(Note: I wrote the vast majority of this column before the Maryland game. I argue down below that the offense is better when we don’t throw it down low to Mason Plumlee. After he turned into a stud-muffin last night and literally won the game with his superior post play, I was forced to reevaluate everything that I wrote. However, I think it still holds up for the most part. The guards do stand around and the offense grinds to a halt when they feed him down low, and maybe that had something to do with everyone else’s poor play. Still, a win is a win, and that win was because of the offense running through Mason Plumlee.)
Duke’s first five games in the ACC have taken fans on an emotional roller coaster ride like no season that I can remember. Georgia Tech upset us because we couldn’t put away a vastly inferior opponent and make a statement after the painful loss to Temple. Virginia gave us some of our confidence back because we knew how tough they would be and watched our guys fight hard and come out victorious. Clemson brought us back to the same feelings we had about the Yellow Jackets as Duke built a lead and failed to execute down the stretch against a vulnerable team. The Wake Forest game brought back memories of teams of old as streaky 3-point shooting and a roaring crowd led Duke to crush the Demon Deacons. And then Florida State brought us crashing back down to earth as they used their always tough defense and found some hot scoring to end the home winning streak and once again make us question the viability of this Duke team as a contender. There is an unfortunate pattern emerging as this season matures. EVERYONE seems to be shooting over 50% against Duke. Because of this, there are a host of teams that are going to have a shot at beating the Blue Devils with a simple formula: play good enough perimeter defense so that Duke guards don’t score their way to an insurmountable lead, and provided that you have a few players who can score when given the opportunity, you will have a shot to win at the end.
I am not going to spend too much time harping on the defense. In a word, it stinks. Florida State showed once again that Duke will give every opponent opportunities to make high-percentage shots. They shot 54% overall, they made 27 field goals to Duke’s 25 and attempted 13 fewer shots overall. Any capable ball-handler can penetrate against Duke and either try to score a layup or dish to a teammate. We don’t have any low post defenders not named Plumlee, and they seem (and rightly so) to be trying to save their fouls. This is why opposing guards aren’t afraid to go to the rack after they inevitably beat one of the Duke guards off the dribble. In 2010 we had Zoubek, Thomas, MP1 and MP2. That meant we had 20 fouls to use preventing guards from scoring inside; and on top of that, Singler and Kelly could defend down low if they had to. Guards were uncomfortable driving because they knew that they were likely to get popped. Now we have 10 fouls between the Plumlees with the possibility of Kelly helping down low. Hairston plays good, tough defense but because of his height cannot stay in there without Mason or Miles. I don’t think that we are going to be able to change anything that happens on defense this year. The team is going to have to live and die with the offense.
The Wake Forest game yielded a surprising revelation to me. I saw Duke’s offense look better than it had all year, but the Plumlees were used at a much lower rate than games past. Mason had some really good offensive games earlier in the year, but looking to him in the post caused the guards to stand around and lose their place in the flow of the offense. I think the Plumlees need to follow the Zoubek/Thomas model of setting screens, tipping balls back out to the guards, offensive rebounding, and scoring off of put-backs. This could still lead to double-double statistical nights depending on how they are doing on the offensive glass; and would allow the guards to score enough points for the team to win. Alley-oops and dishes from driving guards for quick scores are fine, but the offense really seems to grind to a halt when the guards throw a pass down low and Mason tries to score with a low post move.
I would like to see two starting lineups moving forward. Curry, Dawkins, Kelly, MP1 and MP2 against bigger teams and Curry, Dawkins, Rivers, MP1 and MP2 against smaller teams. At the beginning of each game, Duke would need to set screens to get Dawkins three or four looks at threes to see if he is going to be hitting or not. He is a very interesting player in that he seems to be really hot or really cold with no in-between and it usually shows itself right away. If he isn’t hitting, then he should come out. Curry needs to start with the ball, pass to the high post or the wing and then run the baseline and get open for a perimeter shot. Rivers can then get the ball on the perimeter, get a screen from the post and hopefully beat his man off of the dribble and start using that silky-smooth, unstoppable floater that he showed against Wake. That shot will keep his defenders honest and open up situational drives to the basket.
I am going to go out on a limb here and say that this team is not going to win the National Championship. It is a shame that with all of this talent, we won’t have a better chance to make a deep run in March. It will be too easy, come tournament time, for a team with good scoring guards to get a lot of easy points and win late. It could happen as early as the first or second round a la Kansas and Northern Iowa in 2010. (After typing that I just had a horrifying flashback of Eric Maynor’s famous buzzer-beater for VCU) The scary thing is, this will essentially be the same team next year with the addition of one shooting guard. I don’t know much about our lone signee Rasheed Sulaimon other than that he is a shooting guard with good size whom ESPN seems to like a lot more than Rivals does. Shabazz Muhammad appears to still have Duke high on his list, and we need to hope to everything holy that we get him. Not only is he the consensus number one recruit in the nation, but he is said to play tenacious defense. Plus, it would be a fun and much needed dose of multiculturalism for Duke’s image as an exceedingly WASPy basketball team to start guys named Rasheed and Shabazz.
The need for a stiff drink after watching this team play (win or lose) has transformed me from a guy who used to enjoy a Jim or Jack and Coke, to a guy who drank Makers Mark and Buffalo Trace on the rocks, and now to a guy who owns “whiskey stones”. These are shaped rocks that you put in the freezer and then into your drink to cool it without diluting the beautiful nectar of the gods that is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Since my thirst for alcohol correlates perfectly to my viewing and analysis of our boys in blue, I will begin what should be a weekly beer, whiskey or wine (usually one of the first two) recommendation. This week’s is Dreadnaught by Three Floyds. It is an imperial (double) IPA that has a nice fruity aroma from the hops that balances perfectly with the strong malty backbone to make the extreme (100IBUs) bitterness palatable. The alcohol content is fairly high, so put the keys away if you have had a couple glasses of this particular brew. They are located in Munster, Indiana just outside of Chicagoland, and are making some of the best craft beer in the country right now. I’m not sure where their distribution chain ends, but if you can find it down on Tobacco Road please do yourself a favor and make a purchase. This will not be the last of their products that I recommend, but it is one of their best. Stay tuned until next week’s edition where, after we lose at Virginia Tech, I will try to convince everyone that drinking mouthwash is a perfectly healthy way of coping with disappointment.