Duke vs. Ohio State ACC-Big 10 Challenge Preview

Almost feels like Groundhog’s Day.  Think about the way the 2011-12 Duke season started.  The program had lost its standout guards Kyrie Irving and Nolan Smith, as well as all-time great Kyle Singler, and was seeking to put the memories of a poor performance in the NCAA Tournament loss to Arizona behind them.  Duke had a hotshot freshman guard in Austin Rivers and a number of returnees whose progress and development coming into the season seemed uncertain.  The Blue Devils got wins over Belmont and Presbyterian, then won the big tilt against Michigan State in Madison Square Garden.  After dispatching Davidson, it was time for the Thanksgiving tournament.  The team came up big in winning the whole thing in Maui, beating two solid teams in Tennessee and Michigan, and one outstanding one in Kansas.  They turned around and headed to play the ACC-Big 10 Challenge game in Columbus against Ohio State, and the exhausted Blue Devils were spanked 85-63, and were dominated in every phase of the game.  That Buckeyes team turned out to be pretty good, as they advanced to last season’s Final Four.

This year, the team lost its standout guard Austin Rivers as well as first-round draft pick Miles Plumlee and veteran Andre Dawkins, and is seeking to put the memories of a poor performance in the NCAA Tournament loss to Lehigh behind it.  Duke has a hotshot freshman guard in Rasheed Sulaimon and a number of returnees whose progress and development coming into the season seemed uncertain.  After a season-opening win over Georgia State, the Blue Devils won the big tilt against Kentucky in the Georgia Dome.  After dispatching Florida Gulf Coast, it was time for the Thanksgiving tournament.  The team came up big in winning the whole thing in Nassau, beating two solid teams in Minnesota and VCU, and one outstanding one in Louisville.  Now they turn around to play the ACC-Big 10 Challenge game, this time in Durham, against . . . Ohio State.  Tipoff is Wednesday night at 9:30 PM (isn’t that kinda late?) on ESPN.  Musburger and Bilas at the mikes for what will be Ohio State’s first-ever visit to Cameron.

But I would not expect a similar result, for a number of reasons.  First of all, Ohio State, while ranked in the top 5 again (and having been a #1 or #2 seed in the NCAA’s in five of the last seven years), is not the same team.  The centerpieces of the 2011-12 Buckeyes were sophomore big man Jared Sullinger and his ample derrierre, both now of the Boston Celtics.  Swingman William Buford, who was often very good, has graduated.  The top dog this year is 6’7″ junior forward Deshaun Thomas, who broke out in the NCAA Tournament last year and has really diversified his game; through Ohio State’s four games the lefty is averaging 24 points and 7 rebounds, and is shooting 54% and 48% from 3-point land.  He’s been a beast.  The leader in the backcourt is clearly junior Aaron Craft, widely acknowledged to be one of the top defensive players in the land, but one who has improved his shooting now as well.  So far, Craft is averaging 14 ppg, up from 8.8 last year, and is dishing out his customary 5 assists per game to boot.  The third returning starter is guard Lenzelle Smith, Jr., a sporadic 3-point threat, averaging 11.5 ppg and 5.3 boards — not bad from the backcourt.  He also provides solid D on the perimeter.

Sam Thompson, a 6’7″soph starts on the wing as well.  This kid is super-athletic, plays terrific D, and brings effort and an outstanding attitude to the floor every night.  He’s not a shooter, but he can get to the hoop.  You better block him out, because with his hops he can do damage on the offensive board.  With Craft, Smith, and Thompson on the perimeter defensively, the Buckeyes can really force opposing offenses out of their comfort zones.  Against the wishes of many Buckeye faithful, 6’8″ 250 pound senior Evan Ravenel has been the fifth starter in each Ohio State game thus far.  Ravenel can play the 4 or the 5, and while not flashy and not a scorer, is a good position defender and provides veteran leadership.

One of the differences in this year’s Buckeyes is that Coach Thad Matta is more intent on developing and using his depth.  In each of the last three years, Ohio State had four starters average over 30 minutes per game.  But Matta wants to facilitate a faster pace this season, as he’s more perimeter-oriented due to his no longer having Sullinger, so he wants more guys involved.  Hence, already this year Matta has been playing 8 guys at least 13 minutes.  I’m surprised sophs Amir Williams, a 6’10″ center, and 6’8″ forward LaQuinton Ross haven’t earned starting roles.  Ross is the kid who many Buckeye fans see as the next potential breakout star.  Originally thought to be a one-and-done candidate coming out of Mississippi, Ross was academically ineligible for the first semester of his freshman year, and never really got into it.  But he can shoot and he can create, no question.  The issue with Ross has been his attitude.  He hasn’t gotten after it sufficiently at the defensive end, and has not always played well in the sandbox.  There was some talk that he might not be happy still coming off the bench in his second year, and who knows?  Maybe it’s true.  But if Ohio State needs someone to step up and be the third scorer after Thomas and Craft, it’s clear that Ross has the most ability to be that guy.  But he has to earn it in practice, and he has to earn it at the defensive end (sound familiar, Duke fans?) and thus far he hasn’t.

Williams also came out of high school with a lot of hype, and thus far is still adapting to the college game.  He’s in much better condition this year, and he is up to 250 pounds, so that should help him underneath.  He is a good shot blocker, but still a work in progress offensively.  If he can gain some consistency, he’s going to get more minutes, because he clearly has a higher ceiling than does Ravenel.

Shannon Scott, a 6’1″ soph out of Georgia, is another kid who can help this team.  The former McDonald’s All-American is primarily backing up Craft right now.  Scott shot poorly last year, and hasn’t added much scoring punch so far this season either, but he’s very quick and pressures the ball very well.

The Buckeyes did not add any notable recruits out of the 2012 class, other than shooter Amedeo Della Valle, out of Alba, Italy by way of Findlay Prep in Nevada.  It’s that class of 2011 — meaning Thompson, Ross, Williams, and Scott, that Coach Matta needs to step it up if this team is to approach the heights attained by recent Buckeye squads.

Ohio State has not played much of a schedule yet this year.  Their season opener was to be an aircraft carrier affair aboard the USS Yorktown against Marquette, but the game had to be cancelled due to excessive condensation on the court, making it too slippery and dangerous for the players.  Having been decommissioned in 1970, there were apparently no sailors from the great vessel available to swab those decks.  In any event, Ohio State beat the Great Danes of Albany, then handled both Rhode Island and Washington — neither of which has a vintage squad this year — to win the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament, and enjoyed a laugher over the outmanned Kangaroos of UMKC by 46.  So I’d say they’re gonna be up for Duke.

As usual, Matta has a roster of physical players, and he stresses defensive intensity for 40 minutes.  They won’t press full-court the whole game like VCU or Louisville did, but Duke should expect nothing easy against Ohio State.  You know how much Matta focuses on defense by the fact that he openly stated in the pre-season that the best five defenders would start for the Buckeyes.  You also know it because over the past five years, Ohio State has allowed the fewest points per possession of any team in the nation.

Some nights this team is going to be offensively challenged.  But because they play eight, nine, sometimes ten guys, they are able to keep up the defensive pressure and bang the boards the whole game.  Duke is coming off a 3 games-in-3-nights gauntlet down at the Atlantis, and doesn’t get a ton of turnaround time to prepare for the Buckeyes.

But Duke is in a very different place than they were a year ago.  Sure, they were coming off the big win over Kansas in Maui and everyone was feeling good.  But there was a sinking feeling that the team was not built upon a solid foundation, and those fears turned out to be well-founded.  This year’s team has a true point guard in Quinn Cook, who is healthy and at the top of his game, and feeling ultra-confident after taking home the MVP hardware from The Bahamas.  Duke had nobody like him last year to contend with a guy like Craft and all the havoc he can wreak.  I’d say that Ohio State has to figure out how it’s going to deal with Cook as much as Duke has to figure out how it’s going to deal with Craft.  Unlike last year, Duke will have the best big man on the floor, clearly, in Mason Plumlee.  The Blue Devils also sport a savvy and experienced leader, and deadeye shooter in Seth Curry, and another experienced, solid senior starter in Ryan Kelly.  Duke did not possess those attributes last year at this time.  Curry, despite his injury, is playing at a much higher level than he did last year, and with a ton of confidence that he did not enjoy in 2011-12 as he and Austin Rivers had to figure out how to play together.  There appear to be no such issues between Curry and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, who is providing shooting, size in the backcourt, tough defense, and an unselfish attitude that has been contagious.  And this year, Duke is at home to face the Buckeyes.

This game is going to be interesting.  With Ohio State’s leading scorer being an aggressive 6’7″ guy who plays both inside and outside, it provides a challenge for Duke, because we don’t have a guy like that.  Neither Alex Murphy nor Amile Jefferson, who many Duke fans hoped would be ready to play tough opposing small forwards, has earned the trust of Coach K in a meaningful way.  So it’ll be Sulaimon, it’ll be Kelly, it may even be Ty Thornton who try their hand against Thomas.  But Thomas is likely to get his.  I for one don’t see Ohio State quite having enough horses though to counter all the different ways Duke can beat you, if they continue to play anything like they have thus far this year.  Inside or out, halfcourt or on the break, taking care of the ball and sharing it, and playing much better defense — individually and as a team — I just think the Blue Devils have a better team.  Especially playing at home — where they’ve won 96 in a row against nonconference foes — and with a lot of momentum, I’d be surprised — not shocked, but surprised — to see Ohio State hang one on the Blue Devils.

Duke Football Coach David Cutcliffe Named ACC Coach of the Year

Cutcliffe named ACC Coach of the Year – Photo copyright Mark Watson and BDN

DURHAM, N.C. – Duke Head Football Coach David Cutcliffe has been named Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year. Cutcliffe led Duke to a 6-6 regular season record, a three win jump from a season ago. The Blue Devils were picked last in their division in the pre-season and surpassed almost all expectations, becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since the 1994 season.

Cutcliffes’ Blue Devils lost several starters in the pre-season and his team weathered further injuries during the year, yet still overcame the adversity to post the best season at Duke in 18 years. Cutcliffe recently signed a well-deserved contract extension at Duke, but he is not resting on his laurels. He’s out on the recruiting trail this week as his team awaits a sure bowl invitation, expected to be issued as early as this coming Sunday.
“This honor is both humbling and rewarding because of the quality of the coaches in our conference,” said Cutcliffe.  “Like all awards, the credit reaches far beyond one person and this is truly one for our entire program.  Ultimately, the acclaim goes to both our staff and the group of young men that came to practice every day with a desire to improve and prepare, gave their best effort on Saturdays, succeeded academically and served our community with pure selflessness.  While this was a season of progress for our program, many of the goals we laid out five years ago have not been reached and we’ll continue our pursuit of excellence.

2012 ACC Coach of the Year Voting Results

David Cutcliffe, Duke (25)

Dabo Swinney, Clemson (7)

Jimbo Fisher, Florida State (5)

Larry Fedora, North Carolina (4)

Al Golden, Miami (4)

Tom O’Brien, NC State (1)

Blue Devil Nation congratulates Coach Cut on a successful season and a well-deserved award.

Will Monday and Ross Cockrella re named 1st team All ACC - Photo BDN/Rick Crank

Will Monday, Ross Cockrell, Conner Vernon, Walt Canty named All ACC

Will Monday and Ross Cockrella re named 1st team All ACC – Photo BDN/Rick Crank

DURHAM, N.C. – Led by first team selections Ross Cockrell and Will Monday, nine Duke players earned All-ACC recognition as the conference released its all-league football teams on Monday afternoon.

Joining Cockrell and Monday were second unit choices Walt Canty and Conner Vernon along with honorable mention picks Kenny Anunike, Jamison Crowder, Dave Harding, Ross Martin and Perry Simmons.

Voting on the All-ACC teams was conducted by 46 members of the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association.

Anunike, a redshirt senior defensive end from Galena, Ohio, who will return for a sixth season of eligibility in 2013, has totaled 42 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 5.0 quarterback sacks and one caused fumble this season.

Canty, a senior safety and co-captain from Roebuck, S.C., paces the Blue Devils in tackles with 102 while ranking ninth in the conference in tackles per game (8.50). He has added 5.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups and one interception on the year.

Cockrell, a redshirt junior cornerback and co-captain from Waxhaw, N.C., leads the ACC in interceptions with five while ranking third in total passes defended with 17. In 12 games, he has compiled 63 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss and 12 pass breakups.

Crowder, a sophomore wide receiver from Monroe, N.C., has 70 receptions for 1,025 yards and eight touchdowns on the year. In the regular season finale against Miami, he caught eight passes for a career-high 203 yards including an ACC record and NCAA record-tying 99-yard touchdown pass from Sean Renfree.

Harding, a redshirt junior offensive guard from Orlando, Fla., has started all 12 games along the Duke line this year, helping the Blue Devils rank second in the ACC in sacks allowed per pass attempt (26.37).

Martin, a freshman kicker from Solon, Ohio, has tallied 98 total points in 2012 by making 18-of-20 field goal attempts and all 44 of his PAT conversions. In the ACC, he ranks first in PAT percentage (1.000), third in field goals per game (1.50) and seventh in points per game (8.17).

Monday, a redshirt freshman punter from Flowery Branch, Ga., leads the conference and ranks 14th nationally in punting average at 44.12.

Simmons, a redshirt junior offensive tackle from Raleigh, N.C., has started all 12 games while helping the Duke offense average 31.33 points per game, marking the third-highest single-season total in school history.

Vernon, a senior wide receiver and co-captain from Miami, Fla., earns second team All-ACC accolades for the third consecutive season. Through 12 games, he has caught a team-best and school single-season record 75 passes for 955 yards and seven touchdowns. Earlier this season, Vernon became the ACC’s all-time leader in both pass receptions and receiving yardage and his 47-game career totals stand at 273 catches for 3,630 yards and 20 touchdowns.

2012 ALL-ACC TEAMS (Points)

FIRST TEAM

Offense

QB-Tajh Boyd, Clemson (86)

RB-Giovani Bernard, North Carolina (91)

RB-Andre Ellington, Clemson (77)

WR-DeAndre Hopkins, Clemson (80)

WR-Alex Amidon, Boston College (53)

OT-Oday Aboushi, Virginia (53)

OT-Brandon Thomas, Clemson (51)

OG-Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina (79)

OG-Omoregie Uzzi, Georgia Tech (64)

C-Dalton Freeman, Clemson (78)

TE-Brandon Ford, Clemson (54)

K-Dustin Hopkins, Florida State (79)

Spec.- Giovani Bernard, North Carolina (48)

Defense

DE-Bjoern Werner, Florida State (89)

DE-Cornellius Carradine, Florida State (77)

DT-Joe Vellano, Maryland (80)

DT-Sylvester Williams, North Carolina (63)

LB-Nick Clancy, Boston College (66)

LB-Kevin Reddick, North Carolina (65)

LB-Steve Greer, Virginia (58)

CB-Xavier Rhodes, Florida State (66)

CB-Ross Cockrell, Duke (50)

S-Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State (59)

S-Earl Wolff, NC State (46)

P-Will Monday, Duke (73)

SECOND TEAM

Offense

QB-E.J. Manuel, Florida State (25)

RB-Duke Johnson, Miami (47)

RB-Chris Thompson, Florida State (31)

WR-Conner Vernon, Duke (51)

WR-Michael Campanaro, Wake Forest (32)

OT-James Hurst, North Carolina (50)

OT-Cameron Erving, Florida State (21)

OT-Emmett Cleary, Boston College (21)

OG-Tre’ Jackson, Florida State (26)

OG-R.J. Matttes, NC State (24)

C- Bryan Stork, Florida State (19)

TE-Eric Ebron, North Carolina (51)

K-Chandler Catanzaro, Clemson (22)

K-Casey Barth, North Carolina (22)

Spec.-Duke Johnson, Miami (44)

Defense

DE-James Gayle, Virginia Tech (30)

DE-Kareem Martin, North Carolina (22)

DT-Everett Dawkins, Florida State (34)

DT-Nikita Whitlock, Wake Forest (24)

LB-Demetrius Hartsfield, Maryland (34)

LB-Christian Jones, Florida State (31)

LB-Jack Tyler Virginia Tech (28)

CB-David Amerson, NC State (46)

CB-Antone Exum, Virginia Tech (44)

S-Rashard Hall, Clemson (43)

S- Walt Canty, Duke (31)

P-Tommy Hibbard, North Carolina (40)

Honorable Mention [Name, School, Position, Points]: Kenny Anunike (Duke), de (13); Jeremiah Attaochu (GT), lb (26); Brandan Bishop (NCS), safety (20); Travis Bond (UNC), og (14); Tre Boston (UNC), safety (29); Darryl Cato-Bishop (NCS), de (12); Emmett Cleary (BC), ot (21); Jamison Crowder (Duke), wr (15); Stefon Diggs (MD), spec. (33); Jay Finch (GT), c (16); Jon Feliciano (MIA), og (16); A.J. Francis (MD), de (12); Kyle Fuller (VT), cb (16); Mike Glennon (NCS), qb (10); Malliciah Goodman (CLEM), de (16); Dave Harding (Duke), og (14); Seantrel Henderson (MIA), ot (13); Antoine Hopkins (VT), dt (10); Derrick Hopkins (VT), dt (15); Will Jackson (GT), ot (14); Timmy Jernigan (FS), dt (15); Alex Kinal (WF), p (12); Gerald Levano (BC), p (13); Brandon Linder (MIA), og (21); Ross Martin (Duke), pk (11); Anthony McCloud (FS), dt (10); Jake McGee (VA), te (12); Demetrious Nicholson (VA), cb (12); Denzel Perryman (MIA), lb (12); Kevin Pierre-Louis (BC), lb (14); Bryn Renner (UNC), qb (15); LaRoy Reynolds (VA), lb (10); Tim Scott (UNC), cb (10); Perry Simmons (Duke), ot (11); Orwin Smith (GT), rb (13); Kenny Tate (MD), lb (12); Bruce Taylor (VT), lb (19); Sammy Watkins (CLEM), wr (19); Menelik Watson (FS), ot (13); Camden Wentz (NCS), c (12); Brennan Williams (UNC), ot (13); Vince Williams (FS), lb (11)

BDN’s Duke Basketball Notebook

When the new college basketball Top 25 comes out later today, you’ll see the Duke Blue Devils take a significant jump to either the number two or three position. That’s because Duke Basketball is winning and doing so against a schedule that has featured some of the nation’s top teams. Already this season, Duke has registered victories over the then-#2 Kentucky, #2 Louisville, not to mention a Minnesota team picked fifth in the very difficult Big Ten and a pesky Virginia Commonwealth team nobody purposefully schedules.

We’re not even out of the month of November and Duke is probably the most battle tested team in the country, and if not, they’re close to it. Coach Krzyzewski is at his best when faced with stiff challenge, and he’ll face another this week when Ohio State comes to town for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and they, too, will be ranked second or third in the country, setting up yet another prime time matchup of Top 5 teams.

There have been many factors contributing to Duke’s success thus far. Senior leadership quickly comes to mind, as Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly are providing years of experience. Playing in their final season at Duke, the trio seems committed to not permitting another early out, and their memories from the loss to Lehigh have obviously made them work to make sure it doesn’t happen on their watch.

Already, Mason Plumlee is showing that his off-season work is paying off; there is no place better to start than his improved free throw shooting. That shooting has made him a 20-10 point and rebound guy to date, but he has also been very efficient. But the most important thing is that he is avoiding untimely and unnecessary fouls much better than in the past, and he has seemingly learned how to play while in foul trouble.

Seth Curry came into the season battling pain from a recurring injury, and it was thought that his time could be limited.  But he toughed it out in the Blue Devils three games in three days in the Battle for Atlantis. Curry has been steady and confident and like Plumlee, a solid free throw shooter. He is playing like a leader and he is playing in what seems like a happy place.

A happy place, you say? Another key for these Blue Devils has been team chemistry. Krzyzewski most recently said this team seems to like each other and the melding of personalities is always a plus. And here is where we talk of Ryan Kelly, who has also showed an improved game, mainly on the defensive end where he’s gotten some key blocks. Kelly has not had one of his better offensive games yet, but he’s been solid and twice led the team in assists.

Another major factor in the quick start for Duke has been the emergence of point guard Quinn Cook. All he’s done to date is win the MVP of the Battle for Atlantis in what might be remembered as his coming out party. Cook is aggressively taking on the role of the team’s quarterback and while still a work in progress, it’s clear that he’s here to stay. The next step for Cook is handling expectations and staying humble and steady, and if he’s up to that challenge, Duke will win a lot more games.

You know that Krzyzewski is also pleased with the play of freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, who has started as a true freshman and put up nice numbers in a most unselfish way. Sulaimon gives Duke a great on-ball defender, a penetrator and a scorer and you can just see how much potential he has. Sulaimon just fits and makes his teammates better, and that’s the kind of guy that is always welcomed.

The Blue Devils have also gotten good minutes from a much improved Josh Hairston and the always steady influence of tough nose Tyler Thornton. And while some want to point to a lack playing time and try to spread various rumors, I see it as a positive that Duke has two other freshmen in Amile Jefferson and Alex Muprhy that can develop, and they’ll have that chance in a stretch of home games coming up.  And we didn’t even mention Marshall Plumlee, who I expect will be ready to see game action shortly after sitting out with a foot injury.

So, there are plenty of early season positives for Duke, but the one which is most evident is an improved defense. That is an area the Duke staff has obviously worked on the hardest, and that work has paid off.

Curry got minutes for the Blue Devils in their win over WSSU.  Photo - Lance King for BDN

Balanced Blue Devils Outlast Louisville to Capture Battle for Atlantis Title

Curry got minutes for the Blue Devils in their win over WSSU. Photo – Lance King for BDN

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.

Duke comeback bid falls short vs Miami

DURHAM, N.C. - Duke Coach David Cutcliffe entered the media room and immediately looked at the stat sheet with a most sour expressio. His Duke Blue Devils had just lost to the Miami Hurricanes on Senior Day by a 52-45 score, yet there was a feeling amongst all who watched the game, that a stop or two by the defense or one less big play could have led to a winning record heading into a guaranteed bowl invite.

Instead, Miami rolled up some impressive offensive numbers and just when you thought the resilient Blue Devils might make a comeback, they’d score on one big play before the taste of a good effort to get into the end zone for Duke had faded. It was that kind of day in Wallace Wade Stadium, a game which the home team fought their way back into after taking a 28-10 deficit into the locker room at half time.

Cutcliffe glared at the stat sheet and said there is no way we can win giving up 11 yards per carry and that’s what Miamis’ Duke Johnson averaged on his way to 181 rushing yards and three touchdowns. In fact, Miami rolled up 646 total yards in the game and did what the Duke defense struggled with, making an occasional stop,

That was the difference on a day when Duke set all kinds of passing and reception records. Sean Renfree had a stellar game going 36 of 59 for a season high 432 yards and four scores. Duke was 4 of 4 in the red zone as well, which is quite effective. And then there was the longest play from scrimmage in the history of Duke Football, a 99 yard pass from Renfree to Jamison Crowder and a career day as well for the wideout who pulled in eight passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns.

Even Conner Vernon closed his home career out as good as one might have hoped for, with 11 catches for 109 yards and another two scores in his Wallace Wade finale. And then there was running back, Jelea Duncan a true freshman who average 10.7 yards per carry. All that is impressive.

But as impressive as that might be, there was frustration on the faces of the seniors as they addressed the media. There was a feeling as if they had fallen short of something they could have accomplished. Many of the players stated and Cutcliffe confirmed that he was not a bowl of cherries in the half time locker room and Duke made good adjustments winning the second half 35-24, but there was just too big of a deficit to overcome and that was another lesson learned for a program still learning what it takes to break through to another level.

Despite all the pain from losing on Senior Day, Duke fans can rest better knowing not a player or coach was accepting of what happened. Nobody especially wanted to talk bowl. Instead, it was as if they were all itching to get back to work as soon as possible.

And that folks, is the difference in this season and those many unfortunate past. This Blue Devils team is hurting and reeling in many ways on the defensive side of the ball, but they’ve got one more game to play and a lot of practice earned which bodes well for the future.

There may have been an opportunity lost today in a cool and windy Wallace Wade Stadium for Cutcliffes’ team, but one teams season will continue because they are doing things right, while the others ended with a win, but a trip back home is their prize for pending violations.

Nobody likes a loss and everybody wanted that coveted seventh win which guarantees a winning season but at least the Blue Devils still have opportunity ahead. Duke now has just under a month to shore up the defensive side of the ball and they can right the ship in the most important game of the season going in to next year, that being the last game in a place they’ve been invited.