Preview: Duke vs. Elon

elonOK, OK, Blue Devil fans everywhere are going to be focusing a lot of attention and energy on a little announcement to be made this afternoon in a high school gymnasium on the south side of Chicago.  But there is the little matter of a real live game to be played tonight by this year’s Duke squad.  Isn’t there?

After dispatching Cornell last night in its return from an 11-day layoff, the Blue Devils get right back into it on Thursday night as they host the Phoenix of Elon University.  This is the first time in 17 years that Duke has played games on consecutive days when neither game was part of either a pre-season or post-season tournament.

Duke was sluggish at the outset against Cornell, allowing the Big Red to hang around until about the 4 1/2 minute mark of the first half, when the Blue Devil lead was just 28-26.  Duke was actually moving the ball pretty well and working it in nicely to Mason Plumlee, but the defensive intensity was not there and the rotations were poor, enabling Cornell to get a number of good looks, several of which they knocked down.  The Big Red also did a nice job of exploiting Duke’s failures to get back on defense, resulting in some transition hoops.  That was not expected, but it happened.

But when the inevitable came, it came big.  The Blue Devils turned up the defensive intensity in a big way, turning Cornell over time after time, leading to all sorts of easy hoops.  On offense, the ball was moving well; the shots were falling.  Everybody got into the action.  Duke’s two point lead at the 4 1/2 minute mark of the first half ballooned thanks to a run of epic proportions.  It was 32-4 over the next 10 1/2 minutes of action; it was a 48-6 run over 14 minutes.  48-6.  Those are the sorts of numbers I don’t think I’ve ever seen in almost 30 years of watching Duke basketball.

The big moment for many Devils fans was the debut of Marshall Plumlee.  The redshirt frosh, coming off a stress fracture in his foot, only played two minutes, but he played.  Plumlee was active and aggressive out there, and his body looked more developed than some might have expected.  Unfortunately, there was some sort of a problem with the orthotic insert in his sneaker that caused some discomfort, and the staff held him out the rest of the night as a precautionary measure.  His status for tonight’s game against Elon is up in the air.

Elon, a member of the Southern Conference, is coached by Matt Matheny, now in his fourth season after spending 16 assisting Bob McKillop at Davidson.  Matheny compiled a record of 38-56 coming into this season, including 15-16 last year.

Elon has had a nice year so far.  They were invited to play in the Maui Invitational, and acquitted themselves quite well.  They opened with a 15 point loss to Butler, in Indianapolis.  Nothing to be embarrassed about there.  I think everyone has figured out by now that Butler is pretty good.  But the Phoenix followed that up with a win over Bridgewater (never heard of them? Me either.) and then two more in the “Regional Winners Bracket” over Colgate and Florida Atlantic.  Then came Elon’s best performance of the year, a 12 point win over South Carolina of the SEC, on the road.  Since then, the results have been a bit uneven, as Elon lost to VMI, beat Georgia Southern, lost by a bucket to Charleston, blew out Dartmouth, and lost to UMass in OT.  So they sit at six up and four down.

Coach Metheny uses up to nine guys as part of the regular rotation, meaning they get at least nine minutes, and even the tenth man gets seven.  But six players eat up the bulk of the minutes.  6’2″ junior guard Jack Isenbarger leads in minutes and also is the team’s leading scorer at 14.7 ppg, but he’s been an inconsistent shooter.  Right behind him is Lucas Troutman, a 6’10″ 220 pound junior, scoring 14.6 ppg.  Troutman is the best shooter among the guys getting most of the minutes, and is also the top board man on the squad, as he grabs 6.4 per game.  He also blocks 2.4 shots per game — including seven against Colgate.  But those two are the only ones averaging double figure points.  The other starters are 6’7″ Ryley Beaumont, who averages 9.5 points and 5.9 rebounds, 6’8″ German guard Sebastian Koch, who scores 8 and gets 5 boards per game, and 5’10″ Austin Hamilton.  Depending on the matchups and who’s playing well, 6’4″ freshman Tanner Samson, 6’7″ soph Ryan Winters, 6’7″ frosh Tony Sabato, 6’3″ soph Kevin Blake, and 6’7″ 235 pound junior Egheosa Edomwonyi may get some run off the bench.

Elon has not shot the ball well very often.  On the season, the team is at 39% from the field and 69% from the line.  But they are averaging about eight made 3-pointers per game.  Isenbarger has broken the 20-point barrier twice, but nobody else has done so.  The team only averages 69 ppg, but on the flip side is only giving up 63.  They have not been strong on the boards, and average getting outboarded by about three per game.

Duke may be fatigued playing back-to-back, especially after the layoff, but learning to play while tired is one of the points of scheduling games in this manner.  While Elon is a nice team having a successful season, Duke’s talent, length, quickness, size, and intensity are certain to overwhelm the Phoenix.  Hopefully, Alex Murphy and Amile Jefferson can build on their performances last night and continue to gain confidence as well as the trust of the staff.  It would be great if Marshall Plumlee can get back on the floor too.  But as with many games against this level of opponent, the primary goals (besides winning the game of course) are for the heavy minute guys to continue to learn to play together, to get used to playing defense with the type of intensity they showed during last night’s big run, and to maintain our health.