in about 48 seconds.  Dawkins added a great drive for 8 points (and a steal) in his brief stint.  Plumlee was a force in his first effective appearance on the court in a Duke uniform.  He had 3 boards, a block, a defensive hustle play and a bucket (shades of Zoubek as a sophomore), while missing both free throws and committing one foul.  It was truly a 3 headed center for Duke with Hairston (4 fouls) logging 21 minutes.  Jefferson had his best game at Duke, though he was limited to 17 minutes because he too committed 4 fouls — but, it was a superb 17 minutes (3-3 from the field for 6 points; 6 boards, 2 assists, a steal and a block).  It was also Amile’s first defensively competent performance.  This team is improving rapidly.

The Big 3 — Parker (15 points on 14 shots in 33 minutes), Hood (14 points on 13 shots in 38 minutes) and Cook (24 points on 11 shots in 37 minutes; 10-10 from the free throw line with 9 assists) were the Duke mainstays again, but it was different in ways than earlier in the season.  Though Parker scored “only” 15, he had one of his best all-round games of the season.  He gave Duke inside scoring with superb post offense, and was a force on defense.  He had only 1 turnover, a sharp reduction from past games.  Hood was equally less flashy and equally fundamentally efficient all over the court, especially on the defensive end.  He hit 2 big 3s and had a key block.  But the MVP of this game was Quinn Cook, who scored all of his 24 points in the second half (Duke only scored 47 in the half, making Quinn’s second half scoring more than 50% of Duke’s total).  Cook orchestrated an offense that eschewed the fast break for a deliberate and efficient half-court offense.  I think dialing down the pace of the offense helped Duke concentrate on its defensive improvement.   I’ll refrain from repeating my early Cook predictions of Cook’s value and potential (based on what I saw of him at Oak Hill), and let Bill remind you.

Duke also had an efficient rebounding game, actually out rebounding Michigan.  It was a team effort with Parker and Jefferson leading the way with 6; Hood garnered 5, Cook 4 while Jones and Marshall had 3 each.

The game was a pure pleasure to watch from opening tip to post-game interviews.

Our Hall of Fame coach is in a defensive quandary.  I admit that I was in favor of Duke trying out its zone (Orange) defense last night.  Coach K believes communication will solve this glaring problem.  Maybe, but right now Duke is switching every screen without having rotations that protect and defend against penetration.  A lot of optimism about this coming season seemed to leak out from last night’s embarrassing defensive performance.  But one game never defines a team.  Duke plays Alabama on Wednesday night at 9:30 in the Garden.  Alabama is not considered a strong team.  The other semi-final (Drexel v Arizona) is the early game, with the championship on Friday.  We hope Duke is playing Arizona (if they respect Drexel and the game) in the finals.

Bill is travelling for Thanksgiving, so our next DBP will be a post NIT wrap-up.  Let us hope we have a defensive resurgence about which to report.

DUKE 85 –  GARDNER WEBB 66 

Coming off a two week break for exams, Duke played well offensively but was still inconsistent defensively. When  6’5’’ big body Division II forward Jerome Hill only misses one shot and goes for 22– well, what does that tell you about the interior defense? The harder you work, the luckier you get: Graduate student Andre Dawkins finished his exams a week ago, so he took the spare time to put in extra practice with  assistant coach Wojo. It paid off as he provided  beautiful instant rainbows off the bench—Coach K calls them “momentum threes”– to give the Blue Devils separation from G-W, who early on were doing a pretty good imitation of Vermont.

Jay Williams was doing the analysis for ESPN and he made several interesting observations, including that Duke goes as Quinn Cook goes– in the Kansas and Arizona losses, Quinn was out played by the opposing guard; that last year he could tell how he was going to play by the look in his eyes  but he was more mature and had his emotions under control this year; that as of now because of their advantage on the boards, he picks both Syracuse and Carolina to beat Duke.

Figuring out a rotation pattern to counter the defensive shortcomings is going to be one of Coach K’s greatest challenges. It is obviously a work in process. There are 200 minutes of playing time available in a game. Jabari, Cook, and Parker are going to get the majority of them. The rest are up for grabs.  Thornton and Hairston now start but do not play starter minutes. There is an embarrassment of riches at guard and on the wings but an embarrassment at center. Tyler  Thornton is a tenacious defender and a very versatile contributor but Cook is as important as Parker or Hood; Dawkins is instant offense and when he is on the floor whom do you double team– Andre, Parker, Hood or Cook? Jones, Parker’s buddy, while green, is lanky, and very good defensively; Sulaimon, last year’s freshman star is, for the moment, the odd guard out but that shouldn’t last all season. At center, Hairston is a hustler but undersized and limited offensively and is only starting because Jefferson has been a disappointment; MP3, the only seven footer, is athletic and enthusiastic but green and has only recently gotten off the bench; and Semi  Ojeleye minutes are a mystery. When he gets on the floor he produces and is the only power player who can shoot. He has a nice touch, is the most athletic player on the team as his sensational block tonight demonstrated (unfortunately the announcers were talking and the camera was in pan shot mode)—and at 6’ 7” 230 he is a load and could be an answer against big front lines. Both Parker nor Hood are miscast as anchors of a top defense. Perhaps, unlike previous years, there actually will be more variety in the player rotation.

Notes:

  • Incredibly, Duke has not lost a non-conference game in Cameron since 2000 and played its 222nd straight game as a top-10 team. The Blue Devils are 184-38 (.829) in those games.
  • Alex Murphy did not dress because he is transferring. While big and athletic, Alex never demonstrated the complete skills to be a major contributor and considering next year’s recruiting class only had little to look forward to except a good view of the action and an impressive degree.
  • Amile Jefferson looked more like his hyper active freshman self with 10 rebounds. But he also missed both of his free throws, dropping him to an unacceptable Shaq-like 8-26 for the season.
  • Rasheed Sulaimon played five scoreless minutes. Krzyzewski on Sulaimon’s struggles: “He’s not playing well. You can see it. It’s not about attitude. He’s got a good attitude. He’s a good team player but it’s not going well for him. His teammates are really good with him, he’s really good with his teammates.” Also,  “When Andre’s playing that well, you’ve got to give him minutes.”
  • Jay Bilas was named Broadcaster of the Year by Sports Illustrated.
  •  JJ Redick who was having his best year as a pro, broke his hand and will be out 6-8 weeks…. Kyrie Irving is having an all-star year with Cleveland….Miles Plumlee is starting at center for the Phoenix Suns and averaging almost a double-double…Mason Plumlee is  averaging about 17 minutes a game off the bench and playing well for The Brooklyn Nets…..Austin Rivers is struggling to get playing time with New Orleans.

Alan Adds:

This game is hard to analyze in the course of evaluating the progress of Duke’s season because the opposition did not provide not top tier competition, and the Devils were returning to competitive hoops after a 13 day layoff.  Duke was shockingly sharp offensively in the first half, scoring 53 points with four double digit scorers by half time (Parker 12, Cook 11, Dawkins 11, and Hood 10) with 14 assists (Cook had 9 of them — he was also 4-4 from the field) on 20 field goals.  But, Duke was shockingly porous on defense (again).  While Duke kept control of the game by out rebounding the smaller Runnin’ Bulldogs and forcing turnovers, Gardner Webb shot 63% from the field and 75% (12-18) from inside the arc in the first half.  They penetrated at will and were successful at the rim.  However, that changed in the second half.  While Duke stagnated on the offensive end in the second half, Duke pulled together to play excellent defense.  Gardner-Webb shot only 12-26 (2-9 from 3land) in the second half.  Better.

Once again the rotation (as well as Coach K’s comments) shows how much this team relies on Quinn Cook.  He played 36 minutes, the only Duke player to log more than 26 (Hood and Parker).  Thornton with 25, Hairston with 23, and Dawkins with 22 were the other three players to play more than the 12 minutes that Jefferson played.  Though playing little, the other four reserves had some good moments.  In those 12 minutes, Jefferson led Duke in rebounding with 10 (Parker with 6, Hood and Thornton with 5 were Duke’s other leading rebounders).  Ojeleye did not leave the bench in the first half (the only Duke player so confined in that half), but played 6 effective minutes, with a steal, a block and 2-2 from the line in the second half.  In his first minute on the floor, he was beaten badly on a drive, but looked good after that.  Marshall also had an effective cameo of 5 minutes.  In those 5 minutes he grabbed 3 boards and an assist, drawing specific praise from Coach K.  Sulaimon also played 5 minutes, but they were not “effective”.

Coach K made some fascinating comments after the Michigan game (December 3) that are worth sharing.  “What happens is even though your team has good kids and whatever, they kind of believe they’re already good. But they’re not. They’re not learning all the things that are necessary. I think right now we’re at a point where we understand that. It’s not about bad attitudes or anything. It’s about the changing of roles.  I think our team understands right now that you have to change roles. Quinn Cook had a great game (against Michigan). He had no points in the first half and played really well. That’s what we told him, ‘You’re going to shoot the ball a little more.’ The second half, he was terrific. But he was not more terrific in the second half, for me. He’s had to adjust. He played with three seniors last year. I tell our team all the time, ‘Last year, you guys were in a drama. This year, for lack of a better term, you’re in an action movie. The role you played in a drama, you were good at. It’s a different role.’ I think that’s where Rasheed (Sulaimon) is having a tough time. It’s a different role, and you don’t have these seniors around. How he thinks he’s doing the role is not how it should be done. There are changes like that. We have to run this team not based on ranking and all that. How do we get them along?”

 

In his press conference last night, Coach K singled out Quinn, saying this is his team; he’s the leader.  He said the difference for Cook this year is his maturity.  Last year he could lean on three senior leaders; this year he is the leader.  The minutes that Cook is playing confirm that.  But Cook can still be inconsistent.  He had 9 assists in the first half but none in the second half.  But if Cook ascends to be a consistently elite point guard, Duke’s prospects are promising.

 

After the Michigan game, Coach K had an interesting assessment of Jabari (and his conditioning, which has been a topic here in DBP), “I think eventually Jabari will be able in college to defend every position because he has really good feet. His body type, it doesn’t look like he should have great feet. But he actually can defend the perimeter better right now than the post, because he’s never had to defend (the post). I’m not saying he’s LeBron, but LeBron can defend every position. LeBron’s a better athlete — I don’t know who’s a better athlete than LeBron. There isn’t any, so that’s not knocking Jabari.  I think once he learns what physical shape he needs to be in — he’s still a young man — he’ll be amazingly versatile. Right now, he’s still learning the game and where to position himself before he gets the ball. He’s so confident once he gets the ball, you end up being not as disciplined in some of your movements before you get the ball. Like, (against Michigan on Tuesday), every time he got the ball right on the elbow, he scored. We’re going to try to get him the ball on the elbow but he goes 6 feet out, he ends up taking some shots he can hit but it lowers the percentage of success. It’s not like it’s a bad shot but it’s not as good as it could be. He still hasn’t learned yet how to play in the post.

Q: It seemed like you tried to go to him more in the post  (against Michigan).

A: We put stuff in to get him there. He’d be amazingly difficult to defend. He would demand a double. Then because he can pass … if he didn’t score from the low post, he could get scores. The other thing it does is, if he commands that double … if they load up on you inside, it brings the defense in and that’s where (Quinn) Cook got those open shots (in the second half against Michigan).

Duke still has to prove itself against teams with athletic size on the interior such as UNC, Syracuse and other National title contenders.  The game against UCLA on Thursday at Madison Square Garden should be a more illuminating test for the Blue Devils.

Duke 80 –  UCLA  63

Having atypically (for Duke) lost two games  (and played poor defense in nearly losing two others) before the first of the year, this was essentially another final first term exam in the biggest sports venue in  the country– and nationally televised on ESPN. Another loss and Duke would probably fall out of the top ten rankings for the first time since, oh, about the turn of the century. So, no pressure here. The Blue Devils started fast against a man to man defense, then when UCLA switched to a zone became inpatient and started jacking up and missing threes providing the Bruins with fast break opportunities.  The Duke was lucky to be tied at the half. After the break and obviously some strongly worded half time attitude adjustments, Duke attacked the Bruin zone much more methodically and patiently and played much  better defense. UCLA contributed to their own demise by coming unglued, even missing a wide open dunk that almost bounced to the upper deck. The final grade was an A+ for playing their best basketball of the season at crunch time in the second half and a solid B (with a bullet) for the game.

Holy comeback, Batman! Sulaimon and Jefferson finally started playing like was expected of them—and it couldn’t have come at a better time. We know what to expect from Parker, Hood, and Cook. But productive the minutes from the other two positions have been spotty. When Sully, Jeff and/or Andre deliver, this is a very formidable team which can compensate for the lack of a really big post defender. When they don’t, this is a very vulnerable team. UCLA is a very athletic and talented team with Kyle Anderson, a multi-talented 6’9’’ point guard. The Devils had 9 more rebounds, 9 more assists, and 3 more threes. When the game was on the line, they also played with Final Four poise. Parker, who almost casually plays in another stratosphere, and Hood are so consistently productive that they spoil us. Quinn Cook has always made me hold my breath. However, more and more this year, I’m watching Quinn and thinking:  NO! NO!….YES!! Quinn, you’re becoming the  player Alan has been talking about.

Here are some winning stat lines: Parker had his third double-double with 23 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists; Cook 14 points, 5 assists, and 8 big steals, which should be some kind of record in a big time game; Jefferson 11 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks; and Sulaimon 8 points ( 2-of-4 3’s), 5 rebounds and 4 assists, and lock down defense.

Comments: 

      • Unfortunately, Dickie V was one of the announcers tonight. As I have said, I like announcers who confirm something I think I know or, preferably, tell me something I don’t know. But when an announcer doesn’t do his homework, it drives me to distraction. Good old Dickie spots Bruce Springsteen sitting with some co-eds and goes wandering off on a riff about nothing consequential. He mentioned a few songs, but not the obvious one: “Glory Days”. What most of us know is that his daughter Jessica is a Duke sophomore and an Olympic class equestrian.
      • Jay Williams did an interview with Jabari Parker for ESPN. All I can say is that this guy is a thoroughly engaging natural on and off the court.
      • Coach K: “The main area he needs to learn is defense. He can be a very special player. He is an outstanding player, but he can become better, and that is my responsibility. That is why he came to Duke, to learn and to become better.”
      • Rasheed Sulaimon was one happy guy in the locker room after. He said he felt like a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders with his performance.  Editor Note: “Amen. Us too, Sully!”
      • Watched the first half of the UNC-Texas game. This is a puzzling team. Big wins, head scratching losses. They got killed on the boards and in transition by talented but unranked Texas and    cannot shoot free throws. As my new Carolina friend John, who really knows basketball, says: “Except for Paige, we can’t hit the ocean from a row boat.” Paige is a lethal scorer with  a rare, wonderful touch. Physically, he reminds me of Stephen Curry—doesn’t look like the proto-typical outstanding basketball player. But what a sweet, soft true shot.

Alan Adds:

In the season opener against Davidson, Doris Burke insightfully opined that this Duke team had the potential to become one of Coach K’s best defensive teams.  The following games seemed to make a hollow mockery of that prediction, as Duke struggled on the defensive end against the likes of East Carolina, Vermont, and Gardner Webb (in the first half) while winning; not to mention the losses to Kansas and Arizona.  But I could hear Doris’s words as I watched the Duke defense in the second half.  First, after being beaten in transition in the first half; Duke shut down the UCLA running game in the second half.  As Parker said in the post game interview, “we sprinted back each time to defend transition”.  Second, Duke defended the rim much more effectively than any other game this year.  Jefferson teamed with Parker (with help from Hood and Hairston) to be a formidable presence at the rim in the second half.  Jefferson had both of Duke’s clean blocks.  Finally, the starting team that Coach K envisioned in the pre-season played scintillating defense to wrap up the game during “winning time”.  With Rasheed and Jefferson joining the Big 3 on the floor, and with Duke ahead by only 8 points with 2:34 left in the game, Duke held UCLA without a point for the rest of the game.  Duke scored 9, and how they scored is a huge welcome back for Rasheed and Amile: 2:03 left when Rasheed drained a 3 (Assist from Cook); 1:27, Jefferson layup (Assist from Rasheed); 48 seconds left, layup by Cook; 32 second left, Dunk by Jefferson (Assist from Rasheed).  Significant: Lock down defense and great ball movement.  Quinn Cook had a brilliant defensive game as did Tyler Thornton, who was matched up against the 6’9” UCLA point guard, Kyle Anderson, a genuinely terrific player.  Cook was visibly the fastest and the quickest player on the court.  He disrupted the Bruin offense with 8 steals, some of them breathtakingly brilliant against Bruin transition.  It was a comforting turnaround defensively.

In Coach K’s rotation the Big 3 routinely play over a combined 100 minutes (last night, Cook played the entire 40 minutes; Parker, 36; and Hood 34 — a bit of foul trouble in the first half — for a total of 110 minutes).  The center and off guard position were almost evenly split.  In the middle, Hairston played 17 minutes and Jefferson 23 (Marshall had 3 dramatically ineffective minutes in the first half and did not leave the bench in the second half).  At off guard, Rasheed played 18 minutes while Thornton logged 19.  Dawkins was in early off the bench, but made only 1 of 5 launches from 3land in his 7 minutes.  Matt Jones played for 2 minutes, while Semi was a DNP.

Parker is everything that Vitale shrieks about (Vitale is so annoying; let him cover UNC games).  Coach K made brilliant half time adjustments on both ends of the floor.  Duke stopped UCLA’s fast break and adjusted to attack the zone effectively in the second half.  Duke is going to see more zone defenses this year, I believe, as will most teams.  The new rules against hand checking are causing easier offensive penetration and excessive defensive fouling (UNC – Texas game lasted over 2 and 1/2 hours).  The zone defense can be effective at denying penetration without excessive fouling, and will be used more frequently this year, I predict.  Advantage: Syracuse.  Will Coach K work more on his zone and use it some?

Duke is off for Christmas holiday break until late December (28th against Eastern Michigan, and the 31st against Elon before the ACC season opens for Duke against Notre Dame on January 4, 2014).

Duke 82  – E. Michigan 59

One of the most fascinating aspects of following Duke Basketball each year is watching Coach K mold and motivate his players into a winning team. At the beginning of the season, he uses the scheduling of non-conference opponents to expose his team to different styles of play and different venues so that he can assess whom he can rely upon in conference play and in the tournaments. However, we only see what is going on in the games. We have no idea what is going on in practice, in the locker room, in the dorms, with girl-friends, or what their parents and friends back home are whispering in their ear. Consider how  he has handled Jefferson, Sulaimon, and Dawkins this year: Tough love, brutal truth, and Darwinian competition appear to be the common denominators in bringing out the best in these players.

What I was looking for today was what  Coach K’s rotation would be and had Jefferson, Sulaimon, and Dawkins actually turned the corner and gotten their heads and games together? The answer was a resounding  Yes! Yes! and Yes! Collectively, they produced 40 points, 19 rebounds, 4 steals, and 3 blocks. When these three players play at this level, Duke is a  very deep, formidable team. Dawkins’, who is hitting 50 % of his threes, value  is obvious. However, off last year and his recent play, Sulaimon deserves major minutes. In top form, he is the best defensive player on the team and brings more diverse talents to the floor than any other guard. At his best, Jefferson’s rebounding and defense can be the important missing link. While Jabari Parker carried the Blue Devils in the first half, the defense and rebounding showed marked improvement all game long. That wearing pressure undoubtedly contributed to the runaway second half. All in all, it was a terrific final 20 minutes of basketball, during which we saw one of those patented 15-1 runs, a characteristic of outstanding Blue Devil teams of the past.

As Sulaimon, Jefferson, and Dawkins play better,  senior co-captains and recent starters Thornton and Hairston’s minutes diminish. On a team with less chemistry that would be a problem. Not on this squad. Everyone knows their role and what has to happen for them to be a Final Four team. For instance, on the bench Tyler Thornton had as much fun as anyone on the floor,  smiling, dancing in celebrating the outstanding plays of  his teammates Andre, Rasheed , and Emile.

Coach K: “A couple of the veterans early on in October and November, realized the fact that this isn’t last year, it’s like a different play. Last year was a drama, and this is an action movie, or, I guess in some games a comedy or whatever, but you have to assume a different role. Sometimes, people want to stay in what they did and not adapt to what they need to do. We always have to adapt. We all get it right now. It’s never been about a bad attitude. … It’s just about learning. When you start out with a different team early on, you have to give it time to grow.”

And Emile Jefferson: “It’s the chemistry. I think it’s been there the whole time, but we were just working out the kinks. We’re a young team; we’re growing.” Of  his personal struggles, which, after starting the first six games, turned him into a reserve: “I started overthinking things, started taking everything people said literally, and it just got to a point where it was like, I’ve just got to play. I’ve really just been trying to do that, fight down low and just help our guys.”

Comments:

  • Eastern Michigan is no cupcake opponent. In 1996 the Earl Boykins-led Eagles upset Duke in the first round of the  NCAA tournament. This year they are a veteran team and that has played a tough schedule.  And they play a Syracuse type 2-3 zone. While they are not Syracuse, they served a purpose at this time of the season.
  • Just before the opening tip, Rodney Hood, suffering from the stomach flu, ran off the court to throw up. He was replaced by Andre Dawkins but returned to play major minutes. He received IV fluids at half time.
  • This was Duke’s 223rd straight game as a top-10 team and this win was the 109th in a row against a non-conference opponent in Cameron. The last loss was by one point to St. Johns in 2000.
  • Dawkins scored 20 on 6-10 from the floor. More impressively, he played some of the best defense of his Duke career.
  • Duke out rebounded the Eagles 44-27.
  • Memo to Semi: You are a scorer, not an assist man.
  • Sports trivia: Despite current appearances, back in his youth Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame (or infamy) was a very talented athlete. He was a good enough quarterback at Louisiana Tech to start ahead of the more heralded future All Pro Terry Bradshaw for two years.

Alan Adds:

Bill is onto the litmus test of how formidable Duke will be on the National scene this season: it is the development of the supporting cast for Duke’s Big Three.  Parker, of course, was superb scoring 23 points (on 20 shots).  With Hood somewhat under the weather and Cook’s shot on vacation, the game — especially the second half — provided a positive look at the development of that cast — especially Sulaimon, Andre Dawkins and Jefferson.  I analyze who plays minutes for Coach K (and when) because I believe it shows how the coach thinks his players are doing.  It is clear that as good as Parker is (jaw dropping good, it turns out), this is still Quinn Cook’s team.  Even in a blowout, Quinn played 35 minutes (coming out of the game briefly when he tweaked a leg).  Five other players logged 20+ minutes: Parker (27; two first half fouls limited him a bit); Dawkins (26); Hood (25); Sulaimon (22; he might have played more but had 4 fouls by game’s end) and Jefferson (21).  Jefferson was eye-opening.  He grabbed 14 rebounds in 21 minutes to lead Duke by a wide margin (Parker and Hood with 8 were second) and was 5-5 from the free throw line.  As critical as his rebounding was, it was his team oriented defense that I thought stood out.  Jefferson has been an inadequate defender for most of the year, but that seems to be changing for the better.  It was such a pleasure to watch Andre Dawkins in the second half.  His smile just kept getting bigger and he kept playing better — especially on the defensive end.  Like Jefferson, Dawkins has been an inadequate defender for much of the early season; yesterday, he was absolutely terrific.  He even had 2 blocks and 2 steals.  Oh, and by the way, he was 4-4 from behind the arc in the second half (after 2-6 in the first half).  Dawkins was all Duke had from behind the arc (without his 6-10, Duke was 4-19 — Cook was 1-7; Hood 2-7; Jabari 1-3; and Matt Jones 0-2 — while he played only 4 minutes, he managed to take 4 shots in that period of time.  Sulaimon was his old self on defense and hustled all over the court.  Critically, he got to the foul line with his drives, converting 9-11 from the stripe for 13 points.  He also had 2 boards and 3 assists.  Welcome back, Rasheed.

Hairston and Thornton are starting, but they are no longer playing starter’s minutes.  Hairston played only 11 minutes in which he failed to take a shot or score from the line; he had an offensive rebound; 2 turnovers and committed 2 fouls (he is still having trouble with the new charge/block rule).  Marshall played as many minutes as Hairston with a field goal, two offensive rebounds and no fouls.  His downside was a turnover and 2 missed free throws.  He is showing some promise, and might make into Bill’s watch list (joining Amile, Dre and Rasheed).  Thornton logged 14 minutes, handing out three assists, but turning it over 3 times as well.  He was 2-2 from the line with 2 tough rebounds.  Duke needs what he brings to the team, but his minutes will not increase if Dre and Rasheed are as effective as they were yesterday.  Semi played only 4 minutes, but I still predict he will be a valuable player for Duke in coming years.

An optimistic take from the game was Duke’s offense against the E. Michigan zone.  Cook ran the show, handing out 7 assists (and had 5 steals as well).  Duke passed the ball and penetrated the zone with both the pass and the dribble.  When Dawkins erupted in the second half, the zone shredded.  Parker was superb, carrying Duke in the first half (14 points on 11 shots — 1 3 pointer and 5 boards).  In the second half, he allowed the bench to shine (he was only 3-9 in the second half).  Hood, though under the weather and off on his 3 point shot, played well.  He had only 8 points, but 3 assists to go with his 8 boards.  Great effort.  One more tune up (Elon on Tuesday at 1 pm), and then the ACC season begins next Saturday against Notre Dame at 4:00 pm.  Still A Season on the Brink.

Duke 77  –  Notre Dame 79

What happens when you go on the road against a well-coached, well balanced team, your freshman phenom and your defense do not show up, and only two players score in double figures? You lose! This is not the way you want to start 2014, because the score does not indicate the margin by which the Blue Devils were outplayed. Coach Brey and the Irish showed the country on national television how  to beat  Duke this year. And until the defense gets much better, it could be a frustrating season. The good news is that despite all that went wrong, Duke is talented and  deep enough that they were still in a position to tie or win the game in the final seconds—but Notre Dame is not Vermont.

The Blue Devils used a 9-0 run to open a 49-40 lead early in the second half and stretched the lead to 60-50 when Andre Dawkins hit a three from the top of the key. But when Notre Dame went to a small lineup to try to better defend the perimeter, Demetrius Jackson hit an critical three as Duke, which had made 12-of-22 3-pointers (54.5 percent) at the point but finished 0-for-6 for the rest of the game. That, combined with constant defensive breakdowns, led to a 22-4 Notre Dame run and the loss.

The Blue Devils closed within one point twice in the final two minutes, but the Irish didn’t wilt under the pressure. Atkins made a layup after Duke cut it to 72-71, and then Garrick Sherman hit one of two free throws with 16 seconds left. Duke still had a chance to tie or win the game, but Hood, who had a mismatch (like the end of the Vermont game) drove into traffic and was forced into a wild  pass.

Interestingly enough, Jabari Parker, who did not appear to be ill, was substituted for frequently, played only 24 minutes, and was not on the floor during the last three critical minutes. Asked about it, Coach K said: “Jabari wasn’t playing well. For any kid who is not playing well, you should try to find a kid that is playing well. But that happens. Sometimes kids don’t play well throughout the game. He just wasn’t having a good game….Well, he is a human being. He didn’t play well today. That is part of being a freshman. Hopefully he will recover quickly from that.” Interpret those remarks any way you want.

Comments:

  • If you watched the college bowl games and thought the Duke-Texas A&M 52-48 shootout was an outlier, consider Oklahoma 25-Alabama 31, UCF 52-Baylor 42, Clemson 40-Ohio State 35. It might make one conclude that there will be major offensive changes coming to the pro game. Colleges like Alabama, Stanford, and Ohio State, which rely on pounding the ball on the ground behind big lumbering linemen and pass successfully only from play action, just cannot score enough points, especially when they get behind, to beat the wide open spread-the-field teams. The wide receivers are too quick, fast, and allusive—hope you watched Sammy Watkins from Clemson catch 16 passes for 227 yards– and too athletic and the passers just too accurate. This talent is coming in waves to an NFL team near you. And did you notice how many college quarterbacks like Oklahoma’s freshman Trevor Knight are from Texas and how many terrific skilled players are form Florida?
  • The day the harmony died: Phil Everly, whose hits with his older brother, Don, as the Everly Brothers carried the close fraternal harmonies of country tradition into pioneering rock ’n’ roll, died on Friday. He was 74. They were the forerunner and models for the next generations of rock vocal harmonies. The Beatles, Linda Ronstadt, Simon and Garfunkel, and many others recorded their songs and tried to emulate their precise, ringing vocal alchemy. Paul Simon said: “Phil and Don were the most beautiful sounding duo I ever heard. Both voices pristine and soulful. The Everlys were there at the crossroads of country and R&B. They witnessed and were part of the birth of rock and roll.”

After graduation, I lived in Washington and one of my neighbors was Tom Lyons, who started the Cellar Door,  the premier music scene for emerging singing acts in Washington. John was very generous and when there  was a performer I wanted to see, he provided us with a terrific table. I saw the Every Brothers several times up close and personal (there were only 165 seats) in a way you cannot large venues and arenas. They were even more fantastic in person than on recordings.

Alan Adds:

All those good feelings about Duke’s improving defense that was on display against Michigan, UCLA (not to mention Eastern Michigan and Elon) evaporated in 40 minutes of watching Notre Dame simply carve up the Duke defense.  How bad was it?  Consider that Notre Dame was 12-18 inside the arc in the second half (that is 75%).  ND shot 50 % from behind the arc (3-6 in each half), and beat Duke’s defense in every phase.  Duke could not defend the post, with Emile and Jabari being simply toasted by the bigger Irish front line players when playing them one on one.  When Duke brought help to defend the post, ND lit up the Duke defense with back door cuts behind the helping defender.  ND converted 4 straight baseline out of bounds plays with one pass (1 a 3 pointer).  Nor could Duke really defend its defensive glass; ND got 9 of the 22 rebounds off their own missed shots in the first half.  Not so bad in the second half because ND only missed 9 shots (3 from behind the arc).  Hairston played only 9 minutes (3 fouls; 0 rebounds), and Marshall only 4; so defending the interior fell to Hood (38 minutes), Parker (24 minutes) and Jefferson (9 rebounds in 21 minutes; the only Duke player with more than 4 rebounds).  Cook (39 minutes) and Dawkins (18 minutes; 1-4 from behind the arc with 6 points) finished the game with 4 fouls each, while Sulaimon (22 minutes — also hit 1 3 and scored 6 points) had 3.  The fouls cut Dawkins’ playing time. Lots of credit to Notre Dame and former Duke assistant (now ND head coach) Mike Brey for exposing how a team with size and power on the interior should attack Duke.  Make no mistake, it was a bad loss (0-1 in the ACC) where Duke’s weakness were magnified and exposed.  It will probably be Duke’s first week out of the top 10 in several years (107 weeks, I think; the longest streak since UCLA dominance).  Yet, Duke never gave in and demonstrated real fighting heart.  Duke never quit offensively, but two dry spells doomed the Devils.

Hood and Cook were magnificent and carried Duke’s offense.  Cook who played virtually the entire game was 7-14 from the field (3-5 from behind the arc and 5-5 from the line) with 4 boards, 4 assists and 2 steals.  He was heroic, and Hood was even better (8-17; 5-10 from 3land and 6-6 from the line) scoring 27 points with 3 boards and 2 assists.  Duke stayed in the game on 12-28 shooting from 3 and 17-20 from the stripe.  But this isn’t winning offense.  Key statistic for me: Duke had only 8 assists on 28 field goals.  Duke’s offense wasn’t efficient from inside the arc (12-30).  I do remember Amile’s miss of a layup on a great pass as a turning point even before ND made its run.  There was 11:39 left in the game when Dawkins hit the 3 to which Bill referred, giving Duke a 10 point lead.  In addition to failing to get stops, Duke stopped scoring: 11:18 – Jabari missed a jumper; 10:28 — Jefferson missed the layup (60-54); 9:40 — Quinn missed a jumper (60-56); 9:05 — Hood missed a 3 pointer; 8:49 — Hood missed a jumper (60-58); 8:30 — Sulaimon missed a 3; 8:09 — Quinn missed a jumper (ND tied the game at 60 with 8:01 left).  With 5:31 left the game was tied at 64, when ND made a foul shot off a Rasheed foul (65-64 for ND).  5:13 — Jabari missed a 3; 4:39— Hood missed a 3 (68-64 ND); 4:04 — Quinn missed a 3 (70-64).  Duke called time out with 3:34 left, down 70-64.  From there until Hood turned it over with 9 seconds left, Duke scored on almost every possession (Quinn had a miss at 1:19 with Duke down 4, but Duke got the rebound and Rasheed made all 3 foul shots to bring Duke within one), but could not get a stop against ND.  The shooting woes of the heroic Hood and Cook down the stretch might be tied to fatigue since each played almost the entire game.

Perhaps (this is said tongue in cheek), the most significant happening yesterday was watching Jabari’s NBA stock (he’ll be # 1 choice in June) fall at 32 feet per second per second.  In 24 minutes he was 2-10 from the field; 1-5 from behind the arc, and 2-4 from the line.  While he had 4 rebounds, he had 0 assists, 0 blocks or steals and 2 turnovers.  Maybe he’ll stay another year when Duke will have its own power at the center position.

Duke 79 –  Georgia Tech 57

When Duke loses and doesn’t  play well, you can count on two things: 1). Coach K will shake up the lineup and 2). The team will rarely lose the next game. Some people do not think it matters who starts the game. Frank  Ramsey and John  Havlicek  came off the bench for Red Auerbach’s NBA champion Celtics. But that was pro ball. College is different for a variety of reasons. Among other things, the pro games are longer so there are more minutes for a coach to distribute, college players have a more fragile ego, they need more time to get find their rhythm, and if by chance their best player is no longer dependable, they need the floor time to figure out  adjustments.  For whatever reason, Jabari Parker has hit the wall and until he regains his edge or the other players compensate for a full forty minutes, Duke is no longer a contender. Tonight, it took a half–but against a mediocre opponent at home. One thing is for sure, Rodney Hood and Quinn Cook have stepped into the breach– as have  Jefferson, Sulaimon, and Dawkins.

Tonight, Coach K started his five best players. Hood, Parker, Cook, Jefferson, and Sulaimon. Here is what I think we will be seeing: Hood and Cook for almost 40 minutes; Parker, once he regains his mojo, the same; Jefferson gets more floor time, because he is our rebounding version of Dennis Rodman; Andre Dawkins plays more minutes because he has added putting the ball on the floor and defense to his repertoire; Thornton and Hairston back to being role players suited for special situations: and increasing minutes for Marshall Plumlee, because we need minutes from a true center.

Comments:

  • Welcome to the ACC:  N.C. State beat Notre Dame 77-70 in South Bend.
  • Everyone is wondering what is wrong with Jabari Parker? When asked if he was hitting a freshman wall—the college season is longer and more physical than anything the high school or AAU circuits offer—Parker said, “Yeah, I think so. It’s an experience I can learn from. It will get me stronger, to know that every game has to be important. In high school, you have certain games that you don’t want to play.”

My take is that Parker is taking one for the team and playing out of position on both offense and defense. Also, opposing teams are  figuring out how to defend him and it will take some time for Jabari and his teammates to adjust to the new reality. However, he is so versatile it will happen sooner, rather than later.

Krzyzewski really had the most insightful comments: ”People ask me what’s wrong with him. What’s wrong with him, he’s played great this year. It’s unfortunate the way our game is, men’s college basketball, puts so much on these young, extremely talented players to produce at a level that they’re not ready to produce at. But they will produce at some time in their life, hopefully while they’re here. And they’re good, (Kansas’s Andrew) Wiggins and (Kentucky’s Julius) Randle and Parker. They’re 18, 19 years old. They’ve never played at this level, they’ve never played the physicality. They haven’t been as closely scrutinized as everyone is closely scrutinizing them. They’ve been promoted and marketed way beyond what they should be. But that’s the way it is. So, it’s difficult. It is difficult for him. But it’s difficult for those other kids, too. We have to understand that. And Parker is a kid that doesn’t have the luxury of playing with established veterans, like Duke’s most recent freshman phenom. When Kyrie Irving came to campus is 2010, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith were entering their senior years. This year’s seniors are more role players than established go-to guys.”

Alan Adds:

This game was a tale of two very different halves.  At half time, there was a pall over the expectations for the rest of Duke’s season (exaggeration for emphasis is a legitimate literary device — I was taught that at Duke). In the first half, it seemed to me that Duke’s defense was still in South Bend, playing with the exact same type of inefficiency.  After being in the top 10 of the polls for over 6 years (2007 to the first poll of 2014), Duke’s place in the AP poll (17) is only 7 levels above the football team’s place in the final AP poll (24).  At half time, I wrote to Bill, “I genuinely expected Duke to blow Ga Tech’s doors out returning home to Cameron after Saturday’s performance.  I also expected Jabari to bounce back.  Not yet.  The defense looks eerily similar to the Notre Dame game.  Ga Tech was 12-19 from inside the arc.  On offense the Big 3 are 0-5 from behind the arc.  Only Dre’s first shot was good.  Duke was 2-8; the other 3 pointer was Rasheed’s desperation heave.  I don’t have any great suggestions except that Coach K should further study the Syracuse zone.”

The second half restored the potential of the Duke season as the defense clamped down and the offense came alive.  Rodney Hood filled the Jabari Parker role with an awesome offensive game.  He was 5-5 from 3land in the second half and 6-6 from the free throw line in the first half (27 points; 12 in the first half).  The minutes played in Coach K’s rotation tell an interesting tale.  Parker’s woes in this game have been overstated.  His real problem is he is being asked to defend the interior, where he has been overmatched physically at times (ND, Miller, Ga Tech’s big center, Arizona etc).  Last night, foul trouble limited him to 21 minutes — 5 Duke players logged more minutes than he did.  Coach K’s rotation was only really 6 deep.  Four others played single digit minutes without scoring or otherwise impacting the game, and Semi Ojeleye never left the bench:  Thornton (6 minutes, committed 3 fouls, and garnered a board); Hairston (4 minutes, a steal, a turnover and a foul); Matt Jones (2 minutes, 1 foul); and Marshall (2 minutes, one block — a beauty, btw).  The Big 3 in this game, in terms of minutes played (over 30), was Hood (39 minutes), Cook (37 minutes) and Rasheed , yes, Rasheed (36 minutes).  Rasheed played a valuable floor game, intense defense and had 11 points to go with his 5 boards, 2 assists, while committing only 1 foul.  He looked like the valuable player from last year…finally.  Three players logged over 20 minutes: Jefferson (28; 10 boards and 6 points — 7 boards and all scoring came in the second half); Dawkins (25 minutes; 10 points, and some great defense — am I really writing that about Dawkins?).  Dawkins did not shoot well from long range (1-2 in the first half and 0-3 in the second half), but his reputation made Ga Tech commit defensive resources to him that opened the floor for others, including Dre as a driver (5-6 from the free throw line).  Revealing the all court game that Dawkins played is his 3 boards, a block, a steal and an assist without committing a foul.  He was terrific.  Parker was the third player, logging 21 minutes.  In a bit over half a game, he scored 12 points, with 6 boards.  He is not shooting well (0-2 from 3land; 4-12 overall), but is playing hard.  He came out when he committed his fourth foul with 7:53 remaining in the game, and never returned.  For scoring, 12 points in 21 minutes is not as anemic as the pundits are saying.

That said, this is a weak Georgia Tech team that had lost its best player and rebounder, Robert Carter.  So, even the pleasure of the second half must be enjoyed with a grain of caution.  Duke travels to Clemson on Saturday for what has historically been a rough game against a team with size and a defensive mind set.

Duke 59- Clemson 72

This was the worst final 24 minutes of basketball I can remember a talented Duke team playing. How bad was the defense? The Tigers scored as many points in the second half against Duke (41) as they did in the entire game Thursday in Littlejohn against Florida State.  How bad was the offense? Duke only scored 22 points in the second half. Didn’t the football team, score 21 points in the fourth quarter against N.C. State?

However, you have to compliment Clemson. They played inspired, tough basketball, and deserved to win. And K.J. McDaniels was the real deal and was the best player at both ends of the court. Duke had no one that could handle him.

Coach Krzyzewski’s assessment: “We are not a very good team…..We’re not very good compared to who we’ve been. Who we’ve been has been very good. We can’t live in the past; we have to live in the present and figure out how this team can win.”

Comments: 

Ø  One thing I have never understood about Coach K is that he avoids utilizing a zone defense like it was a Dean Smith invention. He did it for a few minutes at the end of the half and only gave up one long three but eliminated the penetration and the Blue Devils rebounded better. Over the years, I know Coach has willed his teams to many victories utilizing a pressing man-to-man defense. Perhaps, this group is just beyond the reach of his considerable will power. How much worse can playing a zone be? Duke was outrebounded 47-26, committed 23 fouls—and that was not an anomaly. Clemson has some athletically freakish athletes but doesn’t it get old game after game watching guards penetrating and allowing mediocre big men in the paint have career games?

Ø  Live by the three, die by the three. The game is easy when the threes are falling, but can be tough as nails when you rely on them too much and they don’t fall. They fell in the second half against Georgia Tech and in the first half today but not in the last twenty minutes– and the offense became stagnant. Or maybe the Blue Devils were gassed chasing the Tigers to the basket.

Ø  Whose team is this anyway? When Cook was penetrating and dishing, there was movement and Duke was scoring. Then, Hood started playing point forward and that worked for a while, even though Cook was getting torched at the other end. I love Hood shooting, but when he controls the ball, how many touches does Parker or anyone else get? Actually, Parker is a more versatile point forward (but not as good a shot). Can’t we have more ball movement and just play together?

Ø  The Duke curse: Georgia Tech beat Notre Dame.

Ø  Seth Davis, a Duke grad, has a terrific new book out on former UCLA coach John Wooden, “A Coaches Life.”

Alan Adds:

This may be the season where Duke basketball fans learn “how the other half lives”.   I think we all came to Coach K’s conclusion as we watched the Clemson game, Duke is simply not a very good team.  While Clemson played really well (as Notre Dame did last Saturday), teams tend to look good and play well when the competition is an inferior team.  We may have to conclude that Duke will be the inferior team in many games (especially ACC road games) this year.

The second half against Clemson was eye-opening for demonstrating the weakness of this team.  Duke shot 8-32 from the field including 3-14 from behind the arc and 3-6 from the line.  Duke shot only 6 free throws after the intermission (8-9 in the first half).  On the other hand, the Tigers were 14-27 (2-4 from 3) in the second half.  Duke was simply pounded on the boards (47 to 26).  There were 28 rebounds off Duke’s defensive boards for the game; Clemson corralled half (14).  Clemson shot twice as many free throws as Duke, in spite of missing the front end of several one and ones.  Remember when Duke used to make more free throws than the other team shot?  Quinn Cook was destroyed defensively as has not happened this season.  He played the full 40 minutes and scored only 8 points (in fairness, he had 7 assists and 3 steals, but he was clearly outplayed on both ends of the court).  Parker had a dismal second half (5 points) — after a 10 point first half, and was badly beaten on the boards and when defending the interior.  Hood carried Duke with 20 points, but garnered only 1 rebound in 33 minutes.  Jefferson had a quiet second half with only 2 boards and 2 points, after a creditable first half (for the game 7 points and 6 boards in 27 minutes).

To give an idea of how thoroughly Duke’s perimeter was destroyed, look at the fouls committed by Duke’s back court.  Thornton fouled out in 23 minutes.  Rasheed committed 4 fouls in the 12 minutes that Coach K had him on the floor.  He was awful.  Cook committed 4 fouls and Dawkins committed 3 in his 20 minutes.

Marshall never left the bench (even when Duke was being manhandled and overwhelmed underneath the basket).  Semi played a minute, and Jones 3.  Hairston logged only 8 minutes.  Coach K does not have much confidence in the far end of his bench.

Duke did go to a zone with a bit more than 2 minutes left in the first half.  It seemed effective for a couple of possessions before KJ McDaniel hit a 3 from the corner (bad zone defense, which left him wide open), causing Coach K to pull the plug on the zone.

After this depressing analysis, it should be remembered that this is still about fun with college sports and our alma mater.  The season will continue to be interesting, even if Duke is not a contender for national or conference honors.  After 6 years in the top 10 in the polls, Duke may not (should not) be in the top 25 at all.  We are back to my undergraduate days where Duke’s football team was clearly better than the basketball team (Sonny Jürgen son was the QB in my freshman year).  But, Duke does have a Hall of Fame coach who has pulled a rabbit or two out of his hat before.   The quick turnaround game against Virginia (Monday) may tell some tale.  Uva just spanked NC State yesterday. I can’t remember when Tobacco Road hoops was so down.  Carolina was thrashed by ‘Cuse; and Wake was crushed by Pitt.  UNC is 0-3 in conference play.  What a strange trip this season is turning into.

Duke 69 – Virginia 65

Some wins, like some shots, are more important than others. 2-2 in conference play is a lot different than 1-3. Another blown lead by not finishing off an opponent in the final minutes and second straight loss could have severely damaged this team’s fragile psyche. And over the weekend Duke and Coach K critics / haters were out in force on the internet and on talk radio reveling in Duke’s woes. We know historically Coach K’s  teams rarely lose two games in a row and after a listless loss, Coach usually makes  changes. Tonight K started freshman Matt Jones in place of  Sulaimon and after four minutes substituted five from the bench a la hockey—and he continued to substitute liberally. Uncharacteristically, K utilized ten players—only Hairston and Ojeleye playing less than ten minutes–  apparently, on the theory that his team was not finishing off opponents because of fatigue.

The strategy worked as Duke led the entire game, was up eight with three minutes to go and seemed to have the game well under control when Cook missed the front end of a one and one. Then, UVA made some sensational plays, the Blue Devils made critical mistakes and, suddenly, UVA was up by one with 22 seconds to go. The  game and, perhaps, the season was on the line. Then two unlikely but deserving heroes emerged as the basketball gods rewarded two tenacious competitors: Jefferson snatched an offensive rebound and falling out of bounds under the basket, threw it to Sully in the corner for a clock beating three that hit the rim, bounced straight up and fell  through the net to put Duke up two. On the other end Jefferson read a patented Virginia set play (which started the second half), skied to intercept a cross court baseline pass, lost it but got it back and was fouled. A forty per cent foul shooter, he hit the first and bricked the second long and flat on the back basket stanchion. It a takes a Cameron bounce, falls forward—ugly but in. Duke wins  69-65. There were no more deserving heroes than Sulaimon (21 points, 2 assists, 2 steals) and Jefferson (15 rebounds, 10 points, 2 assists, 2 steals), who played their best games of the season. And it was needed as collectively Parker (8), Hood (14) and Cook (7) combined for their first subpar game of the season. We have contended all season that this is a deep team and tonight proved it.

The other critical issue is that Duke teams have the reputation and mystique—starting with the 1992 Kentucky game– of winning close games by never giving up—and opponents know that and it makes them nervous. In the final minutes, the Blue Devils play confident and think “next play”. That has not been the case with this young team so, hopefully, tonight is a building block to regaining that attitude.

After the game, Coach K made some interesting and personal comments: “We haven’t been at our best since the start of conference, and I haven’t been at my best since Christmas. That’s my responsibility. We were there tonight, and we were collectively together tonight for the first time in a couple of weeks. It was my responsibility that we weren’t as much as we should have been. But today we were…I’ve had to get more observant with my team. I take responsibility, full responsibility, for those first three games. Everything is on me. Part of it is not seeing some things. And one of the things is, at times, we would get tired because we’re not as big as some teams. So getting more guys in would help. We’ve been playing hard…..Look, we’re human beings. And human beings have setbacks. Also, you don’t get a lifetime membership in the NCAA tournament, just because we’ve been in there and we’ve won it four times. And we’ve been to 11 Final Fours. You have to pay your dues every year. That’s the way it is. It’s a good club. It’s a good club, and it’s tough to get in….We’re starting to pay our dues better. The head coach is going to do a better job. We did a better job tonight. I can do better. I can do better for my team.”

Tony Bennett is a very good young coach and playing his team is like Duke playing a mirror image of itself—they play smart and tough and never give up. However, like Duke, they do not have a dominant center. So, it remains to be seen whether the Blue Devils are really back on track or that they got lucky tonight. One thing is for sure, this is a very different team than the one in the beginning of the year when Jabari Parker was wowing everyone–even his own teammates, who seemed mesmerized and lulled into passivity by his offensive talents. Interestingly enough, Parker was on the bench in the last minutes, but did you notice his face and his reaction when Sully and Jeff finished off the Cavaliers and came to the bench. This is a team guy.

Comments: 

  •  Virginia has lost at Cameron for 16 consecutive games—that is a lot of years.
  •  Sulaimon seemed much more comfortable with the offensively challenged second unit as he took it upon himself to be the aggressive leader on the on both ends of the floor.
  •  You can’t help not to pull for Amile Jefferson, who brings so much energy and enjoyment to the floor, and Rasheed Sulaimon, who plays with such  intensity, purpose and toughness.
  •  Jay Bilas was one of the announcers at the game and Jay Williams was in the studio with Seth Greenburg. All three are really, really good at analysis and giving the viewer a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the teams and what they are trying to do on the floor.
  •  Finally, observing how Coach K deals with disappointment and adversity and manages his team through a long season is a life lesson.

Alan Adds:

With over 3 minutes to go, I was feeling comfortable.  Duke had an 11 point lead at home.  I thought to myself, if anything bad happened from this point, it would be one of the worst losses ever for Duke.  With 2:55 left (after a Justin Anderson 3 on lackadaisical defense) Cook missed the front end of a 1 and 1, which, if he made them both, could have extended the Duke lead back to double digits.  When he missed, I texted Bill — “Don’t be overconfident — many bad signs”. I was prescient since Duke seemed to melt down.  Anderson tipped in an offensive rebound; Rasheed committed a foul (UVA converted); Rasheed turned it over in the open court for a UVA lay up; another UVA layup after a Parker miss (he didn’t take many “good” shots, which may explain 3-11 for only 8 points); Parker foul (UVA converted); Rasheed was fouled and made only 1-2; Thornton fouled and UVA converted both for a 1 point lead with 22 seconds to go.  Duke was then the recipient of two lucky bounces (Rasheed’s 3 and Jefferson’s second foul shot) to hold on to win.  Winning is better than losing, but a look at the second half suggests to me that this game was not that much different from Notre Dame, Ga Tech and even Clemson.

In the second half, Duke’s defense (superb in the first half) returned to being ineffective.  In the second stanza, UVA shot 15-26, including 8-17 from 3land — that means 7-9 from inside the arc.  Duke, which held a 20-14 rebounding edge in the first half was badly out rebounded in the second half 20-11.  There were 17 defensive rebounds in the first half, Duke got 14; in the second half there were 22 defensive rebounds, of which UVA got 10.  Then there is the mysterious Jabari Parker slump.  He just doesn’t seem to be the same player that opened the season with 10 straight 20+ point games.  A lot is shot selection and perhaps some overconfidence which resulted from his sensational early season.  In any event, if he doesn’t return to early season form, Duke will have a difficult time righting the ship. The Big 3 were not so effective against UVA.  Hood had 14 points, but but Jabari had only 8 and Cook only 7 (all scored in a row in the second half) and only 2 assists against 3 turnovers.  Coach K played his bench significantly more in this game.  No Duke player logged over 29 minutes (Hood and Cook, 29; Parker and Jefferson, 28 with Rasheed logging 24), and double digit minutes for others (Matt Jones, 19, Plumlee, Dawkins and Thornton, 12).  I think we will see more of Jones.  Semi made a cameo (2 minutes) and Hairston logged 7.  But the second unit played with spirit and was competitive.  This is a team (and coach) searching for a winning identity.  I believe Coach K when he accepts some responsibility; he’s had tragedy and his face showed it on TV last night.  This remains an interesting season.

Duke 95 – North Carolina State 60

In the movie “Pretty Woman” Julia Roberts goes into a store on Rodeo Drive dressed to the nines, carrying several bags of very expensive clothes from a nearby boutique and says  something to the effect of remember me, I was in here yesterday and you wouldn’t give me the time of day. “Big mistake. Big. Huge.” Well, that is what I thought today when Alan reminded me of the N.C. State players popping off to the press about taking advantage of Duke’s small front line….A piece of advice: Never give an opponent another  reason to play extra hard.

The mood and feeling and intensity of the afternoon was captured best by veteran columnist Ed Hardin. Here is my edited version of his observations:

Krzyzewski came sliding out onto the floor on his knees, slapping the court in anger….he got up slowly. Coach K’s hair isn’t quite as dark as it was and this basketball team isn’t as dominant as some he has had. But for one day, it felt like old times. Maybe the maestro can’t move like he used to, but that doesn’t mean he still won’t demand it of his players now, every single one of them, all day long.

Duke has been a different team the last two games. Beside playing more players, giving a breather to the starters, pressing all over the court (which covers their half-court defense weakness), and wearing down an opponent, here are the other differences I see:

  1. Parker is much more effective, creative, and rested  playing his natural position, forward rather than center. He also realized teams have scouted him and utilized the effective Notre Dame defensive book on him and he needed to make adjustments.
  2. Jefferson has improved dramatically on both ends of the floor and playing to his potential, which allows a). A 40% free throw shooter, he was even was 3-3 from the line.
  3. Sulaimon knows his role with the second unit—he is the first scoring option. Then, when he is with the first unit, he is a much more confident player and has made himself into a physical, attacking,  and effective hybrid scoring/point guard (13 points & 6 assists). On his drives, he takes a licking and keeps on ticking.
  4. Defense was (and is) the key for this team’s success. The game is a just a lot easier when the Blue Devils can utilize their athleticism and speed to score points rather than run half court sets against bigger opponents. However, keep in mind that although the Wolfpack beat Notre Dame, they have an inexperienced back court, a short bench, and has lost three games by thirty points. Further, as we painfully know from the last few years, when an opponent can break this pressing defense, the easy offense goes the other way. For that reason, I still wish Coach K would have a Syracuse style zone defense as a fallback weapon.
  5. The chemistry on this team is exceptional. You can see it in how unselfish they are on fast breaks and in the open court. Uncontested threes are much easier.

Comments:

  • Duke got 33 points off turnovers and steals and outrebounded State 35-32—what say ya now  State big men!
  • In all four of their losses, the Blue Devils have allowed more than 70 points.
  • There was just one full-scale line change (five new players), which came in the game’s opening minutes. However, nine players played at least ten minutes.
  • Question: Semi Ojeleye, the Parade 2013 National Player-of-the-year,  is the best athlete on the team, has an exceptional touch, and is a good student. Why doesn’t he get more playing time?
  • It was Krzyzewski’s 200th career ACC win at Cameron and his 898th overall at Duke, putting the NCAA men’s career coaching wins leader two shy of joining Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim with at least 900 wins at one school.
  • George H.W. Bush, the 41st president who at 89 rarely travels, was in attendance to recognize Krzyzewski for his ”personal commitment and leadership” in work to fight cancer.
  • N.C. State has not beaten a K coached team since 1988 (a 1995 win came while Krzyzewski was on medical leave).
  • Sophomore T.J Warren is a very gifted offensive player with an NBA body.
  • Kendell Marshall (19  points, 14 assists) and Ryan Kelly (20 points) were key players in the Lakers win over the Celtics last night.

Duke 67- Miami 46

A very popular television show back in the day of a more innocent era was Art Linkletter’s “Kids Say the Darndest Things”. Well, so do basketball coaches. Miami coach Jim Larrañaga actually told his players on national TV that LeBron James and Dwayne Wade were rumored to be coming and it was a great credit to this Miami program and this team that they would want to see them play. I guess the fact that The Hurricanes were playing Olympic Coach K’s Duke team featuring the highly publicized Jabari Parker was merely incidental. The only reason the Heat players would come to watch Miami play is if they were suffering from insomnia and wanted to fall asleep. The ‘Cane’s style of play sets basketball back about sixty years and scored all of 46 points. Hey, I scored 34 points for Camp Sebago in Maine Inter-Camp  play— a 32 minute game without the benefit of a three point line. Alan will figure out how many points a minute that is in his stats segment.

In all seriousness, this was another building block win for the Blue Devils against a team that almost out zoned Syracuse. Duke was patient and methodical on offense against the Miami zone, defended well, and rebounded exceptionally well (36-25).

Parker demonstrated his exceptional instincts by flashing all over the floor on both ends—his best defensive game of the year. Amile Jefferson (8 pts., 6 rebs, 3 blks, 1 steal) was my co-MVP. His stats do not do justice to how disruptive he was on defense and active her was on offense. You can see his confidence growing and talents showing–same as with Sulaimon. Rodney Hood (the anti-Sherman) was smoothly efficient—especially on defense. Only Quinn Cook  had a sub-par game. No need for Parker, Hood, and Cook to do all the scoring. This young ten deep team is coming together rather nicely.

And, oh yes, need I remind everyone that Miami upset Duke here last year when the Blue Devils were ranked number 1 and that an opponent rarely beats Coach K two times in a row.

Comments:

  • Marshall Plumlee is taking advantage of his recent playing time by being a big, physical defensive presence for the second unit.
  • In addition to James and Wade, Kobe Bryant, Shane Battier, and Ryan Kelly were also in attendance. Kelly brought his Lakers teammate, former UNC point guard Kendall Marshall. James wrote on Instagram during the game he was there to “see Coach K and the young boy Jabari Parker.” 

Alan Adds:

Camp Sebago!  I thought we were serious analysts of Duke’s hoop efforts before Bill alludes to his legendary performance so long ago that no one else can verify it.  Of course, (as mentioned once before) exaggeration for emphasis is a legitimate literary device.  While Miami is surely offensively challenged (and plays a style mandated by its personnel), I believe the Duke defense earned a heap of credit for Miami’s low point production.  It’s the best team defense that Duke has played all year; I do think that using a longer bench has allowed the players on the court to expend more energy on defense.  Duke shot terribly in the first half (4-16 from long range) before enjoying a more fruitful second half (4-9 from 3land).  What helped Duke move out to its 12 point half time lead was — hold on to your chairs — Duke’s domination of the boards.  14 of Duke’s first 17 points came after offensive rebounds.  For the game Duke had 22 second chance points (7 for Miami) and out rebounded the ‘Canes by 42 to 28 overall (15 to 9 on the offensive glass).  Jabari was quite amazing in his 32 minutes, with a double double of 17 points (7-8 from the free throw line — an important stat for him and Duke); 15 rebounds to go along with 3 blocks while committing only 1 foul.  He did have 4 turnovers without an assist (as Coach K says, he still has room to grow).

Rodney Hood and Amile were very effective, each also playing 32 minutes.  Hood is really efficient, a team player, and more valuable than meets the eye.  Consider: 12 points on only 8 shots; 6 key defensive rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals without a turnover (and committing only 1 foul).  Jefferson earned Bill’s vote as co-MVP (if not co-MVP; at least most improved during the season) with a superb effort on the interior.  He seemed even more effective than his stat line.  He committed only 2 fouls, only 1 turnover, and seemed to be much too quick for Miami’s larger front line.  Duke won on the interior.  Marshall backed up with 7 valuable minutes that include 2 tough boards, a block and some nifty defense.  Hairston committed 4 fouls in his 8 minutes (a basket and a rebound).  Semi got in for only the last minute of the game.

Quinn had a really good first half (3-5 for 8 points with 2 assists); followed by some head-scratching miscues in the second half (failed to score), including the dumb flagrant 1 foul.  He is not playing the heavy minutes now that he has for most of the year (26 last night).  Sulaimon logged 23 excellent minutes and seems to be all the way back to being the efficient and reliable player he was last year (9 points on 6 shots with 4 assists; only 1 turnover and committing only one foul).  There was help in the backcourt.  Matt Jones started and played 16 minutes (5 points; 2 boards and some excellent defense while committing a single foul); Thornton logged 13 minutes (a board, an assist and a steal while committing only 1 foul; 0-1 from the field); and Dawkins (2-6 from 3land for 6 points) not only hit 2 timely 3s, but also had 3 steals in his (only) 10 minutes.

It was a long way from a completely polished Duke performance; there seemed to be many mistakes and a lot of almost great plays.  Nevertheless, it was a performance that stamps Duke as a contender in the ACC.  There is a spate of tough games coming up that will illuminate whether or not Duke actually is a contender for conference (and perhaps National) honors.  Fla. St visits Cameron on Saturday at noon (ESPN) before Duke travels to Pitt next Monday (ESPN at 7) and then at Syracuse on Saturday, Feb 1 (ESPN at 6:30).  Next Play

Duke 80 –  Pittsburgh 65

You know a team is on a roll when the center (14 pts, 10 rebs,2 assists & blks) makes plays like a point guard from the top of the key…when a backup guard scores 20 points in 14 minutes…when your defense holds an opponent to 41% shooting… when you finish off an opponent in front of their stunned students and fans like a top team should–but most of all, when you beat a good team on the road. As recently as a few weeks ago, Duke wasn’t able to win on the road against Notre Dame or Clemson. Tonight, against a far better team with a record 12,944 rabid  fans in attendance, the Blue Devils played their best basketball. Defense was the key. Anyone remember the Vermont game?

The Blue Devils demonstrated how lethal they can be when they  play shut down defense and when the offense is hitting on all cylinders. Most team can neutralize one player but Duke has six players who can drop twenty some points on an opponent on any night. All you need is half of them to do that and get fifteen points or so from the other seven rotation players and you score enough points to win most games—if you play decent defense. However, Cook must stay healthy for this team to play at their best.

As always, these recent performances do not take into account injuries, illnesses, girlfriend troubles, academic issues, weather, travel, exams or any of the other myriad factors that can play into a college athlete’s performance. But they do offer a reason not to believe the Blue Devils are developing into the contender we thought they would be..

Additional comments:

  • After the game, chants of “Dre all day” celebrating Andre Dawkins play were heard from the Duke locker room. These guys really like each other and pull for each other.
  • Rodney Hood’s defense on Lamar Paterson (4-14) was the lynchpin of the defensive effort while Parker, Jefferson, and Plumlee cleaned up the boards.
  • Plumlee’s physical presence, strength, and athleticism makes good things happen in the paint and under the boards on both ends of the floor.
  • Parker is not getting the calls most premier players get– and the refs haven’t been doing Sulaimon any favors either.
  • Duke is the biggest draw in college basketball. This week they will break attendance records at both Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center and Syracuse’s Carrier Dome.

Alan Adds:

NC State will probably be seeking credit for this amazing Duke performance against Pittsburg.  Consider the pre-game woofing that State players did, demeaning Duke’s front court and promising to win the game by attacking it.  Ok, that backfired “more than somewhat” as Duke beat the Wolfpack black and blue on the interior.  But that was not a formidable NC State team.  Pitt, on the other hand, was 18-1, has a raft of large skilled front court players, (not to mention some skilled guards as well), and, as a team, cannot be defined as other than formidable.  This was simply a great college basketball game between two teams that played the game “the right way”.  There were possessions in the beginning of the second half where Duke converted on 7 of 9 trips down the floor while Pitt was successful on 6 of 8; yet the defense was terrific.

The quality of play by both teams was extraordinary, but in the end the Duke front court overwhelmed the Panthers.  Yes, that same front court that the Wolfpack chose to denigrate was simply awesome against Pitt.  My highly-praised, unsung hero, Jabari, is all over the defensive court (just a couple of understandable mistakes) and is rebounding like a demon against bigger players.  Not only did Jabari score 21 points on 19 shots in 35 minutes (16 points on 13 shots in the first half to give Duke a small half time lead even as the Devils were outplayed by Pitt), but he pulled down 11 rebounds to go with an assist, a steal and a block.  Coach K says he is the most talented player on the team, but Rodney Hood is playing the best of anyone.  And so he is.  In a game high 35 minutes, he scored 13 points on 10 shots (3-7 from behind the arc; and they were clutch) to go with 4 assists, 3 boards and a steal.  Moreover he played tough gritty defense against Pitt’s leading scorer, disrupting Pitt’s offense.  Those two guys have been doing it for Duke all year on offense, but now their defense is catching up with the rest of their game.  However, the largest improvement for Duke comes from the play at the center position.

Jefferson has been becoming, and now maybe we can say “is”, a force.  He has developed into a major league rebounder (10 in only 27 minutes; he had 4 fouls by game’s end) and was efficient on offense (5-5 from the floor and 4-5 from the line for 14 points.  He also played a great floor game (2 assists with 0 turnovers) on both ends (2 blocks and a steal).  While foul trouble may have limited Jefferson’s playing time, Duke still had the answer when Jefferson was on the bench; that answer was Marshall Plumlee.  Don’t look now, but he is becoming a force.  He had 4 board in 12 minutes to go with an assist and a block.  He brings energy and toughness, and is earning Coach K’s trust resulting in more playing time.  Pitt has an established reputation as a tough rebounding team; Duke won the battle of the boards.  Thank you NC State!

While the front court played consistently well, the backcourt didn’t really get going until the second half; then Duke became awesome.  Aside from Dawkins 2-2 from behind the arc in the first half, the guards did not play well.  Cook did not start (ankle problem), but played 27 minutes.  In the first half, he had a basket, an assist, a rebound and a turnover.  In the second half he scored 7, added 5 key assists to go with 2 more boards.  He re-established the back court.  In the first half, Duke had 6 assists against 5 turnovers; in the second half Duke had 12 assists against 2 turnovers (19 assists on 28 field goals is pretty good).  Sulaimon had 4 assists and played superbly — especially on defense — in his 27 minutes, even though he shot poorly (1-7, though the 1 was a crucial 3).  Oh yes, Andre Dawkins logged a few minutes in this game (15 says ESPN).  Actually he won the game for Duke and broke Pitt’s will.  He was 6-7 from behind the arc; and 1-2 from inside for 20 points in his 15 minutes.  But even more important was when he scored.

This was Duke basketball, as we have come to know it in the Coach K era: Tenacious defense; efficient offense, plus poise and skill at winning time in close games.  With 9:41 left in the game, Duke was clinging to a 1 point lead.  The defensive pressure increased and Duke held Pitt scoreless for almost 5 minutes (Pitt’s next field goal came with 5:49 left and cut Duke’s 13 point lead to 11.  In that stretch, Dawkins contributed a tip-in (of his own missed shot), and 2 3 pointers (both assisted by Cook), while Cook hit his only 3 (assisted by Jefferson, who also was 1-2 from the line in that section of the game).  From there to the end, Duke kept Pitt at bay with efficient offense created by sharing the ball.  Dawkins hit two more 3s (one assisted by Cook and one by Hood), Jefferson, assisted by Cook, hit a layup and converted the free throw for a 3 point play.  Cook made a layup, and Jabari and Cook shot free throws to seal the win.  It was a superb effort all around; easily Duke’s best performance of the year.  Matt Jones played only 6 minutes; Hairston 4 and Semi never left the bench.  The rotation was effectively 8;Tyler played 14 important minutes.  His value does not always show up in the box score.

On Saturday (6:30) there is a game in upstate New York that seems to be attracting some interest.  I might catch that one.

Note: I inadvertently sent the abridged version of Laura’s story on Jabari. Here is the unabridged version:

Duke phenom Jabari Parker has humble alter ego

By Laura Keeley

When the best basketball player at Duke isn’t on the court, he likes to be in his dorm room, watching cartoons. He’s had the same best friend since grade school, and the biggest party they ever attended was a Bar Mitzvah. His mom would occasionally take him and his siblings to the thrift store, where they could learn the value of a dollar and develop a personal sense of style.

Jabari Parker, the 6-foot-8, 235-pound son of a former NBA player, isn’t like most people his age – there are only a handful of freshmen being considered for the No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA draft. But he’s not like other young, elite basketball players, either. Those close to him attribute that in part to his Mormon faith, which Parker calls his base and foundation. His parents, Sonny and Lola, stressed to him that to whom much is given, much is required. On the court, he plays like a man among boys. Off the court, his roommate and teammate, Matt Jones, describes him as a big kid.

In interviews, Parker is quick to deflect attention away from himself and toward the team. Many of his closest relationships have nothing to do with basketball, and he puts aside his fame to connect with people. The mix of youth, wisdom and elite basketball gifts make it hard to define Parker.

“I would say I’m definitely not a person that stays complacent,” he said. “I don’t want to say that I’m necessarily a person that is good, but I’m in the midst of trying to be a good person. I have a lot to improve. Obviously, I’m not perfect, but I just try to do my best everyday, on the court and off the court, just being a good guy and good teammate.”

Basketball is just part of Parker’s life.

“That is what I do, but that’s not who I am,” he said when asked about basketball. “More importantly, it’s the image and the person that you want people to perceive you as. You deal with basketball only some parts of the day. It’s your job to make yourself noticeable in the right ways.”

This year, Parker has been noticed plenty. That’s not new – as the first freshman to play varsity for Chicago prep powerhouse Simeon Career Academy, Parker has had a high-profile for years. The college basketball world followed along as he scored at least 20 points in his first seven games, then had just seven at Notre Dame. Until a 23-point performance four games later against N.C. State and a double-double at Miami, he hadn’t quite regained the scoring production that seemed to come so naturally during the nonconference schedule.

Parker, who is from the South Side of Chicago, is not surprised by all the media attention. He doesn’t appear to be fazed by it, either. He says it’s about what he expected, as his dad, a former NCAA and NBA player, helped prepare him. So did one of the more famous Duke alums: Grant Hill. The two met over fall break at Duke Elevate, a four-day trip to New York organized by Mike Krzyzewski that mixed a few basketball practices with cultural experiences like seeing a Broadway show and visiting West Point.

“When we met at Duke Elevate, he was telling me how it went down,” Parker said of Hill.

That trip was what he mentioned first when thinking back to favorite memories from his first semester. School has made a big impression on Parker, too.

IN THE CLASSROOM

The ability to keep a low profile on campus, Parker says, was part of Duke’s appeal, part of the reason he’s here instead of the other schools that recruited him. His mom said there is a plan in place for him to graduate, regardless of how long he is actually on campus. But while he is at Duke, Parker feels like he can do something that’s impossible when he’s playing basketball: blend in.

“That was one of the main reasons that I came here is because I get my space,” he said. “My name is not as important as another person because they’re just as important in their field. Who am I to them? That’s the kind of attitude that I have because everybody is unique, and you will run into future corporate CEOs here.”

His favorite class last semester was a cultural anthropology course called, “Music as Mirror, Mediator and Prophet.” The professor, Ingrid Bianca Byerly, says the class investigates the role of music in societies.

Byerly, who is teaching at sea this semester, gave her thoughts over a series of emails. She says she is a fan of Duke basketball, though not an avid one. As a graduate student who arrived from South Africa in 1990, she attended games during her six years of school. But she does not follow recruiting, so when Parker showed up on the first day of class, she didn’t know who he was.

“I had NO idea who was walking into my class on the first day of the semester, because he absolutely does not have an attitude,” she wrote. “In fact it was only after a few classes that I realized who Jabari was – and that was really only after someone asked me what it was like to have a ‘superstar’ in my class.”

Byerly said Parker was quiet and diligent, with a sense of humor, always thinking, often amused. When she asked students early in the semester to reflect on experiences in their lives that led them to her class, Parker went first. His classmates followed his lead.

The course ended with Byerly bringing her Nepalese walking-meditation bell, to show how difficult it is to produce a series of clear rings while doing a slow, focused walking-meditation. Parker, who moves so quickly and swiftly up and down the basketball floor, slowed down, way down, in attempts to sync his steps with the rings.

“Very wise for one so young,” Byerly wrote. “A philosopher’s soul in an athlete’s body.”

Byerly will most remember Parker as the ultimate “parable-man.” Never had she seen a student think so often in parables, using them to analyze readings and abstract ideas. Parker thinks in stories, she said, using them to teach and learn.

That’s a habit that can be traced back to his religion.

WITH THE CHURCH

Like nearly all Mormon men active in the church, Parker is a priest, and he spent about two years during high school as a home teacher, making monthly visits to a group of families in the congregation. For these visits, he was paired with his bishop, Joe Cannon.

“And we would teach them a little lesson or share with them experiences that we’ve had and hear experiences that they have had and ask them if there was anything that we could do to help out,” Cannon said. “He was a young kid and sort of learning how to interact with people like that. He was very, very supportive and helpful and would always share one or two things, his insights about whatever we were talking about.”

Cannon has known Parker since he was in grade school, but it wasn’t until high school that he realized the extent of his basketball talent. Many of the people Parker visited had no idea, either.

There was the time they went to a nursing home during the winter holidays, where an elderly woman wanted to hear Christmas carols.

“I’ll be honest; I don’t sing very well. Jabari sings a little bit worse than I do,” Cannon said. “So it would have been very easy for him to say, ‘you know, I’m really not comfortable doing it.’ But as a 15- or 16-year old, he said, okay, let’s do this. And it was great. She loved us for doing that, and he was rewarded for having done it.”

Some of Parker’s favorite visits were to families with young children, and he would sit on the ground and play with them. That’s also what he would do when visiting Cannon’s house for dinner.

“Anything that my kids wanted to talk to him about, a game that they were playing or something that they were doing in school or a TV show that they watched or a video online, he would love to chat about that sort of stuff,” Cannon said. “He was always just a super great friend to my kids and not like a pro basketball player.”

When Cannon was in a serious bike accident during Parker’s senior year and had to have brain surgery, Parker visited him several times in the hospital, bringing the sacrament, the bread and water. Cannon doesn’t remember this – there is a gap of about 10 days in his memory after the accident – but he is proud of his student.

“He does things that I don’t necessarily expect from him or any kid who has the possibilities that he has,” Cannon said. “But I’m always pleased how supportive he is and how much he cares about others.”

OFF THE COURT

Parker tends to be thoughtful, something his high school coach, Robert Smith, noticed right away. It was small things, like staying after varsity games to be the water boy for the sophomore game, or bringing the coach’s wife and daughter small gifts at Christmas his freshman year. As the first freshman to play for Simeon’s varsity team – even the school’s most famous alum, NBA star Derrick Rose, played on the sophomore team – Parker wanted to pay his dues.

“There were times when he was a freshman when he would say, can you be a little bit harder on me than everyone else; I don’t want them to think you gave me anything,” Smith said. “Little things like that.”

Parker grew up around the game – his dad started a youth foundation that included basketball leagues for inner-city kids in Chicago after retiring from the NBA. His mother noticed her son’s extraordinary basketball abilities by the time he was in second grade. When he arrived at Simeon, he was a prodigy.

But he was also a 14-year-old boy.

Early in his freshman season, Parker’s dad picked him up from practice and took him trick-or-treating. During a team camp at Illinois, Smith noticed Parker blowing bubbles in his water.

“I’m looking at him like, he shouldn’t be doing that, but I had to realize that he was only 14,” Smith said. “I had to get some of those things to realize that he was still a kid. You wouldn’t know that when he stepped between these lines, but he still did kid things.

“A lot of these kids have to grow up fast and be so much older, they lose these great days, these childhood days. They lose them because they have to do so much. But he didn’t let that affect him; he was still able to be a child, which was good.”

‘LOW-KEY KID’

Parker still is a kid, according to Jones, his roommate.

“He is very low maintenance,” Jones said. “JP, somebody of Jabari’s stature, you would think that he would want more stuff. But, honestly, he just wants to watch Netflix and be in his room all day.

“He’s probably on the Disney channel,” Jones said. “I just know he’s a big kid. Anything cartoon, Disney-channel affiliated, he’s probably watching it.”

The low-key Parker’s best friend since grade school, Cory Dolins, is a 6-foot, 182-pound sophomore walk-on at DePaul. They met when Parker was in fifth grade, and Dolins in sixth, while playing at Joy of the Game, a gym located in Deerfield, a northern Chicago suburb.

Parker commuted from the South side of the city, while Dolins lived close by. Sometimes Parker would spend the night, and a friendship began, one that would grow stronger despite the fact that they never attended the same schools.

“Personally and socially, he’s been the same,” Dolins said. “Same values. He hasn’t really changed, and that’s always good.”

“We have a lot of similarities that a lot of people don’t see,” Parker said, alluding to their differences (Parker is black, Mormon and from the city; Dolins is white, Jewish and from the suburbs). “We’re both conservative, somebody that wants to give up their time to help others and make other people happy. Yeah, that’s my guy.”

Dolins came to visit Parker at Duke early in the fall, before both of their seasons started in earnest. They hung out, saw a movie. Nothing fancy. Just their style.

“I treat him as another person, as a best friend and not as a basketball player,” Dolins said.

And that’s all Parker wants, just to be Jabari, more than just a basketball player.

“Like my mom told me, people are not going to remember you necessarily for your talent and your skills,” Parker said. “Life moves on. What’s more important is the person that you are, and that’s what sticks into people’s minds.”

Duke 89 –  Syracuse 91

What a great  game! The shootout at the S.C. Corral … the basketball version of a Ali-Frazier fifteen round fight… …Syracuse wins but the Duke mystique lives. It was so good, even Dick Vitale was briefly speechless.

Enough of the hyperbole, let’s go to the post mortem. Duke had no defensive answers for C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant, who combined for 52 points and 17 rebounds; or center Rakeem Christmas, who had 10 boards and 6 blocked shots; or Tyler Ennis, who had 14 points and 9 assists; or even Trevor Cooney, who had 14 points on only 8 shots. Despite all that, free throws determined the game—Syracuse shot 15 more free throws and hit a terrific 26-32, Duke a not so terrific 12-17. The Orange men attacked and got to the line and Duke basically countered with 15-36 threes.

Despite all that, the game might have been determined by three calls (Alan and Coach K; “This game is too good to talk about one play,” object to the following comments.) OK, I’ll talk about three plays: The obvious foul on Hoods dunk attempt (note to Rodney: love your game but two hands next time), down one with :15 seconds to go. But just as important was the fifth foul on Parker’s layup that could have gone either offensive, defensive, or (preferably) no call; and Jefferson’s fourth hip touch foul. I will say it again: Parker does not get the referee respect usually given players of his caliber and impact. Tradition has it that a referee does not foul out a star player in the final minutes of a big game on a questionable call. However, to his credit, Jabari does not sulk, he just plays harder on defense—and did you catch his bench involvement in the game after fouling out. He is a no diva, he is a terrific teammate.

The good news is that Syracuse will be ranked number 1 in the polls this week and in their hearts, the ‘Cuse players will know that Duke is number 1A with a bullet and that Parker, Hood, Jefferson, Sulaimon, Dawkins, and Thornton will be better, tougher players for the rest of the season.

Other comments:

  • I still contend that a zone defense should be in the Duke tool belt in situations like tonight when your man- to- man is being abused and in situations like the overtime when you are forced to play four guards and a forward.
  • Duke demonstrated how to attack the Syracuse zone—get the ball into the high post. The next time (three weeks) look for Parker and Jefferson to switch positions. Parker in the high post is much more versatile and lethal with more room to operate and Jefferson is better down low.
  • While after the game, Krzyzewski said: “This game is too good to talk about one play,” during the game, it was another story. He spent a lot of time protesting  no-calls, one of the themes of the night. Coach K was out on the court, hands on hips, outraged at the offensive foul that ended Parker’s night in the second half and slapped his arm toward the refs after the Hood dunk. And assistants Jeff Capel and Steve Wojciechowski lost it over Jefferson’s fifth foul, which was away from the ball.
  • Either Cook is injured or he is in a slump.
  • “Great rivalries don’t have to be built on hatred,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They’re built on respect, on a respect for excellence.”

Alan Adds:

The Syracuse coach put it best.  Boeheim said “there have been many great games in the Carrier Dome, but none were as good as this one.”  It became an ESPN instant classic.  If it wasn’t the best regular season college game that I’ve ever seen, it was at least tied for that title.  This was an overtime game that came down to the last shot; 45 minutes of unbelievable non-stop competitive intensity by both teams; two very good teams, each playing their absolutely best basketball of the year; in short, a game played at the very highest level the sport has to offer.  For me, the game was analogous to the Kentucky East Regional championship game in ’92 (Laettner’s “The Shot”).  After Sean Woods’s basket gave Kentucky the one point lead with 2.3 seconds to go, my friend turned to me and said, “You must be crushed.”  I replied, “Are you kidding?  We are watching one of the greatest games ever played; you can’t be sad no matter the outcome.”  I had the same feeling watching the Syracuse game last night.  In ’92 Laettner’s shot went in; last night, Cook’s didn’t.  From the Duke perspective, it is hard to be even slightly deflated from this heartbreaking loss.  Here’s why:

First, Duke played its best game of the season, demonstrating amazing patience and skill on offense, while displaying the heart of lions.  Even Duke haters had to admire the way Duke fought back through adversity and desperate foul trouble.  Coach K was at a loss for words in his press conference to describe how proud he was of the Duke effort.  He was particularly eloquent about the Hood attempted dunk with 15 seconds left in the overtime while Duke trailed by a point.  First, even though the replay showed an obvious foul that was not called, Coach K refused to discuss the ref’s call (“it would have been nice to get the dunk or the foul attempts, but Syracuse would still have had a chance to win the game.”), instead concentrating on what a gorgeous gutty go-for-the-win Hood’s driving dunk was.  “That was a big-time play.”  And so it was.  With Parker, Jefferson and Dawkins on the bench, and with his own 4 fouls, Hood went for the spectacular play.  Duke’s heart will never be in question again this year.

Second, the Duke offense was quite wonderful and punctured the Syracuse legendary zone defense (scoring 78 points in regulation, including 43 in the second half) with 20 assists on 31 field goals (15 – 35 from behind the arc).  Everyone contributed.  Parker had a rough first half (only 4 points on 2-8 shooting), and had his second half curtailed by foul trouble (played only 26 minutes before fouling out); yet he was a force on offense and in effort (stealing the ball from Ennis from behind after he had been blocked at the rim).  He finished with 15 points (11 in the second half in not that many minutes), 9 boards, a nifty assist and 2 steals.  His enthusiasm on the bench, after fouling out, was a quick picture of this team’s chemistry.  Hood played 43 minutes scoring 14 on 11 shots with 4 boards.  He is such a solid player and getting better and more confidence in each game.  Jefferson played 28 minutes before fouling out and was a force.  Consider he had 5 assists to go with his 14 points (9 in the first half, including Duke’s first 5), 7 boards and a steal.  He continues to grow into a quality ACC big man.  Plumlee contributed 10 efficient minutes (2 boards and an assist), but could not contribute defensively (Coach K playing offense-defense with Marshall and Dawkins) in the overtime, when it really would have helped.  Hairston played less than a minute (a turnover).  Duke got great play from its back court (with only one unfortunate exception).  Cook led by playing 40 minutes, controlled the offense handing out 5 assists without a single turnover; but his poor shooting was an Achilles heel for Duke.  Cook was 2-12 including 1-8 from behind the arc, scoring only 7 points.  Rasheed was the Duke star of stars logging 33 minutes, dishing out a team high 6 assists, and scoring 16 on 8 shots (4-7 from behind the arc; oh yes, a couple were pretty clutch; but only 4-7 from the stripe).  Dawkins played 28 minutes before fouling out with 14 points on 11 shots (4-9 from 3land) and 3 boards.  Thornton played 17 minutes and hit those 3 big 3 pointers in a row to rescue Duke from oblivion.  Matt Jones played under a minute.

Third, Duke showed amazing energy for all 45 minutes.  Duke took 18 more shots from the field than Syracuse and pulled down 18 offensive boards.  Duke got contributions from 8 players.  The players on both teams really put on a show!

However, as good as Duke was on offense, Syracuse was just as good in its offense.  As Bill points out, Duke simply had no defensive answers.  How much was Syracuse’s superb offense, and how much was Duke’s defensive deficiency is hard to say.  Duke was definitely not deficient in effort, however Boeheim made a very telling point in his press conference about Duke’s man to man defense.  Duke went to a zone defense at one point in the second half when Gbinije came in for Cooney (Syracuse’s best long range shooter), and it was effective.  Boeheim said he didn’t want Syracuse to have to play against the zone, and he said he “knew” Duke would go back to its man to man defense when Cooney came back in.  So Boeheim sent Cooney right back into the game, and Duke immediately went back to its man to man defense.  But, why did Boeheim want to keep Duke playing its familiar man to man rather than its only-sporadically-used zone?  The answer seem to have been that Syracuse could penetrate the Duke man to man defense at will, which forced Duke into committing bad fouls.  After committing 9 fouls in the first half, the Devils were whistled for 16 in the second half.  Foul trouble bit the Devils hard, but the cause was not how the refs called the game, but rather in Duke’s inability to contain penetration.  With 7:11 to go in the first half, and leading by 2, Duke gave up points to Syracuse on 10 of the last 11 possessions of the first half.  After Parker picked up his 4th foul with 10:45 to go in the game, Syracuse scored on 8 of the next 9 possessions.  In the overtime, only missed foul shots stopped Syracuse from scoring.  Future games will tell whether Duke’s defensive resurgence, which culminated in a spectacular performance against Pittsburg last Monday, will continue or was a mirage.  It might be remembered that The Orange visit Cameron in 3 weeks.  Nothing from last night will have dulled the enthusiasm for the rematch.

This was an emotional game.  It will be interesting to see how each team responds in the next game — Duke plays Wake on Tuesday late.  This game was indeed one for the ages.

Duke – Wake Forest

For about fifteen minutes Wake Forest, a mediocre ACC team minus their best player, put on a clinic on how to attack Duke before the Blue Devils went on a 20-5 run to end the first half. Up until then, Sulaimon and Dawkins were about the entire offense. After that, Duke’s defense stiffened and the offense got in gear.

I am driving to Orlando tomorrow @ 9.

With Quinn Cook in a slump, Thornton started but Sulaimon really played the point. Sully plays offense like the Seattle Seahawks defensive backs play defense. And when he and Plumlee are on the floor at the same time, Duke is has a much more formidable physical presence. When MP3 sets a high pick, he creates space for a three. He should get an assist for the threes at the top of the key. Unless Cook gets a confidence transplant, Coach is going to have to figure something out, because as much as we like Thornton, he is not a Final Four starting point of shooting guard. Sulaimon and Dawkins, who is no longer a defensive liability, are the most lethal duo.

Other comments:

  • It may be that the thought of Tyus Jones, the highly rated point guard who will be a freshman next year, is affecting Cook’s play. Or it may be Sulaimon’s emergence as a more effective penetrator.  Sully said he  started working at the point when he wasn’t playing much and was with the second team and that everything happens for a reason.
  • Someone please tell me why Ojeleye doesn’t get more playing time.
  • The Deacons (14-9, 4-6) haven’t won at Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1997 and haven’t beat Duke at all since 2009, losing eight straight.
  • Last night Syracuse only beat Notre Dame 61-55. Jerami Grant and Fair, who combined for 54 points against Duke, combined for just 15, while Tyler Ennis found little room in the lane to penetrate and finished with six points and eight assists.

Duke 89- Boston College 68

Duke played a pretty good version of their Vermont Defense (get beat off the dribble and the back door, let ‘em shoot open threes) in the first half so only held a four point lead at the break. After coaches made a defensive (not picking the Eagles up as high and switching everything) and attitude adjustment  (stop standing around assuming they’re going to miss because you are Duke), the tide came in on an overmatched BC. The subsequent misses led to fast breaks off  missed shots and the game became a runaway. The good news is that Quinn Cook’s offense was back from vacation (21 pts, 3 assists). Sulaimon 6  assists ( some of which were of the “Oh, My!” variety) is really adding another dimension to his and, therefore, the teams arsenal. JP was the beneficiary of many of the passes.

Jabari Parker put on a show for the spectators and the scouts with 29 points and 16 rebounds – each career highs – in 38 minutes. Coach Krzyzewski said: “ Jabari was a monster today. He played more like a veteran tonight in that he was playing so hard, and usually we have to sub him because you get tired. This is really the first game that I’ve seen him where he’s playing so well he played through tired. It’s something that a really good player has to learn to do. You have to keep performing when you’re tired, and he did. ” All that is true, but Boston College players are not Syracuse or Kansas or even Carolina caliber. To his credit Parker (like Singler in his freshman year) has adjusted his game to the needs of the team but at this point he is neither an outstanding three point or free throw shooter. What he has is an outstanding basketball IQ, instinct, and creativity–and underrated athletic ability. How is it that Jabari, playing under the basket on defense is usually the wing man finisher on so many fast breaks?

Other comments:

Ø  Coach K’s admiring comments that Parker “played through tired. It’s something that a really good player has to learn to do. You have to keep performing when you’re tired.” It is an insight into is Army training and his core  philosophy of a short rotation, pressing man-to-man defense that wears down an opponent because they are not as mentally and physically tough as you are.

Ø  Marshall Plumlee did not play (Semi took his minutes), because he strained tendon in his knee. However, it has already improved, and he will be available against UNC.

Ø  Since the Clemson loss, Duke’s winning by an average of 17 points per game in conference.

Ø  Nick Pagliuca, son of the Celtics co-owner, got a few minutes playing time in his hometown.

Alan Adds:

The potential trap game wasn’t, setting the stage  for a big showdown with the Tarheels on Wednesday night (9:00 pm EST).  As always, how Coach K doles out the minutes and who takes shots is illuminating.  Duke basically went only 6 deep against the Eagles.  Marshall was a scratch; four players saw brief action (single digit minutes) and only 1 scored.  Dawkins played only 8 minutes missing both of his shots (1 was a 3), while getting a board and blocking a shot.  Matt Jones scored 6 points (3-3 from the field) in his 6 minutes.  The backcourt minutes were taken by the two starters — Thornton (257and Rasheed (25) — and Cook, who rediscovered his shooting touch scoring 21 in 26 minutes.  Semi played 8 minutes (0 statistics) and Hairston committed 2 fouls in his 2 minutes.

Jabari played the whole game until it was well over (38 minutes) while Hood logged 30 and Jefferson 29 minutes.  Jabari scored his 29 points on 17 shots and Coach K said it could have been more.  Jabari missed a couple of finishes on offensive rebounds and was only 5-10 from the line.  Duke was 14-20 from the stripe; the only other miss was Hood’s (1-2).  Hood logged 30 minutes, scoring 9 points on 9 shots (2-4 from 3) to go with 5 defensive rebounds, an assist, a block, but 4 turnovers.  Jefferson was efficient in his 29 minutes, pulling down 6 boards while scoring 8 points  (3-3 from the field and 2-2 from the line).  He also had an assist and a steal while committing only 1 turnover and 1 foul.  Duke commanded the boards (37-23) with Parker’s astounding 16 leading the way.  Hood, Parker and Jefferson had 27 rebounds among them.  Duke was also smooth with the ball, recording 18 assists (Thornton (6), Sulaimon 6 and Cook 3 leading the way).  Cook took 10 shots (2nd most for Duke in the game), hitting 7 (5-7 from behind the arc) as well as making both free throws.  Welcome back, Quinn.  Rasheed was only 2-8 from the field but they were both 3s (2-4) and hit all four of his foul shots for 10 points to go with his 6 assists.  He has been playing amazing ball.

Besides being Duke-Carolina, this game on the road against the fast improving ‘heels, is a serious test for Duke (and Carolina).

Duke  69 –  Maryland 67

A fitting end to a terrific, historic 176 game rivalry—and Holy Lock Down, Batman, at the end of the night, interior defense saved the game!

During the “Lefty” Driesell and Gary Williams eras no team played Duke with more determination, tenacity, grit, and emotion than Maryland—and the wins meant more to them than any other school. In truth, there were many games that match any with North Carolina. That said about the players, the fans are another story. They were like the poor, distant Yankee relatives crashing a Tobacco Road family picnic, always longing to be acknowledged and respected but, win or lose, never knowing how to behave.

As with the two losses last year, the Blue Devils had no consistent answer for Dez Wells or Mitchell, even though both were saddled with foul trouble, or even newbie Jake Layman. Duke squandered a semi-comfortable lead in the second half by missing 17 of its first 20 shots. Behind for the first times, and the game slipping away, Jabari Parker made two crucial plays: kicking a loose ball to Sulaimon for an open three and then the winning offensive play in the last minute of the game with a determined drive through traffic for an emphatic tomahawk slam, giving the Blue Devils the lead that held up thanks to two stellar defensive stands. On the two final, frenetic series, Wells was stripped, and Mitchell barely missed a hook shot that little Tyler Thornton, directly under the basket, tipped to Jefferson. Emile Jefferson with 12 rebounds, one block, several deflections, and three very timely buckets was again a critical contributor.

Duke shot terribly from the floor (18-54) with just 5 threes, and were out rebounded (38-33).  Only getting to the line shooting 28-34 and the determined defense in the last sixty seconds saved the game.

While a win is a win, the fact that this game against a talented but mediocre Maryland team came down to a teetering ball falling off the rim of beating Duke in Cameron points out the game-to-game vulnerability of this team. Yes, Hood had foul trouble all game, Cook had no assists and 3 turnovers, Dawkins was subpar, Sulaimon wasn’t finishing like he has been, and good shots were not falling, but these things must be overcome. Tonight they were—but barely. In any event, as has been pointed out many times, better coached teams with the more fundamentally sound players usually win close games—as this one and the Syracuse-N.C. State game tonight demonstrated.

  • In his press conference, Coach K said that in the final timeout, he said nothing because the players spoke first and vowed to take ownership of the final outcome. And on Maryland abandoning the ACC for the Big 10 (sic): “Over the years, those players and coaches and the teams that have shared these unforgettable moments, I don’t know what price—what it’s worth, because it won’t be replicated.”
  • Coach Mark Turgeon: “I don’t know how Charles’s shot didn’t go in. Call it the Duke gods. I don’t know what happened….“Yeah, I’m going to miss this like crazy. What a great place to come play.”
  • Cook started for Sulaimon but did not have a good game, carelessly handing out two assists to the Terps.
  • The rotation has tightened. It is a trait Coach K shares with John Wooden. In his book on Coach Wooden, Seth Davis writes that Wooden liked a seven man rotation and   always stressed to his team (whether true or not) they were in better shape than any opponent so  at the end of a game, they would win. Sound familiar?
  • In a postgame interview, Jabari Parker said that anyone who knows basketball understands what a valuable player Tyler Thornton is to this team.
  • Marshall Plumlee had more production per minute than anyone.
  • Next up, a tough week:  Georgia Tech, Carolina, Syracuse.

Alan Adds:

There is an intangible “something” about teams that consistently win dramatically close games, especially when not playing well.  I have come to call that something “integrity”, and it is closely related to how the team is coached (and really by the “integrity” of the team leader — in most cases, the coach).  Duke has perhaps the best example of leadership with integrity.  It was fully on display against Maryland yesterday in a game where Duke did not play its usual offensively efficient game against a team driven to the heights of intensity.  Yet Duke won (even while acknowledging a debt to “the Cameron gods” when Mitchell’s last attempt rolled off the rim).  By any measure, Mitchell should have scored.  He’s massively more powerful than Hood, who was guarding him with 4 fouls, yet, he faded away for a hook shot rather than powering to the hole.  The leadership of integrity making a team of integrity was fully on display in Coach K’s description (as Bill notes above) of the last time out with 1:32 to go and Duke trailing by one.  The players only spoke and committed to scoring and then to get the necessary stop.  Jabari slammed home the game winner 15 seconds later, but it was the commitment to defense that turned the tide.  Wells put Maryland ahead 67-64 with 2:50 to go, but Maryland was never able to score again.

Duke’s offense was well off the efficient form we have been watching since the Clemson game.  Duke leads the nation scoring — 122.9 for every 100 possessions.  Against Maryland, Duke scored at the rate of 1.06 per possession.  Duke has made 132 more 3 pointers than its opponents and 35 more than any other team in the country.  5-24 against Maryland was a disaster.  Thornton (0-4) and Cook (0-2) failed to connect.  Hood, Sulaimon, and Dawkins were each 1-4, while Jabari was 2-6.  Duke had only 6 assists for the entire game (against 11 turnovers).  Of course, it is hard to get assists if the shots do not fall.  But Duke was aggressive, and got to the foul line consistently, where, as Bill points out, Duke won the game.  Jabari was such a force driving, and as a result was 9-10 from the free throw line.  Hood, Sulaimon and Cook were each 4-4, and Thornton 3-4.

The concerns about Quinn Cook continue to mount.  He played only 14 minutes against Maryland, turning the ball over 3 times without an assist.  He did have 2 steals, but he was ineffective and his court time reflected that.  Rasheed logged 35 minutes off the bench, scoring 11, but was not as effective as he has been recently.  Thornton played 27 valuable minutes (but scoring only his 3 foul shots) and Dawkins logged 19, going 1-5 from the field, scoring 5 points. He was not the microwave off the bench that he has been in previous games.  The backcourt scoring that we have seen consistently disappeared against Maryland.

Duke’s concerns at center are diminishing, even though Maryland’s front line out rebounded Duke.  Jefferson took down 12 boards (5 offensive) in his 34 minutes, while scoring 7 (3-5 from the field) with a block and steal (0 turnovers and only 2 fouls).  As Bill points out, Marshall made the most of his 6 minutes (a hoop, 3 boards and a steal).  3 rebounds in 6 minutes is impressive.  Rodney was limited to 22 minutes because of his foul trouble, and scored 11 points on 10 shots with only a single rebound.  It was, of course, Jabari, who stepped into all voids leading Duke to the win.  He logged 39 minutes, scoring 23 points on 16 shots (4-10 inside the arc).  He led by getting to the free throw line and knocking them down.  He had 8 rebounds, 2 blocks, a steal and an assist (on the crucial 3 by Sulaimon as the game was winding down).  He was a force on the defensive boards and defense, yet committed only 1 foul.  He just gets better and better, and works to what his team needs him to do.  The integrity of leadership is fully on display in Jabari’s development.

The schedule this week is daunting, especially with UNC on Thursday night and Syracuse on Saturday.   Of course, this perfectly replicates the dictates of the NCAA tournament.  In order to advance, Duke will have to win two tough games in 3 days (except maybe the first round).  So, it should be a positive experience.

Duke 68 – Georgia Tech 51

In the first half, Duke was on fire at both ends of the court. The Devils forced Tech to start their offense way out near mid court, so they were discombobulated for most of those twenty minutes. On the other end, the Blue Devils hit 7-12 threes and cruised to a 43-27 lead. Then, as in the Maryland game, in the second half their offense went cold and stale and they only scored 25 points. Here is how bad it was: deduct Sulaimon’s 6-6 and  the rest of the team shot 4-14 from the line. Fortunately, Tech is no Maryland, because they only scored 25 points in the final twenty minutes. I would like to think the Duke defense had a lot to do with the lack of Tech scoring but we will find out for sure Thursday and Saturday.

Virtually, every D-1 team has virtuoso athletes who can jump, jam, and sometimes even shoot; however, playing defense and playing together as a team is whole other story. Tech seems to be one of those teams. Running a smooth, team oriented offense appears to be a foreign language. In any event, there was a point early on that I was concerned the Blue Devils would leave their best basketball in Atlanta. Not to worry. As against Maryland, the second half was no offensive clinic as the Blue Devils did not leave forty minutes of their best offensive basketball on the floor in either of the last two games. Hopefully, they are saving a full forty minutes for each of the next two games, because they are going to need it against Carolina and Syracuse.

Although Cook did not start, he seems to be settling  down—even playing lock down defense– and making a case for more minutes. Tyler Thornton, who started at the point, is playing the best basketball of his career and is the key to a resurgent defense. He was a disruptive force all over the court, doing things that do not show up in the stat sheet and that was a major reason for the quick start. And, oh yes, he was 2 for 2 from beyond the arc.

Jabari has become a monster on the boards. Tonight, he had 14 rebounds,  3 blocks, and 1 steal to go with 16 points. The most impressive part of his game is how on any given night, he adapts his roll to what this team needs, even if it is to the detriment of his scoring.

Other comments:

  •   Raycom ACC Network televised the game, so it was not available nationally. They apparently do not use high definition cameras, so it is like watching the game with Vaseline on the lens.
  •  I know Josh Hairston, who seems to commit about a foul a minute,  is a hardworking senior and a good teammate, but isn’t Ojeleye much more talented with three more years—if he doesn’t get discouraged and transfer?

Alan Adds:

It was unquestionably Duke’s best defensive performance of the year.  Suffocating is the appropriate adjective as Duke swarmed the passing lanes, disrupted the flow of the Yellow Jacket offense with traps and double teams that moved quickly and did not give up the drive.  Duke’s porous defense against Vermont and East Carolina seems so long ago.  I believe it is the commitment of Hood and Parker to defensive excellence that is at the heart of this team defense resurgence.  And Tyler Thornton.  In his 27 minutes, Thornton dished out 5 assists (against 0 turnovers — only 1 in his last 6 games; 21 assists in that span), grabbed 3 boards and made 2 steals, while guarding the perimeter with pure ferocity.  Coach K said that the perimeter defense was the best it had been all year.  Tech shot under 40% for the game and coughed it up 13 times.  And it wasn’t just the perimeter defense, Parker (32 minutes) and Jefferson (29 minutes) are so active in the interior that Duke was in control there as well.  Parker’s 3 blocks were intimidating.  Ga Tech’s top 3 scorers were held to a total of 8 points, and the whole Tech team scored only 51 and were limited to only 8 assists..  While Hood’s offense from inside the arc has diminished, he is now defending superbly.  The combination of Sulaimon (27 minutes), Thornton and Hood (34 minutes) have stabilized Duke’s perimeter.  Cook has been an inconsistent defender, but was excellent last night in his 20 minutes (2 assists).  Simply great defense.

Duke’s offense just hummed through the 43 point first half.  In the second half, Duke lost rhythm and basically conserved its large lead, outscoring Ga Tech by only 1 (25-24).  Hood drained 3 early 3s (for his 9 first half points); he had 14 for the game on 4-6 from downtown, but only 1-10 inside the arc without even getting to the free throw line.  Parker was a 6-12 beast on the interior.  He had no 3 point attempts — a far cry from his early season offense, and very effective.  He gives what his team needs.  Sulaimon had an efficient 11; Cook 9 (1-5 from 3, but 3-3 attacking the basket).  Dawkins hit 2 of his 3 pointers in his 10 minutes (2 assists and a board for a pretty impressive 10 minutes).  While Matt Jones failed to score in his 7 minutes (0-2 from the line), he was otherwise very efficient — 3 rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block.  Marshall didn’t make the stat sheet but was a presence for 8 minutes.  Hairston did commit 4 fouls in his five minutes, but also contributed an assist and a steal.

No one should be bored during the next two games.

Duke 66- North Carolina 74

Up 37-30 at the break, Duke only needed twenty more minutes of good basketball win this game. However, in the second half Carolina played as though they had consumed Red Bull at half time and Duke played as though they had taken tranquilizers, scoring  only 29 points – an anemic 11  in the last 14 1/2 minutes. Give the Tar Heel tenacity, defense, and energy all the credit. They hung in and hung in, dug in and dug in until they got even, then outplayed Duke in every aspect of the game. Getting outfought by any team—especially Carolina—is a difficult, atypical way for a Coach K team to lose.

The most disconcerting trait of this Duke team is their inability at times, whether it be Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, to play forty consecutive minutes  of solid basketball and decisively close out an opponent. On the road, you just cannot let a team and the crowd back in the game—especially an athletic team like UNC in Chapel Hill.

How did this happen? In the first half, Duke played very good defense, Hood, Cook, and Parker were hot, and Carolina couldn’t hit foul shots. In the second half, the roles reversed as Carolina played very good defense, throwing in an occasional 1-3-1 zone (Where was Dawkins?) that appeared to unsettle the Blue Devils as they settled for jump shots, most of which missed creating fast break opportunities. In addition, UNC relentlessly attacked the rim, getting Parker, Hood, Jefferson, Thornton, and Plumlee in foul trouble. And when the score was tied with four minutes to go, the Tar Heels had a go-to guy—Marcus Paige and Duke didn’t. End of story.

Duke’s ugly numbers were 27-63 from the field, 5-12 threes, 7-12 free throws and outrebounded 42-30 as UNC ended up 20-31 from the foul line.

Other comments:

Score the loss as another in a long list of cover jinxes for Sports Illustrated.

The cold fact is that right now Jabari Parker is just a below average college jump shooter. Lately, he is a 50% free throw shooter and when was the last time he hit a three? Teams are giving him jump shots and double teaming the drive.

For Duke to rebound and be a title contender, Quinn Cook has to play aggressively and well at both ends for major minutes. Duke is a different  team with him at the point and at his best with Tyler Thornton coming off the bench.

Marshall Plumlee had more minutes than usual and when he was on the floor, he changed the energy, complexion and physicality of the game.

Alan Adds:

I have to admit that before the game I was worried about the Sports Illustrated cover jinx.  But I pushed the jinx to the back of my mind as Duke played an excellent first half and looked very good for a significant portion of the early second half.  Then, inexplicably (or explained by the impressive Tar Heel defensive resurgence), the wheels came off.  It was eerily reminiscent of the pre-NC State game Duke team that held leads in games before withering down the stretch with inaccurate shooting and a porous defense that sent the other team to the foul line far more frequently than Duke went, while being destroyed on their own defensive backboard (see Arizona, Kansas, Vermont, East Carolina, Notre Dame and Clemson games).  The streak ended in the Virginia game, but not before Duke collapsed again down the stretch until Jefferson’s last second heroics (that could be designated as pretty lucky).  Very disappointing to see all the old weaknesses flare up in what is so far the most crucial game of the season.  UNC and Duke are now tied for third in the ACC with 4 losses; Pitt lurks right behind them with 5.

The clock struck midnight for Duke with 13:52 to go in the second half after Marshall made the first of his two free throws for a 52-43 lead.  He missed the second one.  For the next 7 minutes and 15 seconds — until the official TV time out with 6:37 to go — Duke played its worst basketball.  Quinn missed an open 3; Duke got 4 offensive rebounds on one sequence and got only 1 point (Parker’s second foul shot after missing the first); Hood missed 4 jumpers; Parker a jumper and a layup; Rasheed a jumper and Jefferson an open layup.  Duke also turned the ball over twice in that stretch (Parker and Sulaimon).  Yet after the time out, Quinn made a layup to keep Duke ahead by 4.  Quinn added another layup and a 3 pointer while Rodney finally got one to fall to maintain Duke’s 4 point lead with 5 minutes left.  Duke’s final frustrating stretch came in the next 3 minutes and 4 seconds, where Duke failed to score, giving up the lead and the game.  Quinn missed a 3; Hood missed; and with the game tied at 60, Quinn missed the front end of a 1 and 1.  When Jabari turned the ball over by committing an offensive foul with 1;56 to go, Paige sunk a terrific jumper for a 4 point Carolina lead, and Duke never got another stop.

Coach K played only 8 (neither Matt Jones, Hairston or Semi left the bench), and the team finished with 5 players with four fouls each: Thornton (limited to 20 ineffective minutes by foul trouble — only 1 missed shot from the floor, 0 assists and a turnover); Jefferson (limited to 23 ineffective minutes after picking up his third in the first half — 2 points and 3 boards); Marshall (limited to 16 scintillating minutes in which he was 1-2 from both the field and line, and nabbed 6 boards with a steal and a block);  Hood (16 points in 30 minutes, where he led Duke in the first half and was ineffective and on the bench for much of the second half); and Parker (33 frustrating minutes).  Hood mirrored Duke’s efficiency in both halves.  In the second half, he was 2-10 (1-5 from 3), without ever getting to the foul line.  In the opening stanza, he was “the star of stars, leading Duke with 11 points on 6 shots (1-1 from 3).  Parker, too, had an ineffective second half (game really).  He was 7-14 from the field (0-1 from 3 and 3-6 from the line for 17 points (tied with Cook as Duke high scorer), but in the second half, he took only 5 shots and scored only 7 points.  A telling stat is that Parker had an assist, a steal and 2 blocks for the game, all coming in the first half.  Sports Illustrated Jinx?

The Duke players who did not pick up 4 fouls were in the backcourt — Sulaimon, Cook and Dawkins.  It is hard to understand that when Duke was playing so badly in the second half, why Dawkins didn’t get much action (10 minutes in the game).  He failed to score in the first half (0-3 from behind the arc), but scored 5 on perfect shooting in the second half on 2 lovely drives and a foul shot to complete the 3 point play.  Rasheed had a very difficult game, playing a game high 35 minutes while scoring only 6 points without an assist (2 turnovers).  He was 2-10 from the field (0-4) from 3.  Neither he nor Cook could contain Paige at “winning time”.  Cook, coming off the bench, led Duke in the second half scoring 12 of Duke’s 29 second half points (17 for the game).  All of his assists were in the first half.  He appeared to me to tire, and thus was not as effective at “winning time” as he had been earlier (key turnover, missed layup and missed free throw).

Duke was pounded off the boards in both halves and could not defend the interior in the second half.  Even more tellingly, Duke had only 5 assists for the game; and, achingly, only 1 in the second half.  It was a bad loss.  Duke has 4 games left; 2 are against Syracuse and UNC.  Va Tech next Tuesday;  Wake in Winston before the rematch with UNC at Cameron.  A Season that remains on the brink.

Duke 66 –  Syracuse 60

In all six games Duke lost this year, they were in a position to win all of them with ten minutes to go. You can speculate as to the reasons: inexperience, poor defense, fatigue, choking, bad luck, foul trouble. Well, as usual, Coach K found a solution to the problem: start slow, play good defense, stay out of foul trouble, finish strong, get the close calls—and play in Cameron, where you have not lost a game this season.

Sixty nine year old Syracuse Coach Boeheim’s emotions usually appear to run the “I’ve seen and experienced it all” gamut from laconic to bored as evidenced by his excited response to joining the ACC: “Hey, big deal, we played  in  The Big East all those years”. Well, welcome to Cameron and Duke, Coach B. Tonight, he went absolutely ballistic in the last minute when a call went against his team, rushing almost to mid-court swearing and tearing off his jacket like he was running with the bulls in Pamplona. A double technical and ejection, the first  in his thirty-eight year career, costing his team what slim chance they had left to win. (Laura Keeley of the Raleigh News Observer tweets that if you wondered how many “That’s bulls***!” it takes for Boeheim to draw a technical foul, it’s six.) I guess Hall of Fame coaches get a few freebies.

Actually, Duke could have won more easily as Jabari Parker was a turnover machine in the first half and Rodney Hood (6-15) missed open shots as well as three free throws. Usually a very good free throw shooting team, Duke was  pathetic 13-25 from the line. So, a lot of points were left off the scoreboard.

It was Marshall Plumlee’s play that kept Duke in the game for the first twenty minutes. Unfortunately, leg cramps kept Marshall sidelined for most of the second half.  Coach K said he needs to get used to playing more minutes. (Note: After the Carolina game, I wrote, “When Marshall Plumlee was on the floor, he changed the energy, complexion and physicality of the game…and earlier “ using Alan’s Zoubek Metric, if MP3 played 35 minutes, he would lead the nation in rebounding.” Yes, more minutes, please!

Fresh from being benched for major minutes in the first half and unencumbered by foul trouble, Jabari Parker (19 pts, 10 rebs, 1 blk) was a major force down the stretch, scoring a soaring one hand, mid-air, rebound tomahawk dunk as well as muscling a defensive rebound away from two Orange men and drawing a foul.  Other than the defense, perhaps the key was taking Rodney Hood off the perimeter and into a high post at the foul line. Unlike the first game, the ‘Cuse players stayed on the perimeter players and the 6’9” multi-talented  Hood was able to easily face the basket, shoot a short jump shot, or drive to the rim. Even Dickie V noticed that this was a very effective way to attack the famous Syracuse 1-2-2 or 2-3 or amoeba whatever zone.

Rodney Hood, who didn’t get the foul call in the Blue Devils’ overtime loss at Syracuse three weeks ago, took the charge that helped seal this rematch. After the game, he said: “This is the reason you come to Duke. It’s the reason I left my home state to come here….It’s the basketball gods, I guess. That’s what coach always says. I guess I’ll start believing in them too.”

And then there is a Syracuse writer’s take: “It’s the team, sure. The Blue Devils, forever a collection of those selected rather than recruited…. they have been once more predictably splendid, with this 22-6 edition, fronted by the wondrous Jabari Parker (who double-doubled the Orange with game highs of 19 points and 10 rebounds).. But do not underestimate the power of this cramped den that was built before anybody knew where Pearl Harbor was and in which those Dookies (and maybe Jimmy Chitwood before them) play. Leg room is a fantasy, mayhem is a house rule and the noise that began to buckle the 74-year-old walls at 5 o’clock on Saturday, two hours before the jump, threatens each time the ball goes up to awaken the dead all along the Eno River.

Other comments:

  • In an overlooked irony, the indisputable missed call was C.J. Fair’s foot being of bounds when he started his drive that resulted in the controversial charge call with :10 seconds to go.
  • Rodney Hood was the participant in the two critical plays—one offensive, one defensive– of each of the games with Syracuse.
  • Duke has not lost consecutive regular season games since February 2009.
  • The lynchpin for Duke’s terrific defense tonight was shutting down the Syracuse guards. They shot 3-18. However, forwards CJ Fair and Jerami Grant combined for nearly half the team’s 60 points (29).  They shot 14-27.
  • Coach K is not the only person who can motivate Duke players. After the Carolina game, I wrote whether anyone could  remember when Jabari Parker last hit a three point shot. Tonight, he went 3-3. I’ll take an assist on those nine points.
  • Strangely, Andre Dawkins, a fifty per cent three point shooter who was a major contributor in the game at Syracuse, did not play his usual minutes.
  • Right after the Cameron Crazies chanted “We don’t miss you” at Michael Gbinije, who transferred from Duke after a forgettable freshman season, Parker drove and dunked over him and, to add insult to injury, MG was called for a foul.

Alan Adds:

Whether or not it was a charge is debatable; Hood said, “I thought I was there, but I was shocked at the call in that situation”  So, I guess, was Boeheim.  While he was rueful and charming in his post-game remarks, the fact that he took Syracuse out of a game that had not yet been decided by completely losing his composure (and his understanding of where he was and who he is) is somewhat defining.  Mostly, it defines how important this game was to Syracuse and Boeheim.  Coach K was very balanced in defending Boeheim’s (actually indefensible) actions, “We are old; we still care.”  He lauded Boeheim for his competitive spirit and camaraderie in coaching Team USA together in an effort to defuse the embarrassment that  Boeheim earned last night.  He was truly the game’s goat.  There is also another perspective worth considering.  This is college where coaches are not unlike professors in that they are teaching their student athletes — they are teaching not only how to win, but how to deal with the unanticipated events and actions that life throws at you.  Coaches and professors teach not only by what they say.  In that context, Boeheim’s meltdown was not only out of character (first ejection in 38 years), but also extremely disappointing for someone who has earned his exalted status.

The game was so fabulously intense.  As Coach K said in his press conference, scoring was very difficult, unlike the game at Syracuse.  Syracuse changed up its defense to stay with the shooters when the ball went into the middle of the zone.  Duke changed up its defense, by having the bigs show on the ball screen quicker and with more hedge.  Both teams defended with high energy and skill, infused by amazing desire.  It was Duke’s best defensive performance of the season.  Though Duke was badly beaten on the boards, especially in the first half (Syracuse had 13 offensive rebounds; Duke 13 defensive boards. Ouch!), giving the Orange 14 more shots from the field than Duke took, Duke’s defense held Syracuse to only one more field goal made.  Syracuse was 10-35 in the first half (with a lot of misses near the basket, but which were hotly contested).  Moreover, Duke started rebounding better, giving up only 3 offensive rebounds in the second half.  Duke defended the perimeter better than any other game this year.  Syracuse was 2-8 from 3 in the first half (Cooney 0-3 and Ennis 0-1; Duke transfer Gbinije was 2-4); but was able to hoist only 1 well defended 3 in the second half (Ennis; he missed).  Cook Rasheed and Thornton guarded the perimeter like junkyard guard dogs to stop the penetration.  Duke’s bigs defended the rim — especially Marshall in the first half (2 blocks; 3 for the game).  Jefferson nabbed 5 boards, though played only 21 minutes because of foul trouble (4 at game’s end).  He was 2-2 from the field for 5 points.

Coach K lauded Hood as the player of the game for his defense and his creativity on offense when he flashed into the middle of the zone.  Hood is the fulcrum of the two defining plays in each Syracuse game — in one he was denied the game winner, in the other he prevented the Syracuse game winner.  Coach K smiled as he acknowledged the wisdom-irony of he basketball gods.  “We should be 1-1 with them.”  Yet, it was a strange game for Hood, who logged a game high (for Duke) 37 minutes, and perhaps was most valuable on defense.  He scored 13 points on an inefficient16 shots (6-15; 1-6 from behind the arc; and 0-3 at the line; but 5-9 from inside the arc, usually in the middle of the zone was critical for Duke) to go with 0 turnovers and 7 boards (5 in the first half).   He was Duke’s most reliable ball handler.

Jabari, in Coach K’s words, “played young in the first half; but got older and wiser for the last 25 minutes.  Then he played like a man.” Parker played 31 minutes with a solid stat line of 19 points on only 8 shots (3-3 from behind the arc and 4-6 from the line), with 10 boards, a block and an assist.  However he did have 5 of Duke’s  11 turnovers (4 of Duke’s 7 in the first half). Critically, Parker committed only 1 foul while being Duke’s most imposing force on the interior.  He also launched higher percentage 3 point attempts.  Rather than stepping back to launch, as he has done during his 3 point shooting slump, he was stepping into these 3s inn rhythm.  In short, Jabari was simply superb after he started taking better care of the ball in the second half.

Coach K also singled out Marshall for improved play.  As Bill noted, Marshall logged 15 scintillating minutes in the first half, but was almost a non-factor in the second half because of cramps.  He went to the scorer’s table, but cramped as he was waiting to come in.  If Marshall can get in shape to play more minutes, and plays as he did in the first half against the Orange — and as he did in his 16 minutes against UNC on Thursday, — Duke will be a better team for the stretch run than at any time this season.  That’s a heady thought.  Marshall had 5 boards (4 in the first half); 3 blocks, an assist, and a steal.  However, the best stat may be his 19 energetic minutes without committing a single foul.  Tantalizing potential from here going forward.

Though Sulaimon scored only 8 points in 36 minutes on the court, he was superb in many key aspects of the game.  He was a prime ball handler, handing out 7 assists against only 2 turnovers.  He played lights out defense on Cooney (holding Syracuse’s best outside scorer to 4 points in his 31 minutes), while committing only 2 fouls.  He also grabbed 4 boards.  Thornton also scored 8 points in his 25 minutes on the court.  He is such a spirit on the floor and so efficient.  His 8 points came on 2-2 shooting (1-1 from 3; and 3-4 from the line); he handed out 3 assists and stole the ball 3 times.  Quinn was more checkered in his 23 minutes.  All the guards defended.  Quinn had a rough night from the field, though hit some critical shots at key times.  He scored 9 points (3-4 from the line, having been chosen to shoot the Boeheim technicals), but only 2-11 from the field (2-8 from 3), but they were the critical ones.

Dawkins played only 8 minutes (he has not played much more in the last few games) 0-2 on 2 forced 3s.  Coach K’s bench is shortening.  He played 7 + Dawkins.  Once again, neither Jones, Hairston or Semi left the bench.

The season’s end is looming.  There are many very good teams (including Duke and Syracuse) that could win it all, but no dominant team — no real favorite going in.  Conference tournaments will be exciting and telling.  Duke plays Va Tech on Tuesday, and finishes the next week (off from Feb 25 to March 5) at Wake and in Cameron against Carolina.  That should be a key game for ACC tournament seeding.

Duke 66 – Virginia Tech 48

Good thing Duke was playing Virginia Tech at home tonight, because after a fast start the ball stopped going into the normally friendly Cameron basket. After mostly shooting blanks from the perimeter and the game getting into single digits, Duke put their zone buster, Rodney Hood, in a high post at the foul line and the points came a lot easier. Getting the ball into the high post to a 6’9” athletic forward with a feathery touch like Rodney leaves the defenders with no good choices. Double team him and the wings are open for threes (like in the first Syracuse game). The wing defenders stay home and Hood has the choice of a short jump shot or driving to the basket (like Saturday’s game against Syracuse). Pick your poison. And Virginia Tech is no Syracuse.

The good news is that Duke played good defense. The lynchpin for that was Sulaimon’s defense on the Tech point guards. The rest of the game was pretty forgettable.

Let’s focus on the rest of the season. Unlike the last few years, Duke is injury free. Parker and Hood have played as advertised; Sulaimon has recovered to consistently play at another level from last year; Jefferson has improved dramatically and can score and pass as well as rebound; Thornton, as Alan points out, has proven invaluable in a multiplicity of ways; Dawkins has become a more complete player and has had important explosive moments; only Cook has regressed but Sully, Tyler, and Andre have pick up the slack. The potential wild card is Marshall Plumlee, who has  increasingly played like game changer. I am more and more convinced that when Marshall is on the floor, he changes the energy, complexion and physicality of the game…and  that using Alan’s Zoubek Metric, if MP3 played 35 minutes, he would lead the nation in rebounding.” Yes, more minutes, please!

More importantly, here are Coach K’s recent comments: “Marshall’s a different player than his brothers. He’s a center. Mason and Miles played both positions, but Marshall wants to be a center, a protector of the basket. He wants to be a center, and that’s what he is. He’s athletic, though – all three Plumlee brothers are excellent athletes. It’s taken Marshall some time to  recover from his foot injury and get back that athleticism.  We feel that he’s running and being the athlete he was before, about 17 months ago, right before he was injured at the start of last season. He is a good player, and he’s going to be a really good player. The recovery from not playing and injuries, some kids never recover and get to the level that they should be at. Marshall has worked real hard, and he’s getting there. He’ll have more and more of a prominent role on our team now that he’s reached that level.”

And looking forward: “You know, you’re always preparing for another team, so you don’t take as good a look at you. Part of it is we have to take a look at how we sub. I like our starting unit; they’ve developed a really good chemistry. We need to get Andre [Dawkins] shooting again. During this period Andre has not been a big factor and he should be a bigger factor. Quinn [Cook] should be a bigger factor.  Marshall [Plumlee] has emerged. How do we rotate? We’re not going to just sub five guys.  There’s got to be a rotation. Especially after these last two games, you’ve got the tournament play. Jabari and Rodney have to be out on the court.  What are you resting them for? So we have to get into figuring that out.  What’s good is that a lot of our guys are playing well, we’re getting better.  The main thing is we’re healthy.  We’ve got bumps and bruises. Amile Jefferson’s bumped up a lot, but overall, we can all play. We would have liked to say that during the last three years, that everyone’s ready to play, we have all of our guys. One of the things for this week is to get them healthier, get them in better shape, get them rest, lift, good stretching, good reps without pounding them with physicality. Just gave myself a pep-talk.”

Alan Adds:

It is a big “whew” to be on the other side of such an intense stretch of games.  My big takeaway from that difficult stretch is how impressively Duke’s defense has developed.  Duke has plugged the leaky perimeter that was providing easy access to the rim for Duke opponents.  Duke has been impressive both in protecting the rim (Len Elmore kept saying Va Tech was “blowing” layups, but if one looked closely, each missed layup was hotly contested — shots were altered and shooters distracted and intimidated) and its own defensive backboard.  I do not believe that Duke’s improved perimeter defense and the diminishing playing time for Quinn (11 minutes; 1-5 from the field for 3 points) and Dre (9 minutes; 1-5 from the field for 3 points) is a coincidence.  The biggest transformation of this team during the season has been the ascendancy of Rasheed at a new position for him, point guard.  Tyler Thornton has moved back into importance in the rotation as well as the starting lineup.  Rasheed has been a revelation as an on the ball defender.  He is long, with an amazing wing span, with both quickness and speed.  His ball handling has also been a revelation.  His shooting, while streaky, has been there in the clutch, and he is an excellent penetrator.  Critically, he has teamed with Thornton to plug the Duke defense.  In addition, the duo has brought a calm smoothness to the offense.  Against Va Tech, Duke had 19 assists on 24 field goals — 5 by Rasheed and 7 by Thornton (Hood 4 and Parker 3 had the remaining assists) with 0 turnovers between them.  Duke had only 9 turnovers, but none in the backcourt (Parker 3; Jefferson 3; Hood 2; and Marshall 1).  Thornton played 33 minutes (3rd most, behind Rasheed’s 36 and Hood’s 37) efficient minutes.  While his offensive line mirrors Quinn and Dre (1-5 from the field for 3 points), the rest of his game was superb.  In addition to 7 assists without a turnover and great team and individual defense, Tyler made 3 steals and pulled down 3 boards.  Rasheed scored 15 on 11 shots (4-9 from behind the arc and 3-4 from the line), while grabbing 4 boards and making 2 steals to go with his 5 assists and 0 turnovers.  The Duke backcourt has dramatically improved.  If Coach K can add Dre’s 3 point attack and Quinn’s all around game back into the mix, Duke should be in very good backcourt shape for the tournament run.

As always, the minutes played are illuminating.  The bench is shortening dramatically.  Marshall played more minutes (12) than either Cook or Dawkins.  Jones (4 minutes); Hairston (2 minutes); Semi (3 minutes) were reduced to cameos without any stat line entries (except for a great defensive play by Semi at garbage time, breaking up a lob attempt with sweet athleticism).  Parker is getting more rest from Coach K, playing only 27 minutes.  Only his 0-3 from behind the arc and his 3 turnovers were disappointing.  His 3-8 from inside the arc was less than usual, but the rest of his game was wonderful and should not go unappreciated because of his underwhelming shooting.  Parker grabbed 12 boards (5 offensive), had 3 blocks, 3 assists, and 3 steals and was 5-6 from the line while playing defense with heart.  He and Hood are everything that was hoped for in the pre-season.  Hood, of course, was the offensive leader with 21 points on 17 shots (3-7 from behind the arc; though he did not get to the foul line).  Hood added 2 boards, 4 assists, a steal and a block to make an impressive floor game.  As against Syracuse, his role on offense in the middle against the zone proved pivotal.  Jefferson played 26 minutes and was 3-3 from the floor with 8 rebounds (4 on offense), but committed 3 fouls and had 3 turnovers.  Marshall made yet another huge impression in his 12 minutes — 4 points on a post move and an offensive rebound; to go with 6 rebounds (3 offensive) and a block.  Think about 6 rebounds in 12 minutes!  His potential flowering is the stuff that dreams are made of for the post-season.

Duke’s intensity ebbed and flowed.  With 9:49 left in the first half, Duke led by 20 and had played its most intense pressing defense of the season.  For the next almost 12 minutes (until 1 minute and 53 seconds of the second half had elapsed), Va Tech outscored Duke by 13 points.  Duke’s intensity simply vanished.  It wasn’t until Rasheed hit 2 free throws with 13:10 left in the game that Duke re-established a double digit lead, and then slowly pulled away from the overmatched Hokies.  The Devils get a nice week long break before traveling to Wake on 3-5 and then seeking revenge and the 3rd seed in the ACC tournament against the Washed Out Blues (as Bill likes to call UNC) on senior night.  The excitement is building.

Duke 72- Wake Forest 82

At the beginning of the season I wrote that Duke was again a contender. To play a game like this at the end of the regular season, proved me wrong. This team is  still too inconsistent to make a sustained run in  the NCAA Tournament. Tonight, they shot poorly, were out hustled, got in foul trouble,  even played dumb, and, once again, blew a second half lead. When a good team needs a basket, they run their offense through their best players– for Duke that would be Parker and Hood. When they need a stop, they play lock down defense. When there is a loose ball, they get it. When the game is on the line, they raise the level of their game. The Blue Devils did none of that tonight.

This loss at such a critical juncture of the season is inexcusable and demonstrates that this is a talented but flawed team. End of story.

Of more concern than the game is that Coach K suffered from dizzy spells and light headedness throughout the game and did not do his press conference. He returned to Durham with the team but I am sure he went to the Duke Hospital to be checked out.

A friend of Alan’s sent this which says it as well or better than I can:  “ Before I get your detailed analysis, I want to give you mine. Duke cannot win consistently relying on the 3 point shot. The only inside scorer they have is Parker–Plumlee lacks the talent and experience to make a difference. They also lack an adequate defense against good inside play as borne out in the closing minutes of the Wake game when they blew a 7 point lead. Finally, if the games are called closely by the refs in the Tournament, Duke’s aggressive defensive play will put them in foul trouble.

While virtually all the top teams have flaws, the likes of Virginia, Florida, Michigan and even Wichita State have fewer than Duke. In short the way Duke lost to Wake–not exactly a powerhouse–exposed Duke’s vulnerability.”

Alan Adds:

It is not an accident that last Saturday almost all of the teams in the top 10 lost (leaving Duke at #4 and UVA at #5 in Monday’s poll).  Perhaps Duke succumbed to the same virus as other top 10 teams, but Duke’s performance was more than merely disappointing; it was genuinely awful (See Bill’s analysis above).  However, it would not be hard to put a good spin on the loss by pointing to other devastating Duke near end-of-regular-season losses followed by tournament success in past years. (Yes, but those teams had outstanding senior leadership).  It is hard to figure out exactly what this loss means to Duke’s post season chances.  But, of course, we will try.  Wake was a classic “trap” game, where everything went wrong for Duke.  It was senior night at Wake, who had nothing to salvage from a dismal season — except beating the #4 team in the country on senior night.  Duke was (in my opinion, had to be) looking ahead to the crucial UNC game.  Whether Duke won or lost, it would be in almost the same situation with its post season seeding completely dependent on the outcome of the UNC game.  If Duke beats UNC, the 3rd seed will be secure and UNC will be # 4.  If UNC wins, it will be 3 and could be 2 if Syracuse loses to Fla State on Sunday (Duke could have had # 2 within its grasp if the Orange are again upset).  But basically, this was a meaningless game for Duke, which is exactly how it looked  Duke perceived the game.

Duke did not play well through the entire game, but still had a 7 point lead with 5:44 to go (66-59 after Parker’s slam) when the wheels came off — just as they did against UNC in the final 12 minutes in the first game, against Clemson; and against Notre Dame.  Duke’s defense was awful, and the Devils — once again — were in desperate foul trouble that impacted the end of the game (see Syracuse loss).  The last 5:44 were a Devilish nightmare:  During that span, Duke’s 10 possessions went like this: turnover (Parker), turnover (Jefferson), missed 3 (Rasheed Sulaimon), turnover (Sulaimon), missed lay-up (Quinn Cook), missed 3 (Tyler Thornton), missed 3 (Cook), turnover (Sulaimon), missed 3 (Sulaimon), missed 3 (Andre Dawkins).  By the time Sulaimon broke Wake’s run and hit two free throws with 46 seconds left, Duke was down 76-68.

“Dang thing went south,” said Hood, who struggled to find his shot against the Wake Forest zone, shooting 6 of 14 for 16 points. “I don’t think we played together down the stretch. Once shots didn’t fall and they started scoring, we tried to rush to score rather than being patient.”  Interestingly, Hood also commented that Duke’s practices leading up to the Wake game were bad.  There are some telling box score statistics: Duke had 15 turnovers on offense and committed 27 fouls (mostly on defense).  Wake made more free throws (25 of 37) than Duke attempted (18, making 12).  Tellingly, Duke was 6-27 from downtown, to continue the 3 point shooting slump of the last few games.  This should not have been fatigue after a week off.

Duke had trouble everywhere.  In the backcourt, Cook, again coming off the bench, played 26 unspectacular minutes with 8 points 3-8 from the field (2-5 from behind the arc), but had 4 turnovers and did not help Duke’s porous perimeter.  A couple of the turnovers were genuinely painful.  Rasheed played 30 minutes with 4 turnovers and 2-8 from behind the arc.  He scored 14 and had 4 assists, but was not his usually defensively efficient self.  Thornton logged the most backcourt minutes (32) but failed to score, while adding 3 boards and 3 assists (2 turnovers).  Dawkins scored 7 in only 11minutes (1-4 from behind the arc), but picked up 3 fouls in his short stint.  Still, his energy and scoring from inside the arc make me echo Bill’s curiosity as to why Dre isn’t seeing more court time.  Matt Jones played 6 minutes because of the 3 fouls on Rasheed, but failed to score (0-2 from the free throw line).

Parker played his heart out and with fire and emotion.  He scored 19 on 11 shots (0-1 from 3land and 5-7 from the line) to go with his 10 rebounds for another double double.  Parker was limited to 30 minutes because of foul trouble.  Duke’s foul trouble was profound.  At game’s end: Hood had fouled out, Parker and Marshal had 4, Rasheed Thornton Dre and Amile (in only 15 minutes) committed 3 each.   Such conspicuous fouling speaks volumes about the shoddy defense that Duke played last night.

Marshal saw more court time than Jefferson (17 minutes to Amile’s 15).  Marshal had 6 points to 2 for Jefferson.  Marshal had 7 boards; 3 for Amile.  Marshal had 2 blocks to Jefferson’s 1.  Neither provided the interior defense or rim protection that would have aided Duke.

But none of the above is potentially the worst news.  Coach K suffered dizzy spells and light headedness throughout the game.  He received treatment and did not attend the post game press conference.  Wojo, who did, said it was nothing serious.  We’ll see.  There is nothing about the Wake game that is as important for Duke as Coach K’s health.

Duke 93 – North Carolina 81 

Three days after  playing the most disappointing game of the season against Wake Forest, Duke played their best game of the season tonight against North Carolina.   Jabari Parker (30 pts. 11 rebs.) played like the Player of the Year and Rodney Hood (24 pts.) played like a lottery pick as they scored 54 of Duke’s 93 points. However, the amazing supporting statistic  was the 34-20 rebounding margin backed up by  27-31 free throws—a team effort. And Duke needed all of this because Carolina, although handicapped by McAdoo’s foul troubles, never gave up as Marcus Paige almost singlehandedly kept the Tar Heels not only from being blown out but also within striking distance.

Hopefully, this was a coming of age game for Parker and he has transitioned from a very talented teenager to a dominating, alpha man. Until tonight I felt he thought of himself as first among equals and was reluctant to be a leader of the pack. However, in addition to asserting himself and playing his best game of the year, Jabari also assumed an on-the-floor leadership role by rallying his teammates when a play or a call went against them.

Coach K  started three seniors and substituted liberally in the first half. The strategy appears to have been  to wear Carolina down and keep Parker and Hood out of serious foul trouble, an ongoing, troubling issue that had contributed to many of the Blue Devil second half collapses. This time it was McAdoo who had foul trouble and went to the bench after he committed an inexplicable fourth foul in the first minute of the second half. This development handicapped the Tar Heels on both ends of the floor as Parker and Hood teamed as the go-to guys to take full advantage by driving to the basket and  giving the Blue Devils many second half foul shooting opportunities, which they did not squander.

This season the Blue Devils were 65th in the nation in defensive efficiency, and that number likely won’t get any better after the Tar Heels shot 58 percent from the floor. In so many ways, the game was closer than the final 12 point margin…. and yet in so many ways it wasn’t. The Tar Heels shot nearly 60 percent yet lost by double-digits. So, the cold, hard fact is that Duke needed sensational performances from their stars, wonderful free throw shooting, a monster rebounding effort from Jefferson, and blow-the-roof off support from the Cameron Crazies to hold  off a Carolina team with a player they couldn’t defend to win a game that, despite the margin, perhaps could have gone the other way if not for an offensive goal tending call on a Paige three in the last minutes. The makeup of this team is such that if the Blue Devils go cold or face a team with elite size, will they have the answers? That is why Duke could go Final Four deep in the NCAA Tournament– or be bounced in the first weekend. Stay tuned, get a beer,  and buckle your seat belt for a one and done roller coaster ride.

Some interesting comments and sightings:

  • “No more freshman,” Parker said. “I don’t like being in that category any more. My team needs me to be more than just an 18-year-old. They need someone with experience. It’s time to grow up.”
  • “This is the first game where the two of them were sensational together,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “They’ve both been good together, but this is the first time they’ve been sensational together.”
  • North Carolina coach Roy Williams said: “Listening to Mike’s comments after the first game, he said they didn’t have ‘it’ and I agree with him, it’s hard to say what ‘it’ is.  But whatever the hell ‘it’ is, Jabari found it.”
  • “I love Duke,” Parker also said. “And I’m very grateful for where I’m at in my life right now. I have a lot to be thankful for. I’ve been very blessed.”
  • In the house: Behind the Duke bench Dallas coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo, as well as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, all sporting  Duke shirts, plus former Oklahoma and Cowboys coach Barry Switzer.
  • My All-ACC team: Jabari Parker- Player of the Year. He is the No. 2 most efficient offensive player in the country (according to Pomeroy); playing out of position, he leads the league in rebounding. Where would Duke be without him? Runner-up: Marcus Paige- Where would UNC be without him and his second half heroics? C.J. Fair- crucial to Syracuse’s season; T.J. Warren- ACC leading scorer but not POY because where is State with him? K.J. McDaniel, the most exciting player in the league and, inch for inch, the best all round player. Coach of the Year: Virginia’s Tony Bennett. Runner-up: UNC’s Roy Williams.

Alan Adds:

Life in Dukeland is just a tad cheerier this morning than it was last Thursday morning after Wednesday night’s Wake fiasco.  It was a fabulous senior night against UNC, a glorious continuation of Duke’s streak in Cameron, payback for the loss in Chapel Hill, and a rebound in the outlook for the post-season.  This was the Jabari & Rodney show with Jabari playing 35 minutes and scoring 30 points (10 for 17;  2-4 from behind the arc and 8-9 from the stripe) with 11 boards.  Hood played 33 minutes and scored his 24 points on only 13 shots (8-13; 3-7 from behind the arc — making him 5-6 from the floor inside the arc — and 5-5 from the line).  Jefferson and Cook each played 27 valuable minutes with Jefferson really helping Duke on the boards with 8, while Cook added 11 points  and 6 assists.  Cook was 6-6 from the free throw line.    Thornton, Dawkins and Sulaimon played 20 minutes a piece, with Thornton fouling out in his 20 minutes without scoring.  Dawkins continues to struggle from behind the arc (1-5) but otherwise contributed with 2-3 from the floor and 1-1 from the line for 8 points (but 3 turnovers and 0 assists).  Sulaimon played well in his 20 minutes going 2-3 from the field (1-2 from 3 and 5-6 from the line) for 10 points.   Parker, Hood Sulaimon and Cook were a combined 24-26 from the line, which is one major factor in Duke’s win.  Hairston logged 10 senior minutes, while Marshal (5 minutes with a board) and Matt Jones (3 minutes) made cameos.  However, in spite of the rewarding effort against UNC, post-season success will turn upon whether the defense can improve.  Carolina shot virtually 60% from the field and 42% from 3land.  Defense will tell the post-season tale for this season, which still seems on the brink to me.

Next up is the ACC tournament, which, in a practical way, will determine how we view Duke’s season because of the inconsistency in the regular season, where 3rd place finishes are hardly prized.  The same is true for UNC and Syracuse.  UVA has had a great season unless they lose on Friday to the 8-9 seed, and flame out in the NCAA.  Duke plays Friday against the # 6 seed (if form holds for the Wednesday and Thursday games), which will be Clemson if Syracuse beats Florida State today; or Florida State, if Syracuse loses again.  If form holds on Friday (Alan, are you daft; this is the ACC tournament), the top four seeds will be in the semifinals, with UVA facing UNC and Duke playing Syracuse.  At the moment, Duke is 3-2 against the top seeds — 1-1 with ‘Cuse; 1-1 with UNC and 1-0 against V-UVA.  UNC is 1-3 — 1-1 with Duke and 0-1 with UVA and Syracuse.  UVA is 2-1 — 1-0 against Syracuse and UNC (both when they were at their weakest point in the season) and 0-1 against Duke.  Syracuse is 2-2 — 1-1 with Duke; 0-1 against UVA and 1-0 v UNC.   The regular season means far less now because of the unbalanced schedule.  In that unbalanced schedule, each team plays four ACC rivals twice and the other ten teams once.  UVA’s four teams played twice were: Fla State, Virginia Tech, Maryland and Notre Dame. Syracuse played Duke, Pitt, Miami and BC twice.  UNC played Duke, NC State, Notre Dame and Wake.  Duke played Syracuse, UNC, Georgia Tech and Wake.  Only Duke played two of the top 4 teams twice.  Key today is the return of Grant to the Syracuse lineup.  Without him, Syracuse was a thin team that could not compete with UVA last Sunday.  With him, Syracuse is again formidable and standing in Duke’s path.  The tournament will define seasons this year.

In any event, since a deep run by Duke in the NCAA is very questionable based on recent inconsistency, an ACC tournament championship would enshrine this campaign as a successful season regardless of what happens in The Big Dance.  This will be a critical and fascinating ACC tournament.

 

Clemson in the Quarterfinals  Duke 63 – Clemson 62

For Duke fans, the only good thing about the quarterfinal game against Clemson is that Duke won (63-62).  Duke’s play was disappointing and showed the flaws that have bugged them all season long, but 1 point does make

a huge difference.   The Duke flaws that surfaced again were: 1) shoddy defense when holding a substantial lead going into the last 10 minutes of games (see Notre Dame, Clemson in Littlejohn, Vermont, Virginia, UNC, Wake Forest, Arizona and Kansas); and 2) failing to hold the lead or put the game away (even though in two of the games on the list, Duke managed to scrape out a win — as the Devils did against Clemson on Friday).  Duke led by 13 with 12 minutes to go and by double digits — off and on— from there until with 5 minutes and 6 seconds to go in the game, Duke was up 56-47.  Clemson had 8 possessions in the last 5 minutes and scored on every single one of them except the last one (3.8 seconds to go and down one).  The only time Clemson scored only a single point was one miss was by McDaniels from the free throw line (he missed the second of a 1 and 1, keeping Clemson from tying).  In the last 10 minutes of the game, Clemson scored 28 points (that would average out to 112 ppg).  In the second half, Clemson was 14-22 from the field; 11-14 from inside the arc.  That is genuinely terrible defense.  Coach K said he thought his team got tired.

Although Sulaimon did not start (neither did Cook; the starting backcourt was Thornton and Dawkins, both seniors), he played starter’s minutes (28 as compared to Dawkins playing just 7 minutes and Cook only 12).  Thornton also played 28 minutes, but the backcourt never looked comfortable or in sync — especially on defense in the last 12 minutes of the game.   Thornton made the defensive play of the game when he stripped Hall, who was driving for the winning layup with less than 2 seconds left.  He was 1-1 from the floor (a 3) to go along with 2 boards, 3 assists and 2 steals.  You can tell that Coach K trusts him and has him on the floor at crunch time.  Sulaimon took ownership of this win at crunch time (yelling at Parker in a clutch situation to just run the play that was called).  Rasheed was the Duke point guard in the clutch.  He scored 14 on 11 shots (1-4 from behind the arc and 3-4 from the line).  He was no better as a defender than the others in the Duke backcourt.  Duke’s defense was sufficiently pitiful for Coach K to play Matt Jones down the stretch on defense (to no particular avail either).  Coach K thinks his best defensive backcourt is Thornton, Rasheed and Jones.  Both Cook and Dawkins are spending more time on the bench because of their lack of defensive ability.  Jones played 11 minutes without scoring, while Dawkins was 0-1 (a 3 attempt) in his scoreless 7 minutes.  Cook had 5 points in his 12 minutes (2-3 from the field 1-2 from 3; no foul shots) to go with 2 assists and a steal.  It is his defense that is relegating him to the bench.  Nothing about this game gives confidence that the Duke backcourt is tournament worthy.

Duke’s front court stepped up impressively.  Duke out rebounded Clemson 34-25 and actually took 12 more shots than Clemson (depressingly each team made 22 field goals).  While Duke shot poorly all game (40%), Hood (35 minutes), Parker and Jefferson (34 minutes each) powered Duke.  Parker did not have his “ ” game going, but scored 18 points on 17 shots (6-17; 6-6 from the free throw line), but had only 3 boards.  Jefferson (3-6 for 6 points; 0 attempts from the line) was the dominant Duke rebounder with 13 (6 offensive).  It was, of course, Hood who made the big play at the end to win, and who also drew the assignment of guarding KJ McDaniel.  Hood scored 17 on 13 shots (0-3 from 3land), but critically was 7-8 from the line including the game tying free throw and then game winning free throw with 3.8 seconds left.  Duke had led for the entire game until Hall scored a go-ahead basket for Clemson with 7.4 seconds left.  Hood made another clutch drive to the hoop where he was fouled (no doubt about it).  Survive and Advance time is here.

NC State in the Semi-finals; Duke 76 – NC State 68

Duke’s defense was schizophrenic (a terrible first half and a brilliant second half), but the Devils returned to offensive efficiency throughout the game.  Duke was every bit as terrible on defense as the Devils had been against Clemson in the first half.  State was 15-21 inside the arc (1-3 from 3land) and 5-6 from the line, and Duke committed 9 fouls (to State’s 5).  Quinn Cook had a nice offensive first half (3-3 including 2-2 from downtown and 2 assists), but he could not contain Cat Barber, the backup State point guard, who also scored 8.  Offensively Duke was efficient and smooth.  NC State shot 68% in the first half and trailed by a point.

Coach K dramatically shortened up the rotation, playing essentially only 6 players.  Matt Jones had a 4 minute cameo — put in to try his hand at guarding TJ Warren who was torching Hood, but had no success.  Plumlee played only 2 minutes in the first half (with a board) and Hairston played 6 minutes with a hoop, an assist and 2 fouls.  Otherwise it was the starters (Rasheed and Tyler in the backcourt) with Quinn coming off the bench to have a superb second half.  Hood and Parker logged 37 minutes each, while Rasheed logged 36 minutes.  Amile played 31 efficient minutes going 3-3 from the field and pulling down 7 boards, handing out 2 assists and getting 2 steals (only committed 1 foul).  Tyler played 25 minutes and was his usual dynamic self in the hustle department.  Coach K pointed to his great hustle play in getting a steal and outlet to Jabari for the game-changing thunderous dunk.  Two great hustle plays  by Parker “energized our defense” said Coach K.  Cook played well and seemed to have rediscovered his shot in destroying State’s attempt to zone Duke.  He had 14 points on 5 shots (3-4 from behind the arc and 3-4 from the line) to go with 3 assists, 3 rebounds, while committing just 1 turnover and 1 foul.  Welcome back, Quinn.  When he and Rasheed contribute as they did, Duke is efficient offensively. (Four double digit scorers)  Rasheed had 16 points on 12 shots (1-3 from behind the arc and an inexplicable 1-6 from the line).  He was dynamic and got it going with his mid-range and driving game (6-9; many really clutch; he shredded the State defense).

Jabari and Rodney were simply superb.  Jabari made huge plays around the basket that were pivotal.  He scored 20 (17th time this season) on 15 shots (0-1 from 3 and 4-7 from the line) with 8 boards.  Hood drew the difficult assignment of guarding the explosive TJ Warren.  He scored 14 on 10 shots (2-6 from behind the arc and 4-6 from the line) to go with 3 assists , 2 rebounds and a block with only a single turnover.  But Duke’s turnaround on defense in the second half was attributable in large measure to the changes Hood suggested in defending Warren.  Coach K said he had “over coached” and had Hood start out guarding Warren on the high side (contesting Warren out high), which resulted in Warren scoring a few easy back door baskets, due in part to an absence of weak side help.  Hood said, “ he beat me a little bit.”  Hood asked Coach K to go back to defending Warren “normally”.  Hood adjusted and the team coalesced defensively.  Hood explained, “we shrunk the floor and got multiple people to help.”  He also said the team made “ subtle adjustments and communicated much better.  The result was a superb defensive effort that limited State to 35% in the second half, and allowed Duke to pull away.  It might have even been a rout if Duke had made some foul shots.  Duke was 12-23 for the game, but really horrible down the stretch.  With Duke leading by 11 with 5:39 to go and Rasheed going to the line for 3, Duke went 5-16 from there to the end (not counting Hood’s last made free throws with 6 seconds left).  In a tighter game, such shooting would have been fatal.

Duke 63– Virginia 72

When I was speaking to the local Duke Club several years ago , I was asked what ACC teams besides Duke did I like to watch?  I said only Carolina, paused, then added Virginia because I was impressed by the job new Coach Tony Bennett was doing with the marginal talent he had inherited, that he was a good fit for a school like UVA,  and that, if he could get quality recruits, Virginia could become a formidable program. Today, I wish I had been wrong because Virginia outplayed Duke in every phase of the game to win the ACC Tournament as an emphatic exclamation point to their the regular season title—a difficult achievement in a deep and talented league.

Here is an interesting stat that tells the story of the game: UVA  shot  27 more free throws than Duke but only hit 66%, so they left a lot of points off the scoreboard. While Jabari Parker made many sensational plays, he only scored 23 points on 24 shots and taking over long stretches of the game resulted in the lack of other player involvement and unbalanced scoring.  Only Hood (13)  and Jefferson (11) also scored in double figures. When Parker is double and triple teamed down low, someone is open. (He only had one assist.)  Too many times he was stripped or had his shot blocked. Time and maturity will correct that  as he cultivates his exceptional talents.

It occurs to me that Duke had more McDonalds All- Americans on their bench than UVA had on the floor and that Virginia is more than the sum of their parts while Duke is this year is too often less than the sum of their parts. The executive summary is that Virginia did what Duke  usually does–beat a more talented team. They out Duked Duke.

The blunt truth is that considering the recent Wake, Clemson and UVA games, it is awfully late in the season for a team to develop the proper chemistry and balance to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament—especially being assigned to the most difficult region. All year long, this team was unbeatable at home but all too vulnerable on the road.

Some observations:

  • Krzyzewski, who received his first technical foul of the year, was as visibly upset, even irate, about the officiating. His postgame comments included subtle jabs about how the game was called. For instance, he noted that Jabari Parker took 24 shots and only three free throws.
  • Amile Jefferson has improved more than any other Blue Devil.
  • Rodney Hood appeared fatigued as he left several makeable short shots woefully short.
  • Andre Dawkins, who has been in a slump, scored 9 points in 7 minutes.
  • Sulaimon had an uncharacteristically frustrating, subpar game.
  • Alan and I agree that watching Duke lose was bad enough but being forced to listen to Dickie V pointless chatter is an 8th Amendment violation (cruel and unusual punishment).

Alan Adds a view of the entire tournament:

The Duke defense as a whole and the backcourt specifically was really found wanting.  The defense played one good half (2nd half against an obviously gassed Wolfpack) and the backcourt played only one solid offensive game (also against said Wolfpack).  Duke played with efficiency in the semi-finals, and with passion in the finals.  Wednesday night’s play in game between Iowa and Tennessee might be worth watching since the winner plays UMass, and the winner of that game plays Duke (absent another first round meltdown against Mercer).

Duke 71– Mercer 78

A  UNC friend, who really loves and knows  basketball, emailed me Thursday: “Better watch out for Mercer…  tougher draw than most would think.”

The better team won. This game reminded me of the Virginia game because they both exposed the flaws that keep this Duke team from being a as good as many people thought they would be—poor defense and difficulty in closing out an opponent. The only possible good news is that if Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood think they are ready for the NBA, they better stop reading their press clippings, talking to their friends,  and watch tape of both games.

Those of us who follow Duke Basketball—that’s almost sixty years for me—are spoiled in that we have experienced more enjoyment over a longer period than almost any college basketball fan. Loses like the last two are tough but the wins far exceed the disappointing loses. Win or lose, I have seldom not been proud of our players effort. The great thing about sports is that there is always another game on another day. Reload. Next play!

Some observations:

  • Unlike the Austin Rivers team two years ago, I do not think chemistry among the players was the problem. For all his publicity, by all accounts Jabari Parker is a better person than he is a player—and he is a wonderfully talented basketball player. All the players are solid people as well as  talented. However, they are not especially well matched as teammates. Because of the lack of an experienced big center, Parker and Jefferson were forced to play out of position. To their credit, they never complained.
  • I talked to a former NBA scout, who gave this assessment: Duke’s offense is inconsistent because they do not have  a dependable point guard who can consistently penetrate…Jabari’s best position is not in the post. The defense is often awful and cries out for switching at the very least from time to time to a zone like Dean Smith use to do and playing Plumlee more. As talented a Parker is, he is just an average jump shooter and fails to quickly pass out of double teams. Hood has a soft touch with exceptional range but is only an average athlete who plays soft. Parker, on the other hand, has a lot of fire in his belly and plays like a man. Both of them would do their long term development a favor by staying another year and working on their weaknesses while playing their natural positions with the complementary players coming in next year.

Alan Adds:

Any analysis of Duke’s 2013-14 season starts and ends with Duke’s defense.  In September, there were high expectations that with the athletes on Duke’s roster, Duke’s defense would be the centerpiece of the team’s achievement.  Coach K analogized his roster to the 2012 Olympic roster (not in terms of talent, he was quick to say, but in terms of being without a true center but with superb athletes), and planned to play the same type of pressing, trapping defense, where turnovers and steals would offset a rebounding disadvantage.  From the beginning, this roster was unable to play a pressing defense without being easily penetrated.  Back in November, after the East Carolina game (Pre-Season NIT regionals), I wrote about Doris Burke’s insight as an announcer, ” She is also savvy about Duke’s defensive potential, and how far the team was from reaching it against the Pirates.”  The defense faltered spectacularly against Vermont in the next game.  I have gone back to read some of our earlier DBP pieces describing the games, and the theme has been consistent.  After Duke abandoned the pressing defense in favor of an aggressive (over playing) man to man, the weaknesses were diminished but still apparent.   Opponents shot an extremely high percentage inside the arc and in the lane.  Duke could not stop penetration and the help was either late or left the weak side open for easy looks and put backs because of faulty rotation.  The inability to stop penetration led to excessive fouling, which gave opponents both bonus and double bonus points, while creating foul trouble for key players.  This then snowballed into the ancillary need to then defend cautiously to avoid fouling out.  Not shockingly, these weaknesses frequently appeared to excess in the last minutes of the second half.  Whether it was mounting foul trouble or fatigue, Duke led almost every game that was ultimately lost with somewhere between 11 and 3 minutes to go.  While the defensive rebounding improved, and Jefferson — indeed Duke’s entire interior defense — improved from poor to adequate (but, no better than adequate), the new rules — both hand check and charge-block — plus the lack of rim protectors doomed Duke to mediocrity or worse on that end of the court.  This was so not a typical Coach K team on the defensive end.  Duke virtually always makes more foul shots than the other team attempts.  The reverse was frequently true this year in critical games.  Coach K has been quoted as saying the problem is the team’s youth and a lack of communication.  Maybe so, but this is a team with too many amazing athletes not to have found a defensive identity by tournament time.  But for one of the few times in an amazing Hall of Fame career, Coach K could not push the magic button to create an effective defense.

Every weakness of this year’s team was on display.  Duke up 3 and 3:10 to go, Mercer scored on every one of its 5 possessions (one was an “and one”; on a different possession Mercer was only 1-2 from the line) until there were 30 seconds left and the game was effectively over.   Mercer made 10 more free throws than Duke shot (23-28 as opposed to 12-13) and Duke’s pressure defense could only force 8 turnovers for the entire game.   With 4:50 to go in the game, Duke led 63-58.  Mercer failed to score on only one of its next possessions in the next 4 minutes.  Coursey hit a jumper before Mercer failed to score when Hall missed.  After the TV time out with 3:10 to go, Mercer scored on 6 straight possessions (2 of them 3 points — one from behind the arc and one the traditional way) until a turnover with 24 seconds to go.  By then Duke’s season was moribund.  In that almost 3 minute span, Mercer was 6-7 from the line (then after a miss; another 5-6).  To finish the depressing defensive bill, Mercer was 20-32 on field goal attempts inside the arc and 5-13 from behind it (overall field goal percentage of 56 %; woeful!).  Mercer was quite simply the much better team when it counted.   Not a typical Coach K team down the stretch of games.

Offensively, the inconsistent backcourt carried Duke from behind the arc.  Quinn Cook had perhaps his finest shooting game ever, scoring 23 points on 11 shots (7-10 from behind the arc) to go with 4 boards, 4 assists and 2 steals in 35 minutes (and he did not start).  Rasheed played 36 minutes and produced 20 points on 15 shots (5-12 from behind the arc).  Thornton played 23 minutes in his last Duke game and scored 6 (a 3 and 3 foul shots when he was fouled shooting a 3).  Matt Jones played 2 scoreless minutes and Dre, in his last Duke game, played 7 minutes and was 0-5 from behind the arc, failing to score.   Duke’s front court, which carried the team in the ACC tournament had a very subpar outing.  Rodney Hood had perhaps his worst game of the season.  He fouled out in 35 minutes, scoring 6 points (2-5 from behind the arc and 2-10 overall) without getting to the foul line.  He did have 6 boards, 5 assists against 3 turnovers.  It would be a bad last game for Hood.  Jabari struggled mightily.  He was tagged with 4 fouls in 28 minutes, scoring 14 points (mostly from the free throw line — 6-7).  He was 4-14 from the field (0-3 from 3land) with 7 boards.  It would be a bad last game for Parker.  Jefferson, Hairston and Plumlee collectively scored 2 points.  The deuce belonged to Jefferson, who in 27 minutes snagged 11 boards (6 offensive), had 2 assists, a steal and a block to go with his 1-4 from the field.  Hairston in 4 minutes and Plumlee in 2 failed to score or otherwise affect the game.  While Duke stayed in the game with 3 point shooting (15-37), the offense from inside the arc was again woeful (7-25, getting to the foul line for only 13 attempts).

It was a disappointing end to an enigmatic season.  But we should not forget the accomplishments of the season: undefeated at home, with scintillating wins over Michigan, Syracuse Virginia and UNC; a Madison Square Garden win against UCLA; gaining the finals of the ACC Tournament (helped that NC State beat Syracuse).   Duke’s losses in consecutive games — in the ACC finals to Virginia and yesterday to Mercer in the NCAA tournament — was the only time this year that Duke lost 2 in a row.   The fact is that for most schools, this would be a highlight season.  For Duke it is fair to characterize it as disappointing and enigmatic.

As in past years, it has been a genuine pleasure to be writing with Bill about one of our true passions — Duke basketball.  I’ll miss it and look forward to the first edition next fall.  For now, the next play is the Parker-Hood watch!

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Now the Blue Devils need to prove that they can do this on the road!

 

Alan Adds:

 

Long ago (but still deep in middle age) when I was a competitive runner, we all knew the true definition of happiness — passing someone at the end of a race who had criticized your training method.  The Duke front line must have been truly happy during and after the NC State game where Duke beat State on the back boards, in the front court, in the back court, in the locker room and in coaching.  It was, in my opinion (coincidentally, Coach K’s also), Duke’s best performance of the year.  All the news was, and is, good.  First and foremost, welcome back, Jabari.  One might get lost in praise for his offensive rebirth — 23 points on an efficient 14 shots (10 free throw attempts in the first half was an important statistic) — but the most magical and critical transformation for Parker came with his defense.  He has obviously taken the criticism of the pundits about his defense to heart.  He was not less than fabulous on the defensive end displaying high energy, great help defense, good rebounding position and amazing hustle that produced steals and turnovers.  It may go unsung, but it actually profoundly impacted Duke’s defensive effort.

 

As much as the win against Virginia on Monday was viewed as a turnaround, the second half was not part of the turnaround that Duke fans want to see.  However, (best case scenario) it was the start.  Coach K went to platoons in the UVA game, and used his bench much more than earlier in the year.  Still, Duke was terrible — both offensively and defensively — down the stretch against Virginia, needing two extremely lucky bounces to save the day.  Against NC State, Coach K went to the platoon early, but then mixed and matched in a way that only a Hall of Fame alchemist can do.  The result was Duke played a full 40 minutes of exemplary defense, used all 11 players significantly, and had an offensive explosion that was satisfying to watch.

 

Coach K had said in his pre-season remarks that Duke would be a pressing and running team because of great athleticism and lack of size in the middle, channeling the success that he had with the 2012 Olympic team.  Things did not work out using that system as Duke’s defense was routinely shredded on the perimeter and was ineffective on the interior.  So Coach K pulled back on the run and press, and watched the defense begin to improve (though in a start and stop fashion).  Duke  had trouble finishing games (aberrational in the Coach K era) and was playing the starters enormous minutes.  Fatigue was clearly contributing to Duke’s late game failures.  It all changed against State.  Duke’s press was amazingly effective, and the entire team played significant minutes.  Duke made one other defensive change that has not been mentioned, but which I believe contributed to the improved perimeter defense against the half court set — Duke stopped switching every screen.  Duke defenders went under the screen (you can do that against a team with its own perimeter shooting woes) or over it, but curtailed the switching dramatically.  It proved very effective against State.  Parker was everywhere on defense; Cook was singled out for his on the ball defense by Coach K after the game; and both  Jefferson and Parker stepped up big time defending the interior.  As always, how Coach K allotted the minutes is revealing.  The coach has made a subtle switch to relying primarily on Hood for leadership.   He is so versatile, valuable and steady; and he led Duke in minutes played with 30 (usually Cook’s role).  It’s comforting to see Hood emerge as the year goes on.  After Hood, Parker played 26 minutes, Cook 25 and Jefferson a scintillating (9 points, 8 boards, 2 assists and committed only 1 foul) 24 minutes.   He is gaining in confidence and playing really well.  Note the 2 assists — great passes out of the post.  He and Parker led Duke’s interior, but had good help from Marshall (13 fierce minutes), Hairston (4 points, 5 rebounds, a charge taken in 12 minutes) on the interior.  Semi logged 6 minutes, and, as Bill points out, looks really good in his sparse appearances.  Hood also is becoming a better interior defender.

 

Coach K’s backcourt was by committee, as mixed by the master: Jones played 17 minutes as a starter and is solid on defense, and shows signs of offensive flair; Sulaimon was brilliant in his 17 minutes (13 points; 6 assists to lead Duke in that department; 4-4 from the line and terrific defense); Thornton played 15 minutes, spelling Cook mostly, with 2 big 3s and great hustle and defense; Dawkins scored 11 points in 13 minutes, which makes him a very efficient offensive weapon.  They all defended well.

 

Bill’s point is worth considering — Duke has to be able to perform like this in ACC road games.  It starts Wednesday in Miami.  Miami has been surprisingly good, wiping out Georgia Tech in Atlanta yesterday.  N.C. State was the most positive uptick of the season.  Next Play

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Duke Basketball Playbook: 2011-2012 Season

 

What to look for this year:

There is little doubt that Duke will be very good in 2011-12. Coach K will soon become the winningest coach in men’s basketball and barring injuries or bad luck, the Blue Devils are likely to extend their string of top national 10 finishes — now at 14 in the last 15 years. But will the Devils be good enough to challenge North Carolina for ACC honors? To make another NCAA Championship run?  A lot will depend upon the continued maturation and development of the juniors and Austin Rivers learning there is not an “I” but a “D” in Duke Basketball.

While this team has more talented big men and better depth at guard, it does not have the senior leadership and dependable go-to player as in years past. With the three games played this summer in China and Dubai, we have had a glimpse of what to expect. Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry appear to have made significant improvement in their games– Ryan because he has added weight and muscle to his frame and Seth because he has worked diligently on his point guard skills. It speaks volumes that Seth was chosen as co-captain (along with the Miles and Ryan) as to what Coach K thinks of his attitude, skills, and leadership abilities. Outstanding point guards (Amaker, Hurley, Williams, Duhon, Scheyer) have always been the  straw that stirs the drink for Duke’s best teams. The inconsistent Miles Plumlee (MP1), while an imposing physical presence at center, has always had an exuberant “bull in a china shop” quality to his play and Mason Plumlee (MP2) has yet to be the dominant player his athletic talent promises. While neither player threatens Zoubek’s first three year record of fouls per minute, they do seem to commit a foul or two before they ever leave the locker room. That must change. The coaches talk about the big men being more of a focal point of the offense but the blunt truth is that neither Plumlee can create their own shot so is not a threat away from the basket. Other than passing and rebounding, Mason’s scoring went south after Kyrie was injured as his clever passing set up MP2 for easy dunks. Ryan Kelly, who hit 17 shots in a row last year, is the most versatile big man who may be the key to a special year. Since he has gotten bigger, he can play inside/out and can be a very difficult match-up problem for any defender.

With Curry, Dawkins, Rivers, and, sometimes Kelly on the perimeter I don’t anticipate many looks into the post. We know what kind of shooters Curry, Dawkins and Ryan are. That leaves the highly touted Austin (son of Doc) Rivers. I don’t want to make an invidious comparison but from what I have seen he is not as polished or mature a player or as committed a teammate as Kyrie Irving was in his brief career. (Incidentally, Kyrie is at Duke taking classes this semester—at least until the NBA strike is resolved). While a combo guard, Rivers is undoubtedly physically gifted but not necessarily emotionally mature. In the summer games, he appeared petulant when he didn’t get the calls and often was not an enthusiastic defender. Time and coaching should solve those flaws—but a talented, egocentric freshman (ref. Vince Carter) does not endear himself to his teammates and is a tough coaching challenge.  Tyler Thornton, who is an adrenalin fix for any lethargic team effort, and a bigger, more confident Josh Hairston will be instrumental role players who can give the starters well needed rests that will keep them fresh for the end of games and the season.

While the other freshmen are a highly rated group none appear ready for Prime Time. Quinn Cook is a talented, pure point guard with an opportunity for major minutes but Curry embarrassed him in the recent Blue-White game and we all know that in Coach K’s universe poor defense is a ticket for a nice view of the game from the bench. Alex Murphy, who has been compared to Kyle Singler (such comparisons are often the kiss of death), Michael Gbinlie, and Marshall Plumlee (MP3) are all talented and promising but probably a year away from making major contributions.

Carolina is a runaway preseason #1 pick as they should be. However, Carolina was a very inconsistent team last year before Kendall Marshall became the starting point guard. Marshall distributes the ball so well (reminds me of Jason Kidd in college) that the other players do not have to create their shot, they just catch and shoot. If a team can neutralize Marshall (Thornton and Cook successfully played against him in high school), UNC is a very different team.

However the season unfolds, it should be another exciting year!

Alan adds:

As all the commentators and, indeed, even Coach K and Bill , have said, this is a team with much potential and much talent, but no one who has even approached fulfilling it…yet.  That will be what this season is about.  Who fulfills the as yet untapped potential.  Most of the talk has been about the offense, but I believe that the litmus test for this team will be how it establishes and grows into its defensive identity.  What wasn’t much discussed about the last games in the NCAA tournament, was the impact the insertion of Kyrie into the lineup had on the defense.  Duke’s defense is a cohesive team concept, and it was the defense in the second half of both the Michigan and Arizona games that seemed to lose the intensity that had become a season long trade-mark.  So, I think that how Coach K melds this group into a ferocious and effective defensive unit will tell the tale about the success of this season.  Duke has shot blocking for sure.  Given what the starting lineup seems to be, a serious question will be who can match up with the high scoring wings of the opponent?  If Duke plays 3 guards, can Dawkins fill that role?  Can the perimeter make penetration difficult?  Intriguing questions.  Both Bill and I think Duke will be better toward the end of the year because there is more need for development of play on both ends, and experimentation with lineups and differing combinations than in past years.

I read, as Bill did, that Seth Curry “embarrassed” the freshman point guard, Quinn Cook in the Blue-White game.  I believe that Cook will be a major force at Duke (even if not this year).  I saw him play four times in high school last year (on TV) – twice for Oak Hill and twice in All-Star games (both times with Rivers; they were amazing together,).  I was very impressed with him on both ends of the court.  He is a superb passer and excellent outside shooter.  He displayed a great head for the game and for taking over in the clutch.  Very impressively, he gets to the rim and is both a tremendous finisher and great on the dish.  As optimistic as all are about Seth’s transition to the point, it is a sobering statistic from the August trip that Duke (and also Curry individually) had more turnovers than assists. Cook had (or has, a troubling thought) a knee that was rickety enough to keep him from playing on the August trip.  He played only 13 minutes in the Blue-White game, which means it is possible that his defense is still adversely impacted by the injury (that’s the good and the bad news).  We should all keep an eye on the point guard play.

I didn’t see last night’s streamed exhibition game,  but some interesting observations from the box score are available.  Duke won 87-62, but led by only 5 at the half:

1)      Duke forced 21 turnovers, including 16 steals; but had only 1 block.  Offensively, Duke had 19 turnovers (and 19 assist; Bellarmine had 10 steals.  Duke was only 2-14 from behind the arc (Seth 1-6; Dawkins 0-3; Rivers 0-3; Thornton 1-2)

2)     Point Guard: Seth took 17 shots in a game-high 31 minutes (Austin was second with 10).  7-17,.  Tyler Thornton logged the second most minutes of any Duke player (24) and had 3 assists to one turnover. ;  Tyler had 5 points, 2 boards (1 offensive) and 3 steal.  Quinn Cook had an interesting line in only 11 minutes: 2-2 from the field (driving layup highlighted in the DBR report), 1-2 from the line, 5 assists against a turnover and 2 steals.  I repeat in 11 minutes.  Seth in 31 minutes had 18 points, 5 assists against 3 turnovers and 2 steals.  He had 3 assists against 1 turnover.

3)      Bigs and freshman wings: Bellarmine was very under sized, so no real conclusions (or even tentative conclusions) can really be drawn.  Mason was 8-8 w 9 boards (3 offensive) in 23 minutes.  But Mason has no assists and 3 turnovers, which are somewhat troubling stats.  He had Duke’s only block.  Brother Miles played 20 minutes, 4-6 from the floor with 8 boards (1 offense).  Kelly, who did not start (Alex Murphy did, along with Rivers, Curry and the two elder Plumlees), was 3-6 from floor and 4-5 from the line in 23 minutes.  Only 1 board is the troubling stat.  Hairston and Murphy played 15 and 13 minutes respectively while Gbinije logged 7 minutes.  (5 points among them; Gbinije had 3) (Marshall did not play, suggesting a red shirt may be coming, and that Bill is correct that these three freshman, (and I add Hairston) are at least a year away from contributing.

4)     Dawkins and Austin:  Dawkins played only 15 minutes and was 1-5 (0-3 from behind the arc).  He also had 2 defensive boards to go with an assist and a steal.  Underwhelming; I wonder if there is an underlying story.  Austin is still the enigma that will be really important in how the team grows.  He started and logged 19 minutes.  He was 5-10 (including 0-3 from deep) and 3-4 from the line for 13 points on 10 shots.  He had 3 offensive boards and 1 defensive rebound to go with 1 assist and 3 turnovers.  DBR reports some immature antics.

I am really excited about the season for many of the reasons that Bill expressed so eloquently in his first paragraphs.  There will be highs and lows (as always), and the schedule early on is as difficult as that of any team in the country.  Duke’s normally fast start (has Duke ever lost in November?) might not happen this year, but don’t abandon ship.  This will be a terrific hoops year.

DUKE – SHAW AND THE  PRE-SEASON

The pre-season is over and Jim Sumner’s posting on DBR  covers most of what I was going to write. However, I did see the game in 3-D on  GoDuke.com, so I will add some observations:

Depending on the strengths and weaknesses of an opponent,  there will be more fluid and flexible rotation of starters and players from  game to game and situation to situation. Ryan Kelley is most versatile player  with the highest basketball IQ. The question is whether he can maintain his  strength and energy for thirty some games? Seth Curry is a close second and one  of the keys to the season.  I hope I’m  wrong, but my feeling is that Austin Rivers is talented but overhyped (If he is  thinking “one and done”, he better be prepared to play overseas). Austin does  not have a fundamentally sound three point shot nor is he a dependable free  throw shooter—but he has shown much more interest in playing defense; Andre  “Microwave” Dawkins may be most effective coming off the bench firing threes  (he had three in a row last night) against a zone; Quinn Cook is the most  talented point guard but needs to be a better defender; Mason Plumlee, a  terrific rebounder,  has developed a nice
jump hook to go with his dunk and creative  passing—otherwise his offense is limited; Miles is strong and  enthusiastic but still inconsistent; Tyler Thornton is a high energy APP for  short periods; the rest are spot players until a freshman develop more confidence.  Marshall Plumlee (MP3) has not made an appearance in either exhibition game so  it  appears he has been given a Red  Shirt.

The defense has to get better as Shaw pretty much shredded  the pressing man-to-man last night. But the thing that worries me the most is  free throw shooting. Over the decades, one key to Coach K’s almost 1,000 wins  has been good free throw shooting– particularly at the end of games. This team  has not demonstrated that trait. You don’t want MP1 or MP2 shooting when the  game on the line but one of two needs to be in the game at the end, Kelly is  reliable but only an average ball handler, you want the ball in Rivers hands  because he can break down an opponent but has not indicated he can shoot any  number close to 80%, Thornton is statistically the best but not a starter,  Curry is solid, and Dawkins is good but not a natural ball handler. So, defense  and free throw shooting will determine the degree of success for this season.

Sumner:

Exhibition games serve a lot of purposes. But the most  important is finding out about your team in a non-competitive situation. Of  course, few things about Duke Basketball are non-competitive, certainly not games with another bunch of guys wearing jerseys with different names on them.

But there was a lot of getting-to-know-you in Duke’s  scrimmage wins over Bellarmine (87-62) and Shaw (80-66). There’s a lot being  made in both the local and national media about the loss of Nolan Smith, Kyle  Singler and Kyrie Irving. These are not negligible losses. A Final Four Most  Outstanding Player, an ACC Player of the Year and the first pick in an NBA  draft. Not a lot of precedents for that.

But Mike Krzyzewski has been down this road before; 1987,  following the loss of Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie and David Henderson; 2000,  following the loss of Elton Brand, Trajan Langdon, William Avery and Corey  Maggette, the Williams-Dunleavy-Boozer class, the Redick-Williams-Dockery  class. Somehow Duke seems to reload rather than rebuild. Talent has  a lot to do with it. Duke has recruited at least one prep All-American every  class since Dawkins and Alarie came in the fall of 1982.

But there’s more to it than that. Clemson coach Brad  Brownell was asked about this last month in Charlotte. His response was almost  zen-like. When it’s someone’s time at Duke, they’re ready. When it’s Ryan  Kelly’s time, he’s ready. When it’s Seth Curry’s time, he’s ready.” You get the  drift.

So, whose time is it? What do we know about Duke that we  didn’t know two weeks ago? Depends on whether you’ve been paying attention. There’s  been lots of talk on the Duke boards about Duke’s starting lineup, emphasis on  the singular. But I suspect we’ll see a much more fluid dynamic this season,  with players moving in and out of the lineup, up and down in the rotation,  depending on a lot of variables. Playing-time-is-earned-not-given is  coaching-cliche 101. But in Duke’s case, it’s a cliche supported by three  decades of meritocracy. It really does work that way at Duke. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Nine different players  started during Duke’s 1991 season, as Krzyzewski replaced three senior starters  from the season before. We all know how that turned out.

None of this is to suggest that we should expect a  well-oiled machine at this point in the season and we certainly haven’t seen  one. Freshman Alex Murphy started against Bellarmine and was the 11th player  off the bench against Shaw. Andre Dawkins came off the bench against Shaw, made  four-of-five three pointers in the first half, got the starting nod in the  second half and promptly went scoreless. We’ve seen lineups with all three  point guards, we’ve seen lineups with only one guard and pretty much everything  in between. Think master chef tinkering in the kitchen.

Duke’s opponents didn’t exactly roll over. Bellarmine won  the D-2 national championship last season, while Shaw captured the CIAA  Tournament. Both are experienced, tournament-tested teams. Both made Duke look  vulnerable at times, confused and tentative. At this point, Mike Krzyzewski seems more interested in  process than results. He stated that he thought Duke played better than the
score against Shaw. “We got the ball inside and got to the line. We left a lot  of points on the floor. We’ve got to complete plays. We played fine. We have to  be more efficient.”

Getting to the foul line was an adventure. Duke shot an  abysmal 11-24 from the line. Krzyzewski says he isn’t concerned. “I don’t make  too much of it. First, you’ve got to get to the line. I have confidence we’ll  shoot it well.” Note that Duke was a solid 17-23 from the line against  Bellarmine.

There certainly were some positives in the two wins. Duke  seems serious about using its size. Duke’s bigs scored 42 points against  Bellarmine, 41 against Shaw, 83 of the 167 total points.

And that was with Miles Plumlee struggling against Shaw,  shooting only 4-10. “I was pretty frustrated,” Plumlee said. “I had a few  opportunities to make things go my way and I made weak plays instead of strong  plays. You only get so many opportunities in a game to start a rhythm.”

But Brother Mason went 6-6 from the field, including a trio  of sweet jump hooks. Krzyzewski says he expects more of the same. “Our guys are  passing the ball to the bigs and we have good stuff called for the bigs. It’s  got to be a strength of ours.”

Freshman Austin Rivers came in for special praise from  Krzyzewski, but not just for his offense. “He did a good job on [Tony] Smith.  He took what was there [on offense] and used his defense for energy.”

Krzyzewski acknowledged that it took Duke some time to  figure out Shaw. Duke led only 34-29 with 7:30 left in the first half. “They  have a pair of guards who are really good. They’re older and experienced and  can really handle the ball. We started keeping people in front of us. We  stepped in more aggressively. Our defense the last 24 minutes was very good.”

Krzyzewski has stated on numerous occasions that this Duke  team can score the ball but needs to prove it can stop the other team. Tyler  Thornton got a start against Shaw for just that reason. ‘Seth has to be our  point guard. We started Tyler for defense not ball handling. Seth is going to  have the ball in his hands.”

Curry had 30 points and ten assists in the two games.

Thornton and freshman Quinn Cook combined for zero points in  29 combined minutes, although they did contribute four assists, three by Cook.  Cook had five assists against Bellarmine, eight total assists in 24 minutes.  But his defense is nowhere near that of Thornton and Duke needs that defense  right now.

Duke also struggled from long range. Excluding Dawkins’  first half against Shaw, Duke is 5-30 on three-pointers in the two exhibition  games. Ryan Kelly didn’t start either game but played 23 effective
minutes off the bench in both, totaling 25 points, 9 rebounds, 1 block and 3  steals. Kelly says things are coming along. “We’re figuring out what we’re  supposed to do. It’s getting better every day. It got better today from where  we were in the exhibition game Saturday. It’s steps forward and that’s all we  can ask.”

Notes.

•Mason Plumlee  completed the exhibition season 14-14 from the field, with 30 points, 17  rebounds and a pair of blocks.

•Mike Krzyzewski said  no decision had been made on Marshall Plumlee, indicating that the youngest  Plumlee brother wouldn’t play much this season. He might not play unless there  is a significant injury in the post rotation.

•Duke never trailed against Shaw and faced  only a 2-0 deficit against Bellarmine.

DUKE – BELMONT

Belmont is a mid-major of lightly recruited players who stay for four years, listen to their coach, practice their threes, and play a very good game of team basketball. So, they fly under the radar dominating a minor conference and winning games by 17 points. Consequently, they are not a team you want to meet in the NCAA tournament as Duke learned in 2008 when Gerald Henderson went coast to coast in the last few seconds to avoid a second first round flame out.

Tonight Duke started slowly but led by nine at the half. They were up by 16 with only about ten minutes to go when the Blue Devils seemed less intense or over confident or just plain fatigued by the Belmont’s ten man rotation. Whatever the reason, Belmont started hitting threes, Duke started making bad, sloppy offensive decisions,  playing less intensely on defense, and making too many turnovers. Suddenly, it was a one point game with less than a minute to go. Curry, who on the previous possession went  to the basket too soon for a turnover, tried again, went up for a contested jump shot but at the last second dumped the ball back behind the three point line to Andre Dawkins ( who was 0-4 from there). He drained as pure a clutch three as you will ever see. Belmont got a quick score. Ryan Kelly sealed the win by making two foul shots, putting Duke up by four. Clark hit a meaningless 3-point prayer at the buzzer.

Curry (16 points, 4 assists) had a heady game until he appeared to tire from the Belmont pressure. Mason Plumlee (13 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists) was a monster on the boards and appears to have developed a go-to offensive move (a hook shot with either hand) to go with his dunk. I don’t know why more big men don’t utilize it.  This is the shot that kept Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Abdul- Jabber) playing in the NBA until he was about sixty. Ryan Kelly (12 points, 6 rebounds) was his usual efficient self. However, it was Tyler Thornton (10 points, 3 steals), who again was the catalyst for so many good things happening and just plays himself into more minutes and right into your heart. That leaves Austin Rivers (16 points). Maybe it is just my reaction to all the hype, maybe it is him saying he wants LeBron James one on one, but I just don’t see all the exceptionalism others do– he is not yet even the best or most valuable player on the Duke squad. Memo to Austin: You are not high school any more, that was last year. This is the ACC.  Sure, you can shake and bake and break your man down but then what?  Then, if you run into a forest on big men pull up for a floater, or if you don’t get a call, don’t just throw up a prayer, pass to an open man. To his credit, Austin’s body language and defense is much improved over that on the China trip so coaching appears to be having an impact.

Over the years, we have been spoiled because we have had a go-to player—most recently, JJ, Scheyer, Nolan Smith—who could be counted upon to protect a lead. But they did it with good ball handling and making free throws, not NBA threes. Threes are great but in the last seconds, free throws are a better bet.

Alan adds:

Midway through the second half with Duke up by 16, the lady I was with went to sleep.  She must have been channeling Austin Rivers, who went to sleep at about the same time.  Unlike Austin, my lady awoke at the right time.  Gracias! (Editor: So, you thought Alan was just a basketball geek.)

Belmont looked like a terrific team for this early in the year.  They played smart cohesive basketball against a Duke team that had greater size and more highly rated talent.  It was a very even game. Duke had 33 boards (11 offensive); Belmont had 33 (10 offensive); Duke had 14 assists; Belmont 15; Duke had 8 steals; Belmont 9; Duke had 19 turnovers; Belmont 17; Duke had 2 blocks; Belmont 1; Duke shot 43% (47.4 from 3) and Belmont shot 47.4% (but only 31.6 from 3 because of their miserable first half).  Duke won the game at the foul line 20-26 versus Belmont’s 16-22.  If Belmont is not as good as they appeared last night, Duke is in for a long season, but I think Belmont is that good.

Mason, of course, had a monster game and really was the dominant player on the floor – especially in the second half.  He is a rebounder.  It will be interesting to see if he can do the same against quality bigs, like Henson and Zeller of UNC.   Doris Burke was singing his praises and actually proving herself a very perceptive commentator.  After that, it was a pretty mixed bag.  Great plays and turnovers; good defensive stands and then sieve like defense–a paragon to inconsistency.   Duke gave up a ton of open looks in the last part of the second half.  Very un-Duke like.  Seth was clutch at times but had 3 turnovers and does not give confidence when he has the ball.  Duke’s point guard play was not that of an elite team.  Quinn Cook looked awful on defense in his 8 minutes (missed both shots and committed a foul).  Thornton looked the best, but even he seemed out of sync on defense at the end of the game, where his defense kept putting Belmont on the line (and eventually Thornton on the bench with 5 fouls).  Duke played essentially a 7 man rotation (Thornton 24 minutes before fouling out and Miles 17 minutes); very thin for this time of the year, and Belmont made Duke pay, looking much fresher down the stretch.  Dawkins was almost a no-show in 21 minutes, until he buried that clutch three from very deep.  What a shot!  But where was he before that?

Now, about Austin.  He looked terrific in the first half.  He was visibly the best player on the floor, and then it was as if he went to sleep in the last part of the game.  He had 5 turnovers against 1 assist (which came in the first half).  I thought his defense went very south toward the end, and his offense was exuberant, but horribly inefficient.   Coach K is banking the season on Austin.   I say that because he logged 38 minutes (Mason 35), but I fear he fatigued (and may not be in great shape after a summer of international ball).  Whatever it was (is), his development will be the bell weather for this team.  He was 3-9 from the floor (2-4 from 3 and 8-10 from the line – 7-8 in the first half), which means he was 1-5 from inside the arc.  5 turnovers is a significant figure for a team that has not jelled in the backcourt…yet.

A quick turnaround for this afternoon’s game.  Unfortunately, I won’t see it live (driving to Boston for a family event), but will anxiously await Bill’s analysis.  What an exciting first game.

DUKE – PRESBYTERIAN

As expected, Duke hammered Presbyterian for Coach K’s win number 902 tying him with Bobby Knight for the most wins by a men’s college basketball coach. It is rather incredible that two men so closely associated with each other hold that record. As sports fans, we are so very fortunate to have witnessed most of his victories and championships.

While the game was a blow out, I thought there were some interesting aspects:

  • Mason (MP2) continues to play with more offensive confidence around the basket demonstrating patience and fakes to create openings for his impressive, soft right and left handed jump hooks. However, his free throw percentage is a Wilt the Stilt or Shaq level embarrassment and might be costly in close games.
  • Curry and Kelly are the most efficient players on the team.MP1, the biggest and best athlete on the team, feasted on an undersized front line.
  • After hitting the crucial three last night against Belmont, Dawkins sort of became invisible as is his want from time to time.
  • Quinn Cook (10 points, 2 assists) is beginning to look more like the talented point guard he is expected to be.
  • Tyler Thornton (2 points & 2 assists) had an atypical quiet outing, but then nothing more was needed.
  • Marshall Plumlee (MP3) again did not make a playing appearance so he apparently is being red shirted but it has had no discernible effect on his interest in the action or enjoyment of his brothers’ performances.
  • As my buddy Pete in Durham points out, all the players are nice quiet kids and except for Tyler Thornton, who is a role player, there is no vocal leader or go-to player on the team.
  • The most interesting development was that for the most of the game, Austin Rivers’ body language was much improved and he was playing Duke basketball– and it had nothing to do with how many points he scored. Austin was his usual aggressive, slashing self, but he was picking his spots rather than forcing the issue and he was playing hard on defense all the time. The impression was that he looked like he enjoyed playing with his teammates as he has five assists (including passing up an uncontested layup to give a trailing MP2 a slam dunk) and no turnovers. However, what I thought most encouraging was his spontaneous, joyous towel waving celebration with all the other players on the bench when Mason drove the base line, went under the basket and made one of his patented no look, back to the basket, two handed reverse dunks, which just about blew the roof off Cameron.

Alan was travelling and did not see the game.

DUKE – MICHIGAN STATE 

On the night that Coach K won his record breaking 903rd game, it was fitting that Robert Montgomery Knight, his mentor, and Jay Bilas, one of his first high profile recruits at Duke, were the two commentators. If you were fortunate enough to watch the telecast, you learned not only a lot about how to coach and play the game of basketball but why Michael Krzyzewski has been so successful.

It is fitting that the opponent for this historic game was Michigan State and their fine coach, Tom Izzo, because his teams always play hard and tough and any win is well deserved. Consequently, the game itself  was not a masterpiece but it was the kind of gritty victory that great coaches win when their offense is only hitting on two or three cylinders. In the first half, Dawkins and Curry kept the Blue Devils in the game by scoring 23 of the 31 points. In the second half, Kelly was a major matchup problem and the defense was a lot tougher down low. The much talked about low post scoring was virtually non-existent but Dawkins (26 pts), Curry (20 pts) and Kelly (14 pts) hit 10 of 16 three point shots and 19 of 22 free throws to carry the offense with 60 of the 74 points. This is not exactly a balanced attack.

  • The talented Mr. Dawkins had a Garden Party (one literary and one musical allusion in eight words) firing beautiful, accurate rainbows, demonstrating why two years ago, I referred to him as “My Man Andre” because I thought he had one of the best three point strokes I had ever seen and that he also had the athletic talent to be a real star. Unfortunately, we have only seen flashes of that talent but not on a consistent basis. Well, undoubtedly he read my blog on the Presbyterian game (“After hitting the crucial three point shoot last night against Belmont, Andre Dawkins sort of became invisible as is his want from time to time.”) but Rivers (1-7) didn’t ( “He was picking his spots rather than forcing the issue…. He looked like he enjoyed playing with his teammates.”)
  • Curry (20 pts) had a team high 7 rebounds to go with 4 steals, 4 assists, and 1 steal to  prove once again that you don’t have to be flashy to be very effective.
  • Duke won despite a few too many knucklehead plays and by the Plumlees: Mason made three ticky-tack fouls including a technical and Miles an inexplicable technical at an inopportune time.
  • Austin (5 pts) had a “Freshman in the Garden” night with some ill-advised drives. In addition, with Duke up three and only seven seconds to go in the first half  (a classic opportunity for a drive, kick and three at the buzzer– how many times have we seen it), Austin drove the lane, was stripped, giving Michigan State  time for a quick two in transition to cut the Duke lead to one point. So, it was a potential 4 or 5 point turnaround. That kind of error often can be the difference in a game.
  • It may sound like piling on but the fact is Duke’s lead went on a 18-1 run in five minutes of the early part of the second half  when Austin Rivers was on the bench and there was better ball movement.      (There is a statistic on the +/- score differential when a player is in a  game. In the pros, Shane Battier is at the top of that statistical  pyramid.)
  • While who finishes a game is more important that who  starts, Duke is just a lot more difficult to defend and plays a lot  smarter and more sufficiently when Ryan Kelly is in the game for MP1. As Jay Bilas commented, he is a European type big
  • A score of interest: #10 Memphis beat Belmont 97-81  tonight.

Listening to interviews with Jay Bilas, Grant Hill, Shane Battier as well as seeing Bobby Hurley, Jayson Williams, Carlos Boozer, Chris Duhon, Elton Brand, and Mike Dunleavy at the game just reminds me why I have so much pride in Duke Basketball.

Alan adds:

It was a glorious night for Coach K and for Duke hoops.  I, however, don’t think we should yet get too puffed up about this team (nor down on it).  The ebbs and flows of the game were striking and showed a lot about where Duke is right now.  Amazingly inconsistent.  Michigan State was horrible offensively until the last five minutes (which began to remind me of the ’92 game against Indiana in the NCAA semi-finals).  Michigan missed so many shots in close, and many in the early going were pretty open.  Duke’s interior defense improved as the game went on.  Mason especially got the hang of interior defense later in the game after being backed down and out toughed earlier.

It is worth talking about Mason a little, since his offensive game was not very efficient.  [But, how about that fabulous pass to Kelly for a dunk; and the running right handed hook; ah potential!].  Defensively, he began to make it very hard for the Spartans to get open looks in close.  Duke’s defense is still not up to Coach K standards, but Mason really anchored the back line last night, and should get large credit for that.  He played 32 minutes and 5 big defensive boards.  It was not a stellar night for him, but how he develops will have a lot to say about how this team develops.

Duke got hammered on the boards early, and stemmed the tide when the guards started rebounding and making life difficult for the State bigs after they had first grabbed the ball.  Thornton is a master at that.  Duke had only 4 offensive boards and I don’t remember a single put back point (for a team with 3 guys 6’10” or taller).  Seth and Andre had 1 more rebound combined (10: 7 for Seth) than did the Plumlees (9; Miles 4).  The lone senior on the team, and concededly an excellent athlete, is playing himself out of minutes on the court.  He played only 14 minutes (3 fouls; 2 turnovers and 2 of the 4 offensive boards).

Duke had a new “Big Three” last night.  As Bill points out, Seth, Andre and Ryan played hard and efficiently.  Kelly had an even better game than his stat line.  He is fun to watch because he knows and understands the game so well.  He was 3-3 from the floor; 2-2 from 3; and 6-6 from the line.  That’s 14 points on 3 field goal attempts.  He had 4 boards, a block and an assist with only 2 fouls and 2 two turnovers.  It seems to me he is the real deal as an all around player.  He is improving on defense.  He and Curry are the most consistent and efficient of the Duke players.

Bill has gushed about Dawkins, who had a superb night (not just shooting).  He had 3 rebounds; 4 steals and 0 turnovers to go with 8-15 from the floor (6-10 from 3); 6-6 from the line and some very solid defense (in the second half, especially).  He did that (or something like that) against Bradley last year for what turned out to be a flash in the pan.  If he can play like he did last night, Duke will be really good.  He won’t shoot like that every night, but if he remains a constant scorer and threat, and plays with that kind of intensity, he will have a star year.  It is way too early to jump on that bandwagon, given his history.  But, he has all the tools and seems to have matured into a K-type player.  K must think so too, since Andre played 38 minutes last night.  Stay tuned.

Seth was simply a star.  He was the glue.  I was completely comfortable with the ball in his hands as the game went on last night.  He also logged 38 minutes and did some clutch foul shooting (10-12).  He took only 7 shots (compared to 15 for Dawkins) and scored 20 points (4-7; 2-5 from 3; means 2-2 from inside the arc) to go with his 7 boards, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block.  Three turnovers, but he played some overall floor game.  20 points on 7 shots is efficient.  It seems to me that he will be the leader of this team.

Josh Hairston had a nice 5 minutes and it seemed to me that when he entered the game in the first half, Duke stopped being mauled on the boards.  Bill has accurately assessed Austin’s frustration (think Harrison Barnes for the early part of last year).  He obviously has the tools, and I do note that his offensive woes (huge) did not adversely affect his improving defense.  He played 23 minutes to Tyler’s 18, but it seemed clear that Duke was a better team when Thornton was the third guard for all the reasons Bill pointed out.

Four players played 30 minutes or more.  The rotation was 7 (not counting Cook’s 2 minutes nor Hairston’s 5), with Miles, Thornton and Rivers supporting the four.  Maui will certainly be interesting, as will be the development of this team throughout the season.  A real challenge for Coach K, but he has had some middling success before.

DUKE – DAVIDSON

Concern that this might be ‘Trap Game” because it came just two days after the physical, emotional 903 game with Michigan State (and the fourth game in eight days) against an experienced, well coached, and underrated opponent was confirmed when Davidson led 32-31 at the half. Fortunately, it has been all too familiar script these last few years of two distinctly different halves. One of the reasons Coach K has won 4 National Championships and 13 ACC Titles is to understand how and why he schedules his November and December games the way that he does. His strategy is to prepare his team for a long campaign and part of part of that concept involves his Army boot camp training. Namely, to prepare his teams mentally and physically for two single elimination tournaments in a row when you face a variety of opponents with only a day or two of rest, you need to be drilled to be ready for all kinds of fatigue and adversity. Belmont and Davidson are similar to Butler in that they are mid-level programs, which have recently surprised higher profile teams in the NCAA Championship. So, he wants to give his players the experience of playing against disciplined teams which rely on finesse rather than athleticism and physicality. And, with the three point line, these kinds of teams are very dangerous in close games. In addition, Davidson coach Bob McKillop is a very fine coach whom he respects. In these early contests, Coach K also wants to determine whom he can depend upon for his rotation once the serious ACC season starts.

As we anticipated, Ryan Kelly started for MP1 but pulled a Plumlee by getting two fouls in two minutes and was replaced by (surprise) Josh Hairston. That foreshadowed a slow start as the Blue Devils defense allowed Davidson not only to penetrate but also to have open threes, which kept the game too close for comfort for much too long. Predictably, Duke started the second half with much more defensive intensity and, as we know, good Duke defense usually leads to offensive momentum and patented Duke runs. The Plumlees fueled the run with MP2 (16 pts & 13 rebounds) rebounding and firing a Wes Unseld type two handed overhead pass far down court to a streaking MP1 for a rim shaking reverse jam, which made the Crazies et al shake Cameron.

Some observations:

  • While there is no one “go-to-guy” as in years past, this team appears to be more “Go-to-by- Committee”.  Except for the Michigan State game, where Dawkins was sensational (tonight he was uninspired and unimpressive (5 points in 20 minutes), there has been no one dominate player but rather a number of players contributing in a variety of ways.
  • One of the reasons the game was closer for longer than necessary was that Duke missed 11 free throws and despite a decided size advantage, only outrebounded Davidson 32-31. However, they did force 17 turnovers and had 9 steals.
  • Austin Rivers (17 points & 4 turnovers) was more productive because he was much more judicious about and in control of his drives; however, Davidson does not have the size or athleticism of top twenty tier teams.
  • So far, Curry (17 points & 2 assists) is the steadiest and most reliable performer both on and off the ball.
  • Quinn Cook continues to improve and impress in all aspects of the game—and he is a solid at the line so I suspect we will see him on the floor (with Kelly as the lone big man) at the end of games. For sure, I don’t think we will see MP2 as he was 2-6 tonight and  40% for the season. MP1 (10 points, 4 rebounds) was 6-6.
  • Former Davidson All American Stephen Curry, now playing with the San Francisco Warriors, watched from behind the Wildcats’ bench wearing a customized basketball jersey with Davidson on the front and the back a Duke jersey with his brother’s name and number.
  • Mike Breen, a refugee from the Don Imus Morning Show and presently the New York Knicks announcer, and Doris Burke, a former player at Providence College who really does her homework, were again the announcers. They are a good team.

Alan adds:

For a variety of reasons, I was derelict in my blogging duties yesterday but I will schedule better for Maui.

Two or three items popped out from a review of the box score.  First (and you mentioned it) is the 12 minutes that Cook played, scoring 9 points, including 4-5 from the foul line.  How did he appear as an on the ball defender in those 12 minutes? [Bill: Much improved.]  If he can defend, he will be a force, as I have previously written.  Second, Miles played only 17 minutes (with an excellent stat line) because he collected 4 fouls in that short span.  We need Zoubek as an assistant coach.  Finally, you can see K’s reliance on the development of Austin.  He played 38 minutes (Curry 34, his best player, played less).

On to Hawaii!

DUKE – TENNESSEE

Tennessee reminds me of the St. Johns teams that used to give Duke a lot of problems—athletic players all of whom could put the ball on the floor and get to the basket as well as rebound surprisingly well for their size. That is what the Vols did for most of the first half. As distressing as that was, Duke’s strategy was first to defend three, which they did with great success. For the first time in 461 games, Tennessee, a team that has been average 13 threes a game, had none; Duke had 7. Do the math.  It’s very difficult to beat a good team without hitting threes.

Once Austin Rivers (18pts) gave up making drives to nowhere and the Blue Devils achieved more ball movement, offensive balance (and defensive pressure) carried the day. In the second half Rivers, whose first step is his calling card, pulled up on his drives rather than trying to get to the rim and hit several very pretty tear-drop floaters over interior defenders.  Kelly (17 pts), Curry (17 pts), Dawkins (10pts), and Mason all did their part while MP1 had very productive muscular minutes (especially on defense) in relief of Kelly.

As in years past, this team is relentless in wearing other teams down with tough defense and winning by a war of attrition. The difference is that they have more size in the front court and more depth overall.

Playbook observations:

  • Austin Rivers is still a work in progress. He was 6-for-15 from the field and made too many novice turnovers but was much more efficient in the second half.
  • Mason Plumlee (13 rebs, 8 pts) is not only an elite rebounder and effective shot blocker, he also alters a lot of shots, a statistic that does not appear in the game summary. His offense is better but is it also a work in progress.
  • Ryan Kelly is a very versatile “Moneyball”  player–one who quietly does a lot of things that makes his teammates much better.  He worked on the block in a couple of isolating situations, crashed the glass, and even had a great alley-oop bucket.
  • Ever notice how after a timeout, Duke often scores off a set play
  • I disagree with Alan on Rivers. I believe that for this team to get to the next level, Austin must buy into the total team concept and realize that his teammates are just as talented—even more so in some ways (like three point shooting) as he is– and realize that he does not have to carry this team, just be part of it.

Alan adds:

Tennessee was a fun game to watch.  It was really a tale of different halves even though Duke scored almost the same amount in each half (39 in the first half for 77 total).  Duke played really well in the last 15 minutes of the game, I thought.  In the first half, Duke hung in on 3 point shooting (6-10 with Austin 2-2 toward the end; Dawkins 2-2 and goals from Seth and Ryan).  Tennessee got to the rim too easily both from the perimeter and the interior.  Though Duke had only 2 blocks (Cook and Miles), the interior defense altered a lot of close-in shots, as it did against Michigan State.  Austin saved an unimpressive first half with his two threes near the end.  It gave him 3-9 in the first half,  meaning that he was 1-7 from inside the arc, and was not only not finishing, but not really getting close on his drives.  The Plumlees were 3-9 from the line (Duke 7-14).

In the second half, Duke was 1-8 from 3, but 12-19 inside the arc and 11-13 from the free throw line.  Really efficient offensive basketball without the 3 point shot.  I thought Austin completely turned his game around, and was an unstoppable force going to the basket.  He made Tennessee change its defense and he kept them in foul trouble (they had 4 players with 4 fouls and committed 6 more fouls than Duke.  I believe K understands that this team depends on Austin’s development.  Look at the shots taken: Austin 15; Seth 10 (five makes including 2-4 from 3), Ryan 9 (2-6 from 3, meaning he was 3-3 inside the 3); Dawkins 7 (2-3 inside the line and 2-4 from 3).  Only Austin is not shooting a terrific percentage.  Seth, Dawkins and Kelly were 14-26 (5-14 from 3).  Austin was 6-15.  He missed 2 from behind the arc in the second half but was an efficient 3-4 on some splendid drives and pull ups from inside the arc.  He is an amazing first step penetrator (reminding me of Grant Hill in that regard).  When (not if) his outside shot comes, he will be a wonderful asset to this team.  His upside is enormous.  I think I am more of a fan of his than Bill is.

Mason is growing before our eyes.  Even his blunders are wonderful efforts that ask too much of himself at this point in the year, but if he keeps at it (and I believe K will encourage him), he can develop into an offensive force near the basket.  He’s not quite there, but again, because his upside appears to be so high, so is this team’s.  Curry and Dawkins had wonderful floor games in addition to being offensively efficient.  Seth is clearly team leader, glue, and is developing a smooth and reliable game with his shooting, passing, driving and above all defending.

Duke was much better defensively in the second half.  They did a better job switching and closing off some of the perimeter penetration.  The defense is still not there yet, but with these athletes, the defense is yet another work in progress with a high upside.  Tyler is pure energy and gives a life when he comes in, but fouled out in 14 minutes.  The bench is Tyler and Miles (17 effective minutes).  If we could just give Miles a new set of hands; he has everything else.  Cook played 8 energetic minutes and impresses me (I have admitted a bias in his favor before).  He’s a pure point guard.  In 8 minutes he was 1-3 from the floor; had 2 defensive rebounds, a block, an assist and a steal (also a turnover, which I think came on a drive).  He is secure with the ball in his hands.

Michigan tonight will be interesting, given how Duke’s defense was shredded by Michigan in the last 10 minutes of their second round NCAA matchup last year.  Beilein had Michigan looking impressive last night in knocking off #10 Memphis.  This game will be a challenge for sure.

DUKE – MICHIGAN

Bill is absent (but with leave), and did not want the description of such a superb basketball game to wait until he and his computer reunited.  We talked after the game and he asked me to file for both of us.  So while it is “Alan Adds”, the analysis also includes (without separating) Bill’s analysis.  We were talking as Coach K was being interviewed after the game.  The first thing we agreed upon (and said it moments ahead of K) was that this wasn’t just a very good college basketball game, this was simply a great game, played with ferocious intensity, great skill, and basketball wisdom.  It was two teams really slugging it out physically and intellectually.  As Coach K said, Kansas outplayed Duke in the first half, and Duke turned it around in the second half, outplaying Kansas.  The turnaround was the emotional maturing of Mason and Ryan Kelly in terms of toughness.

In the first half, Kansas outmuscled, outhustled, and out sped Duke.  Duke was only down by four at the half, but both Bill and I (we also talked at half time) thought Duke was lucky to be so close, and that the difference in quality of play was not as close as the score indicated.  Kelly’s shooting was a bit off; Kansas defense was outstanding.  Duke could not crack the Kansas perimeter and was being tested and bested in the interior.  Even more disquieting was the ease with which Duke’s perimeter defense was beaten off the ball.  Yet, there was determined resistance.  The Plumlees and Kelly didn’t give up inside, though they were losing the battle.  Duke’s outside shooting kept the team in the game.  Mason gave some inside offensive presence.  But Kansas had clearly knocked Duke back with its intensity.  Perhaps the telling point was in the first half, Kansas owned the foul line.  Duke’s lack of on the ball defense allowed the penetration that gave Kansas an easy basket or put them on the line.  Duke was shooting from deep, and not getting to the line.

All that changed in the second half, in a dramatic way.  This is coaching.  This is team character.  This is heart.  This was Mason stepping up to have a complete game; his best since coming to Duke.  He didn’t do it on great feeds from Kyrie (as in his high scoring games last year); he did it with post moves and (are you ready for this) proficiency from the line.  Mason’s 17 points came on 7-9 foul shooting as well as 5-10 shooting from the floor (including the full court lay-in that was athletically awesome for a 6’10 power guy).  He turned the fouling and inside game around, commanding the boards and defending Robinson really well.  He had 12 boards (5 offensive).  While he had great help from Ryan Kelly (36 minutes), who was named the MVP of the tournament, it was Mason who transformed the Duke team in the second half.  Kelly also scored 17 points and played a terrific floor game, handling the ball, making good passes, defending, and rebounding.  He deserved the award for the tournament; Mason for the game.  He was on the court for 37 minutes.  He had four turnovers and committed 3 fouls, all offensive.  You could see his determination to give Duke the inside offensive presence needed to give Duke an added dimension.

Though the bigs stole the Duke show from the guards last night, the guards deserve much praise, especially on the defensive end.  Duke played its best defense of the season by far in the second half.  The switching was smooth, and the Kansas penetration was met with fierce determination and partial success.  Even though Curry was kept in check, his steadiness and defense demonstrated how valuable he is even when not scoring.  He had 10 points (2-4 from 3) in 36 scintillating minutes.  Dawkins defended stoutly and hit a key shot at the end.  With Duke trailing 60-58, he hit a deep three to start the Duke 10-0 run, which finished the game.  He played 34 minutes.  Austin was productive and kept Duke in the game in the first half.  He had four fouls, and was on the bench for the last 6 minutes of the game.  He played only 27 minutes and took only 10 shots (he usually leads the team in shot attempts).  What coaching genius led K to keep Tyler Thornton on the floor and Rivers on the bench at game’s end?  Sort of seemed to work, didn’t it?

Bill makes the point (with which I agree) that Rivers attitude is improving by leaps and bounds.  We both thought it significant that Rivers on the bench at crunch time was an enthusiastic cheerleader there without any “why-am-I-not-in-the-game” pouting.  His defense continues to improve; his driving made the Kansas defense adjust, and his deep shooting attempts come when Duke needs a hoop.  He’s getting better and I think Bill is reassessing as Austin shows more Duke/Coach K attitude.  And what can we say about Thornton.  How could I leave this for the end?  He has heart and attitude.  He was so cool when he took his first three from the corner without hesitation.  The last shot was out of fantasy land.  Tyler deserved it for his hustle and attitude.  He played 21 minutes and had 7 points (and didn’t foul out).

Duke played a very thin bench.  Other than Tyler’s 27 minutes, Miles played 8 minutes and Quinn Cook 1 (missing a 3 as the half ended).  Yet Duke’s bench outscored Kansas’s by 9 (Miles had the other bucket; Kansas got 0 points from its bench).

It was a satisfying game for Duke, and a terrific tournament.  They have played 7 games in 12 days and taken on major competition.  I said earlier that Duke could have a rougher November than usual because this team would be playing top competition while establishing its identity.  What a coaching job so far!  This team is reminding me (wishful thinking?) of the ‘70-’73 Knicks, who had five guys playing together, defending and finding the open man.  They were all really good, but anyone could be counted on to take the key shot, rather than relying on one star.  This team has great balance, with all five starters having the ability to take over a game.  Indeed each has done it this year.  A fun team to watch grow.

Bill adds (some observations):

  • Consistent intensity on defense is the primary reason Coach K’s teams have won 900+ games. Other programs like Michigan are catching on; however, it takes a special coach to get Blue Chip players to buy into the concept. I watched some of the UNC – UNLV game last night and was struck by in comparison to Duke and Michigan how casual Carolina appeared on defense. A high powered offense alone cannot win every game anymore.
  • Two successive threes–a clutch potential game winner, then an improbable career shot to seal the win that Tyler Thornton made against Michigan couldn’t have happened to a more deserving player.
  • I don’t know who was voting or what game they were watching but from what I saw, for Mason Plumlee not to make the All Star team, if not MVP, was ludicrous. MP2 a gained another twenty five pounds of muscle and grit against Michigan.

I will be in Asheville on business for most of the week and Alan will be in Key West for a (alleged) legal conference, so we might be able to file anything right after the Ohio State game.

DUKE- – OHIO STATE

Some observations:

  • Ohio State played an exceptional game in front of a crowd of frenzied supporters  energized, in part,  by the hiring of Urban Meyers as their football  coach and may well be a more talented team than Duke. However, the Buckeyes are not necessarily as good as they played and Duke is certainly  not as bad. It is hard to remember a more listless defensive performance   than this one—and we all know defense has been the bedrock for the success      of Coach K’s teams.
  • Mason Plumlee essentially played Sullinger to a draw. He scored 16 points on  7-of-12 shooting, most of them directly on Sullinger, to go with eight boards. Sullinger scored 21 on 8-of-14, and had eight boards of his own.   And, to be fair, many of Sullinger’s made shots were not things of beauty.  Many of them came against someone other than Plumlee, particularly after  his undeserved second foul, and some of the other points came on foul  shouts of dubious origin. Duke’s two-game stretch against Kansas and Ohio  State have arguably featured the best performances of Plumlee’s career.  After out-playing Thomas Robinson in Maui, he can now add a draw with  Sullinger to his resume, and that can only bode well for the rest of the   season..
  • We are  used to the periodic disappearance of Andre Dawkins but to have Ryan Kelly  in the same mode was a first.
  • While  Austin Rivers was a sensational offensive virtuoso for most of the first  half,  I’m not convinced that auditioning for the NBA is good for the team. Dribbling and dribbling and breaking down his man, penetrating and      shooting while ignoring passes to open men on the three point line may  produce highlight film but it also produces a stagnant offense. And in the  second half, the Buckeyes adjusted by funneling Rivers down the lane into  an impenetrable  picket fence defense of a center and two forwards.  It reminded me of  Kyrie Irving’s performance in last year’s Arizona      game – lots of breathtaking moves, lots of points, and lots of teammates  standing around getting cold.
  • The  success of the 2010 championship team was by guards penetrating and  kicking to an open man or Zoubek rebounding and redirecting to an open teammates rather than trying to score himself.
  • Ted  Valentine, the referee, certainly didn’t do Duke any favors. A series of  questionable calls, especially a phantom second foul on Mason  Plumlee helped thwart a second and final, Duke run. Sullinger,  in  particular, was the beneficiary of several “star calls.”
  • As my buddy Tommy noted, there was an atypical lack of Duke player leadership  when it was most needed. No player got the team together and attempted to  rally them.
  • I suspect  that there will be personnel changes and guarantee a much better defensive  effort next week.

Bill and his computer are still estranged, so once again I’m the primary scrivener, but Bill’s input is here and begins with the opening sentence about the game.  We talked at halftime and after the game.  Neither conversation was as much fun as the ones we had during and after the Kansas game.

Bill: “Duke looked as if it had completed playing the three games in three days in Maui yesterday and took the court directly from the plane home.”  Duke certainly looked tired and slow, and was never in the game after the first 10-12 minutes.  Ohio State looked terrific.  Bill and I (not quite grasping at straws) both remembered when Duke had looked just this bad previously.  It was in January of 2010 when Duke traveled to DC and was annihilated by Georgetown in front of Obama and Biden.  Duke did not look any better that afternoon than last night.  Oh yes, said Bill and I consoling ourselves momentarily, Duke won the National Championship that year.

Duke’s defense in the first half was not quite up to the level of awful.  Ohio State shot 60 % from the floor.  That is not a misprint.  Duke “held” Ohio State to 57% shooting in the second half, but the Buckeyes were 5-5 from behind the arc in the second half.  Ouch!  It seemed to me that Duke’s defense went south when Mason picked up his second foul at around the 11 minute mark of the first half.  It took his extra aggression away and Ohio State just rolled.  None of the Duke perimeter players could keep Ohio State in front of them.  Austin might have played the best defense of the starting perimeter.  Damned with faint praise.

Offensively, Duke (except for Austin and Mason) was horrible in the first half.  Neither Dawkins nor Kelly scored (and Dawkins might have been better on offense than defense). K benched them both.  Kelly played only 15 minutes (he wasn’t any better than Dawkins on the defensive end) and Dawkins 19.  Only Austin (37 minutes) and Mason (36 minutes) played their normally allotted time on the floor.  Seth played 26 minutes; no other Duke player played more than 19 minutes.

The stat that stands out for me is that Quinn Cook played 14 minutes, and had 4 assists.  The entire Duke backcourt (not counting Cook) of Thornton (only 8 minutes), Curry, Dawkins and Rivers (total of 90 minutes on the floor) had only 3 assists – all by Austin.  Seth, to give an idea of how much of a non-factor he was, had 0 assists against 3 turnovers (7 points) in his 26 minutes.  Craft completely outplayed him on both ends of the floor.

Bright spots: Austin is developing into a superstar.  He is not there yet, but he is clearly and by a wide margin, Duke’s most gifted player.  He is learning; you can see his development game by game.  He was heroic in the first half when Duke was in contact, and he never stopped his effort, though his decision making deteriorated as the game got out of hand.  Mason is becoming a real offensive presence to go along with superb rebounding and excellent defense.  He too is in the process of becoming a genuine inside force who will command a double team.  Still, 2-5 from the free throw line doesn’t cut it.  Miles had a good game as well in 17 minutes.

K used the second half to give his freshman and Hairston playing time.  Gbinije played 13 credible minutes and demonstrated some real athleticism and defensive intensity.  Cook is the only other Duke player who can beat the defense off the dribble and get into the lane.  He was 0-3 from 3 and had a turnover, but he is defending well (finally) and seems over his injury.  As I have been saying all season, he has the potential to become a force.

Coach K has a history of using losses as focal points for his team’s improvment.  “Everyone knows what to do with a win; winners know what to do with a loss.”  Next Play.  Colorado State.

DUKE- COLORADO STATE

As anticipated, the Blue Devils rebounded from the embarrassing loss to Ohio State with a strong effort at both ends of the floor. Tyler Thornton replaced Andre Dawkins in the starting lineup. Thornton provided on the ball pressure and overall defensive enthusiasm that Coach K loves. The mysterious Dawkins came off the bench firing on all cylinders as he had 15 points and 2 assists in twelve minutes before he left the game with back spasms.

Unfortunately, the Rams were without the services of their seven foot center so they had no player over 6’6’’; however, they are one of the best three point shooting teams in the country. So, predictably Duke took away the three but the Rams hung around for most of the first half with good ball movement and athletic drives. Mason Plumlee continued his more mature, efficient production (except from the free throw line).

The most interesting development was Austin Rivers willingness to focus on something more than the rim on his drives and pass the ball to an open teammate rather than challenging a double team. Announcer Len Elmore, the former Terp center, essentially commented that for Duke to be a top team, Austin had to make the players around him better—and Duke has some terrific shooters but they can’t score without the ball. Consequently, there was less dribbling and much better ball movement than in previous games. Except for Rivers, all of Duke perimeter players (and that includes Kelly) are betterl catch and shoot scorers than creating their own shot—and Rivers can make that happen.

Some observations:

  • Seth Curry only had 5 points but 8 assists and played very effective, intense defense.
  • MP1 is playing with much more confidence and control. It is too bad this is his last year but maybe it will be a Zoubek finish.
  • Quinn Cook is demonstrating glimpses of unusual athleticism and, more importantly, natural point guard skills.
  • Mike Gbinije is another freshman making a case for more playing time as a defensive stopper.
  • Alex Murphy, the 6’8’’ forward, who was thought to be the second most talented freshman, is dressed and on the bench but has not had any minutes since he received a head injury a month or so ago. It makes you wonder if he as well as MP3 are being red shirted.
  • Except for Kelly, Curry, and Thornton, this team is not a good free throw shooting team—and that could be a problem.
  • Kyle Single chose to continue playing this year in Spain for about $1,000,000 rather than play for the Detroit Pistons.

In case you missed it, Pat Summitt and Mike Krzyzewski have been named SI’s 2010 Sportswoman and Sportsman of the Year. The only other basketball coaches so honored are John Wooden and Dean Smith.

Alan adds:

What is the fun of watching a game where the team Duke is playing is so obviously physically overmatched?  I find it illuminating to see what Coach K does in that situation.  It’s almost like seeing what goes on in practice.  Who is developing that might help this team in the future – this year, perhaps; next year for sure.  So, Duke’s performance was frequently scintillating, but the level of athleticism of the opposition makes one cautious about reading too much into it.

What’s with Andre Dawkins?  After two fairly dreadful games (0 points against Ohio State), Andre exploded off the bench in the first minutes of this game.  He played only 12 minutes in the first half before being injured, but what a 12 minutes.  Andre was 6-8, including 3-5 from 3 with 2 assists (0 against Ohio State).  That means 3-3 from inside the arc; he passed, defended with high energy and was a force.  Is it only against inferior athletes that he can do this?  We will all spend the season rooting for Andre to develop consistency, especially against big time opponents.  Let’s hope the back injury is not significant.

Mason had an almost perfect first half.  He played 25 minutes overall, but missed the only shot he took in the second half.  He was 6-6 from the floor in the first half, and played with poise and confidence (and some really impressive athleticism).  In the second half, I thought he got a little block happy, and was leaving the floor (frequently without his lingerie – as Rafferty might say).  His floor game was dominant and game-changing: 10 boards; 5 blocks; 4 steals and 2 assists.  Only 1 turnover and 0 personal fouls.  The only negative is his foul shooting, 2-6.  We can talk about Miles in the same paragraph.  He played 19 minutes and had 14 points (same as Mason; only Miles was 4-4 from the line) on 5-6 shooting.  In addition, he had 5 boards, 3 blocks and an assist with 0 turnovers and only 2 fouls.  But before we get too impressed, let’s remember how small Colorado State is as a team.  They had some decent offense inside, but could not really compete with Duke’s bigs.

Kelly had a very sleep walking slow first half and a good (but not as good as either Plumlee) second half.  He and Austin scored all of Duke’s points early in the second half to keep the lead large, even when the defense took some time off.  In 21 minutes, he had 8 points, 3 boards, 3 turnovers and a block.  He uncharacteristically missed 2 foul shots (2-4).  He didn’t feel like the Kelly that was one of Duke’s best players up until the Ohio State game.

Austin continues to improve.  He is pulling up after getting by the first defender to make a pass or do something else helpful.  And, he is really beginning to come on as a defensive player.  He played the most of any Duke player (30 minutes) and was pretty efficient.  He scored 17 on 5-9 shooting (including 3-5 from deep; some from very deep).  He had 2 boards; 2 assists and a steal against only 1 turnover.  He did miss two foul shots (2-4) and committed only 2 fouls.  His ability to get by his defender initially is breathtaking.  He is a superstar in the making.

Seth had 8 assists, 3 boards, 2 steals and a very effective defensive game.  He took 8 shots, but scored only 5 points (1-5 from 3).  A telling negative stat was that Seth did not attempt a foul shot.  Still, he was the glue and played the third most minutes (25).  Tyler played the second most minutes (28) and was pretty efficient.  He took only 2 shots (both missed 3s), but was 5-6 from the line and had 4 assists against 0 turnovers to go with 3 boards and some energetic defense.  He started in place of Dawkins and even though playing more than usual, had only 3 fouls.  Quinn Cook had some defensive lapses and I didn’t think played very well.  He is clearly Duke’s best pure point guard (wasn’t his lob to Miles a pass of beauty?).  He played 16 minutes and had 3 boards.  Silent G (Gbinije) showed some quicks and hops in his 10 minutes.  He may contribute this year before the season is over.  He can defend.

I watched Washington a bit last night as they lost to Marquette.  This is a very athletic team with excellent players and good coaching.  They are better than their record.  Duke does seem to like playing in The World’s Most Famous Arena.  Saturday at noon, I think.

DUKE – WASHINGTON

For about thirty-five minutes, Duke played the most balanced game of this young year. Then, they got sloppy missing free throws, Curry and Rivers fouling out, the Huskies finally getting hot, and a seemingly easy high teen win became too close for comfort. Shooting in the low sixties and/or making 27 of 44 free throws is an invitation to lose. MP2 was the main culprit, missing 9 of 11. This (not lack of athleticism as Dickie V seems to think) is the real Achilles heel of the team, because attacking the basket, getting to the free throw line, then making the free throws, has always been  a benchmark of Coach K’s winning strategy. Just think of how many games Redick and Scheyer (just to name two) salted away.

That said, Austin Rivers (18 pts) is playing under more control and seeing the whole floor better with each game– and that makes for a much more effective offense. The key to the first half run was Andre (aka Microwave) Dawkins, who appears to be more productive/motivated coming off the bench, as he had 14 points in about as many minutes as well as playing aggressive defense.  Ryan Kelly had an atypically poor shooting first half, perhaps because Bill Cowher, the father of his girlfriend, was in the stands but recovered nicely to have 16 points and 8 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 blocks.

Washington is a talented team whose salient characteristics are offensive rebounding and three point shooting. The three man rotation of MP2, Kelly, and MP1 (plus guards crashing the boards) took care of the rebounding end of the equation and the all the perimeter players choked off the threes (29%).

I recently mentioned that Miles might be having a Zoubek-like surge in him for his final year. Today he was 9 points and 7 rebounds in 20 minutes (plus 3-4 from the line) against big time competition. More minutes for Miles means the other two big men are fresher for the game and the season plus he is a big, wide athletic presence in the paint.

Some observations:

  • While the team as a whole is a subpar (68%) at the free throw line, obviously Miles Plumlee (30%) is a huge drag on that number. Individually, Curry, Kelly, and Thornton are very good at the line and Rivers (70%) is ok. The first two are the ones you expect/hope will be on the line at the end of a close game.
  • Duke had no defensive answer for Wroten (23 pts) down the stretch. He is a very impressive freshman.
  • Madison Square Garden is sort of a home away from home for the Blue Devils and next to Cameron it is the players favorite court—especially Dawkins—and there are a lot of Duke alums(including Alan) in the Apple.
  • While Curry has had a couple of subpar offensive performances, he was at the point and a catalyst for the early second half surge.
  • Out of necessity, Quinn Cook, the most naturally talented (but untested) point guard, was on the floor at the end of the game and continued to make a case for more playing time.
  • Boy, aren’t we glad Coach K apparently saw the handwriting on the wall released Kris Humphries (Mr. Kim Kardashian) from his commitment to play basketball at Duke (because of demands for guaranteed playing time).

Alan Adds:

Duke played an absolutely great first half, especially defensively.  The announcers kept criticizing Washington’s shooting and claiming there were many open missed shots.  I may have been watching a different game because I saw very few open Washington shots and I thought Duke (all 3 bigs) defended the rim brilliantly, challenging everything inside.  For the game, Duke’s 3 big men had 7 blocked shots (3 for Kelly; 2 each for the Plumlees).  Dawkins had another absolutely brilliant first half (12 of his 17 points).  He is defending now at a high level and had 4 key defensive rebounds (he has bona fide hops).  He was, however, 2-9 from behind the arc with most of those misses in the second half.  Only Kelly repeatedly misfiring for the first 17 minutes of the half and 7 silly turnovers kept Duke from having a 20+ point lead.

The game and Duke’s defense changed dramatically when Mason was called for a foul (I thought it was his third, because I sensed he lost his aggressiveness after the foul, but it was actually his only foul in the game, so maybe it was something else — such as thinking about his foul shooting).  In any event, Duke’s defense started allowing penetration and fouling.  Fouling and foul shots decided the game.  While Duke was only 27-44 (not good, but as Bill points out, without Mason’s numbers, Duke was 25-33, which is respectable), Washington was worse 13-23 (only 4-9 in the first half).  So even with Mason, Duke made more free throws than Washington attempted and had a 14 point margin at the end.  Duke made fewer field goals than Washington on fewer shots.  Duke was 27 for 57 while Washington was 31 for 65.  Each team was 5-17 from 3.  How did Washington get 8 more shots?  I’m not sure.  Duke held a rebounding edge and each team had 14 turnovers.

Duke could not put Washington away, which is disturbing.  Part of that was Washington started making some very difficult shots; and a lot was Duke’s porous perimeter defense, which resulted in both Curry and Rivers fouling out, while Thornton stayed on the floor at crunch time with 4 fouls.  A note about Quinn Cook’s contribution with his floor leadership and ball handling in the last 3 minutes:  When Seth fouled out, Cook ran the team, and with some ball handling aplomb.  He showed a lot of poise for his first action in a tight situation.  He missed two foul shots, but was 4-6 and made the last two when it really closed Washington out.

This was Seth’s third non-stellar game in a row.  We need to see a post-Ohio State comeback for his shooting.  Against Colorado State, he didn’t score, but had 8 assists.  Last night his numbers were only a couple of ticks above dismal. He played 30 minutes before fouling out with 8 points (4-4 from the line keeps his stats above dismal).  He took 5 shots (2-4 from the field and 0-1 from 3).  I think the illuminating numbers are: 5 turnovers against only 3 assists with no steals or blocks.  Seth with no steals!  Very unusual.  Duke needs Seth back after exams.

Austin also played 25 minutes before fouling out.  His game is improving visibly and he is now very close to stardom.  He’s defending better and I haven’t seen the on-the-court petulance that so disturbed Bill in the earliest part of the season.  Five fouls is a result of his more aggressive effort on defense, which I predict will continue to improve.  In those 25 minutes he had 18 points on 13 shots (2-5 from 3 and 4-4 from the line), 4 boards and 3 assists (3 turnovers).  He is slowly turning into a de facto point guard.  He is starting to pull up (even though he picked up a charge on a drive where he gave up the ball nicely, but still crushed the stationary defender). He is an improving passer.

Andre played the most minutes (32) followed by Mason, Curry and Thornton with 30.  Kelly played 27, Austin 25 and Miles 20.  This seems a very balanced team where anyone of 6-7 players can be the player of the game.  What is encouraging is the across-the-board improvement from every contributing player (maybe except Seth, temporarily).  A work in progress to be sure, and a rewarding season so far.  Conference play is not far away.

DUKE – UNC-GREENSBORO

Because of end of semester term papers and exams, Duke played only one game in nearly three weeks against UNC-Greensboro and for most of the first half looked like they all had been pulling all-nighters for too much of that time. If that is true, the good news is that we must assume there will be no academic causalities. The bad news is that for the first fourteen minutes the Blue Devils looked like the 2-9 team. However, after more than a few choice words from Coach K, his team outscored UNC-G 20-10 over the last six minutes, with Tyler Thornton, Austin Rivers, Andre Dawkins, Rivers again, and Ryan Kelly making 3-pointers to go to the locker room leading 45-34.

The second half was an opportunity for some of the freshmen to play extended minutes. Quinn Cook showed why he is an Alan fav. He scored 14 points on a variety of shots and demonstrated a quickness and ball handling ability not seen since Jason Williams and Bobby Hurley. Michael Gbinije was also impressive in a less flashy manner on both ends of the floor, which might earn him more minutes as the season progresses. He had eight points and was 4-4 from the foul line, which was a welcome sight. Other than that MP2 had a monster night (15 pts, 13 rebs, 2 blks), MP1 had the unusual line of 13 rebs, 2 blks and 0 pts, and Rivers continued to play more with with more control and mature judgment.

Some observations:

  • Rivers approach to the game reminds me most of Art Heyman. While Art was taller, heavier, nastier, and a forward, he was always attacking. If Andre Dawkins had that mindset, he would be an All-American. As it is Andre can still light up the scoreboard with the sweetest stroke in the game and is pump faking and attacking the basket more often.
  • Because of shooting less than 40% from the free throw line, MP2 is leaving 5-10 points a game on the floor and off his scoring average—and that will cost Duke some close games. On the other hand, his ambidextrous baby hook shot is a welcome and necessary addition to low post production and more scoring balance.
  • Tyler Thornton continues to start because he provides defensive energy, solid ball handling, and the vocal leadership that Coach K stresses.
  • Ryan Kelly has recently not played his best basketball but still is the most versatile and reliable performer on the team.
  • Mike Gminski, who did the telecast last night,  was a very smart, very efficient, and terrific –if athletically unspectacular–center at Duke. He brings the same qualities to the broadcast booth. He reminds of Ray Scott, the Green Bay Packers announcer during the Lombardi era. Both know the game and only give you pertinent information (Taylor off left tackle for six) without all the extraneous nonsense that interrupts what you can clearly see with your own eyes.

Alan adds:

I didn’t think the game was on television in NYC (and it wasn’t, live), but it was delayed on ESPNU; so, I watched most of the second half,  when Duke was really rolling.  I heard the announcers describing Duke’s horribly sloppy play in the first 15 minutes.  Mercifully, I was spared that, and I appreciated the chance to watch the freshmen (besides Austin) get an opportunity to compete.

I finally saw the Quinn Cook that I had seen last year in high school.  He looked awfully good at the offensive end, and pretty good at the defensive end (lost some concentration toward the end, but seems to have most of his mobility back).  His handle is very good and he makes good decisions (especially for a freshman).  He is without a doubt Duke’s best passer and playmaker.  I saw him for extended periods in the backcourt with Austin last year in high school all-star games.  They play together extremely well, and have the most ball skills on the team.  They worked well together last night.  Austin set Quinn up for an in rhythm 3.  Quinn threw a couple of lobs that were exquisite.  Of course, the level of competition makes it difficult to draw conclusions from the nice performance.  Still a good sign.

Gbinije is very quick and athletic.  I also saw him in high school; one AAU final game in the summer.  He was by far the best player not only on his team, but in the game.  He guarded the best player on the other team (I forget whom, but a very highly ranked guy), and was very effective.  Silent G is defensively and team oriented; very versatile – a slasher with a good handle and fine rebounder for his size.  Last night he played 14 minutes and was 2-2 from the field and 4-4 from the foul line for 8 points plus 3 boards.  That’s 8 points on 2 shots.  Very efficient.  Add that to some serious defensive intensity.  I hope Austin sticks around for a while; this is a hummer of a freshman class. We haven’t even seen Alex Murphy or MP3.

Bad stats: Seth ( 20 minutes) had 4 turnovers and 0 assists.  But he had 4 steals; 9 points (4-4 from the line, but 1-4 from 3 pt land) in 20 minutes.  Thornton picked up 4 fouls, (2 steals and a 3 pointer) in 16 minutes; Seth and Austin ( 26 minutes) 3 fouls each.  Duke missed 10 foul shots in the first half; Mason missing 5 of them.  Kelly missed 3, but made 7.  Austin missed 2.  [Duke was 8-8 in the second half]

Shots:  Austin took the most shots (11; 5 from behind the arc).  3-6 from inside and 2-5 from outside.  Hairston took the next most shots – 8 in only 11 minutes, but made only 2.  Quinn was 6-7 (missing only 1 of his 3 3pt attempts).  Pretty efficient: 14 points on 7 shots.  He also had 2 assists in 18 minutes.  Dawkins had 11 points on 6 shots (3-5 from behind the arc) in a game high 27 minutes.  He also had 4 defensive rebounds.  Mason was 6-8 with a terrific stat line (except for his 5 missed foul shots in the first half).

Duke is 7th in one poll (behind UNC) and 5th in the other (ahead).

DUKE – WESTERN MICHIGAN 

Playing their first game in 11 days and only its second in the last 19, Duke started uncharacteristically fast and raced through an overmatched Western Michigan 110-70. Using ten players, the Blue Devils shots lights out—over 50% from the floor (and the three point line) as well as (gasp) 80% from the free throw line. Here is how hot eight of the ten players were—110 points with Dawkins and MP2 scoring a total of 5 points.

Some observations:

  • Duke      plays at a different speed with Quinn Cook on the floor. Remember, he is      recovering from knee surgery and did not play or practice on the summer      trip to China, so was behind in conditioning and timing. Quinn is      improving every game. Last night he has 8 assists, 0 turnovers, 4      rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block. However, his best play was diving to the      floor, wrestling control of the ball from three Mustangs, and flipping a      prone, no look pass to MP2 for a dunk. That kind of hustle  alone      will get him more playing time. Just ask Thornton.
  • Seth      Curry has played the last few games with an injured ankle. Apparently, the      injury has healed because he had 22 points (3-4 from the arc).
  • Austin      Rivers not only shot well from the floor and hit 6-7 from the line but also      was looking for open teammates on his drives.
  • Tyler      Thornton was 4-4 from three point land and is hitting 50% for the season.
  • MP1      had 15 rebounds and is said to be the best big man in practice. We can      only hope that he has an late blooming “Zoubek” ending to his career.
  • Michael      Gbinije looks like he is going to be a contributor this year and a starter      sometime in the future. He is 6’6”, strong, athletic with a nice shooting      touch. He was 2-3 on threes and has not missed a free throw all season.
  • And      speaking of athletic, ex-Terp Len Elmore, whom I like as an announcer and      has a law degree from Harvard (so should know better), has bought into the      narrative that Duke is not a very athletic team. (Usually, that is      announcer code for too many white players.) Let’s take a look: Mp1 &      MP2? Dawkins & Rivers? Cook? Are you serious? Curry & Kelly don’t      jump through the roof but do understand the game, are in the right place      at the right time, and are athletic enough to be lethal three point      shooters. In addition, Kelly can play the low post, so poses a matchup      problem for any team.

John Feinstein, a Duke graduate and prolific author, has a new book “One on One” which is a must read for anyone who likes college basketball, professional tennis, baseball, or golf—all of which John covered for the Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, and The Sporting News. It is all the fascinating back stories of his thirty some years of covering sports. What I didn’t know is that his parents were consumed by the arts, not sports. His father was the first executive director of the Kennedy Center and later director of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington Opera. His mother had a PhD in music history and taught at Columbia and George Washington Universities. Growing up, their New York city  apartment was often filled with the likes of Isaac Stern (his father’s best friend), Rudolph Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Marian Anderson, Robert De Niro. John, however, was not impressed because his heroes were baseball and basketball players.

Alan adds:

I was only able to watch the first half last night, but really that was enough.  It was an amazing offensive first half (kept in perspective by the fact that Duke was a far superior team both athletically and basketball wise).  I thought Duke played some of its best defense of the year in the first 13/14 minutes of the first half.  The switching and cohesiveness was magical.  Then, the margin grew large enough that it was just natural to relax a bit and the level of defensive intensity diminished.

Bill’s analysis coincides with mine on each of his points.  I, of course, am quite pleased by the performance of Quinn Cook.  Coach K took time at his press conference to explain how serious Cook’s knee injury has been, and emphasized that he didn’t really even begin to practice until October.  His on the ball defense is improving by leaps and bounds.  He is intense.  He is also a pure point guard, and has the best knack of anyone on the roster for running a team and handling the ball.  Perspective is still important because as impressive as Cook’s stat line was last night, he still has to prove himself against elite competition.  Western Michigan is not that.  Barry Jacobs pointed out Duke’s most negative statistic this season — that through 11 games, Duke has more turnovers than assists.  Not a good stat.  Last night, Cook played 23 minutes and, as both Bill and Coach K emphasized, he had 8 assists and 0 turnovers.  He also had 4 boards, a block and 2 steals to go with 16 points (on 12 shots; meaning that he was 3-3 inside the arc).  He was 7-8 from the foul line with only negative stat — 1-4 from 3 land.  As I have been writing consistently, this team needs major contributions from Cook to reach its potential.

The return of Seth to form was warming.  Austin continues to improve and blend.  It was a terrific offensive performance.  Two more games (Penn and Temple) before conference play.

DUKE – PENNSYLVANIA

For years Alan and I have been exchanging phone calls and emails on Duke Basketball because we enjoyed comparing notes on talent and anticipating Coach K’s strategy. We have generally been on the same page—even the same verse. For example, he sent me his “Alan adds” comments on last night’s game before I wrote anything and since it is so comprehensive and parallels my thoughts, I will lead off with it.

Alan writes:

All assessments have to be made with the caveat that (as with Western Michigan), Duke faced a team with less talented (and shorter) athletes.  Penn, however, knows how to play basketball, and many of the Quaker baskets were the result of ball movement, cutting and solid fundamentals.  Duke’s dominance in rebounding, shot blocking, and scoring in close made it easy to watch the game with the eye of an analyst rather than a fan worried about the outcome.  That was never in doubt after Duke built a 16 point lead in the game’s first 7 minutes.  Ryan Kelly had 8 points before Penn even got their warm-ups off.

The post-game comments focused on Duke’s point guard play.  The TV announcers focused on the negative Duke stat of more turnovers than assists, and the evolving point guard situation, which began with Seth as the starter.  Thornton moved into the starting lineup for improved defensive intensity and better and more secure ball handling (but reduced firepower on the floor).  In the last few games, Quinn Cook has been part of the evolution.  The key stat for Quinn is (in the last two games): 17 assists without a turnover.  Now everyone is talking.  K has been positive (“Quinn is playing great”; “when he passes he sees you in places where other people have a hard time seeing you”), going out of his way to praise Cook’s defense (which I believe is still spotty; he loses concentration and then his man, but his on the ball defense has improved visibly as his lateral quickness returns).  K pointed out that Tyler can play off the ball as well as point.  Curry and Kelly both mentioned Cook’s contribution to team growth in the post game press conference.

And, why not.  Cook played 22 minutes (5th most for Duke in the game), with two spectacular finishing layups to go with his 9 assists.  His outside shot isn’t yet where (I think) it will be, based on his high school shooting.  Duke had 12 turnovers with 20 assists.  But take away Cook’s numbers and Duke had 12 turnovers against 11 assists.  Nothing in the numbers or what I have seen so far as changed my assessment that this Duke team needs Cook’s contributions to reach its full potential, and be a contender to beat UNC for the ACC titles (regular season and tournament), and possibly more.  Think of the impact that the insertion of Kendall Marshall into the starting point guard role on last year’s UNC team had.  Cook’s impact won’t be that dramatic, but has the potential to be quite substantial.  It is an extra plus that he and Rivers play so well together.

Special kudos for the efficiency of both Kelly (18 points on 12 shots) and Curry (15 points on 12 shots).  Austin had a quiet game, but should not be overlooked.  First, he is aggressive when Duke needs points, not when Duke is comfortably ahead.  Second, his defense is improving at a really rapid rate (he’s pretty quick and has length to defend guards).  His attitude has improved, and so has his decision making.  We are reminded of his special talents when you see a cross over, like the one he pulled off yesterday, when he faked right and crossed over to going left for a lovely layup, leaving the defense gasping (perhaps partly in admiration).

The minutes give an insight into K’s evaluation of his team:  Austin led with 27 minutes, followed by Kelly with 26 minutes, Curry and Mason with 25 and Quinn with 22.  Dawkins played 20 minutes while Miles and Thornton played 17 minutes.  Dawkins’s shot is still inconsistent, but in 20 minutes he got 4 and had a steal and two assists.  He also had two turnovers and failed to convert on a couple of nice forays to the rim.  His development and achieving consistency is also required for Duke to reach its potential.

So far, a fun team to root for and a fun season to watch.

Bill’s observations:

  • With the earlier move of Thornton into the starting lineup and now the increased minutes for Quinn Cook, I believe we are witnessing the transformation of this team into one with multi-dimensional drive and overdrive capabilities. As Alan points out, if you project Quinn’s last two games assist (8 & 9 with limited minutes) into that of a full time starter, you have numbers that set an NCAA record. Even half of that number is a Duke record. That probably will not happen this year, but you get the idea. Thornton will continue to start and get his minutes because he sets the defensive intensity with his on-the-ball pressure and solid point guard skills (he can also play off the ball on offense). But Cook operates at warp speed and sees the floor like few guards. There are other personnel options (or “packages” as they say in the NFL) depending on the opponent and the game situation that may well make this a more formidable team than many anticipated.
  • No detail is too small. Did you notice Jeff Capel sitting among the players on the bench, not with the other coaches?  Why? Coach K:“We’re taking a look at our chemistry. We evaluate everything, it’s what you should do. Just to make sure we’ve giving them feedback. You can get ingrained with a certain procedure and be a slave to that procedure and it may not be the right thing for this group. So again that was something we evaluated over the holidays is just how we sit on the bench. What are we doing when they come off the court? Who is talking to the guys? Where are guys sitting? That type of thing and we made a couple changes there. We did a lot of evaluation.”
  • Massage received: Kelly threw a behind the back pass on a fast break against W. Michigan that was intercepted. He came out of the game and hardly played in the second half. He had 18 points last night.  MP2 did not rebound well in the opening minutes against W. Michigan and was replaced by MP1, who played well. Last night he has 15 rebounds
  • Duke has always been good at wearing teams down and the depth on this edition has the personnel to do that in spades.
  • Rivers only had 8 points but played more under control and much better defense.
  • Curry is not just a spot up jump shooter. Since the three point line was instituted, the pull up jump shot has become almost an obsolete skill as most player shoot the three or attack the basket. When Seth penetrates he pulls up for the short open  jumper. In most ways, he is the most polished offensive player Duke has.
  • Hubert Davis, the ex- Tar Heel shooting guard,  was the commentator last night (and apparently will be doing Duke’s Sunday night games on the ESPN family of channels). Hubert has done his homework and has an outstanding (and fair) assessment of this Duke team. A terrific jump shooter himself, Davis loves Andre Dawkins stroke (sound familiar), but wonders about his (and MP1) consistency. He notes that this and a positive assists to turnover ratio (take out Quinn Cook’s assists and it is an unacceptable 1:1) may be the keys for Duke to be a Final Four team.

DUKE – TEMPLE

After beating Jimmy Connors at the January 1980 Masters (he had lost the previous 16 matches to Jimbo), the flamboyant Vitas Gerulaitis said: “Nobody beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row”. Well, Duke was going for ten in a row and was beaten in every phase of the game by Temple, so ….I guess nobody beats Temple ten times in a row.

Listening to  announcer Jimmy Dyke, who isn’t a man of few words or opinions, which he repeats incessantly (Hey Jimmy, it’s TV not radio. We can see the game),  you might think Duke’s perimeter defense was not good tonight and might be a weakness that keeps them from being a top tier team. We all know that Coach K’s defensive philosophy of on- the- ball pressure and over playing the wings, can make a game very easy or very difficult. Desire and hustle is the key. Tonight the defense did not get the job done. Time will tell if Duke has the tenacity and talent to execute this defense against top team with strong guards.

After reading John Feinstein’s “One on One”, I re-read “Forever’s Team”, the story of the players and coaches on the 1978-80 “America’s Team” as well as the next two years and interviews with everyone ten years later. It reminded me of  the rhythms of the course of a long campaign and the inexplicable importance chemistry plays in a successful season. In 1978, it was a young team with nothing to lose. Even after losing a close game to Kentucky in the finals of the NCAA Tournament, they were convinced that they would win the next year. All the starters were back, but the assistant coach left, the players did not prepare the same way over the summer, egos and jealousies came into play, resentment over playing time surfaced, Bob Bender replaced John Harrell as the starting guard, and the next two seasons did not meet expectations. Coach Foster, a complex man to start with, felt unappreciated by Athletic Director Carl James and left immediately after the last game in 1980 for South Carolina. The point is that there are a various and complex reasons and factors beyond talent that determine winning or losing. It is how the coaches and the players deal with the both outcomes that determines the success or failure of a season– and we should understand that and each year enjoy the ride.

Some observations:

  • Wonder why Duke lost: Temple shot 57% from the field, 50% from three point land, the Blue Devils had more turnovers than assists, only MP1, MP2, & Rivers scored in double figures, and  despite a decide height advantage Duke did not outrebound Temple. Inexplicably, Ryan Kelly pulled a Dawkins disappearing act. Was he sick or just overmatched?
  • MP1 (17 pts & 4 rebs, 2 blks) played, perhaps, his best game. MP2, however, did not. Although his stats were good (16 pts & 13 rebs, 2 blks), he failed to convert too many easy baskets at crucial times.
  • Austin Rivers wants to be the go-to player but he isn’t there yet—too many uncontrolled forays to the rim, often leading to turnovers. And the announcers and press hyping him as the best player on the team is not helpful.
  • The game was a reminder that it is a long season with ebbs and flows. Duke gets everyone’s best shot and the Blue Devils are not talented enough to impose their will anytime they need to. However, over the years, you would have made a lot of money betting that Coach K’s teams do not lose two in a row.

Alan adds:

First of all, a tip of the hat in respect for Temple’s well-conceived game plan, terrific coaching, and an all- out emotional effort.  Temple came to play and outworked and outhustled Duke for the full 40 minutes.  A team with no player over 6’6” handled Duke on the boards through sheer hustle and effort.  I never thought, going in to the game, that Duke could lose.  I believe Duke’s players embraced the same fallacy.  And there is no way around it: this was a humbling loss.

Jimmy Dykes  hit the nail on the head before the game even started.  He said, “Duke has a final four offense and a second round defense.”  He was prescient.  As was Coach K, who understood that Duke would have to be able to guard the perimeter one on one (Temple had exemplary spacing).  He challenged his team to do it; they failed that challenge in dramatic fashion.  Duke’s heralded backcourt was completely outplayed on both ends of the court.  But it was the defensive end that was Duke’s real Achilles heel last night.  Temple got into the paint and shot over, around and through the Duke backcourt.  Almost 60% in the first half.  When Duke backed off in the second half, Temple made them pay with some very clutch (if Temple does not make those two clutch 3s at the end, Duke wins) outside shooting.  Temple shot 57% against Duke overall.  You could tell Coach K was flummoxed.  He tried Gbinije; he tried Hairston (not for long; each played only 8 minutes, and they made the 3 shots that they took between them — Silent G took 2 including the  luck 3 that went in off the backboard).  Dawkins was truly awful.  He was non-existent on offense in his 14 minutes (0-3; 1 board; 1 turnover; and 1 foul), but it was on defense that he really failed.  He could not keep any Temple player in front of him, and he could not get up on the shooter.  Whoever he guarded scored.  Cook, whom I have championed, wasn’t any better last night.  He took 4 3 point shots (the most of any Duke player) in his 12 minutes, making one (2-6 from the floor) with 2 assists and a turnover.  But, he too failed dramatically on the defensive end (which explains why he played only 12 minutes).  He looked lost and slow on defense (but he didn’t stand out amongst the Duke backcourt; they all looked that way).  Seth had 5 turnovers (to go with his 6 points) in 30 minutes.  To be fair, he also had 4 steals and 3 assists.  Austin was 3-11, and looked as if he had reverted to the first few games of the year, driving into turnovers.  He only had 2 in the box score, but it seemed to me he was responsible for more.  He played with intensity on defense, but not effectively.  He was thoroughly outplayed throughout.  Thornton had 5 points in 25 minutes and 2 turnovers with 0 assists and 4 personal fouls.  Duke seemed to foul a lot on the perimeter (when they were not beaten cleanly). Curry had 3 and so did Ryan Kelly.

Kelly was also exposed on the defensive end, which may explain why he only played 19 minutes (same amount of time as Miles played).  He had 2 boards and 9 points.  It was only the Plumlees that kept Duke in the game.  We have good things to say here, but the caveat is how much shorter the Temple team was.  Mason had 16 points on 13 shots (including 2-2 from the line) to go with 13 rebounds and 2 blocks in 32 minutes.  He had 7 offensive boards, and Bill is right, that he failed to connect on a few shots right around the rim.  Still he played tough defense, ran the floor, and had 4 assists (but 3 turnovers).  Miles was very efficient scoring 17 points on 11 shots with 4 boards (3 offense), and 2 blocks.  He does everything well, except rebound on the defensive end.  Temple had 12 offensive rebounds (Duke 13).  The game is slowing down for both Plumlees, but especially for Miles on the offensive end.  He looked fully in control when he got the ball down low, and had 0 turnovers with a significant number of touches.

It will be a challenge to see if Coach K can forge this team into a defensive presence.  I looked back to my pre-season comments.  I wrote that Duke’s fortunes would be determined by how well the team grew at the defensive end.  We’ll see if this game was merely a growing pain (“Everyone knows what to do with a win; winners know what to do with a loss.”), or the symptom of a fatal team weakness that will stop Duke from being a force on the National scene this year.

DUKE – GEORGIA TECH 

Predictably, Coach K started a new lineup– MP1 and Cook for Kelly and Thornton—and substituted frequently in the first half. It worked like magic for about ten minutes with Cook running the offense like a latter day Bobby Hurley. Then,  Duke got cold, casual, and Tech closed an eighteen point lead to five at intermission.  In the second half, the Blue Devils could not impose their will on Tech at either end and with five minutes to go, the outcome was in doubt. Curry’s 15 second half points and timely assist to MP2 gave Duke some momentum, then free throws determined the winner as Ryan Kelly was flawless from the line.

Except for the first and last minutes, it was  a pretty unimpressive performance, which reinforced the critique that this a young team lacking leadership, a go-to-guy, and an inability to handle bigger, stronger guards–Rice, Udofia, and Morris had all but 16 of Tech’s points.

Some observations:

  • I have mixed feelings about Austin Rivers. I’m glad he is at Duke but feel some of the hype surrounding him is over the top, in part, due to his being the son of Doc Rivers. Further, he has a Kobe Bryant-type aggressive attitude but he is not Kobe and that he is not yet as talented at this level as he thinks he is. I thought it was interesting that today he was scoreless when Duke opened up an 18 point lead; however, he contributed in other ways like playing  good defense and letting others put up the points. Late in the game,  he made one crucial steal and layup but other than that, Rice scorched him, he had a turnover, blew a layup on a beautiful feed from MP2, and, disconcerting of all, missed two free throws. I have contended that Curry and Kelly, while not spectacular athletes, are the two most solid, dependable, and intelligent players and you want  the ball in their hands when the game is on the line. And until the roles are better understood and accepted –or Rivers cuts down the turnover and hits a higher percentage of free throws — this team can beaten by opponents with lesser talent. Close games can go any which way.
  • One trait I admire is mental toughness. Seth Curry was as cold as Alaska in the first half. In the last twenty minutes, he kept Duke in the game and put the Blue Devils in a position to win.
  • Cook is a creative  playmaker who brings a whole new dimension to the offense. He encourages more motion and movement because he gives the ball up to an open player of easy shots. Plus, he is a good free throw shooter. So, if his knees and defense hold up, I think we will see on him be a catalyst for a more effective offense.
  • Duke was outrebounded by an unacceptable 35-23 but had more assists than turnovers.
  • Making free throws is a lot tougher when the game is on the line–the mouth gets dry and muscles tighten up. Udofia and Rice were 0-6 in the last two minutes when it was  a two point game. On the other hand, Kelly was 10-10 and Curry 3-4 in the last minutes. For the game, MP2 was 3-3—that’s lifetime record of 5 straight.
  • Commentators stress that Duke’s guards lack size, physical strength, and mental toughness. Sounds like a case for Dr. Wojo!
  • Given the problems that Rice, Udofia, and Morris were causing, I was surprised that we see didn’t see Gbinije, hereafter referred to as G-Man2 (in deference to Mike Gminski).

Alan Adds:

Duke’s victory over Georgia Tech was cause of as much concern as was the loss to Temple on Wednesday.  Given how much better a team Temple is than Tech, Duke’s performance against the Yellow Jackets seemed similar in its relativity to excellence – meaning a long way from it.  Once again the Duke perimeter defense looked porous and suspect.  Once again, a swing player was unguardable for Duke.  Glen Rice had 28 points for Tech , coming off the bench after failing to score in Tech’s last game.  He was unstoppable whether it was Dawkins or Austin trying to guard him.  Georgia Tech, who had lost 7 times this season, including losses to Mercer, Fordham and Tulane, shot almost 50% and outrebounded Duke 35-23.

It was only Duke’s presence and competence at the foul line that was Duke’s winning advantage (29-36 for Duke against 12-19 for Tech).  It seems clear that Coach K is still experimenting.  Cook has moved ahead of Thornton in the rotation, starting and playing 27 minutes to Thornton’s 13.  Cook’s only offensive weakness is that his 3 point shot so far is not falling (1-4) and his defense is still suspect.  I think Coach K realizes that he needs better point guard play and turnover free ball handling.  Cook is what he has in that department, and I believe Cook will be given the chance with starters minutes to develop.  The wings are Austin (30 minutes) and Seth (29) with Dawkins coming off the bench to for each (21).  Kelly did not start, but played 27 big minutes and was key at the end of the game.  He scored 21 points on 4 (yes 4) shots from the field.  He was 3-4 (1-2 from 3 land) from the field and 14-14 from the line.  He had five boards.  Mason played 29 minutes and was 3-6 from the field, with 8 boards 3 assists and 2 blocks.  Miles picked up 4 fouls, which limited him to 17 minutes with 3 boards a block and a turnover.  Hairston played 7 creditable minutes.

A big part of the Duke problem was being very cold from behind the arc; missing a myriad of wide open looks (Quinn missed two in a row on 2 great passes from Austin).  Duke was 6-22 (Duke was 17 for 28 from inside the arc), with Seth (2-7); Austin (0-3) and Dawkins (1-5) to go with Cook’s (1-4) firing blanks.  Quinn had 5 of Duke’s 13 assists; Mason had 3.  Duke had only 9 turnovers with Seth and Austin having 3.

The Duke backcourt has looked dissimulated for almost two full games now.  Seth, however, did provide some glue and energy down the stretch.  However, if Duke doesn’t get better backcourt play, the Blue Devils will struggle down the road — especially in February when the ACC schedule toughens.

Virginia comes to Cameron on Thursday for an interesting game.

DUKE – VIRGINIA  

During my talk about the upcoming season to the Duke Club of Hilton Head in October, I was asked other than Duke and Carolina what teams did I enjoy watching. I responded: “Only Virginia, because I think Tony Bennett is the best young coach in the ACC. I really like what he accomplished with the somewhat marginal talent(Scott was out for the season) he inherited”.  If Scott, who so far is the best player in the ACC, had more support tonight UVA would probably have won. Playing Virginia is like playing Princeton or Georgetown—teams that are fundamentally very sound and very patient and usually make an opponent impatient.

Duke trailed 32-28 at the half as Scott had 18 points and the Blue Devils never got into any rhythm missing threes and MP@ going 1-8 from the line. It looked like the passive team that lost to Ohio State and Temple. The only difference was that UVA did not have the big guards that out muscled our guards. They were just being out finessed.

However, Duke played the second half with a great deal more mental toughness, energy, and conviction. MP1 and MP2 played like the athletes that they are;  Thornton ignited the crowd with a terrific drive  followed by a pin point pass to MP2 who had outrun everyone for a thunderous dunk; Seth Curry hit some timely shots; and Austin Rivers made a beautiful assist to MP2 as well as tough defense.

Holding a nine point lead with three minutes to go and Kelly on the line, the wheels almost came off. Kelly missed both free throws, MP1 fouled and suddenly the Cavaliers were back in the game. A well played second half almost was for naught as UVA, trailing by three, had two treys in the last four seconds that missed.

Some observations:

·          At halftime, Coach K made some defensive adjustments to help neutralize Scott and the perimeter defenders continued to shut down the three (3-16). In general the team played with more intensity, resolve, and toughness in the second half, to build a nice lead. However, they did not close the game out like a good team should.

·          Mental toughness is an overlooked trait of winning players and winning teams. A good example of a maturing player is MP2, who was once more embarrassed at the foul line in the first half. He came out in the second half and just took the ball to the basket in a manner that said volumes about how Duke was going to compete in the final twenty minutes. Likewise Seth Curry, who did the same against Georgia Tech, was a playmaker to help the Blue Devils make a run and a working margin.

·          Quinn Cook fired some ill- advised three in the first minutes, had a quick turnover beginning the second half, and was rewarded with just twelve minutes playing time.

·          Andre Dawkins woke up to hit two threes and two foul shots when they were sorely needed in the first half.

·          MP1 played productive minutes but fouled out by being called for two moving screens within minutes of each other. He is old enough, big enough, and smart enough to understand how the game is being called.

·          G-Man2 again had no minutes and one might think he was worth a try in the first half when Scott was torching all the big men. Is he injured, out of favor, or having academic problems?

·          The fact that Duke won (at home) while being out rebounded 34-28, only hitting 8-19 free throws, can be attributed in part to holding UVA to shooting just 39% from the field and having 6  blocks.

·          A win is a win but it leaves one wondering if this team has the versatility, strength, and mental toughness to beat top teams when the threes are not falling.

Alan adds:

Written at half time]

Duke has now played 5 very disappointing halves in a row — especially on the defensive end.  Yuck!  Every (ok, almost every) Duke double team resulted in Virginia moving the ball to find the open man for a wide open lay-up, short range jumper, or high percentage 3.  It was embarrassing.  I think Duke’s defense may have been even worse in the first half than in either Temple or Ga. Tech games.  Dawkins was “embarrassed” on a back door cut.  Mason couldn’t get close enough to Scott to bother him.  Virginia played with poise and Duke did not provide its usual high intensity (force turnovers) defense.  UVa had only 6 turnovers, and most of them were when they tried to do too much as opposed to crumbling to Duke’s pressure.

Duke’s offense looked stagnant.  And the shooting — even when open; actually especially when open as they frequently were — was dreadful from long range (3-13).  If it had not been for Dawkins’ two at the end…

[Written after game’s end]

With about 9 minutes left in the game Duke had a 10 point lead.  Thornton had sparked the run that gave Duke separation.  Duke held on so that with 4 minutes to go, Duke still led by 9.  Then it became a complete breakdown on offense and defense.  Duke scored only 4 points in the last 4 minutes (a jumper by Seth and 2 free throws by Kelly).  Then Duke became very sloppy, turning the ball over carelessly (Virginia’s effort was intense, but their defense was not smothering) and became very porous on defense (after really tightening up in the second half).  The Virginia lack of scoring was attributable to their missing easy open shots.  Dawkins was cleanly beaten back door but Zieglinski missed the lay-up.  And so it went.  Virginia missed.  Virginia got a myriad of offensive rebounds (scoring on 2nd and 3rd efforts).  It was Duke’s third disappointing game in a row.

Duke had 11 assists and 11 turnovers; Virginia had 16 assists and 9 turnovers.  Virginia outrebounded Duke by 7, had more blocks and held Duke to 5-20 from 3.  Mason was superb, except from the foul line (2-10).  Kelly had a terrible last few minutes with two turnovers and two missed free throws and failed to defend the defensive board.  Miles looks good, but fouled out with four points and 3 boards, but looked better than his stats.  Dawkins made 3 shots in a row that were critical and had 10 points in 29 minutes (2-6 from 3).  Seth was the point guard for the end game, and had his best game in a while.  He had 11 points in 34 minutes (1-5 from 3), adding four boards, 2 assists (only 1 turnover) and a block.  Cook was very disappointing.  Good point guards beat the defense off the dribble; Cook could not do that last night.  Austin is playing under control and is clutch.  His defense is improving and he is scoring from in close.  He had 11 points in 29 minutes, and may be the starting point guard.  Tyler is energy and a heady player, but has no firepower.  He made his only shot and had a great pass to Miles for a flush.

This team was growing satisfyingly up until the Temple game last week.  Let us hope it is just a slump.

DUKE – CLEMSON 

After the game, my wife and I were discussing Andre Dawkins. She commented that Andre reminded her of Evonne Goolagong, the wonderfully talented and graceful Australian tennis player in the 1970s and early 1980s.  While she won Grand Slam titles, there were times she played in an inexplicably mundane manner.  She explained it as a “Walkabout”– an Aborigine  journey during adolescence to wonder and live in the wilderness for a period  of time. Well, tonight the enigmatic Andre emerged from his recent two month “walkabout” since the Michigan State game in November to remind us how wonderfully talented he is. And it is a good thing, because Duke spotted Clemson a nine point advantage on a weekend when New Orleans spotted San Francisco seventeen points and lost, Green bay spotted the Giants ten points and lost, and Carolina lost at Florida State by the largest margin in Coach Williams tenure.

The Blue Devils were so bad in the opening minutes that coach K replaced all five starters. When the starters returned, they went on a 15-2 run to more or less take control of the game until the last few minutes when they again failed to close out an opponent in an impressive manner.

Coach K commented: “I’ve been sending a message for two days that if we didn’t have guys playing like they wanted to win at the beginning of the game, we would find guys that wanted to win. After the first eight minutes, everyone decided they wanted to fight and play like they wanted to win. We always get everybody’s best shot. For 25 years we’ve gotten everybody’s best shot so we have to have guys that play like they want to win.”

For two games in a row, Duke has won but not convincingly. However, these are the kind of games that talented teams and the best coaches find a way to win. Fortunately, Coach K has the depth of talent to play multiple combinations as he did tonight.

Some observations:

·          The stats tell an interesting story. Duke was out rebounded, had more turnovers, fewer assists, and fewer field goal attempts. How do you win a game like that?  Duke made 5 more free throws 83% – 50% (MP@ was 4-4) & 4 more threes. That is a 17 point differential.

·          The team is searching for a theme. As we have noted before, this team lacks senior leadership and a dependable go-to-guy. Rather, they have been winning by committee. Rivers wants to be that guy but, so far, lacks the game and judgment. Curry and Kelly are the most solid, dependable players. Last night at the end of the game, they were sharing the point. However, lately Ryan seems to be wearing down and Seth has been slowed by an ankle injury. Cook adds an exciting dimension but is an undependable freshman. Thornton is reliable, tenacious but unexciting. MP2 is gaining confidence with every game but is a liability at the line. MP1 is playing like a dominating presence in the paint. Last night, he had 14 rebounds in 23 minutes. That leaves Dawkins, who could be the key to the season.

·          The referees called two questionable technical. Duke’s Miles Plumlee was called for a flagrant foul late in the second half when he was deemed to have thrown an elbow on a rebound but Clemson’s Tanner Smith, who was all over his back and did a great action job, said Plumlee didn’t catch him with an elbow.  And Dawkins was called for a technical for hanging on the rim after a dunk at full speed. It appeared he was just protecting himself rather than showing off. Those two calls were four free throw and possession. Some games turn on less.

·          Given the success of former basketball players Antonio Gates and Jimmy  Graham (former Miami center) as elite NFL tight ends, MP1 might consider football if the NBA  work out. He has the size, speed, toughness, and doesn’t shy from contact.

Alan adds:

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

The Best of Times:

Duke did not go into the home of an inconsistent but excellent defensive ACC opponent and get blown out, as one highly ranked team did this weekend.  (Florida State upending UNC by 33).  Andre Dawkins showed up big time and essentially won the game for Duke with 5-9 three point shooting.  He scored 24 points on 12 shots.  He also had 2 blocks and 2 boards.  He was why Duke won. Coach K showed why he’s Coach K with his ability to mix and match his 8 man rotation to meet the needs on the court.  Duke has point guard by committee with Thornton playing 12 minutes (0 points; 0-3 from behind the arc) with two assists and a turnover and a steal.  He plays a heady and intense floor game.  Cook played 19 minutes and acquitted himself pretty well on the defensive end after being blown by for a layup, and being benched (with the entire starting unit) at the 4 minute mark.  He was 4-6 (2-3 from 3land) with 2 assists and 2 turnovers.  He still needs consistency, but he is a freshman with a large upside. That means that Seth ran the point for 9 minutes, mostly as the game was winding down (though Quinn went in for Mason when Coach K didn’t want Mason on the foul line in spite of his 4-4 from there tonight).  Coach K trusts Seth at crunch time more than his “real” point guards.  Seth played 31 minutes, Austin 28 and Dawkins 27.  I believe that Coach K thinks these are his best 5.  Duke was 15-18 from the foul line and 4-9 from 3 in the second half (4-14 in the first half).  Miles had 14 boards (8 offensive) and I thought Duke defended the rim well.  The depth up front among the two Plumlees and Kelly is impressive.  Miles played 23 minutes; Kelly and Mason 26 each.

The Worst of Times

Duke had (once again) more turnovers than assists (9 assists; 17 turnovers).
Only Tyler had more assists than turnovers (2-1).  Duke got hammered on its own defensive boards late in the game (reminding one of the UVa game and some others).  Clemson pulled down 18 offensive rebounds.

Austin was shut out from the floor until late in the game when he made 2 nice drives.  He isn’t finishing; he isn’t popping well from the outside, and his ball handling seems less skillful.  He is, however, really starting to play good defense.  He’s still a key (28 minutes) but it seems to me that his confidence is eroding.  He needed some lessons, but now it is time to build him back up because he is potentially the most talented player on the roster.  His regression has coincided with Duke’s slide in quality play (Temple, Ga. Tech, UVa and now Clemson).  His resurgence (or lack) may be one of the real litmus tests for this team’s success.

Duke simply is not shooting well, especially from behind the arc.  Aside from Andre, it was Seth (1-4); Austin (0-2), Ryan (0-2), and Tyler (0-3).  Quinn was 2-3.  He has not shot it well from there, but I know he can and anticipate that his shot will return as his confidence grows.  Duke has to shoot better than it has recently.

DUKE  91 – WAKE FOREST  73

 After two too-close-for- comfort games, the Maestro started MP1 and Dawkins for Kelly and Rivers. We know that starting is a pride thing with players but the more important metric is minutes played and who is on the floor at the end of close games. The starters and the players off the bench all responded very well but let’s remember, this is Wake who lost to N.C. State last Saturday by thirty-five points.

Holy JJ, Batman, who was that smiling kid who was doing a Redick impression in the first half hitting 7 of 12 threes for 21 points? That was “‘Dre all day” as the Crazies chant when Andre Dawkins gets hot. Three impressive games in a row is a good omen for a team searching for a dominant, dependable scorer. When Andre is hot, the defense must overplay him so it spreads the defense and makes it easier for his teammates. I also think it is worth noting that Thornton had 8 assists, most of which were to Dawkins. Kelly and Rivers ended up playing more minutes than the starters and had their best games in some time. Cook, on the other hand, did not and only played 14 minutes. The Plumlees and the defense were just so-so.

Some observations:

·          The statistics bear out the fact that Duke is much better offensively than defensively. However, that is somewhat deceiving because they attempt a lot of threes, which like last night make the winning look easy. However, when they are not falling, the team struggles because the defense does not always bail them out.

·          Ryan Kelly played with a lot of energy and had a very impressive, stat-stuffing game.

·          Andre Dawkins has a natural smile as sweet as his jump shot– as opposed to say Redick, who had the focused demeanor of a “Hit Man”. Maybe it is not in Andre’s nature to be driven to excel all the time. If JJ had 7 threes and 21 points in the first half, do you think he would have taken one shot in the second half?

·          Rivers, on the other hand, is driven. He found out that he wasn’t starting two days ago and was chastened and angered but mature about the demotion:  “I’m bringing it every day for the rest of the year. I really want to do what I can to help the team. These guys have my back and I have their back. In the past, when I had a bad game, no one would talk to me. Here, it’s ‘Austin, we believe in you, you can do it,’ so much positive feedback, especially from the coaches. It’s something new for me. I was pissed off. I wasn’t mad at coach in any way. I respect what he says. I was so angry, I went home, didn’t talk to anybody. My teammates told me that’s not the way to handle it. Pointing fingers and being a coward isn’t going to help anything. Moving forward, whether I start or not doesn’t matter, I’m going to do my best and help the team.”

·          Many of Dawkins threes came with Thornton at the point and Rivers not on the floor. Rivers game often precludes quick ball and player movement and, since Dawkins is basically a spot up shooter, he is disadvantaged. When Rivers recognizes defenses quicker and better and looks to create shots for others as well as himself, this will become an even more lethal offense. It is also my view that to excel on this level and succeed on the next level, Austin Rivers must develop more point guard skills and mentality. He is not big enough, strong enough, or talented enough to be just a scoring guard in the pros. And unless/until he recognizes that, he will not realize his dreams.

Alan adds:

I thought there were a number of story lines from Duke’s relatively easy victory over Wake.  First (and perhaps foremost), welcome back, Austin.  Second, welcome (if not back), Andre; third, hello, Ryan; and (for players), welcome back, Seth.  All four had terrific games.  All four story lines coalesce around Coach K’s familiar, but usually successful, motivational ploys.  Neither Austin nor Ryan started (definite demotions), and both responded with stellar performances.  Austin had his best game (in my opinion) hitting 3-4 from behind the arc and going 6-11 from the floor and 5-6 from the line for 20 points in a team high 32 minutes.  His post game comments show maturity.  I think it was significant that Doc came to watch his son; I think he knew how Austin reacted to not starting was sort of a cross-roads for him.  It could turn out to be the move of the season.  Austin played really hard (if a bit inconsistently) on defense, too.

Seth had a superb game, especially in the second half.  Dawkins explosion in the first half led Wake to defend him intensely in the second half, which opened up the floor for Duke to drive to the basket.  Seth had 4 beautiful drives and played an intense game.  Though his minutes were limited by his 3 first half fouls (19 minutes), he was 7-9 from the floor (0-1 from 3 and missed his only 2 foul shots after the game was out of Wake’s reach), had two assists against a turnover and 3 steals.  Duke is tough when shooting well and 7-8 inside the arc is nothing to sneeze at.  And I will let Bill gush over Dawkins’s first half shooting performance.  He also defended intensely.  Kelly was 8-11 and Duke shot almost 55%, a nice trend.

It was very much a game of two halves.  With the exception of Dawkins’ stunning outburst, I did not think Duke played all that well in the first half.  It was again the defense on the perimeter.  Wake got to the basket rather easily and scored on a raft of layups.  Duke committed foul after foul on Wake’s drives, sending them to the line.  Duke was only 1-2 from the line in the first half, and might have been in trouble if not for Dawkins (and Ryan Kelly, who had 10 of his 20 points in the first half.  Wake seemed to get too many offensive rebounds as well.

Wake fatigued in the second half, and Duke simply had its way.  Duke got to the line 19 times in the second half, controlled the boards, defended much better and spread the scoring around, with Austin leading the way (14 in the second half).  It was nice to breath easily.  Dawkins didn’t score but played hard on defense (though he still gets beat back door occasionally).

Point guard play continues a bit inconsistent.  Thornton missed all 3 of his shots, but had 8 assists (mainly throwing the ball to Dawkins in the first half) and only 1 turnover in 21 minutes.  Cook, tweaked his knee again in practice and only played 14 minutes (after starting).  He hit a 3, a nice layup, but wasn’t as effective leading the team (or defending) as he has in other games.  Coach K is giving Seth his turn at the point as well.  It’s the lineup with the most firepower (Austin, Andre and Seth on the perimeter).  Still very much a work in progress.

After a comfortable win, Fla. State comes to Cameron.  It has the makings of a big game for Duke.  Florida State is rested after its blowout of UNC; Duke has a very short turnaround.  Florida State is very physical and has an outstanding defense.  They are long.  It will be a very good test on Saturday.

DUKE 73 – FLORIDA STATE 76 

Alan’s wonderful opening paragraph (below) puts the game in proper, not partisan,  perspective–it was a compelling college basketball game on a number of different levels and by a number of different standards.

Florida State hit a buzzer-beater prayer three at the end of the half to cut a Duke lead to six, then hit a pure  buzzer beater three to win the game. Duke had no excuses. They led at home for most of the second half but in the end, a defense that held the Seminoles to just 26 first half points, gave up 50 in the second half while scoring just 41 themselves. It is somewhat ironic that a team which usually wins by the three was beaten by a team which only has one player shooting over 40% for the season. Just as the Seminoles got hot in the second half and won, last week Virginia, a much better three point shooting team, did not and lost. But in college basketball, you never know– especially during the twenty-five years of the three point shot.

In a sense, this was a game of men against boys. The Seminoles have three graduate students, a 27 year old Army veteran center, and a lot of seniors. The good news is that Duke played an older, bigger, stronger, terrific defensive team to a statistical draw and the Blue Devils will be a better team for a game like this in that they will be better prepared to win close games the next time.  The  bad news is that they were at home in a position to win like we are used to winning tight games and that the Plumlees scored only 13 points (to go with 13 rebounds) and were exposed defensively at crucial times.

Except for the fact that Duke just couldn’t knock down shots (Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly shot a combined 1-14, many of them good looks), the first half could hardly have gone better for Duke. The Blue Devils outrebounded FSU 22-14, committed only three turnovers, while forcing seven, and didn’t even send Florida State to the line.

In the second half, Duke had an eight-point lead  with ten minutes remaining after a Ryan Kelly 3-pointer, but mostly the score was close with both teams topping the other with key plays.

There were a couple of times it looked like the Blue Devils might have the Seminoles in on the ropes, most notably with the Kelly 3-pointer or when Andre Dawkins hit a 3-pointer from the corner to give Duke a 67-63 edge with three minutes remaining. However, each time, Florida State found a way to get the ball into the paint to score. After the Dawkins 3-pointer, Xavier Gibson had a dunk and Bernard James scored on a layup on consecutive FSU possessions to tie the score at 67. The Seminoles shot an unacceptable 67%  from the floor after halftime.

Austin Rivers, responding to his benching (followed by attitude adjustment talk from the coaches, the players, and his father), was a focused warrior playing his best game of his young career at Duke. Dawkins (14 pts & 4 rebs)  picked his spots for critical plays and Tyler Thornton (5 pts  & 4 assists ) was solid. I assume Quinn Cook is injured. If it is his knee, that is a blow. He could have been a help on the offensive end against the Seminoles.

Some observations:

·          A win could have given the Blue Devils a clear path to the regular season title and a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. With two games against Carolina and a return match with Florida State in Tallahassee, the journey becomes much more difficult. But in the  convoluted scheduling of the expanded ACC, UNC doesn’t play Florida State again but does get UVA twice. So, the clear path to the regular season is with Florida State.

·          At the beginning of the season, the stated team goal was to have more balanced scoring. In the three losses, the front court did not produce the points to achieve that goal. Part of the problem is that other than Quinn Cook, the Duke point guards are not consistent penetrators. Another is than Kelly is better on the perimeter and not strong enough to muscle a big defender, MP2 plays with more finesse than muscle, and MP1 is more muscle than finesse. If Mason stays next year (and this is why he should), he will become a stronger, more complete player ,and more compelling option in the post.

·          Dawkins had his fourth productive game in a row—a sign of a maturing, focused player. Don’t forget, he came to Duke a year early at 17.

Alan Adds:

If anyone would ask me why I love college basketball as much as I do, I would simply re-play for that person a tape of last night’s game.  It was a great college basketball game.  This was not a final four game; not a tournament game with elimination on the line; not a game for the conference championship; not a great rivalry game; not even a really critical game in any aspect.  Yet, it was a special game in which the players dueled with each other, each team making the other rise to the heights.  Duke did not lose the game; so much as Florida State won it.  I thought Duke played better basketball last night than at any time since before the Temple loss.

Florida State is (obviously) a dramatically improved team.  The Seminoles have lost 6 times including to Harvard,  Princeton and Clemson (also to ranked teams – UConn, Michigan State and Florida).  This was their fourth win in a row (Va. Tech, the blowout of UNC, and Maryland).

I believe that Duke will take much from this game.  Duke held its own on the boards, giving up only 4 offensive rebounds, and had only 10 turnovers.  Duke took 13 more shots from the field and for the first time in a while had more assists (13) than turnovers. There were some down aspects, though.  Florida. State scored 50 points in the second half on 66% shooting (5-6 from behind the arc) and 10-14 from the line.  Duke was fairly awful on defense in the second half after an excellent first half defensively.  However, I thought that Florida State offense was really good.  Dawkins got caught on the last play; he did not know if he was going to have to help on the drive (a foul would have also  probably won the game as FSU was in the 2 shot bonus), and so left the three point shooter open from the wing for the win.  The absence of Quinn Cook, who was said to have tweaked his knee in practice before the Wake game, hurt Duke’s offense, especially in the first half when Duke was stymied (31% shooting) by the smothering Florida State defense.

Coach K went with a seven player rotation – Kelly (24 minutes) and Miles (26) and Mason (30) up front, and Thornton (17 minutes) spelling Curry (36), Dawkins (28) and Rivers (38).  Duke had major foul trouble (mostly caused by the Seminoles’ ability to penetrate and get shots close in to the basket).  Mason, Kelly and Dawkins had 4 each while Seth had 3.  The foul trouble for the bigs made the interior defense porous at the end.

I find it hard to be distraught by the loss.  Paterno’s favorite teaching was “Everyone knows what to do with a win; winners know what to do with a loss”.  Coach K has always been a winner.  If Cook isn’t permanently damaged, I see Duke growing from the effort in this game.  Circle February 23 on your calendar.  Duke v Florida State in Tallahassee.

DUKE  74– MARYLAND 61

Maryland students and fans make the Comcast center a tough, often nasty, venue for Duke. Tonight was potentially more so because before tip-off, the court was named for just retired, scrappy Coach Gary Williams. The Terps started on fire as they jumped to an eight point lead and while their defense was geared to stop Duke’s threes. The strategy initially worked, but it left a lot of space down low and gradually Duke adjusted as MP2, Kelly, and MP1 took full advantage to kept the Blue Devils in the game. Maryland cooled off and Mason Plumlee heated up, scoring almost at will with  pretty, soft ambidextrous hook shots and strong dunks.

Although Duke did not close out the half well, they were up three and, after a sloppy start of the final twenty minutes, finished the final ten minutes in workman like fashion. Mason Plumlee had by far his most impressive game as a Blue Devil—23 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block and 5-5 from the free throw line.

The final score is deceiving as several times this game could have gone the other way. Normally, when Duke is missing threes, it is difficult for them to win. While MP2 played like an All American, everyone else settled down, made heady plays (only 9 turnovers), and out fought the Terps for most of the loose balls. Another key was free throws.  Duke was 17-18 and Maryland 11-21. Duke also outrebounded the Terps 33-28, and held them to 40% from the floor while shooting 49% but going 3-16 from beyond the arc.

Some observations:

  • Duke has not lost two games in a row since 2009.
  • Starter Andre Dawkins was a non-factor and did not play much the second half. On the other hand, non-starter Ryan Kelly, was very efficient with 14 points a two of Duke’s three treys.
  • Cook and GMan2 were left home alone as they are sick.
  • Bobby Knight was one of the commentators and listening to him you can understand why he is a Hall of Fame coach.
  • Austin Rivers most impressive attribute is his mental toughness. He was just plain awful in the first half but in the second, let the game come to him and scored several important baskets.
  • As I have commented, I have never understood why MP2 has been such an awful free throw shooter. He is not a brick layer, he has a nice soft touch but inconsistent north south direction, and not enough arc. The last few games, this seems to have changed and he appears more confident.
  • I hope I am wrong, but the last several games have left me with the uneasy feeling that this team may be less than the sum of their parts. No one, especially Rivers, is consistent enough to be the player to take over games. Curry and Kelly are very nice players but complementary players—except at the end of a game. Andre is a sometimes thing. Thornton is solid but not creative. Tonight, Mason was “The Man”  but he had an obvious mismatch that doesn’t exist against Carolina, Florida State, etc. However, this game might give him the confidence to really give the Devils a more balanced offense. Defense is still a big question mark.

Alan Adds:

Concerns for the quality of Duke’s perimeter defense have been voiced throughout this season, but the first 10 minutes of the opening half raised the concerns through the roof.  Maryland went through the Duke perimeter defense as if the Dookies were moving in slow motion.  The Duke double teams were sliced and diced.  Once the Maryland guard got past the on the ball defense, their interior passing made it seem as if the Terps scored on every early possession.   Maryland scored 23 points in the first 10 minutes but (and here’s the key) only 38 for the next 30 minutes as Duke’s defense tightened (and Maryland’s hot shooting cooled off) (The Terps scored only 27 points in the second half).

The really good news was the efficient manner in which Duke closed out the game at “winning time”, which for me is the last 5 minutes of regulation.  Duke was behind 47-45 with just under 5 to play, and took control.  Duke got the loose balls, made the hustle plays, shot fouls almost perfectly (Miles had the only miss as the team went 17-18), and most of all controlled both back boards.  Seth and Austin eschewed the outside shot (after a night of spectacular futility) and drove for easy layups.  It was a bravura last 5 minutes.

Maryland’s game plan was to stop Duke’s 3 point shooting and they did (aside from Kelly’s 2-3; Duke was 1-13 for a whopping 7.6% from behind the arc).  But to do it, Maryland elected not to provide any double teams when Duke sent the ball into the post.  Mason handled the post like an All-American.  He was not less than superb, and was the reason Duke won the game.  His stat line was breath taking.  23 points on 13 shots, including 5-5 from the free throw line; 12 boards; 4 assists and a block.  Only 1 turnover.  Kelly had 14 points on 7 shots (5-7 including 2-3 from behind the arc and 2-2 from the line.  The only other double scorer was Austin, who played a game high 38 minutes.  He was 0-3 from behind the arc, but some clutch beautiful drives in the second half (5-9 from inside the arc.  He also had 5 boards and 3 assists with the same number of turnovers).  However, I thought Rivers was Duke’s best perimeter defender.  Read that sentence again!  It may not look like it from the box score, but he is improving.  How Coach K perceives Austin’s play is reflected in the minutes he is on the court.  Mason and Curry played 31 minutes.  Both Thornton and Dawkins (22 minutes) were defensive toast and had no resistance to the Maryland penetration as P’shon Howard and Soglin beat the first defender with ease.  Andre was not only toasted on the defensive end, he was virtually invisible on the offensive end.  In 22 minutes, he made 1 of 6 shots; 5 of them 3s.  His inconsistency is defining him.  Coach K relied heavily on Tyler Thornton, who played 29 minutes and was 5-5 from the foul line down the stretch.  He had 0 turnovers, but committed 4 fouls.  Duke had 14 assists against only 9 turnovers.

Duke’s trademark in the Coach K era has been to make more foul shots than the other team takes.  Not this season.  While Duke made more foul shots than Maryland (17-11), Maryland shot 21 to Duke’s 18, but was dismal from the line (11-21), and missing the front end of 1 and 1s a couple of times.

Duke may not have a go-to guy, as all the commentators have noted, but they do have 8 starters, any one of which can be “the guy” for the night, as Mason was against the Terps.  Dawkins has been “the guy” a couple of times.  So has Curry.  So has Rivers.  So has Kelly.  Cook, one of the 8 (and Gbinije) were ill and did not make the trip to College Park.  Losing one of the 8 for a game is something this Duke team can withstand better than past ones.

Duke has been so inconsistent on defense, that I share Bill’s misgivings about this team.  Offensively, Duke took advantage of Maryland’s lack of size and the inexperience of the Terp bigs.  That is an advantage Duke didn’t have against Fla. State and won’t have against the premier teams.  So much promise; so much inconsistency.

DUKE  83 – ST. JOHNS 76

This game may be the catalyst for the turning point of Duke’s season—or not—because Coach K was not happy: “We did enough to win, which almost makes me sick to say. I hate saying that. I hate saying that we did enough to win. That’s not who I am and that’s not what this program is. Why are we in this position right now?. “Well, I can tell you: by not playing defense, by not finishing. I think a big part of our team is, we just let up. These kids are more offensive players, and they won’t win big unless they become defensive players who can play offense. That’s bottom line. Up at Maryland, we held them to 60. We played really well defensively, and the first half against Florida State. So, we can do it. It’s just not in our nature. It’s just not in our nature to do it.” And when Coach K is not happy, change is sure to follow.

The Blue Devils ended the first half like they were going to blow out the Red Storm – which featured five freshman starters and no player taller than 6-foot-8 – and get some fine-tuning before ACC play fires back up next week.

Instead, a 20-point first-half lead dwindle to as few as four as a St. John’s comeback exposed faults in both the Blue Devils’ defense and, possible, its mental makeup. Duke shot 7 of 23 in the second half and hit just one of its eight attempts from 3-point range. St. John’s freshman Moe Harkless scored 18 of his 30 and D’Angelo Harrison had 15 of his 21 in the second half.

But Duke ended up hitting its final four free throws to preserve the win. It wasn’t the usual script but it was an ugly win–Duke plays poorly but does the little things late to hold on. Lessons learned—or not. The players have had the summer together on their world tour as well as 21 games of the season to learn their lesson. Maybe it is just that these players—good students and good kids but just too nice.

Alan has a very interesting analysis on the defensive problems. However, I will point out again that games are often determined by three point shooting (or defending them) and free throw shooting (where there is no defense, except not fouling). Duke hit 7 threes (vs. 5 for St. John’s) & 32 free throws (vs. 11).  Dawkins hit four NBA range rainbows in the first half but was 0-4 in the second. All of those misses were off by a fraction of an inch, which reminds us—as the 2010 Butler game did—that the difference between success and failure is a very slim margin.

Some observations:

·          Austin Rivers reminds me of a smaller Art Heyman in that he is a scorer not a pure shooter like Andre Dawkins. And like Art (and unlike Andre), he his mentally tough and wants to take over games in critical situations. He has cut down his blind drives into traffic and has much better court vision. Today, he made much better decisions and was rewarded with 5 assists and would have had that many more if Curry and Dawkins had hit open shots. He was at the point for significant portions of the second half. Very late in the game, Rivers got to the basket for two beautiful drives. Then, he reverted to high school form and drove into traffic and turned the ball over. Like the rest of the team, he is a work in process—but an encouraging one as is Mason Plumlee who had 17 rebounds and  15 points.

·          Quinn Cook, on the other hand, is another story.  The freshman point guard has had a tough few weeks, with his knee bothering him in addition to getting sick. The ailments have negated the momentum Cook had earlier in January, when his strong play earned him a spot in the Blue Devils’ starting lineup.

·          After the Duke Chronicle published an article this week detailing how Duke’s students were not using all their tickets to games, the student section seemed full. Asked about the subject after the win, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was more concerned about the lethargy of his team than anything the crowd did or did not do. “I hate to say anything about the crowd,” Krzyzewski said. “It was us this afternoon. We can be better. Everything can be better.”

Alan adds:

I cannot add much beyond what Coach K had to say to the media after Duke gave up 31 points in the last 12 minutes, and turned a 22 point lead into almost a nail biter (it never got to a 1 possession game, but the outcome was definitely in doubt).  Duke had a huge size advantage inside and took advantage, but Duke’s defense is now acknowledged as inferior for big time teams, and the quality that will keep Duke from being a national force this year.  Here’s what Coach K said:

“We did enough to win, which almost makes me sick to say.  I hate saying that.  I hate saying we did enough to win.  That’s not who I am and that’s not who this program is.  We don’t do enough to win.  We play really good basketball and hopefully we win.  And that’s the story.

“We let up and they didn’t.  I want to win by playing great basketball and to me today was a loss.  I didn’t like today.  If my team doesn’t like today, then we’ll get better.  If my team is okay with today then we’re [my team and I] are going to fight.  I’m not going to change on this.”

Coach K compared Duke’s defense to AAU ball, “You run, you score, I run, I score.  Then suddenly, I don’t score and it’s a 9 point game and it’s not an AAU game today.  That’s not the way it works.”

I do think there was a positive and defining moment for Duke in the late game going.  The lead had shrunk to 7 when Austin gave Duke two tremendously clutch baskets with superb drives to the hole.  He looked like Grant Hill or Jason Williams, just taking over the game with superb athleticism.  A good moment for him to build on.  He is hustling on defense, though still having lapses.  He’s better as a defender than Dawkins, Cook and even Seth, and almost as good as Thornton (who is better than ok, but not up to past great Duke on the ball defenders).

On defense, the opposing guards do not seem to get much resistance to their penetration.  The switches leave room for interior passing resulting in easy layups.  The defense is getting good rim protection from the bigs.  Note how many layups the opponents miss.  The announcers say “missed”, but the bigs are altering shots and making layups difficult even when there is no block.  But that is only some of the time; there seem to be many instances where the rotation is late and the layups clean.  The trademark perimeter tactic of help and recover is not anywhere near the Duke defense we have come to expect.  Duke has good defensive moments (Maryland; Fla State first half etc.), but there is NO consistency and Duke is giving up a high percentage of field goals.  St John’s shot 46% (including 50%; 5-10 from 3)  in the second half.  Most of the St John’s three point attempts were wide open after Duke switches.  And, as the score got closer and the time waned, St John’s began to get many offensive rebounds to score and tighten the lead even when they had missed the first or first two shots of the possession.  Duke also began fouling excessively (losing Rivers ultimately, and limiting both Miles and Tyler’s time on the floor).

Coach K played his starting 5 most of the game, with only 10 minutes from Tyler, 9 from Miles, 8 from Quinn (who looked very rusty with his shooting; 0-3 and awful on defense) and 7 from Hairston.  Miles had 8 points but only 1 board a block two steals, three fouls and a turnover in his short stint.  Tyler was limited by 4 fouls in his 10 minutes, but hit a 3 and was 4-4 from the line with 2 boards, but 0 assists and a turnover.  Dawkins had 14 points in 35 minutes, but 12 were in the first half.  Austin again led in minutes played (37 minutes before fouling out) and was 4-11 (1-3 from behind the arc) with 5 assists (would have been more if some recipients of gorgeous passes had been able to finish) and 3 tough defensive rebounds.  Four turnovers and fouling out are weaknesses he is working on.  Seth played 29 minutes (the only starter under 30) with 9 points on 3-7 shooting, but was 1-4 from behind the arc.  The backcourt was torched on defense and mediocre on offense.  Duke once again had more turnovers than assists (15-14)

Duke’s bigs won the game.  Kelly had 16 points in 31 minutes.  His 10-12 from the free throw line was huge as were his 9 boards.  Duke scored 32 from the line (out of 42 attempts; a huge discrepancy).  St John’s was 11-21; so Duke scored 21 more points from the line.  Mason continued his awesome performances (marred only by 5-9 from the free throw line, a slight regression).  He had 15 points on 8 shots to go with his 17 rebounds.  Both Kelly and Mason had 6 offensive boards each.

It’s too bad Feinstein has already used the title “A Season on the Brink”, because it would be apt for this Duke team.  Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Thursday.  I suspect practices will be intense.

Note: This filing meanders a bit but as most of you must realize, Alan and I write this for our own personal enjoyment and amusement. The fact that anyone else may enjoy it is serendipity.

DUKE  75– VIRGINIA TECH 60 

We have seen this movie many times over the years, but it never gets old. Duke loses a game or plays poorly.  The Maestro shakes up the line-up and the Blue Devils play well and win. Tonight, it was Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton for Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry. Ah, but there was a new wrinkle–a team ban on social media (no Twitter) and a bus ride not a charter flight to Blacksburg, which is isolated in the middle of (nowhere) Virginia, a state for which I have great deal of affection because I spent half my life up Rt. 81 in Winchester, a truly magical place.

Everyone contributed but Kelly, who has some of his best games coming off the bench, and Rivers were particularly impressive. Austin had his best and, coincidentally, most efficient game as a Blue Devil (7-11 for 18 pts, 5 rebs, 5 assists, 1 steal and much better defense) by taking less shots and enjoying it more. He also had one of the more ironic quotes of the season: “Everybody’s so unselfish now and it makes everything fun.”

Coach Seth (I was no math major but 3 is more than 2”) Greenberg played everyone straight up but overplayed the guards to cut down the threes, daring MP2 to beat the Hokies one-on-one. Mason had a subpar offensive night(4-10 for 10 pts, 6 rebs, 2 blks & 1 steal) but, more importantly, continued to be much more accurate (2-2) from the foul  line.  Quinn Cook, who  played a solid 12 minutes, apparently had enough of MP2 missing baby hook shots, so just to show Mason how it is done,  drove across the lane and tossed in a patented Magic Johnson sky hook.

Some observations:

·          It could be that Coach K has decided that he needs a defensive stopper like Billy King and since G-Man2 has been sick, had Josh Hairston audition. Or, he may be looking for a match-up for Harrison Barnes when Duke plays Carolina next week. Whatever the case, Josh made a case for more minutes and Kelly was very effective at the right times.

·          There were a couple of plays that demonstrated that the players got the “defensive effort” message: Rivers steal on a back door play; Hairston on the floor for loose balls; but the most impressive was  Mason Plumlee’s spectacular block foiling a fast break. Plumlee sprinted from one end of the floor to another, outrunning just about everyone, including all the guards. It was a spectacular play, and an inspirational template for the rest of the team.

·           Duke’s run early in the first half came after the usually placid Dawkins made a 3-pointer, then said something to Virginia Tech’s Dorenzo Hudson as he ran up the court and was called for a technical. Minutes before that,  the Hokies were unhappy and chippy with Duke after a foul, so the referees gathered the players together and warned them about physical play and trash talk.

·          Virginia Tech suffered its most lopsided defeat of the season.

·          Max McCaffrey, the son of former Broncos wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, committed to play football for Duke. His mother Lisa, a daughter of Dave Sime, the great Duke world champion sprinter, baseball player, and post graduate football player as “lonesome end” (while in medical school), attended Stanford (where she met Ed), on a soccer scholarship. Dave, who was on a 1956 Sports Illustrated cover, was arguably the best athlete (certainly, along with Dick Groat ad Ace Parker, the  most versatile) in Duke’s history. Of course, Ed’s brother was Billy McCaffrey who played an instrumental role on the 1991 NCAA Championship team before transferring to Vanderbilt.

Alan comments: Here’s a bit to follow up on your Dave Sime reference.  Sime came to Duke on a baseball scholarship.  In his freshman year, they took the baseball players to the track to work on speed.  They ran test 100s (yards then; not meters).  Sime ran 9.5 in sweats and baseball cleats (world record then was 9.3); when asked, he did it again. He was in the big time almost immediately, winning the DC indoor 60 in his first meet as a sophomore.  He ran track at Duke in the spring all but one year.  His sophomore year in one meet, he ran 9.3 for the 100 (tied world record); ran 20 flat for the 220 (yards again; run on a straightaway, not curve), and tied the world record in the 220 low hurdles.[Bill notes: I was there. It was a dual meet. A lot of people had come to see if Dave could break the world’s record in the 100. He didn’t and they left. Duke needed points to win the meet and Coach Al Buehler asked Dave to run the 220 low hurdles, which he never practiced. He did, clearing them by about almost a foot and a still breaking the record.] He also won the long jump.  Finally, Duke needed points to win the dual meet (against Navy, I think).  So he took a turn at the discus because Larry Spear, his roommate was Duke’s only discus thrower.  He won the event the only time he threw in competition.  His senior year, he was the ACC javelin champion.  He was the fastest sprinter in the world, but tore a groin muscle just before the ’56 trials.  He never hurdled or long jumped again, but he beat the 56 Olympic champion in several head to head races (Penn Relays was one) the next year.  In 1960, he was in medical school.  He made the US Olympic team in the 100 (meters) and ran on the 4 x 100 relay team.  He won the silver, just being nipped by the lightening starter Armin Hary of Germany.  He told me once (we had girlfriends in the same dorm, and occasionally chatted waiting for them) that he was in lane 1 and Hary in the far lane and he didn’t really see Hary.  He said he would have won if he had been next to him.  In the relay, Sime, anchoring, stormed from behind to catch the Germans and seemingly finally get his gold medal.  Great run, but US was DQed for passing out of the zone on the second leg.  The one year he played baseball for Duke, he was a switch hitting center fielder.  He led the ACC in home runs, RBIs and was considered a real prospect. Years later, I was friends with Bill Lee (Spaceman, the Red Sox screwball leftie; actually a terrific guy – screwball was his public persona), who had to decide if the contract said what had been agreed to on the last night he could file for free agency.  He asked me to meet with Larry McPhail, the GM of the Expos (Bill had been traded to Montreal), and review the contract.  I ran my workout in central park first, and showed up at McPhail’s room in his hotel overlooking the park sweating in my running gear.  McPhail wanted to make me welcome and so started talking about running.  It seems he had been scouting this hot shot prospect who was also a sprinter, Dave Sime, who was a left fielder.  “No sir. He was a centerfielder.”  McPhail “I think he
was a left hand hitter.”  “No sir. He was a switch hitter.”  I got respect.  I never said I went to Duke or knew Sime.  McPhail treated me with respect.  Good and true story. [Bill adds: As a freshman, I had a brief career running track. One of the first days of practice, Coach Buehler had the sprinters warm up by running striders with “Dave”, a tall, red headed sophomore. He said: “Jog, half sped, three quarter speed”.  I was running as fast as I could, so I knew my days as a sprinter were numbered. Of course, the sophomore turned out to be The Dave Sime, so later I didn’t feel quite as bad.]

Alan adds:

Bill’s report is on target.  He immediately focused correctly on the twitter ban. The team agreeing on the social media ban (Let’s do something this season that will give us a reason to tweet after it) is, I think more meaningful than superficial.  It all starts with attitude and passion.  Coach K said that if his team was as unhappy as he was with the St. John’s win, the team would be alright.  They came out as if they heard their Hall of Fame coach loud and clear.  It was easily Duke’s best defensive performance of the year.  Not perfect.  There were some late rotations and missed assignments, but on balance it was a hummer of a defense.  Duke stopped, by and large, perimeter penetration better than the defense has all year.  Credit Thornton and Hairston for sure, but Duke’s best defender last night was Austin Rivers.  Austin is slowly (maybe not so slowly) morphing into a wonderfully solid all-around basketball player.  His stat line last night, as Bill pointed out, was quite amazing, especially since it seems he wasn’t trying to do so much.  In 35 minutes (by far the most of any Duke player) he was 7-11 (3-4 from downtown) with 5 boards, 5 assists and a steal.  He turned it over only twice.  Here’s an amazing stat for me, especially considering minutes played and superb defensive effort: 0 personal fouls.  No mouth (Dawkins could learn); no pouting, no bitching at the refs.  Just encouraging teammates.  Watching Rivers develop, gives one the warm and fuzzies for great coaching (I suspect that includes great parenting) and a kid who said he came to Duke to be coached.  He’s coachable.

I like to see who plays how many minutes and who is taking shots.  I think those stats get you a bit inside of Coach K’s perceptions. I thought those facts were interesting last night.  Shot attempts: Austin 11, Ryan and Mason 10 each.  Hairston took 6 shots in only 15 minutes (he’s not shy), Miles took 5 in only 9 minutes;  I think he had a bunch of missed offensive rebounds.  Curry is still in his shooting slump (2-7; 1-4 from behind the arc), but he is driving the ball and getting to the foul line (6-6).  Duke was money from the line, except for both Hairston and Cook missing the front end of 1 and 1s.  Kelly (3-4) had the only other miss as Duke went 13-16.  Tyler played 28 minutes and Quinn Cook 12.  I think that means the experiment of Curry (23 minutes) at the point is at least on hold, if not over.  After Rivers, Mason (his left hand jump hooks contributed to 4-10 shooting) played 29 minutes and Kelly (playing at the end with 4 fouls) played 28.  He was efficient, scoring his 15 points on 10 shots and defending well.

Outside of Rivers, the backcourt is a pastiche of differing parts.  Thornton took only 1 shot in 28 minutes and had only 1 assist and a turnover.

The good news is he didn’t foul unnecessarily (2).  Dawkins continues to be a defensive liability.  He played 23 minutes and took only 3 shots (making 2; one was a 3).  What is the story with that?  Maybe his 3 fouls (I think all in the first half).  Duke put Va Tech in the bonus early in the first half, but was better in the closing stanza.  Which brings me to Quinn Cook (who, as you know, I have been high on all year).  Cook had his best game so far.  He is a good outside shooter (or was last year in high school), but his shot is not falling.  I predict it will and he will be a star at Duke (though maybe not this year).  In his 12 minutes he had 3 assists (only Austin had more for Duke), and they were beautiful.  As my insight about Zoubek last year, extrapolate Cook’s playing time and his assist statistic becomes impressive. The team is so much more fluid when he runs the point.  He missed both of his 3 point attempts (Austin looks for him because they played together in all-star games last year when Cook was shooting well), but made a wonderful driving layup and the mini hook.  [Btw. Len Elmore’s comments – the hook shot reminded me – are so anti-Duke as to be genuinely annoying]

Other good team notes: 12 assists and only 7 turnovers.  Dawkins (1-1) Austin (4-6) and Kelly (2-4) gave Duke 7-11 from downtown.  However, Curry, Cook and Tyler were 1-7.  Still, I think all 3 are good shooter, though I have no idea why Curry’s outside shot has gone south.

All in all, it was a terrific performance and very much fun to watch.  The question is: was this just a reaction to Coach K’s emotional post-St. John’s tirade, or has the team ramped up its intensity for the season.   Time will tell, beginning with Miami on Super Bowl Sunday.  And I think they also play some team that wears (as Bill likes to say) the pastels (aka  washed out blues) next Wednesday.

DUKE  76 – MIAMI 78

Down 42-28 at the half, this game looked like the Miami varsity versus the Duke junior varsity. Miami ran past, over, under, around, and through Duke, making them appear to be a mediocre defensive team that can be out-quicked, out-muscle and a finesse, jump shooting team that must out score a strong opponent from beyond the arc and at the line. The second half didn’t start much better as Duke fell 16 points behind. Then, Duke pressed and trapped all over the floor as Curry and Cook re-ignited the defense and the offense to fuel a Duke  a run that culminated in putting Rivers, who was about all the offense in the first half,  on the line down one with 14 seconds to go. He only made one but Duke had an impressive defensive effort to deny Miami a shot as the game ended in a tie. All the momentum was with the Blue Devils so the game was there for the taking in the next five minutes. Duke had an opportunity to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

In the overtime, the Blue Devils inexplicably snatched defeat from the jaws of victory as Rivers, Cook, and even, Curry (89% for the year) went 0-6 from the charity stripe (which wasn’t so charitable). Still down only one with 20 seconds left in the overtime, Cook drove and threw up a freshman  shot/pass that hit nothing. Coach Collins was seen asking the question for all of us “Why?” We can only think he thought he was fouled. My question is, why was the ball in the hands of the least experienced player with two timeouts and the game on the line?

In his press conference, Krzyzewski said you can’t cheat the game. “We had no energy and they did. For the last 16 minutes of the game, I thought we played really well and gave ourselves a chance to win. But we couldn’t close the deal. They’ve been told not to take anything for granted. Someday, they’ll pay attention. They should listen and they should do. They didn’t. (Do you get the feeling that Coach K is frustrated with his team?) Good teams should play with energy for 40 minutes.” A Duke team should play with energy for 40 minutes – or 45,” Krzyzewski continued. “Go outside and look at the banners. They’re quite a few of them up there. They were not won without energy, without hunger, with … complacency, with(out) people really wanting it.”

Some observations:

·          For whatever reason, Cameron is not the same feared place this year. Starting with Belmont, every good team has played well. Maybe it’s the students, maybe it’s the players, maybe the opponents  are more seasoned. Whatever the reason(s), Cameron and the Crazies are no longer worth 10 points.  Coach K: “The place doesn’t have energy. We don’t, the place doesn’t. We had none, I’m not blaming anyone else. It’s us. We should have energy even if the place is empty. It’s that important.”

·          The blunt truth is that this team is not playing as well as they did in Hawaii and other teams are. Anyone watch Kansas-Missouri last night? Plenty of energy there.

·          Miami is, as usual, talented and physical but still an inconsistent team. However, with new Head Coach Jim Larranaga, (formerly of the NCAA Final Four Cinderella team George Mason) that will change. But, for sure, they are no Ohio State.

·          Reggie Johnson, all 6’ 10” 290 pounds of him is a load with soft hands  and  plays his best against Duke. However, this season he has not scored 20 points in a game– until today. So, Mason Plumlee has to ask himself if he is ready to play in the NBA or does he need another year to get stronger and more polished?

·          Duke’s offensive set for most of the first half was Rivers with the ball on the left wing and the center flashing to a high post establishing a 45 degree pick lane for Austin. Once in the lane, Austin drove to the basket or passed to an open man. It was very effective but the open man was not hitting his shot. I think we will see more of this set and was surprised we did not see it at the end of the game.

·          Dawkins was MIA again and did not play in the seconds half.

·          Until today, Miami had never won in Cameron.

·          Duke has now lost two home games to ACC opponents.

·          Eli, Peyton and Coach Cut. “I never stray too far from what Coach Cutcliffe taught me,” Eli said last week preparing for Super Bowl XLVI against the New England Patriots. David Cutcliffe was the offensive coordinator when Peyton was at the University of Tennessee and then became the coach at Mississippi when Eli played there. Both Mannings have been known to visit Cutcliffe, now coaching at Duke, from time to time, even as pros. Eli went to North Carolina for three days last June during the N.F.L. lockout. Cutcliffe had been examining video of Manning’s fundamentals during his interception-plagued 2010 season. The visit focused on retooling Eli’s footwork, agility, body mechanics and field vision.

Alan adds:

I was on the road and didn’t pick up the game until the final four minutes of regulation with Duke trailing by 4 and then 5 points.  Quinn Cook was the point guard for the entire period that I watched (Thornton, who only played 10 minutes, Dawkins 14 and Hairston 13 did not appear in the game while I watched).  Duke played some excellent defense and up until Cook missed 2 free throws and took that hellacious shot late in the overtime, he looked very good and made the Duke offense seem smooth.  He had 4 assists, but still can’t find his outside shot (0-3 from behind the arc).  Take away the amazing  (not too strong a word) string of missed free throws in the overtime, and this is a well-earned Duke win.  Both Curry and Rivers missed from the field in overtime, but took good shots.  Austin played 43 minutes, and Curry 39, which leads to a suspicion that the overtime misses could have been fatigue induced.  Both put out much energy on the defensive end as well to fuel Duke’s comeback.

While Mason had 13 rebounds, he had only 6 points to go with 4 turnovers and 4 fouls.  Defensively Duke simply had no answers for Reggie Johnson’s interior scoring and his and Katdji’s inside play (collectively 42 points and 20 rebounds.  Austin was Duke’s second leading rebounder with 9.  Miles had 2 points and 4 boards in 22 minutes. Kelly had only 8 points and 7 boards in 26 minutes.  In short, Duke was manhandled inside, in a way that creates apprehension for dealing with Henson, Zeller and Barnes on Wednesday night.

Finally, Duke was 9-31 from behind the arc.  There simply isn’t a lot good to say about Duke’s performance.  It was a bit bitter after the optimism induced by the superior performance against an inferior Virginia Tech team.  This Duke team will test Coach K’s genius.

DUKE 85 – CAROLINA 84

This game was yet another reminder why Duke – Carolina is the best rivalry in college basketball—maybe in all of sports. In your wildest dreams, you just can’t imagine some of the fantastic, incredible finishes. And this game will be remembered as one of the best in the 233 games played. At the end of the first half, Duke had played about as well as they could offensively and were still down 43-40. The Blue Devils were never ahead in the second half—even when the clock showed :00. But Austin Rivers long three pointer was already in the air and found nothing but net changing the final score  to “Duke 85– Carolina 84”, turning the raucous, pastel colored crowd into one of stunned, disbelieving silence—until March 3rd when these two teams play again in Cameron.

You would think that any team that hits 13 more threes than an opponent and holds them to under 50% from the floor would win. However, down double digits for most of the second half, outscored  42-12 in the paint, and getting killed on the boards the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, there didn’t seem to be much hope for the Blue Devils. But with these two teams, history tells us “it’s never over until it’s over”. Zeller (23 pts. & 11 rebs.) is a wonderfully dependable player who played another stellar game until the last two minutes. Then, he inadvertently tipped in Kelly’s three point attempt at the rim (for some  reason, it only counted 2 points), then missed the second of two free throws to give Duke the ball down two with 14 seconds to go. The rest will be burned into the memories of everyone who saw THE SHOT! And if you should forget it, you will see it played for years to come promoting an upcoming game.

I recently told my Carolina buddy Bucky that UNC was so talented that I didn’t think any Duke player could start for them (well, after tonight, Rivers).  However, Duke has Coach K, who somehow instills a “never, ever give-up” attitude to his teams. Sure, this team has been an atypical, enigmatic puzzle, as the loss Saturday at home to Miami proved. Tonight, when the Blue Devils were down ten with 2:30 to go, raise your hand if you thought the Blue Devils would win. Even some of the sports writers, who should know better, had left courtside to go to the media room to file their stories. Well, tonight a 13-2 run snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Whatever Austin Rivers does the rest of his career at Duke, he will always be remembered for this game and this shot.

Some observations:

·          Coach Williams was gracious in defeat: “This one hurts. The kids really played and competed and did some very good things. Duke is awfully good, and I think we are awfully good. Tonight, I think at the same point, it was two great basketball programs, two big-time teams, and they made more plays the last three minutes than we did.”

·          We all know that Krzyzewski is the winningest college basketball coach in history with 919 wins. Williams is one win away from tying the legendary UCLA great John Wooden for 23rd place on the all-time Division I coaching victories list.

·          Before tonight, the series between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils is so close that the combined scores of the last 75 games between them have been decided by just one point. Duke leads the Tar Heels over that span, 5,858-5,857. Krzyzewski is 36-36 all-time against UNC. Williams is 8-9 against Duke. The average halftime lead over the past four games has been a lopsided 16.8 points.

·          UNC leads the all-time series against Duke 131-102, but has lost 5 of the last 6. The Tar Heels are just 15-12 at the Smith Center against the Blue Devils and have won only 5 of the last 14 meetings there. Amazingly, when the first meeting of the season is played in Chapel Hill – as it is Wednesday, UNC is 0-5 during the Roy Williams era. The last time it beat Duke at home in their first meeting of a season was on Feb. 5, 1998.

·          Duke has not lost back-to-back games since February 2009. The Blue Devils are 14-0 following a loss during that span with an average margin of victory of 14.6 points. They have won 10 of those 14 games by double-digit margins. Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team is 4-2 in its last five games against UNC in which it lost its previous game.

·          Tonight’s game is the 132nd consecutive game between UNC and Duke in which at least one team has been ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. The Tar Heels are No. 5 this week. The Blue Devils dropped to No. 10 after Sunday’s loss to Miami. The last time the rivals met when neither was ranked was Feb. 27, 1960. The coaches at the time of that game were Frank McGuire for the Tar Heels and Vic Bubas for the Blue Devils.

·          Between them, Duke and UNC have accounted for 36 of the ACC’s 58 tournament championships (19 by the Blue Devils, 17 by the Tar Heels) and rank No. 1 and 2 in ACC regular-season wins, ACC tournament wins and NCAA tournament wins among league teams. At least one of the teams has been to the Final Four in 22 of the last 31 seasons and have combined to win eight national championships (four by each school) during that span. Since the ACC expanded to its current 16-game schedule in 1991-92, either UNC and Duke have finished 1-2 in the standings 13 times

ANATOMY OF AN IMPROBABLE WIN

One of the reasons Alan and I take the time to write Duke Basketball Playbook is to attempt to analyze and understand the reasons Duke wins or  losses. In the last few days, we have seen two very exciting finishes in professional football and college basketball. In both instances, plays leading up to the sensational finish are just as important as the long, sensational pass completion or the final winning shot. As Bob Knight said, ‘The object of a coaching is to put your team in a position to be in a position to win”.

In both games two admirable, dependable, productive players, Wes Welker and Tyler Zeller without whom their team would have not been in a position to win, are blamed a for causing for the loss. It is more complicated than that. Any number of plays at various times during the game can be just as important, if not as obvious, in contributing to the loss. Some things are inexplicable, some just are not meant to be. It is the unexpected, the improbable that keep us watching sporting events.

Let’s review the final 2:38 minutes of the Duke-Carolina game.

2:38   Harrison Barnes drives, dips left shoulder into Curry, who is in good defensive position, to create space (offensive foul?) then pulls up for a short  jumper. UNC 82, Duke 72.

2:09   Three point shot attempt by Ryan Kelly. (Air ball? blocked shot? foul?) Despite Henson’s lobbying, referee rules John partially blocked shot, which went out of bounds under basket. In bound to Tyler Thornton at top a key, dribbles to the right wing, fakes a pass into Kelly, and drains a three (that starts the run). UNC 82, Duke 75

1:59   North Carolina Coach Williams calls a timeout to steady his team.

1:52   Mason Plumlee steals the ball from Marshall on right side line, races down the court, passes to Thornton, who redirects past Kelly (who nearly tips ball) to a sprinting Curry.  Seth catches, takes extra step(s), and drains a three right in front of Coach K.  The crowd howls in protest of a no call. UNC 82, Duke 78

1:23   Barnes attacks the basket into traffic, crashes into a well-positioned Kelly in the lane. Offensive charge. UNC 82, Duke 78

1:10   Kelly misses a three from the left corner, beats Bullock to the rebound, calmly pump fakes, hits a jumper from the baseline. UNC 82, Duke 80

:44    Marshall gives a pressing Thornton (whom he played against in high school) a forearm get-off- me swat (no call) to create room to receive the inbound pass. Half court set, pass into Zeller. Mason Plumlee is called for a touch foul as Zeller is backing him down into the paint. Zeller misses the first, makes the second. UNC 83, Duke 80

:20   Timeout Duke. (Krzyzewski didn’t call a timeout at the end of the game against Miami on Sunday when Duke had the ball down two. Freshman point guard Quinn Cook ended with the ball and forced a bad shot.  Duke lost  in overtime.)

:15    Kelly three point attempt.  Zeller accidentally tips the ball near/on rim into the basket. Goal tending three?  The referees confer, rule shot did not have a chance to go in. Two points. UNC 83, Duke 82

:14    Zeller immediately fouled by Thornton, makes the first and misses the second. UNC 84, Duke 82

:14    MP2 rebounds,  Rivers demands ball, dribbles a couple of paces from the Duke bench with Bullock guarding him. Option one, Dawkins can’t get open, so Rivers dribbles to his right, gets high pick from Mason, forcing Zeller to switch.

:o2   Rivers dribbles to right, Zeller in good position with hands held wide to cut off lane and for good balance. Rivers patented forward jab step freezes Zeller, then steps back as Curry is yelling “Go, Go”, rises and shoots over Zeller. Game clock hits :00 just before the three pointer splashes through the net. Duke 85, UNC 84.  An instant Classic.

What to make of this result? Luck, destiny, players in the “zone”,  just a random result– or something else. After the game, Doc Rivers said: “This was a mental toughness game.” Most commentators opined that Carolina out-played Duke and should have won. Another perspective is that a close basketball game consists of forty minutes of runs, responding to runs, and changes in momentum. Duke won the first seventeen and a half minutes, Carolina the next twenty, and Duke the final two and a half minutes. So, a one point game was an appropriate outcome. Was it just the luck of the draw that Duke had the momentum in the final few minutes or is it that the  Duke players may not be as talented as Carolina’s but may be mentally tougher.

You make the call. Next game. Next play.

Alan adds:

I actually think that Bill’s valuable insights apply as much to life as to sport.  Duke’s win (and the Giants over the Pats) was about persevence and hanging in through adversity.  Personelwise, UNC is better (in my opinion), but that is only one factor.  Bill’s point that the first 17 minutes, which belonged to Duke, is underappreciated when the game is analyzed.  Those were critical moments in tone and confidence, which can be, and were, drawn on when things deteriorated.

Today’s game is, in my opinion, a critical game for Duke.  Inconsistency has been the hallmark of this team so far.  It is the biggest challenge to Duke’s improvement and tournament success.  A stinker against St John’s; an intense success against Virginia Tech; a stinker against Miami; and a gutty gratifying performance against Carolina.  [I know that’s not a complete sentence, but if you know the rule, you can break it; I learned that at Duke.]  Today’s game is another classic trap after the huge expenditure of emotion and success against Carolina.  I hope Austin stays Austin and doesn’t think he has morphed into Jeremy Lin.  Today’s game is an important opportunity for Duke to grow into a consistent team.

DUKE  73– MARYLAND  55 

When a sluggish Duke fell behind 10-3 in the early minutes, this indeed appeared to be a “Hangover Game”- that’s the game after an emotionally draining effort and, hopefully, not also the product of what many students felt the morning after the incredible win at Chapel Hill. In any event, when you are on a roll good things happen. In this case, Ryan Kelly, a key in the win against Carolina was in foul trouble early and often. His minutes went to Miles Plumlee, who had the game we all have been waiting for– 22 rebounds, 13 points, 2 steals, 1 block. The game was tighter than the final score; however, the Blue Devils got stronger and more efficient as the game progressed and closed out the Terps in impressive fashion with a 13-2 run.

In a post-game interview, Miles Plumlee channeled Coach K: “We played with energy, we played hard and when we do that, we’re going to play hard on offense and defense. It showed up in the little things. We got loose balls, offensive boards and we just put the game away.” Brother Mason Plumlee finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. It was the first time both Plumlee brothers had double-doubles in the same game during their three seasons together at Duke. Their 32 combined rebounds were one fewer than the entire Maryland team. Duke’s aggressive, trapping defense held Maryland to 37% from the floor and Terrell Stoglin, the ACC’s leading scorer to  13 points, 9 below his average.

An insight the thoroughness of the Duke approach to game prep, consider this:  To help Duke orient itself after its euphoric win Wednesday against No. 5 North Carolina, the Blue Devils’ coaches showed the team two videos before practice Thursday. The first were highlights from the 1991 Final Four, when Duke stunned the college basketball world by upsetting number one seed, undefeated UNLV in the NCAA semifinals. Two days later, the Blue Devils were focused enough to beat Kansas and win the national championship. The second video was Duke’s 2010 home matchup against Maryland, which also followed winning at Chapel Hill.  It was a career changer for Brian Zoubek, who punished Maryland with a 16-point, 17-rebound effort. Over the next six weeks, Zoubek, a senior, went from being something of an afterthought to an integral part of a Blue Devils team that went on to win the NCAA title. Hmmm, interesting. Can lightning strike twice?

The most interesting development was that Austin Rivers was the only player to player 40 minutes but only took 9 shots for 11 points, 4 assists, and played very effective defense. At the end of the game, he was content  let Seth Curry, who had a hot hand run the delayed offense. That is a sign of maturity. Krzyzewski told Rivers he had contributed outstanding defense and rebounding.

Some observations:

·          Duke wore a specially designed Nike Elite Platinum uniforms—jerseys (made from recycled polyester and are the lightest in the country, weighing five percent less than the standard Nike Hyper Elite jerseys), shorts, and shoes designed for the nine teams that have won NCAA Championships while wearing Nike gear. While not as bad as the Maryland’s Under Armour football uniforms, I thought I was watching a Georgetown game—same washed out grey but indecipherable lettering. Hopefully, it is a one and done Nike promotional event.

·          Mason and Miles combined for 32 of Duke’s season-high 48 rebounds, nearly outrebounding Maryland by themselves. Miles set a career high with 22 boards which is the second highest single-game total in the NCAA this season, the ninth most rebounds in Duke history and the most in the Coach K era.

·          While Duke’s defense has been suspect, consider these stats: Duke held Maryland to 1-of-14 shooting from the three-point line. The Blue Devils have held their last two opponents to one three-pointer apiece and five teams to two three-pointers or less. ACC opponents are shooting just .271 against Duke from three-point range which is the ACC’s lowest percentage in conference play.

·          Duke improved its all-time record against Maryland to 112-61 in a series that dates back to 1926. The Blue Devils have won 5 straight in the series and 11 of the last 12. Duke is 53-21 against the Terrapins under Coach K.

Alan adds:

After what seemed like a continuation of this season’s Cameron Blues (Duke’s only win in the last 3 home games was the St. John’s game, which produced Coach K’s post game emotional outburst – “I count it as a loss”), against an inferior team devestated by the season ending loss of its gifted point guard, Duke morphed back into a team with the will and skill to close out the game efficiently.  The 13-2 closing run was impressive, and padded Duke’s stat line.

The Plumlees simply dominated the inside.  Maryland coach Trugeon said “Their big guys kicked our big guys’ butts.”  It was a premier performance and the first time Miles and Mason had double doubles.  Miles had what is surely his best game ever at Duke (in 28 minutes he had 13 points — 6-10  from the floor — 22 rebounds including 9 offensive, 2 steals, a block against only 1 turnover and committing only 1 foul.  Wow!  Mason and Kelly were both good, though Kelly was limited by foul trouble (4).

I thought the big Duke story and positive was the return to early season form of Seth Curry.  He played 11 minutes of point guard and had a gaudy stat line all around. In 34 minutes he was 7-15 (3-6 from downtown) with 3 assists and only 1 turnover.  He also had 2 steals, played good defense and committed only 2 fouls.  Welcome back, Seth.

Austin played a steady game.  You can tell he’s valued by Coach K because he played all 40 minutes, was 3-6 from downtown with 4 assists against only 2 turnovers.  He was however 2-6 from the foul line and 0-3 inside the arc.  Still he is the glue and, perhaps, the leader.

The Duke rotation was six , with short help from Andre (4 fouls in his 15 minutes tells you about his defense; 1-4 from the field) and only 8 minutes from Quinn, who missed all 3 shots, but had 2 boards and an assist.  Tyler played an efficient 21 minutes (though limited by foul trouble; he had 4) with no turnovers and 2 assists.  Duke had 11 assists against only 9 turnovers.

All in all, a good performance.  The next game against NC State (7-3 in the ACC; only a game behind the 3 leaders tied for first) will be illuminating.

DUKE 78 – NORTH CAROLINA STATE  73 

Are you kidding me! For the second time in a week, Duke, down 20 points with 11:33 to play, makes another improbable–no, miraculous– comeback to defeat historic rival North Carolina State by 5. As my friend Gary said after the Carolina win, “You Duke guys must have strong hearts.” Yes Gary, in more ways than one. I’m at a loss to explain this win. I’ll just say that this is Duke Basketball, sometimes it is inexplicable, and this is why we love it! What an opponent said about Bear Bryant holds true for Coach K: “He can take can take his’n’ and beat you’rn’, and he can take you’rn’ and beat his’n’.”

For the third time this year, a bigger, stronger, more athletic, more intimidating team came into Cameron and literally and figuratively punched Duke in the nose and knocked them all over the floor. It got so bad that Coach K was holding his head in his hands as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. Unlike the other games, it sure looked like this one wouldn’t even be close–and it wasn’t for almost thirty minutes. In some ways, this was more impressive than the Carolina win in that it was a marathon rally rather than a sprint. The Cameron Crazies, who have been criticized this year, deserve a game ball for never giving  up on their team.

How at times can Duke look so bad? The Blue Devils are a guard oriented, three point shooting team. When the shots are not falling, as they weren’t in the first half (2-14), there are often long rebounds and easy transition points– State had 15  in the first half, Duke 0. That was almost the margin. When this happens, the game seems easy and the Blue Devils appear over rated. State just killed Duke on the boards. It looked like boys versus men. However, the three point shot is a lethal, heart breaking, game changing weapon. In the second half, Curry (26 pts) and Rivers (16 pts) started attacking the basket and key Wolfpack players got in foul trouble. Also, when Duke got down by 20, like the Carolina game, they pressed and trapped all over the floor, the Crazies jumped up and down on the bleacher seats, the noise was deafening, and State had trouble handling the pressure.

Coach K said: “That was an amazing win.  It was really one of the more amazing games that I’ve been a part of.  I thought our fans were terrific…they never let us die… it was one of those games in Cameron where the fans and the players were one, and a huge part of the basketball game. We’re not a perfect team, but we’re a good team.  And we’re a team that has always fought and not obsessed about inconsistencies and struggles and all of that. We are 22-4 and we’ve been in the top five of the RPI all year. We have some kids that really fight off and have given us some incredible wins so far this year.”

Some observations:

·          While this was N.C. State’s 14th straight loss at Cameron, first-year coach Mark Gottfried has made a terrific difference with essentially the same players as last year. This team can play with anyone. I hope we don’t get them again this year, because they are very good and will be mad as hell. I was impressed with Coach Gottfried’s strategy of  defending the three. State’s forwards  “show,” or double, on the high-ball screens Duke likes to use to free its 3-point shooters. At Chapel Hill last week, the  Tar Heel defenders typically went under the screen, leaving the shooters more open and Duke made 14  three pointers. Tonight, Duke missed its first nine threes, which contributed to the large first half deficit.

·          Curry injured his ankle the early minutes of the first half,  but came back to lead the rally with 21 second half points. Give a game ball to Seth and the trainers.

·          Dawkins provided an emotional lift, grabbing four rebounds in traffic, going on the floor for loose balls and playing a physical defense that hasn’t always come naturally to him. Krzyzewski added “hopefully that shows him he can do more than just be a shooter.”

·           Austin Rivers called Duke’s 78-73 win over North Carolina State a “weird win, a bad win but it’s a great win at the same time.”

·          We occasionally  receive comments about DBP. A recent one from a good friend and former business associate reads: “I read your  Duke Basketball Playbook with pleasure and amazement at the depth of analysis, which teeters brilliantly on the edge of mental illness.  You might consider a Harvard shout-out to your readers now that Tommy Amaker has put them on the map and his protégé Jeremy Lin is lighting up Madison Square Garden and the NBA.  Old hat for a Blue Devil, maybe, but big news for a Crimson (whatever that is – I still don’t know and I was the sports editor).

For an Ivy Leaguer, Tom makes a cogent sports point. The Jeremy Lin story is one that if you made it up, no one would believe.  Star at Harvard, undrafted, cut from two teams (once on Christmas Eve), bounced around the NBA Development League, sleeping on his brother’s sofa, about to be cut from the Knicks until Carmelo Anthony is injured and Amar’e Stoudemire’s brother dies in a car crash. Then, because the team is short of players, Coach Mike D’Antoni’ is forced to play him and he makes more winning plays in a  week than most NBA player make in their career. Consider this: In a first five starts, Lin, only the second Harvard graduate ever to play in the NBA, has produced more points (136) than anyone since the ABA-NBA merger. However, Linsanity (aka Lin Mania) is about more than that, because it not only is a sports story, it is a political story, and a religious story of a player with an anti-NBA attitude. The obvious comparison is with Tim Tebow but unlike Tim, Jeremy, who is a devout Christian, does not wear it on his sleeve– or more accurately, on his eye black. However this story plays out, it is a welcome relief from the discouraging 24/7 political mendacity dominating the news.

Alan adds:

I followed the game on ESPN game cast, but the game was on in New York on tape delay, by an hour.  So, I knew early in the second half that Duke had won, which made watching the game a completely different (quite pleasant, but without the fingernail biting that makes the experience so riveting and emotional).  Hindsight gives a boost to analysis.

The game changed when Leslie picked up his fourth foul with a shade under 15 minutes left and Duke trailing by 16.  It didn’t seem so at the time., but it changed State’s defensive dominance inside and on the boards.  Howell picked up his fourth with 10:23 to go and the wheels came off for State.  No more shot blocking, and Duke began to drive to the bucket and shred State’s defense.

The Duke backcourt was Curry, Austin and a rejuvenated Andre Dawkins.  Dawkins defended and rebounded, playing 27 minutes– about the same as Cook (9) and Thornton (18) combined.  Coach K said maybe this performance will teach him he is more than a shooter.  He was tough.  Curry was the point guard for 13 minutes, and he was phenomenal (maybe not Jeremy Lin; but just as inspirational).  He played 31 minutes without a turnover.  Duke only had 5 turnovers in the game (11 assists: Curry 2, Austin 2, Tyler 3).  Curry had some terrific stat line: 9-18 (3-8 from behind the arc) and 5-5 from the line.  All in all, it was a wonderful win.  Austin said it was a bad game, great win, and we have to stop doing this.

Duke has 5 games left in the regular season: BC (next in Chestnut Hill), Va Tech and Wake — all at the bottom of the ACC — and two huge games against Florida State in Tallahassee (February 23; might be worth watching) and a rematch against the Washed Out Blues in Cameron (Senior night for Miles).  It is still a season on the brink, but Coach K made the point:  22-4, top 5 RPI all year; not a great team, but a very good one.  Let’s see, when was the last time he said that about his team at this point in the season?  (Hint: Heywood’s shot missed and they cut down the nets in Indianapolis.)

MORE JEREMY LIN ( Hint, Alan lives in New York): Linsanity is beyond the ability to describe.  On February 3, nobody had really heard of him.  Two weeks later, the NY Times today tells the story.  The Knicks didn’t play last night; so nothing newsworthy.  David Brooks has a Jeremy piece on the Op Ed page about sports and religion (Lin is the centerpiece).  A second op-ed piece is about Lin as breaking the stereotype of Asian athletes (by Grace Jen).  The sports page is all Lin.  Landry Fields and Lin (friends since Lin was in high school, who has flourished recently); Lin’s impact on Harlem (by Harvey Araton); Lin’s impact on MSG (they carry the Knick games) — ratings up 109%; Lin’s impact on labor talks between MSG and Time Warner (coverage suspended; sort of a strike); Lin named to play in the All-Star game for first and second year players; Lin’s podcast on the Michael Kay show (I listened; he’s eloquent, funny, honest and insightful, got 800 on Math Sat…for starters) most listened to with clips on radio and Sports Center; and he’s going to be Shumpert’s supporter in the slam dunk contest.  Two weeks!  Seven games.  I caught Wednesday’s game, and he was even better than Seth Curry — 9 assists in the first half.  The game before, when the Knicks came back against Toronto, he drove the lane, got fouled, made a circus shot, hit the free throw to tie, and then calmly sunk a 3 with 0.5 seconds left.  Today is only February 17.  It really is nothing like anything I’ve ever seen.  Oh, and by the way, the Knicks, who were the most boring ineffective team in the league (with sports talk radio calling for the coach’s head) are playing beautiful basketball.  Just a joy to watch.  Lin makes everyone around him better.

DUKE  75 – BOSTON COLLEGE 50 

Fortunately, this game lacked none of the excitement and drama of the N.C. State and North Carolina  games. It was more like a pre-season exhibition game. The Blue Devils exploited their size advantage and, after a sluggish start, went ahead for good midway through the first half, led 30-21 at intermission, and cruised the rest of the way. While the Duke players seemed a bit fatigued and on auto-pilot, they played very good defense holding the Eagles without a basket for more than 14 minutes early on and their season low point total of the season.  Keep in mind, this could have been a dangerous game, B.C. upset Florida State.

Duke has the regular season championship on its racket. All they have to do is hold serve against Florida State, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and North Carolina, which is no easy task. However the rest of the season unfolds, this is one of Coach K’s best coaching jobs. Prior to the start of the season, the talk was that this team would focus on its experienced post players. But neither Miles or Mason Plumlee have consistently produced the offense, so Coach K  shifted gears and reverted to Three-Ball, which produced a 23-4 record– but is like playing basketball Russian Roulette.

Some observations:

·          Austin Rivers is growing up before our eyes. He is playing more minutes than any other player, is seemingly (like Hurley) indefatigable, and most importantly, making much better decisions. The question is when will the refs give him the same respect on his drives that they give other stars? Hopefully, before he is injured.

·          Those who contend that Duke has only one player who can create off the dribble obviously haven’t been watching Seth Curry play lately.

·          Hubert Davis, a terrific Carolina shooting guard two decades ago (and Michael Jordan’s nephew), was an announcer for the game. He, like Jay Bilas, is pleasant and comfortable before the microphone, very fair, and very knowledgeable in his assessment of both Duke and UNC. Jimmy Dykes, on the other hand, just can’t keep from auditioning for a coaching job.

·          Prior to today, I had only seen video highlights of Jeremy Lin. He did not develop his unusual court vision, anticipatory instincts, and feel for the game two weeks ago. How could a player with these rare gifts go undrafted and waived so many times? It reminded me of the scene in Moneyball when all the scouts were talking about what a great physical specimen a prospect was and Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) asks: “Yeah, but he play the game.”

·          [Alan]: Yesterday was, I thought, a true test of the phenomenon.  The phenomenon was perfectly defined by a local sports TV station showing one of his D League games yesterday morning (He was quite ordinary).  Yesterday was National TV against the defending NBA champions, renowned  for team defense and on a six game winning streak.  Dallas had obviously done some scouting and determined to defend Lin with hard double teams that did not abate until he got rid of the ball.  These were big mobile talented defenders.  The Lin stat line speaks for itself: his 28 points were actually dwarfed by his 14 assists.  What I thought was special was his defending, especially off the ball.  He seemed to anticipate cuts and disrupt the Dallas offense (sometimes leaving his man, but rightly believing he could do more damage even if he left Jason open for some 3s).  He was shrewd against the hard double, having patience and making Dallas pay when he got through the double team.  He just seemed quicker than everyone else.  Certainly tough enough.  He made believers out of the skeptics, brought the stars back to the Garden (Spike Lee wearing Lin’s Harvard jersey; have you ever seen anything like that?).  But most importantly, he willed his team to the victory.  His post-game statements were terrific.  This game shows us we (not I) can get to where we want to go.  He talks only about the team, yet is candid about himself.  It is one of the best sports stories of the year, and maybe ever.  Let’s hope it is Johnny Unitas all over again.

Alan Adds:

Defense and rebounding were Duke’s keys to a blowout win over BC.  BC is not very good, but Duke held them to their lowest point total of the year on 34% shooting (even though BC connected on 6-18 from 3), and out rebounded  BC 42-20 (BC was limited to 2, yes 2 offensive rebounds).  Coach K was enthusiastic about the defense and the rebounding.  Following up on Bill’s Austin take, he (Austin; not Bill) had 7 boards, all defensive.  Only Miles had more (10-4 of them offensive).  Kelly had 8 (2 offensive), meaning Austin had the most defensive rebounds on the team.  It was a nice win for sure, but Duke did not look smooth, sharp or in sync on the offensive end, though when Duke got the outside shot finally falling (10-22) that was all she wrote.

For the first 15 minutes of the first half, Duke was agonizing to watch on offense, scoring only about 20 points.  Duke took the lead at the 10 minute mark of the first half for the first time, but had scored only 15 points.  The Devils rolled from the 15 minute mark of the first half.  Duke never really took care of the ball yesterday with 18 turnovers (only 14 assists).  Curry, who played another splendid game, was responsible for 6 of them.  Very Linlike.  Mason had his least productive game of the year (perhaps due to a painful blow to the groin and foul trouble), collecting four fouls (3 in the first half, two of those on offense) in his 17 minutes of play, in which he grabbed 3 boards (2 on offense) scored 3 points on 1-5 shooting.  He had 3 of the turnovers in his abbreviated playing time.  I predict he will have a big game against Fla. State.   Kelly had only 5 points in his 30 minutes, the most minutes of Duke’s big guys.  But the backcourt shot well and eventually began dissecting the BC defense.  Austin scored 16 in 32 minutes, was 7-13 from the floor (2-5 from behind the arc) with 2 assists against the same number of turnovers.  He has become an excellent defender, and committed only 1 foul.  Curry was terrific in spite of the turnovers,  with 18 points on only 8 shots in 27 minutes.  He was getting into the lane and was money from the free throw line (7-7) and 4-8 from the field including 3-4 from downtown.

Let us acknowledge the vastly improved play of Andre Dawkins.  He has bought into defending and rebounding, and is demonstrating some toughness.  He played 26 minutes (a telling stat) going 5-11 (3-7 from 3) and collecting 5 boards.  He committed only 2 fouls and had only 1 turnover.  Nice game.  Curry played point for the 12 minutes that neither Cook (13 minutes) nor Thornton (15 minutes) were in the game.  Thornton gives toughness and on the ball defense, but scored only 2 points (took only 2 shots) and was blanked on assists.  However, he committed 0 turnovers and only 2 fouls.  Cook’s minutes were mostly garbage time, but he compiled a nice stat line in his 13 minutes: 4 points, 3 assists and a turnover.  He finally hit a 3 (1-2) and made both foul shots.  He has been an hard to evaluate.  He seems to play better against lesser opponents.

This weekend has NCAA like scheduling: Florida State away on Thursday night (yes, it’s a big game) and Virginia Tech at home on Saturday afternoon.  Tough turnaround.  Of the 3 contenders, tied at the top of the ACC with 10-2 records, only Duke plays the other two, and thus has the toughest schedule.  Florida State will be a fair litmus test for this team in Tallahassee.  This is the next to last week of the regular season, and it is still really exciting.

DUKE 74 – FLORIDA STATE 66

There are the Jimmy Dykes types who like to talk about what this Duke team can’t do, what they aren’t — but I’ll tell you what they are. They are smart, tough, resilient, competitive basketball players who have been inoculated by Coach K’s fire and desire to win and find different ways to do it. No one personifies this attitude more than Austin Rivers, who has grown into a mature, big time playmaker. He’s not just a scorer anymore.

In the first half,  the enigmatic Andre Dawkins had five threes and 18 points in eleven minutes to propel the Blue Devils to a 39-33 lead. However, all three big men were in foul trouble, Curry had 0 points, and you had to think the second half couldn’t be over fast enough. It was a physical war of attrition as Rivers, who had taken over the offense, appeared to have seriously injured his ankle with 11 minutes left. Mason was having a frustrating night, having, among other things, missed another point blank dunk and, due to foul trouble, played limited minutes– and this was the hostile venue in which Carolina had lost by 40. And, oh yes, this was billed as the basketball “Game of the Century” for the Seminoles. So, there were a lot of legitimate reasons why the Blue Devils should lose.

But Miles (10 pts. & 8 rebs) and Ryan (13 pts. & 6 rebs.) picked up the big man slack. Rivers came back into the game and, after throwing up a disconcerting air ball, made several winning plays, none of which was more important than intercepting a long inbounds pass at half court that would make an NFL corner back proud. Down the stretch with the game on the line, Duke ran the more disciplined, precise offense, hit open threes and foul shots, and was the better defensive team (held Florida State to 39.7% overall and just 3-15 threes)  as they pulled away from the Seminoles in Tallahassee in front of a frantic, sold out crowd. During the last few weeks, the boys have become men.

One down, three to go.

Coach K: “It was tough to get shots; our three-point shooting was probably the difference in the game. The two biggest shots in the second half, when they got it down to three twice, were Seth  and Ryan  hitting threes– huge shots.”

Coach Leonard Hamilton: “I thought Duke’s defensive pressure tonight kept us out of any type of offensive rhythm. We fought back several times, but couldn’t get it done. Whenever they had opportunities to get a good look from the perimeter they did (get it done). That’s what good teams do and you have to give them credit for that.  I thought we took care of the ball well but we had too many empty possessions. You have to give them credit for that. They defended our system better than we defended their system.”

Some observations:

·          The Virginia Tech game is like a NCAA Tournament game in that there is such a short turnaround time for the game Saturday at noon. The only difference is that the exhausted Blue Devils probably didn’t get home until well after midnight. Get some sleep, go to class, practice, get some rest, play at noon Saturday. The recipe for an upset.

·          Kelly and Curry both were offensively unproductive in the first half but, nevertheless, had the confidence to hit key shots to preserve the lead and secure the win.

·          Mason Plumlee has been named a Capital One Academic All-America first team selection. Mason has a 3.44 grade point average as a double major in Psychology and Cultural Anthropology. The last Duke basketball player to be so honored was Shane Battier, who earned that distinction in back-to-back years (as has Tyler Zeller) in 2000 and 2001. Ten  Duke players have earned Academic All-America recognition. MP2 picked up his second academic major of Cultural Anthropology this year after being inspired during Duke’s preseason trip to China and Dubai over the summer.

Alan adds:

Leonard Hamilton’s  pithy observation after the game was right on: “They defended our system better than we defended their system.”  This was Duke’ best defensive performance of the season —  real team defense.  Consider that even with Duke’s bigs in serious foul trouble all night (at half time both Plumlees had 3 and Kelly had 2),  Duke limited Florida State’s big guys to a total of 21 points.  Fla. State made only 3-15 from behind the arc (ok, some of it was just bad shooting; but a lot was really intense defense).  Florida State shot under 40% (39.7) for the game.  The announcers attributed the Seminole’s inability to finish at the rim to ineptness, but I disagree; Duke’s bigs contested and altered shots.  The perimeter defense was the best it has been all year.  Seth, Tyler and (yes, this is really true) Andre were absolutely outstanding.  But the Duke anchor on the defensive end is now Austin Rivers.   He anticipates, communicates and moves with grace.  Once again, he had as many defensive rebounds as anyone on the team (4; Miles and Mason also had 4).  It did seem that Florida State got every rebound from their own missed foul shots, and indeed they grabbed 16 of the 41 rebounds off the Duke backboard.  Duke’s defense won the game.  I went back and read some of my own pre-season comments.  I said Duke’s season would depend on its defensive development.  This game was real development.  Now for Duke to display consistency from game to game.  Outside of a devastating 3 point barrage (13-28), Duke got hammered on the offensive end, and indeed lost every other statistical battle.  Florida State out rebounded Duke (41-36), forced more turnovers (11-8) had more blocks (5-1) and shot 21-48 from inside the arc while  Duke was 9-24) .

It was a performance of will, as Bill has so accurately described.  Duke used only 7 players really.  Cook (6 minutes); Hairston (4) and Gbinije (less than 1) almost did not count, and did not score.  Only 4 contributed to Duke’s scoring.  Thornton and Mason each scored only one point.  Mason was limited to 17 minutes in a genuinely subpar performance.  He had 3 turnovers in that short span, but contributed 5 rebounds.  Thornton was a defensive whiz and had 3 boards on the defensive end.  In 24 minutes, he was 0-2 from the floor with 2 assists and 2 turnovers.  Seth has so much heart and even though his shot was missing, still contributed in wondrous ways.  He played 33 minutes (second only to Austin’s 37; Coach K might never have taken Austin out if he hadn’t rolled his ankle), and was a disappointing 2-8 (1-4), but both hoops were huge (a crucial 3 and a drive when Duke really needed to stop Florida State runs).  He only turned it over once (2 assists) and played lock down defense.  Miles opened with a scoring burst — 6 points in the opening minutes, and finished 5-6 for 10 points in 28 minutes before fouling out with a bit over a minute to play.  He had 8 boards and was a presence.  Kelly played 30 minutes, and was critical to Duke’s win, especially in the second half.  He is so efficient with 13 points on 6 shots (2-5 from behind the arc, with one critical 3 that brought Coach K’s praise post-game) and 5-5 from the line.  He had 6 boards, 2 assists and a block against only 1 turnover.  He and Miles had heart and competed with Florida State’s tough front line.  Dawkins was awesome on offense  (6-9 from behind the arc, but 0-3 from 2 point land and 4-6 from the line for 22 points in 21 minutes.  He  kept Duke in the lead in the first half with his 3 ball and played very well throughout.  To me, he
has been a revelation on defense, though still fouls too often.  He had 3, which limited his playing time.

Which brings me to Austin.  I’m not sure I have ever seen a freshman develop the way he has — on both ends of the floor.  If you are a Duke fan, you feel secure when the ball is in his hands.  He scores — 20 points on 6-16 (4-8 from 3) shooting.  While only 4-7 from the foul line, he gets to the line.  He had 4 assists (to lead the team, which had only 12 altogether) and a steal against only 1 turnover (Duke had 11).  And what a steal it was.  Florida State kept getting offensive rebounds when Austin picked off the long pass (he had just missed on two earlier) and that sealed the game.  He has  become the star and the leader.  He will surely be ACC first team and may earn other major post-season honors.  But for now, it is enough that he is Duke’s leader in every way.

The Virginia Tech game on Saturday afternoon is a classic trap game.  The turnaround time is very short.  Duke played with real heart and emotion.  Bringing the same intensity will be difficult, and Virginia Tech always gives Duke trouble.  Don’t take this one for granted at all.

Duke 70 – Virginia Tech 65 

Whew!! Don’t let the score fool you. This game could very easily have been lost. As I pointed out after the Duke–Butler Championship game, “In sports, you never know. Just like this game, who wins and who loses often turns on fractions of inch or so which is affected by pressure and/or degree of difficulty.” Well, it certainly held true today as Virginia Tech was several times within fraction of an inch of upsetting Duke. Hudson’s foot barely on the line on a step back three which was changed to a two; a missed Green shot (identical to the one he hit on the prior possession) and put-back at the buzzer which hit the backboard and bounded off the rim  much like Butler’s Haywood’s last shot. The game and maybe regular season championship was that close to vaporizing. But, as often the case with Virginia Tech, it was not meant to be. Seth Greenberg’s Hokies have always been a tough out for Duke but usually an out nevertheless. Seth is a good coach who makes the most out of players Blue Chip programs often, for a variety of reason, pass on. He hates losing —especially all the heartbreaking ones to the Blue Devils. The blunt truth he is rarely playing with a full deck (of players). For instance, why would Cadarian Raines, after a clean mid-court pick on Tyler Thornton, taunt him while Tyler lies stunned on the floor? It was a boneheaded act and should have been a technical–and Tech was only down three.

Duke played like a fatigued team with tired legs. You saw it most in missed three point shots and drives not getting over the rim. However, in the end, it was defense that tied, then won the game. Thornton was, as usual, very effective, (holding point guard Erick Green to shooting 7-19 and forcing him to travel near center court with 40 seconds left with Duke down 57-58), and for most of the game Rivers and Curry carried what little offense there was—the score was 26-24 at the half and 58-58 at the end of regulation. Because Duke was in the Bonus+ (two shots), the obvious strategy in OT was to attack the basket and get to the foul line, which the guards did. However, it was Miles (15 rebs & 5 pts)  and Mason (9 rebs & 7 pts), playing in tandem (Kelly had fouled out and Hairston was injured), who altered shots, rebounded, and even scored like really good Big Men should that  sealed the deal. On Tech’s final possession, Mason challenged Green’s drive, altered the shot (much like Zoubek did on Heywood) and Miles consumed the missed shot like a bear grabbing his prey. In addition, it was a pleasure to see Mason hit one and Miles two pressure free throws to ice the win.

Krzyzewski made some interesting points in his press conference: He dislikes short turnaround games like this one (36 hours), especially after a physically and mentally exhausting away game; likewise he dislikes Sunday night games –especially away games, because of how it disrupts the life of players; Tyler Thornton, who is like Wojo in that their value does not appear on the stat sheet, epitomizes the grit this team  has–and that all his really good teams had players like them– the more the better the team; Miles Plumlee is a naturally good, athletic rebounder. In the last month, he’s become an exceptional rebounder playing to his natural talent; and Seth Curry is not just a shooter anymore, but a scorer who can create his own shot.

Winning all these close games is exhilarating but sooner or later the Law of Averages catches up with everyone.

Two down two to go (in the regular season).

Some observations:

·          The only skill that Austin Rivers has not totally mastered is free throw shooting (65%). He was 1-2 in the last thirty seconds in regulation (which would have put Duke up by one) and 3-6 in overtime ( which, fortunately, this time did not matter).

·          Miles Plumlee started instead of Mason, the only Duke player to have started every game. As a tandem, they were the dominant difference in the overtime.

·          The Hokies were an awful 7-16 from the foul line in regulation. You don’t have to be a math major to realize that is where they let a big, upset win escape them.

·          The Blue Devils are 16-1 against Virginia Tech in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

·          The baffling Andre Dawkins was missing in action, going 0-3 and 3 turnovers in ten frustrating minutes.

·          Actor Rob Lowe, who played Duke graduate Sam Seaborn on the hit television series “West Wing”,  and his son were in the house with front row seats behind the scorer’s table. It probably was a recruiting trip–for the drama department.

Alan adds:

The defensive resurgence, or perhaps development is the better term, was in evidence against the Hokies, and was the chief reason Duke prevailed.  Let us say wonderful words about Tyler Thornton’s 38 minutes of defensive intensity and leadership, not to mention 5 boards and a steal.  The quick turnaround from Florida State in Tallahassee at night (landing in Durham at 2:a.m. on Friday to a noon game on Saturday) was a real hardship that I believe really affected Duke’s shooting (from outside; 6-24 from 3; as well as in the lane — coming up short on effective drives).  But Thornton, Rivers (41 minutes) and Curry (40+) played the defense that enabled Duke to hold on in difficult circumstances.  Coach K’s post-game remarks lauded the team’s will to win (taking a page from Bill, for sure) and the rebounding of Miles.  But he saved his most effusive comments for Tyler’s defense and leadership; the stuff that does not show up in the statistics.  Those comments were warranted.  He noted that Duke has become a good defensive team (I add: finally).  Va. Tech shot less than 41% for the game and only 33% in the overtime.  Va. Tech was 4-13 from 3 (and one of them was a lucky bank shot — at a crucial time).  Miles played 33 minutes and pulled down 11 defensive boards and 4 on the offensive end.  He also was 3-4 from the foul line, and a couple were when they really counted.  Only one field goal in 3 attempts.  Mason reacted well to his removal from the starting lineup, playing 25 minutes, pulling down 9 rebounds —4 offensive and shooting 3-5 from the field and 1-2 from the foul line.

The key to Duke’s offense was the drive.  With the outside shots contested and not falling, Duke determined to have Seth and Austin get to the rim.  I thought the key statistic was Duke made more free throws (24) than the Hokies attempted (17).  The statistic would have been even more impressive if Duke hadn’t missed 10 — count ’em; 10.  I attribute that more to fatigue, but if Duke does that in the post season, it will bite the team hard.  The Plumlees were 4-6.  The chief culprit was Austin.  The good news is he attempted 17 free throws (that is 1 more than the entire Virginia Tech team), which means his drives are very effective even when he doesn’t score or get an assist.  But  11-17  is a weakness (as Bill has pointed out; perhaps his only remaining weakness).  Va. Tech was even worse and it cost them the game — 7-16.   Austin scored 23 points on only 12 shots (2-6 from 3; 3-6 on drives] with only 1 assist and two turnovers.  But once again, he has become a defensive presence; and let’s not forget his 4 defensive rebounds.  Seth scored 19 points on 15 shots.  He was off from behind the arc (1-6) even when wide open, but was 6-9 on his drives and pull ups.  Btw, wait until Austin adds a pull up and a tear drop to his driving repertoire (come back next season to do that, Austin).

Duke travels to Wake next Tuesday for a late game (9:00 p.m. on ESPN U) before the rematch at home on Saturday at 7 pm on CBS.  25 wins with two regular season games to go.   This has been a very successful season (So far) by any measure.  This team has grown and as it really defends has become a potential force for the post-season.  The Carolina game will tell a lot about that defensive growth.

DUKE 79 – WAKE FOREST 71 

I started to fall asleep midway through the second half with Duke up 23 points. I woke up when the announcer said that there was a 19-2 run and thought “what a blowout”. Then, I saw it was a 6 point game and thought I was either having a bad dream or the players had changed jerseys. Both thoughts were wrong, because it was just another disconcerting case of this team not closing out an opponent—a malady I thought had been cured by the overtime loss to Miami in Cameron.

Kelly, Curry, and Miles Plumlee finally woke up, got serious, and closed out the Demon Deacons in workman-like, if unimpressive, fashion. Kelly (23 pts) stopped the bleeding with a timely drive and free throws– as did Curry. MP1 (aka mini-Zoubs)  rebounded and chased down errant shots in the last minute to make sure Wake did not break Duke’s record for biggest comeback in the last ten minutes in ACC history.

Three down, one to go.

Some observations:

·          The Blue Devils have played a grueling schedule the last three weeks and are showing the physical –especially Rivers’ and Curry’s recent knee and ankle injuries– and emotional  effects of that grind. This is the time of year that separates the men from the boys.

·          The 2011-12 Blue Devils are only the 11th team in ACC history to go undefeated in ACC road play and the fourth Duke team to accomplish that feat. Duke last went undefeated in ACC road games in 1999-2000.

·          Duke shot 47.6 percent from three-point range, marking the 12th time this season that the Blue Devils have shot over 45.0 percent from beyond the arc. Duke hit 10-of-21 three-pointers, improving its season three-point percentage to .389.

·          K has really coached the hell out of this team.  Possibly, his post-game tirade after the St. John’s win was a turning point.

·          Ying – Yang: Mason (8-9 tonight) is much better from the charity stripe lately but now has a hard time finishing plays at the rim.

·          It was a pleasure to listen to and see a healthy, happy Jay Williams, who is transitioning nicely into a second career  in television, doing the game tonight.

Alan adds:

Last night encapsulated Duke’s season (they won; so not bad, right?).  For the first three quarters of the game, Duke’s defense looked sooo good that it was almost breathtaking.  The offense was humming, and Duke fans everywhere relaxed to enjoy the performance.  Bill went to sleep.  In some senses that says it all, and the Wake rally was all his fault.  But, I have to ‘fess up.  Maybe my transgression was worse.  I ride the exercise bike during the games, and so get a pretty intense two hour workout while I watch.  Last night I was tired (late game) and with about 10 minutes to go when Duke’s lead appeared to be commanding, I turned from riding the bike to dinner in front of the last 10 minutes.  As you can imagine, dinner simply did not go down well.  I think that the players’ psyches mirrored Bill’s and mine.  In any event, after Austin’s last foray to the hoop, Duke (and especially Austin) came to a screeching halt.  Austin picked up 3 fouls (uncharacteristic for him; he has become an intense defender who avoids fouling), had 2 turnovers and did not score again.  Worse, the defense became porous. Chennault began to shred the perimeter and score and/or get to the foul line.  (He was 8-10).  McKie came alive and Duke’s schedule caught up with the Devils a bit (3 games in 6 days).  Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry restored order, and while Wake made us all start breathing hard, the admirable comeback never quite got us into the panic pant.

I thought there were some interesting developments, especially at the point guard.  Thornton played 30 minutes, with 7 points on only 3 shots ( a 3 and 4-4 from the line) to go with 2 assists and only a single turnover.  Quinn Cook looked very good to me in his 17 minutes.  He played some terrific defense (looks completely healthy), made both his shots, including a 3 while racking up 3 assists and 2 boards.  He did commit 2 turnovers.  Duke, btw, again had more turnovers than assists (13-12).  Cook and Thornton were on the court together for some 7 minutes.  Interesting.  In spite of the Wake comeback, Duke showed a clear statistical superiority.  Duke made more free throws (21-27) than Wake shot (13-16); out rebounded the Deacs by 11, blocked 3 more shots, had 2 more steals and critically was 10-20 from behind the arc.  Wake wasn’t bad from the bonusphere (6-17).  Curry (26) played fewer minutes than Thornton.  Still, he is part of the heart of the Duke team (Rivers is the other part).  Seth scored 15 on 12 shots (3-5 from 3) with 3 boards and 2 assists; no turnovers.  Dawkins appears to be out of favor with Coach K, logging only 11 minutes, committing 3 fouls and two turnovers in his brief stint.  He launched a trio of threes, hitting 1.  He is the very definition of enigma.

The big guys all played well, but Ryan Kelly was special.  In 31 minutes, he had 23 points on 13 shots (Curry and Austin took 12 each), including 4-5 from behind the arc and 5-6 from the free throw line.  Throw in 8 boards, 2 blocks , and a steal against only 1 turnover, and you have a hummer of a stat line and game.  He played excellent defense and committed only a single foul.  MVP last night.  Miles had some big rebounds in a total of 11, and was a presence — especially on the defensive end — in his 26 minutes.  Mason got to the line and was 8-9 (really!) for 12 points on 4 shots to go with his 7 boards in 22 minutes.

At the start of the season who could have predicted that going into the regular season finale, Duke would be 26-4 (13-2 in the ACC) and 3rd in the polls, with impressive wins over Kansas , Michigan State, UNC, and Michigan?.   Of course all of this is prelude (but, not really, if one is truly a fan).  It is true, if not wholly desirable, that we will remember this season for the Carolina game (ACC regular season championship game), the ACC tournament, and, of course, the Big Dance.  This has been yet another coaching gem by our Hall of Fame Coach.

Duke 70– North Carolina 88 

Congratulations to North Carolina. The Tar Heels came into Cameron with the regular season title on the line and played twenty minutes of their best basketball. Duke didn’t. When the threes aren’t falling, this Blue Devil team can be very vulnerable—even against mediocre teams. However, Duke is still 26-5, has beaten Kansas, Michigan State, Michigan, Washington—and North Carolina. All teams are 0-0 as March (One and Done) Madness tournaments start.

Next game.

Alan adds:

The score is the score is the score, as Gertrude Stein might have written.  But there are some interesting aspects to take heart from, but some to leave us all on the verge of despair.  Despair for a sport, as opposed to economic or health, is a different kind of despair. Duke can take some offensive positives from the second half (Duke won 46-40), and got great interior production from the Plumlees.  Duke had a real offensive run in the second half.  With a little under 6 minutes to go, Duke was down 11 and Seth had a wide open 3 point attempt out of an efficient offensive set.  He missed.  Austin followed by missing the front end of a one and one, and that was essentially the end of any suspense as to the game’s outcome.  Duke did stop the bleeding on the interior; Carolina had only 3 offensive rebounds in the second half;  Duke shot 15 –29 from the field; 4-10 from 3 in the second half.  The game never got close because Duke’s defense might have been even worse in the last half than it was in the first one.

Duke dug a hole for itself in the first half because the ball just wouldn’t go in the basket for prolonged periods .  Consider 9-34 from the field; 2-11 from 3; 4-9 from the free throw line; of the 19 rebounds off Duke’s defensive boards in the first half, Carolina corralled 10 of them.  Duke had wide open looks from the perimeter that just wouldn’t go down.  Carolina’s interior defense foiled Duke (except for Miles in the early going) by contesting and altering shots in the paint.  Carolina hit everything — some because of Duke’s inferior defense, but some were well defended that just went in (think Cook’s defense on Marshall’s last shot in the half) and some were lucky uncalled bank shots that just went in.  And, let’s not detract from the fact that Carolina played a fantastic first half.  That occasionally happens.

But the defense!  Duke’s defense, which had improved greatly in recent games, was wholly absent.  In the second half, when Duke’s offense began to function, its defense — except for one stretch from about 9 minutes to go to 5 minutes to go — was dramatically awful.  Consider, Carolina was 10-13 to start the second half.  UNC was 32-53 from inside the arc (4-13 from 3) in the second half.  Carolina scored on an extremely high percentage of possessions — especially when you consider how many successful possessions were second and third shots.  It is hard to remember a worse defensive performance by any team in a major game that seemed as though it should have been competitive.   How does one square that with recent defensive improvement?  The depressing thought is that Duke can defend against mediocre teams without high level offensive weaponry, but not against elite offensive teams.

Final thoughts on perspective.  It would have been satisfying to have won the ACC regular season championship.  Still, the most meaningful part of the season is yet to be played.  Duke could and should be a # 1 seed if it wins the ACC tournament, especially if Duke beats Carolina in the final.  By finishing second, Duke will have to play Florida State in the semi-finals.  However, the lesson from the women’s ACC tournament is anything can happen.  Duke and Miami (#5 and #6 in the country and first and second in the ACC) each lost their first game in the tournament.  I believe that even if it had beaten Carolina, Duke would not have earned a # 1 seed without winning the ACC (unless someone else besides Carolina wins it).  No chance Duke falls to a # 3 seed; so the ACC tournament is critical for Duke’s NCAA chances.  Let us see how Coach K prepares for the ACC tournament, and how Duke performs next week.  That tournament is now more important than ever and is, in fact, “the next play”.

DUKE – LEHIGH

A promising season that started with wins over Michigan State, Tennessee, Michigan, and Kansas, that produced 27 wins, including thrilling come-from-behind wins over North Carolina and North Carolina State, ended with a disappointing loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to #15 Lehigh. Duke had no defensive answer for star guard C. J. McCollum and was uncharacteristically out-hustled and out played by the  Mountain Hawks.

How do you explain the loss?

First of all, there are there are more good players and better coached teams than ever– #15 Norfolk State also upset #2 Missouri.  In retrospect, Duke was a team that was more than the sum of their parts until Ryan Kelly, an irreplaceable part, was missing. Ryan is a subtle, not spectacular, player but his intelligent, efficient, and versatile talents are  easily underestimated and underappreciated. More to the point, he is a 6’10” inside/outside player who is a matchup nightmare. On the perimeter he can hit the three and open both the perimeter and the lanes for Rivers and Curry to drive and score, can take a smaller player into the post, and  also give a the Plumlees a rest t center. His absence changed the chemistry of the team at both ends of the floor. Neither Rivers or Curry were nearly effective since Ryan was injured and, consequently, Duke’s offense was not nearly as efficient. And Andre Dawkins contributed virtually nothing in Kelly’s absence. That’s a loss of about twenty points and eight rebounds a game—even half those numbers would have changed the outcome of the two last losses. However, the trend line was established before the injury to Kelly. After an impressive win at Florida State, Duke barely survived Virginia Tech, was sloppy at the end of the Wake Forest game, was blown out by Carolina at Cameron, and finished the season with three unimpressive tournament games. It was not the finish we are accustomed to, but then Duke Basketball has spoiled us. Coach K’s teams have usually found ways  to win games like this. But tonight, it was not to be. That’s one of the beauties of sports– you never really know. Consider the fate of last year’s hot tournament teams:  Arizona is playing in the NIT and UCONN is one and done.

While we regret the loss, we should keep it in perspective by remembering what a great tournament this is and that over the years, as Sports Illustrated said: “Duke is as much a part of March as the tournament itself. The Blue Devils have reached the Sweet 16 in 11 of the past 13 years, advancing to four Final Fours in that time, and won two national titles. So, we can take pride in our accomplishments and appreciate that Lehigh alumni and fans will remember forever the year that their team beat Duke in the NCAA Tournament.

“We’re not a juggernaut or anything like that,” Krzyzewski said. “We have known that throughout the whole season. You have to do it pretty precise, and we just didn’t play well offensively the last few weeks of the season. Actually we got better defensively, but offensively we just weren’t there.  I’ve been in it for 37 years and it takes you to incredible highs. And it also takes you to incredible lows. Tonight’s one of those lows. But it wasn’t just our doing, they played that well. They played that well. And again my hat’s off to them.”

“In that this is March madness, upsets happen,” Lehigh Coach Brett Reed said. “It’s why the general public and the nation really appreciate this tournament because anything can happen.”

Alan adds:

The first half of the UNC game on senior night appears to have been a major turning point; I think Duke’s dramatic failure and incompetence on both ends of the court completely eroded Duke’s confidence.  This team was never the same again.  From 26-4 on March 2, Duke fell to 27-7, losing 3 of the last 4.  I described my pessimism after the opening round ACC game against Virginia Tech.  Unfortunately, I was prescient.  Last night’s game put a spotlight on Duke’s season long problem — perimeter defense.  McCollum played 39 minutes and took 16 foul shots (by himself).  Lehigh, which did not shoot fouls particularly well made more than Duke took.  Duke took 23 free throws (made 16); while Lehigh made 25 of 37.  Lehigh attempted 37 free throws!  That was the game, and the cause was the porous perimeter.  And, of course, it is impossible not to notice that Duke’s shooting, a season long strength, evaporated after the win against Florida State in February.  Every game after that was a shooting nightmare.  Mason was 9-9 from the field last night.  The rest of Duke was 15-49 (6-26 from 3).  Seth fouled out in 25 minutes, going 1-9 from the floor (1-7 from 3).  In a sense, Seth’s frustration on both ends of the court told the tale.  I agree with Bill that Kelly is glue and so valuable to this team; his absence might have made the difference…in this game.  Another season long trend; Duke had the same number of turnovers as assists last night (12).

This team didn’t quite get there, but provided a season of pleasure and above all effort.  There was no quit in the team.  It will be interesting to see how Coach K tinkers with basically the same squad (if Austin returns) next season.  Quinn Cook has to be next season’s answer (Duke’s Jeremy Lin?).  I also believe that Silent G and Alex Murphy will infuse the team with more athleticism and defensive excellence.  As Coach K said, the sport produces some unbelievable highs and of necessity some bottom out lows.  Last night was one of the lows. It was a promising season, that didn’t culminate in championship success.  The last four games denied Duke the regular season ACC, the ACC tournament and last night’s first round (I don’t care what round the NCAA calls it) exit.  But 27-7 is nothing to be ashamed of.  Even if the end was a bit galling,  Duke has had more than its share of success.  It’s been fun writing this with Bill and sharing it.

The first half of the UNC game on senior night appears to have been a major turning point; I think Duke’s dramatic failure and incompetence on both ends of the court completely eroded Duke’s confidence.  This team was never the same again.  From 26-4 on March 2, Duke fell to 27-7, losing 3 of the last 4.  I described my pessimism after the opening round ACC game against Virginia Tech.  Unfortunately, I was prescient.  Last night’s game put a spotlight on Duke’s season long problem — perimeter defense.  McCollum played 39 minutes and took 16 foul shots (by himself).  Lehigh, which did not shoot fouls particularly well made more than Duke took.  Duke took 23 free throws (made 16); while Lehigh made 25 of 37.  Lehigh attempted 37 free throws!  That was the game, and the cause was the porous perimeter.  And, of course, it is impossible not to notice that Duke’s shooting, a season long strength, evaporated after the win against Florida State in February.  Every game after that was a shooting nightmare.  Mason was 9-9 from the field last night.  The rest of Duke was 15-49 (6-26 from 3).  Seth fouled out in 25 minutes, going 1-9 from the floor (1-7 from 3).  In a sense, Seth’s frustration on both ends of the court told the tale.  I agree with Bill that Kelly is glue and so valuable to this team; his absence might have made the difference…in this game.  Another season long trend; Duke had the same number of turnovers as assists last night (12).

This team didn’t quite get there, but provided a season of pleasure and above all effort.  There was no quit in the team.  It will be interesting to see how Coach K tinkers with basically the same squad (if Austin returns) next season.  Quinn Cook has to be next season’s answer (Duke’s Jeremy Lin?).  I also believe that Silent G and Alex Murphy will infuse the team with more athleticism and defensive excellence.  As Coach K said, the sport produces some unbelievable highs and of necessity some bottom out lows.  Last night was one of the lows. It was a promising season, that didn’t culminate in championship success.  The last four games denied Duke the regular season ACC, the ACC tournament and last night’s first round (I don’t care what round the NCAA calls it) exit.  But 27-7 is nothing to be ashamed of.  Even if the end was a bit galling,  Duke has had more than its share of success.  It’s been fun writing this with Bill and sharing it.

The first half of the UNC game on senior night appears to have been a major turning point; I think Duke’s dramatic failure and incompetence on both ends of the court completely eroded Duke’s confidence.  This team was never the same again.  From 26-4 on March 2, Duke fell to 27-7, losing 3 of the last 4.  I described my pessimism after the opening round ACC game against Virginia Tech.  Unfortunately, I was prescient.  Last night’s game put a spotlight on Duke’s season long problem — perimeter defense.  McCollum played 39 minutes and took 16 foul shots (by himself).  Lehigh, which did not shoot fouls particularly well made more than Duke took.  Duke took 23 free throws (made 16); while Lehigh made 25 of 37.  Lehigh attempted 37 free throws!  That was the game, and the cause was the porous perimeter.  And, of course, it is impossible not to notice that Duke’s shooting, a season long strength, evaporated after the win against Florida State in February.  Every game after that was a shooting nightmare.  Mason was 9-9 from the field last night.  The rest of Duke was 15-49 (6-26 from 3).  Seth fouled out in 25 minutes, going 1-9 from the floor (1-7 from 3).  In a sense, Seth’s frustration on both ends of the court told the tale.  I agree with Bill that Kelly is glue and so valuable to this team; his absence might have made the difference…in this game.  Another season long trend; Duke had the same number of turnovers as assists last night (12).

This team didn’t quite get there, but provided a season of pleasure and above all effort.  There was no quit in the team.  It will be interesting to see how Coach K tinkers with basically the same squad (if Austin returns) next season.  Quinn Cook has to be next season’s answer (Duke’s Jeremy Lin?).  I also believe that Silent G and Alex Murphy will infuse the team with more athleticism and defensive excellence.  As Coach K said, the sport produces some unbelievable highs and of necessity some bottom out lows.  Last night was one of the lows. It was a promising season, that didn’t culminate in championship success.  The last four games denied Duke the regular season ACC, the ACC tournament and last night’s first round (I don’t care what round the NCAA calls it) exit.  But 27-7 is nothing to be ashamed of.  Even if the end was a bit galling,  Duke has had more than its share of success.  It’s been fun writing this with Bill and sharing it.

As the fortunate and appreciative beneficiaries of our education at Duke University, Alan and I  again close the season with a short historical narrative that may give some insight into why we have such pride and affection for our alma mater:

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

While the whole is more than the sum of the parts, successful athletic teams have provided the university with free publicity that otherwise would not be affordable– first through print and radio, then through television. The athletic teams have increasingly been the lens through which Duke University is viewed by the general public and which, in turn throws a spotlight on  the rest of an exceptional institution. The truth of the matter is that while Coach K and his basketball program is the latest and most successful in a long, proud history of Duke Athletics, it is not just that his and other teams have won, it was the way they have won and the kind of players with whom they have won– and graduated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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