While it doesn’t exact revenge for the heartbreaking defeat in the 1986 NCAA Championship Game at the hands of Louisville, and while winning tough Thanksgiving tournaments doesn’t guarantee success in March (see: 2011-12), the Duke Blue Devils demonstrated that they have all the ingredients necessary for a title run in beating #2 Lousiville 76-71 in the championship game of the Battle for Atlantis down in Nassau, The Bahamas. Doesn’t mean they’ll make the run. But the pieces are in place.
First of all, Duke has balance. In the championship game, star center Mason Plumlee had a team-high 16 points. Tournament MVP Quinn Cook had 15. The other three starters had 14 apiece. Can’t get much more balanced than that, folks. Louisville, which is a very, very good team, and which was playing without its starting center Gorgui Deng (broken wrist), got over half its points from two players — its outstanding guard tandem of Peyton Siva (19 points) and Russ Smith (17). Second, Duke’s defense is in an entirely different universe than it was last year. Sure, Siva and Smith had some success penetrating off the dribble, but they had to work for everything they got. Duke’s guards are moving their feet so much better this year, and they are relishing the challenge at the defensive end. This includes the invaluable Seth Curry, who continues to play through pain to not only move on defense but to make big shots — like the 3-point dagger at the end of the first half and another with 4:30 to play — and handle the ball almost perfectly as well. Rasheed Sulaimon is playing like a veteran defensively — very few missed assignments — which is quite rare for a perimeter player in Coach K’s system only six games into his career, and he’s often guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player.
Third, Duke is really taking care of the ball. Depending on if you count getting stripped or getting your shot blocked as a turnover or not, Duke had either 11 or 13 turnovers in the game, this against relentless full-court pressure by Louisville. More importantly, only four of those turnovers were live-ball turnovers, two of which led to Louisville points, and none of those four live-ball turnovers were committed by Quinn Cook. Correct, the starting point guard, playing 34 minutes against serious pressure dialed up by Rick Pitino, had zero live-ball turnovers. Cook has clearly done what so many Duke fans were hoping he would do coming into this season: grab the starting point guard position by the horns, wrestle it to the ground, and own it. As he did against Louisville, Cook adds dimensions to this team that it hasn’t enjoyed in several years: he can push the ball hard and find guys on the break, and he can penetrate and dish in the halfcourt. And he can shoot.
Fourth, Duke has a dominant big man at both ends of the floor. If the voting were done right now, and I know “right now” is only November, Mason Plumlee would be the first team All-American center, and would probably be the National Player of the Year. He is averaging 20 and 10 and controlling the action with his back-to-the-basket moves, his activity under the boards, his athleticism and running the floor, as well as his defensive presence. Yes, Duke has given up more offensive rebounds than they would like, but to be fair, most of that cannot fairly be laid at Mason’s feet. The kid is just playing with such confidence, and it’s obvious that his teammates look to him and are counting on him, and he knows it. Go back and look at tape from his freshman and sophomore years. You won’t recognize him. But don’t tell anyone, because remember, Duke doesn’t know how to develop big men, right? In the Louisville game, Mason played through some early foul trouble to largely dictate the play inside. He ended up with 16 points and 7 rebounds — pedestrian numbers for him so far this year — but nobody did anything against him at the other end either. I thought the most effective guy inside for the Cardinals was freshman Montrezl Harrell, the former Virgina Tech signee, who aggressively scored 10 points on 5 of 7 shooting in 20 minutes. If I was Pitino, I would’ve played him more. Oh, and last add re: Mason. The guy who shot less than 53% from the line last year? He’s at 80% this year, after hitting 4 of 5 versus the Cardinals.
The Blue Devils demonstrated in this game, as they did in beating that other team from the state of Kentucky, that they have the poise and the moxie to get to the winners circle when the going gets tough. Remember, Duke enjoyed an 11 point lead with 14 minutes to go in this game, and Louisville battled back to take the lead on a Siva 3-pointer with 8:19 to play. It would have been easy for the Blue Devils to wilt. They were largely playing just six guys, in their third game in three days, in a steaming hot ballroom, I mean gym, on a tropical island. But no. Cook answered with an immediate 3, and after the teams traded missed shots and turnovers for a few minutes, Curry banged home his big 3 at the 4:30 mark, and Duke was never headed again. Louisville had its chances, but missed free throws and turnovers doomed them, as did tough Duke defense and several clutch shots and free throws down the stretch by Cook. This is a team that is playing very good individual and team defense, it is blocking shots, it is sharing the ball on offense, it is fast breaking opportunistically, and it appears to be getting great leadership from its trio of seniors. Just the way Coach K drew it up.
Are there things that could be better at this point? Of course. The blocking out on the defensive board has not been great. Ryan Kelly has still not found his 3-point shot — though his mid-range game has been solid. K seems comfortable with only 7 guys, and really, when it gets tight, only 6. Neither Amile Jefferson nor Alex Murphy is part of the rotation, and I for one thought at least one of them would have earned that by now, but they haven’t. Marshall Plumlee has not made it back yet from his broken foot, and is still in a walking boot. But these are all minor when viewed in light of the overall performance of the team thus far. It’s not just that they’re winning games against the toughest schedule in the nation. It’s how they’re winning them and how they’re developing a balanced, flexible, multi-faceted team, and how they appear to really enjoy playing with each other and have such confidence in each other. That was not always the case last year, and it showed. Look, all kinds of things can happen in the weeks and months to come that could send this train off the rails as well. But at this point, there are a lot of reasons to be pretty gosh dern happy with how it’s gone.