Author Archives: KevinM

Is Rasheed Sulaimon too much, too little or just enough of a Duke-type player?

It has become almost conventional wisdom within the Duke community that Rasheed Sulaimon is a “better fit” for Duke than Austin Rivers. Obviously there is some disappointment from last year’s team that started off well, beat UNC in one of the greatest games of all time and then become one of only six teams to lose to a 15th seed in the NCAA tournament. A lot of the team’s shortcomings were blamed on Rivers. He seemed like a natural target since he was very highly recruited, the son of an NBA player and overall carried himself as a jerk. There was somewhat of a “over promise / under deliver” aspect that left a bitter taste with Rivers.

Before we get to Sulaimon, lets first look at this year’s Duke team. Nobody will argue this team is playing much better than last year, but if you needed any proof the top 5 returning players (Plumlee, Curry, Kelly, Cook and Thornton) all have better FG%s than last year. Mason Plumlee in particular has gone from a *curse word to possibly the best player in the country. Because of the entire team’s improvement this team has gone undefeated through the nation’s toughest schedule.

*I would often yell Plumlee after a turnover, missed free throw or stupid defensive gamble.I can only assume my wife thought Plumlee was some type of curse word. Really I just thought Mason was Josh McRoberts 2.0 and would never live up to the hype.

So the team is playing much better and has had an amazing start to the season. With that start people have looked for a reason why. Is it because Mason Plumlee worked on his free throw shooting? Is it because Quinn Cook has made huge leap? Is it because Ryan Kelly improved as a defender? All of those are factors, but a lot of people seem to be pointing soley to trading out Sulaimon for Rivers.

The thing is that I don’t disagree that the switch has helped the team. I tolerated Rivers, but love watching Sulaimon play. Give me even 2.5 more years of watching him play and he might reach Nolan Smith/Jon Scheyer/Shane Battier level for me. However, I find it confusing that people automatically point to Sulaimon being a better fit or more of a Duke type player. What about this? Sulaimon is just a better player than Rivers.

Let’s compare.

Sulaimon was the 12th ranked recruit compared to Rivers being 3rd, so while everyone assume Rivers was going to be a NBA level talent, it isn’t like people thought poorly of Sulaimon. And then when you look at actual play you see that Sulaimon has a better FG% (44% to 43%), better FT% (84% to 66%) and better 3PT% (40% to 36%). He also has more rebounds and assists per per game, while averaging almost a turnover less. And if stats aren’t your thing then just watch both of them play and see who you think is a better defender. So yes he is a better fit and this team does have much better chemistry. However, I think it is also clear that Sulaimon is just a much better player than Rivers. That combined with the improvement from everyone else has made this team a legitimate threat to win the national title. Now can we get back to wondering if Jabari Parker is enough of a Duke-type player?

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Harrison Barnes at Duke

More talented writers have given their thoughts on Harrison Barnes, and I wouldn’t be offended in the least if you read Moneyballer or Brand Gone Bust or Death of a Salesman instead of my next few paragraphs. Actually, you should definitely read those articles before any of the below. I loved each writers’s take and would like to expand on the subject by offering up my suggestion that Harrison Barnes get in a time machine and go back and pick Duke. Don’t mistake this for me writing that I like watching Barnes play or even would want him to go to Duke, but it is clear that his brand equity would have increased had he played for Coach K.

When Barnes talks about going to Carolina to build his brand, he might as well have been Coach K talking about American Express. Couldn’t you see Barnes saying “I don’t look at myself as basketball player. I look at myself as a leader who happens to play basketball.” It is also clear that Barnes’s life is not about playing games. He could have said all the stuff he said about building a brand at Duke and it would have been a perfect fit. In branding it is imperative that your company’s message connects with people’s perceptions of your company. Business = Branding = Coach K/Barnes.

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Humility in losing

(Hey, don’t miss the latest Walk-Ons podcast below!)

I don’t know exactly how Coach K was feeling after he finished watching one of the more frustrating seasons in recent Duke history. The year ended with a historic loss to a 15 seed from a conference that until 2005 had not won a single game in the NCAA tournament. Was he thinking about the upcoming Olympics? Was he thinking about how this team needed some impact recruits? Was he wondering like the Warden in The Shawshank Redemption just how the heck Lehigh got the best of him?

Despite what he must have been thinking he addressed the media with nothing but respect for Lehigh. He didn’t blame the loss on Ryan Kelly’s injury. He accurately called C.J. McCollum the “best player on the court.” He gave them all the credit in the world for playing well and deserving the win. There wasn’t a snide remark from Coach K about the officials, his players or the fact that Duke was placed against a team that might have been the best 15 seed in the history of the tournament. There was a grace to the way that he lost that is often overlooked in a sporting world that places a 100% importance on winning.

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Duke/UNC – Things Are Even

(Hey, don’t miss the latest Walk-Ons podcast below!)

The preseason #1 ranked team suffered a key injury to their point guard and ended up falling short of their expectations by not even making it to the Final Four. Am I talking about this year’s UNC team with Marshall or last year’s Duke team with Irving? I understand that UNC fans might complain more heavily because Marshall’s injury kept him out of two tournament games, while Irving’s injury only kept him out for the majority of the regular season. That’s fine if you want to make that argument, but regardless both injuries severely hurt their team in a way that won’t soon be forgotten.

Duke had a chance to go back to back, and with Irving that team would likely had a better #1 seed (not out West) and a more favorable path to the Final Four. There I would have liked to seen Duke play teams like VCU, Butler, Uconn or Kentucky. With Irving playing all year, I have no doubt that Nolan Smith and him would have learned to compliment each other to easily form the best backcourt in the NCAA.  Duke’s season went down with Irving’s toe injury.

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Comparing Duke and UNC’s resume

Even this biased Duke fan knows that UNC has a better team, and therefore I won’t waste your time with the argument about which team is better. However, I will waste your time trying to make the point that as of this moment Duke has a better resume than UNC and is more deserving of a #1 seed. Why? They have beaten better teams. The good news with Duke/UNC is that it is pretty easy to compare their schedules. In the interest of comparing the two teams I am going to cross off similar games. If they both played at Maryland and won then neither team can claim that win as an advantage over the other team. By deleting the similar games my goal was to show you the games that differentiate Duke and UNC this year.

First let’s go over the games that I deleted because they were either exactly the same or similiar enough. Here were the two ground rules that you can feel free to disagree with – 1) Margin of victory did not matter. A loss is a loss regardless of if it is by 1 point or 33 points. 2) Sub-200 wins were deleted.

Exact games: Duke/UNC both beat..

  • Michigan State on a neutral court.
  • Each other on the road.
  • Virginia at home
  • NC State at home
  • Maryland at home and on the road
  • Virginia Tech on the road
  • Wake Forest on the road. Continue reading
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Duke/UNC recap

(Don’t miss the Walk-Ons’ ACC Tourney preview podcast here!)

This year has been a strange one in Durham. This team’s performance has given Duke fans plenty to debate about when it comes to the question about whether or not they are any good. If you think they are good you point out the teams they have beaten, their undefeated ACC road record and the fight they show when down double digits. If you think they aren’t very good then you point out their last game against UNC, their struggles at home and the fact that they routinely find themselves down double digits.

What did we learn from this past Duke/UNC game? Besides the fact that *Vegas was handing out free money by favoring Duke by 1.5, I don’t know if we really found out much.

*One of the rules I follow in life is not to bet on Duke/UNC. There is enough on the line that I don’t need to complicate things with a financial wager. I came close to breaking that rule on Saturday considering the absurdity of that line. I understand Duke beat UNC the first time and if I was seeding the NCAA tournament even today I would give them the #1 seed over UNC. Still that doesn’t take away that UNC is a better team than Duke, and for Duke to win many more things have to go right for them than UNC.

It’s not like we just found out that UNC has a lot of top-level talent. Any Duke/UNC fan knew that UNC has four projected 1st round lottery picks. It also wasn’t a surprise that Duke matched up poorly with UNC considering their weaknesses (front line play and defensive rebounding) were Carolina’s strengths. I guess it was a little unexpected that Marshall and Henson would hit so many outside shots considering both are terrible shooters. That was the difference between the game being a 5-10 point loss and the actual result of a blowout.

If you want to be positive as a Duke fan consider that this game will be forgotten. They will be replaying Austin Rivers shot a million more times, but nobody will really think about this random Duke/UNC game. It was a mismatch and those aren’t that appealing to watch on ESPN Classic. Also, it was kind of nice watching the Plumlees play decent basketball. Mason Plumlee specifically seemed to break out of the funk he has been since the Maryland game. He still did some Mason Plumlee like things (why go for a block you can’t get and leave your man to get the offensive rebound?) but still his energy and offensive game were an improvement over recent games. Finally, one positive thought is that this Duke team plays much better away from Cameron and they no longer have to play there this season. I did write that it has been a strange year – right?

If you want to be negative then you might look at Austin Rivers struggles at the free throw line, Coach K’s lack of trust in Andre Dawkins (11 minutes?) or basically every outside shooter being off in the same game. It was certainly a frustrating game to watch, but it doesn’t really change what we knew all along. The logical conclusion to come to after that game is that Duke isn’t that bad, but UNC could be that good. Maybe that is reason enough for Duke fans to be depressed after Saturday’s debacle.

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Unclear Expectations

I had one specific thought that kept coming up in my head while watching the Duke-Virginia Tech game. It wasn’t that I loved watching this team play as my last post stated. It wasn’t that I was extremely disappointed in this team for letting an inferior opponent come into Cameron and nearly win. I kept thinking to myself that I wasn’t that surprised with how this game was going. This Duke team has reached a level I have literally (Rob Lowe reference) never seen before.

I expected the 1999 Duke team to make the Final Four and would have been shocked if they would have lost in one of the first few rounds. I expected the 2007 Duke team to lose early in the tournament, and would have been surprised if they made it even as far as the Elite 8. This Duke team on the other hand could pretty much do anything, and I wouldn’t be surprised. I doubt they will lose in the 1st round, but beyond that anything is else is possible. Lose in the 2nd round to a team like Uconn? I could easily see that. Make it to the Final Four? I can see that happening as well. Has any other Duke team had a greater difference between their ceiling (defeating Kansas, Michigan, UNC, Michigan State) and their floor (NC State, Miami of Florida, Virginia Tech games)?

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Learning to Love: Duke/FSU

As the title of this post suggests, I’m in a particularly pleasant mood this morning. Duke beat Florida State last night 74-66 and gained some sort of revenge for the earlier loss. They are now in position to go undefeated on the road in the ACC for the first time since the 1999/2000 team. It has been an up and down year, but at this point it is clear that Duke has beaten their expectations. For example at the beginning of the year resident Duke expert Shane Ryan wrote on Grantland.com that “If I had to guess Duke’s fate, I’d say 11-5 in the ACC, good for second place, an ACC tournament title (after Carolina tanks in the first round), and a Sweet 16 exit.” Mark Titus’s picked Duke as the ACC’s most overrated team in his preview.

There have been times this year where those type of predictions looked prescient. I don’t know many Duke fans that were expecting much after the loss to Temple. At their worst this Duke team can be an unatheltic, poorly constructed (no point guard) team that relies too much on the 3. However, today isn’t a day to think about what Duke isn’t, but instead it is time to celebrate what they are.

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Does UNC lack a killer instinct?

I once had a forecasting class where the professor gave each one of us a bag of M&Ms. We were then supposed to count each color and report the results. Predictably some of the M&M bags had more blues, while others had more oranges. My bag in particular had one brown M&M, which was the lowest count of any color in any of the bags. The professor showed the results on a projector and asked the class to imagine each color to be a particular product and that each bag to be an individual store. She then asked what the results meant. Some people said that certain “stores” were better at selling certain “products.” My store in particular was said to be deficient in selling whatever product the brown M&M represented. There was a discussion among people in the class about reasons why certain stores had sold more of certain products. Maybe one store had better employees? Maybe one store sold more “oranges” because they were located in a college town like Syracuse?

At that time I had to raise my hand. I asked the professor if we should maybe consider that the results are random and that it would be a terrible idea to come up with a forecast based on these results. The sample size was way too small, and also we had the advantage of knowing that these results were completely random. For example I doubt that the 6th M&M bag opened in the next class would have a only one brown M&M. Generally speaking it was amazing to watch people try to assign reasons to what they knew were random events. Needless to say I didn’t understand the exercise and I don’t think I impressed my professor with my answer. I wasn’t trying to be a devil’s advocate or a jerk, but rather just start a discussion on the importance of luck in setting a forecast.

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Being wrong…

At no point before or during last night’s game did I think Duke was going to beat UNC. It was a combination of the previous game against Miami and the fact that Duke matched up terribly with UNC. I didn’t know who would guard Barnes, how they would stop Marshall from getting in the lane or how they could prevent UNC from dominating the offensive rebounds. During the game it looked like UNC took Duke’s best shot in the first half and was still up three going into halftime. It didn’t really surprise me that the lead fluctuated between 8 and 12 points for most of the 2nd half. Normally, I don’t text my brother-in-law (the enemy) during the game, but didn’t seem to be that big of a deal because it more closely resembled the Paulus/McRoberts Duke-UNC games. I was content with how Duke played and was actually somewhat ok with them losing to UNC. I was wrong. I was wrong about so many things, but most importantly I was wrong in thinking that Duke couldn’t beat UNC.

Also, I was wrong about questioning any of Coach K lineup decisions. I thought Quinn Cook should play more, and that playing Tyler Thornton wasn’t the best idea. Thornton didn’t have the best game, but this three to start the comeback was an intelligent, critical play. Coach K has been searching for what works with the team, and give him credit for taking a team that lost Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and Kyrie Iring and leading it to impressive wins against Kansas, Michigan, Michigan State and UNC. I might complain about the team, but they have five wins against top 25 (RPI ranking), which just so happens to be four more wins than UNC has against top 25 teams.  

I was wrong for comparing Mason Plumlee to Josh McRoberts. The middle Plumlee didn’t have the best game, but his steal before Curry’s three was something that at least got him of the McRoberts line. There will be time to analyze his game, but after last night I would like to stay positive.

I was wrong about Austin Rivers. I never really liked watching him play. His outside shot seemed to be at best described as streaky, and I wondered if he was ever going to be a decent three point shooter. Ask Tyler Zeller how his three point shot looks? Anyway, his passion, heart and production last night made me a believer. No matter how the rest of his career goes, Rivers has given me a game and a moment that cements part of his legacy. Just like last year when Nolan Smith and Seth Curry led the comeback against UNC, Rivers never has to pay for another drink around me.

Last night was one of those sports miracles that makes following sports worth it. I had low expectations of the game, and just like a lot of things I was wrong. This was a classic UNC-Duke game and 30 years from now I will still smile whenever I see a replay of Rivers shot to complete the comeback.

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