A Welcome Return To Optimism

Happy Monday, TRB readers. The last time that you heard from me, my perspective was heavy on the alcohol consumption and light on the optimism. You may have feared for me due to my curious silence after the loss to Miami. Perhaps that brutal home defeat had finally been enough to send me over the edge. While you may have pictured me slumped over a bottle of Buffalo Trace, sobbing into my favorite Battier jersey, the truth is much more mundane and shamefully adult. On that particular day, I was finalizing a move to Chicago for a new job, and didn’t have time to think about the game. I don’t enjoy life’s occasional reminders that there are many things more important than sports.

This Duke team, which had been the softest, most confused team in recent memory, took the pen out of my hands with two amazing comebacks against in-state rivals. Even so, I wanted to withhold judgment about this group until I saw how they handled one of the biggest games of the year in Tallahassee. We knew how tough this game was going to be because of Florida State’s defense, their emerging star in Michael Snaer, and a hostile home crowd. Leonard Hamilton’s team certainly knows the recipe to beat the Devils. A win would have made it 3 straight, which sounds unbelievable, but is absolutely true.

This win against Florida State was, perhaps the most satisfying of the year. I would not trade that win at North Carolina for anything, but honestly did anyone walk away from that game with a feeling of superiority? Probably not. That game felt like a miracle, and will certainly go down in history because of the incredible comeback aided by some very unlikely plays. In this Florida State game, Duke played tough for 40 minutes and looked like the better side in every one of them. I believe that they demonstrated that they have finally found their chemistry and the formula for success moving forward.

This is a team that has three players who are easily capable of scoring 30 points on any given night. All three individuals, Rivers, Dawkins and Curry are streaky perimeter scorers who have different strengths, but need the same things to succeed. They need effective screens, timely rebounding, and smart passing from the posts. As most of you know, I haven’t exactly been driving the Mason Plumlee bandwagon this year. I think that he actually hurts the offense even when he is at his best, because of the degree to which his offense disrupts the flow of the game. Any time a guard passes to him on the low block, you can count on slow, haphazard dribbling, followed by an ill-fated attempt at some sort of a drop step or hook shot. Once the ball is down there, it doesn’t come back out, and the guards stand around accordingly. On top of that, if he were to have a dominant game, any smart coach would foul him every time he touched the ball. A post player who shoots less than 40% from the line can quickly become a non-factor. It isn’t fair to pick on Mason based on his performance tonight. He had a bad game, which was epitomized by the open, two-handed dunk that jumped out of the hoop as he tried to flush it down. However, his foul trouble allowed Miles to play more minutes, and I thought that he demonstrated how Duke big men need to play in order for this team to be successful.

Miles was incredibly efficient. He was 5-6 from the field for 10 points along with 8 rebounds. All of his shots were high percentage because they were the result of something that a penetrating guard created for him. There were no “back to the basket” moves tonight, and that is perfectly fine. 10 and 8 is a fantastic line for a post player, and I don’t know any coach who wouldn’t love to count on that every night. 10 and 8 from the Plumlees is something that we SHOULD be able to count on if the team keeps playing this way. There should be at least 5 or 6 opportunities for easy dunks each game when one of the guards is driving like they should be. Miles showed tremendous awareness tonight with his back to the basket. He would take the typical, slow, Plumlee dribbles but then throw it out to a 3 point shooter after the defense committed to him. This team is only going as far as the shooting will take it and it seemed like the team was fully aware of this and rode this strategy to victory.

I have been writing about the need to focus on guard play all year. I thought that the team made my point after the Wake Forest game as well as after this one. I realize that the common denominator is that Andre Dawkins shot the lights on in both contests. Seth Curry; however, did not. He had an uncharacteristically bad game, but demonstrated the important point that all three guards aren’t going to have their best stuff in the same game, but that won’t prevent the team from winning. The big men need to set screens to free the guards, tip any ball they can get their hands on, rebound and kick out when possible, and dunk when the opportunity is there. Kelly will have plenty of opportunities for open shots and he did a great job of hitting them tonight.

I cannot stress enough how pleased I was with the toughness of this team. The thing that was so frustrating about this group for most of the season was their seeming lack of grit and competitiveness. It probably came off as spoiled as we lamented the death of a team that consistently held the record of a 1-seed; but they blew leads, turned the ball over, got beat on defense and played way below their potential up until these last few weeks. Tonight they held a confident, motivated, athletic team to under 40% shooting. The ‘Noles shot well over 50% in their earlier meeting. Duke players consistently fouled driving Florida State players, who failed to convert their free throws. The uncontested layups that Duke was giving up earlier in the year were nowhere to be seen. Curry showed some resilience late in an otherwise poor game as he hit huge shots to quell multiple Florida State runs. Rivers pulled himself out of a free-throw shooting slump to hit the ones that mattered, and asserted himself once again as the leader of this team.

Duke has now shown me everything that I need to see from them. These last few games have proven that they are at least worthy of consideration for a 1-seed. No matter what happens from here on out, I am confident that our Dukies will go out swinging. We were so frustrated with this team because we saw the untapped potential and an inexcusable lack of toughness. I would rather see a team play hard but struggle in the wins column, than consistently eek out victories and eventually get exposed as a top seed in the NCAA tournament. This team has finally proven to have the resilience that we have all been waiting for. We are going to need every bit of it on March 3rd when the Tar Heels come to Cameron, undoubtedly hungry for revenge.

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