Two of the nation's dwindling number of unbeatens clash on Saturday in New Jersey's Izod Center as the Duke Blue Devils try to avenge last season's 5-point loss at the hands of the Temple Owls, a game in which Temple broke a nine game losing streak to Duke.
The Temple game last year was in many ways the canary in the coal mine for Duke, as the Owls exposed a number of significant weaknesses in Duke's lineup and style of play, deficiencies that contributed heavily to the derailing of the Blue Devils' season. It had been relatively easy to dismiss Duke's only loss last season prior to Temple -- at Ohio State -- as a function of an extremely tired post-Maui team having to get back on the road to travel and play against a top 5 opponent led by an All-American post player. But there was no way to sugarcoat the Temple loss. Sure, it was in Philly, in front of a raucous crowd, but they just outplayed Duke almost the entire game; they were just better that day. Coach Fran Dunphy's team beat Duke by playing physical man-to-man defense and challenging the Blue Devils to match that aggressiveness. They made penetration very tough, bumping the callow Austin Rivers around and challenging anyone else to penetrate off the dribble, which they couldn't do. The lack of penetration, in turn, meant there were very few three point shots available. Duke took only 14 three-pointers all day, and several of those were in the last minutes as the Devils tried desperately to catch up. The Plumlees were Duke's leading scorers in the game, but although they did score, the fact remained that when Duke got the ball down low, the Owls' big men forced tough shots, which were often missed. Ryan Kelly was no factor at all, and only played 19 minutes. And Temple played the good D without fouling, as Duke only got to the line 16 times, extremely low for them. Offensively, Temple took good shots, and made them -- they shot lights out at 56%. One of the reasons they got so many good shots was because Temple's guards were big guards. They simple shot over Duke's shorter perimeter guys. And the Owls moved the ball very well. Their 18 assists were a season-high for a Duke opponent. Naturally, then, Duke had one of its worst days rebounding the ball defensively, gathering only 16 all day. And most importantly, they outhustled the Blue Devils.
That Temple team was very good all year. They won the A-10 regular season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament as a #5 seed. But they just couldn't get untracked and were bounced in the first round by South Florida, 58-44. The Owls finished 24-8 on the season.
So what about the Owls this year, their last in the A-10 before they move over to the Big East, or whatever's left of it? They lost two starters in Ramone Moore, who was the leading scorer and first team all-A-10, and point guard Juan Fernandez, as well as big man Michael Eric. But once again, the Owls are led by an experienced core of players, including three seniors. Sound familiar? Senior swingman Scootie Randall, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, is back, and back with a vengeance. Randall not only leads the team in minutes at 35.5, but is the leading scorer and rebounder, at 16.7 ppg and 7.2 rpg. The 6'6" 225 pounder straight outta Philly has a solid body and can play inside or out, but he likes the 3-ball. 6'4" Kahlif Wyatt, who hit two huge three's down the stretch to put the Blue Devils away last year, and ended with a game-high 22, is knocking down a solid 15 ppg while dishing out almost 5 assists. Last year's second team all-A-10 performer really likes to shoot the 3-ball. And 6'6" Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson, who stuffed the stat sheet and just killed the Devils all day in last year's matchup in Philly, once again is giving Coach Dunphy a little bit of everything in his 32 minutes per night. He seems to play a lot bigger than 6'6". Neither Randall nor Wyatt has shot the ball well, though, thus far, as both are shooting around 42%. But they've both shot better that in years past, so they are capable.
The guy who is shooting well is 6'9" soph Anthony Lee, who is giving the Owls 11 ppg on 66% shooting, as well as six boards a night. He's put on 20 pounds since last year. The fifth starter for the Owls has been 6'2" soph Will Cummings, who brings more quickness but perhaps less savvy than did the departed Fernandez. He can push the ball, though.
Coach Dunphy has primarily been using an eight man rotation. The big guy off the bench is 6'9" senior Jake O'Brien, a transfer from Boston University, where he was a double digit scorer for three seasons, but O'Brien actually is a jump shooter rather than a banger. 6'3" T.J. DiLeo (yet another senior), who provides high energy on the defensive end, and 6'5" Dalton Pepper, a transfer from West Virginia who played mop-up minutes against Duke in their 2010 Final Four loss, also are getting meaningful minutes off the bench.
While Temple is undefeated at 6-0, they haven't exactly beaten a Murderer's Row of opponents. They won by 14 at Kent State, beat Rice by 14 at home, Delaware by 5 at home (remember, Duke hammered Delaware last week), Buffalo by 15 on the road, Wagner by 8 at home, and then on Wednesday night, their best win on paper, a 15 pointer over city rival Villanova. I say on paper because Villanova has already been blown out by Alabama and Columbia (the Ivy League school, not the country), both at home no less, and then lost to LaSalle too, and they've looked so bad that Coach Jay Wright's seat is said to be getting toasty. But I digress.
So, what to expect on Saturday? Well, I imagine that Coach Dunphy will try to dial up a similar game plan as he did last year. It worked rather well. Their solidly built perimeter guys are going to be in our guards' shirts, challenging us to see if we can penetrate, and bodying us up on every shot. I wouldn't think this would work as well this year. For one, we have a pass-first point guard with an excellent handle who is playing with a lot of confidence. He'll be able to get into the lane some and either finish or pitch it out for good looks. Didn't have that last year. We have a rangy, 6'4" shooter/slasher who appears to fear nothing, does not hang his head, and plays within the confines of the team concept. Didn't have that last year. And we still have Seth Curry on the wing as well. And inside, Duke has a clear advantage offensively. Yes, the Plumlees did damage last year against Temple, but this year not only is Mason a vastly improved player, but he also now has many more guys who know how to get him the ball and are willing to do so. With a smile. Didn't have that last year.
On the other end of the floor, Temple is going to test Duke in some of the same ways they did last season. Their guards are big and physical again, and they are effective slashing to the bucket. Duke's guards are going to have to move their feet and prevent dribble penetration, because once the Temple perimeter players get into or near the lane, they will be able to elevate over Duke's guys again, with the exception of Sulaimon. And in addition, if they can penetrate and kick and give Randle and Wyatt some space, some more of their 3's may find the bottom of the well.
One difference at the defensive end this year, though, is the improved defensive presence not only of Plumlee but perhaps even more noticeably, of Ryan Kelly. Kelly has been very effective in forcing guys to catch in places they don't want to catch in, and cutting off their first and/or favorite moves. He's making guys uncomfortable out there, and he's swatting shots to boot. With Ryan and Mason communicating so much better defensively, Duke is playing much better team defense. The Blue Devils are suffering many less defensive breakdowns than they did a season ago, and that defensive cohesiveness makes a big difference against an experienced and well-coached outfit like Temple.
Temple's not going to be intimidated by Duke. No, they haven't played anybody yet this year, but so what? This is a veteran team, and they've played plenty of games against elite competition in their years at Temple, including hanging one on the Devils last year. But by the same token, Duke is going to be ready for this game. It's not a "trap" game as so many self-appointed experts have been braying this week. "Trap game." I hate that term -- it's virtually meaningless. Duke has been off for a week. They'd be itching to play no matter what. But this is a team that feels it's on a big roll right now. They can't wait to get back on the court and try to keep it going -- this week off has been killing them (except for the rest it's provided Seth, of course). They also know that Temple is good; the Owls have beaten at least one top-10 team in each of the last four seasons. When you add to all of that the fact that the Blue Devils themselves were beaten on national TV by Temple last season, I expect Duke to be raring to go on Saturday.