Mental toughness is the key for these Blue Devils

Virginia Tech v DukeThere was a sense of relief for all involved with Duke Basketball after the team dismantled a big and physical Maryland team on Saturday. The Blue Devils are unaccustomed to dealing with bad losses on the whole, so getting back on the court was the only thing that would cure the blues that enveloped the team in South Florida.

In response to one of my questions in his post-game press conference, Coach Kryzewski took the time to go back and discuss the Miami game. He simply stated that Duke ran into a perfect storm -- a hurricane in this case. He mentioned the same thing I did in a previous article -- that the Blue Devils just needed to see the ball go in the hoop.

Anyone could tell that the team came prepared for battle against the Terrapins. They squelched any attempt at a run made by the Terps, as Duke remained focused and maintained their mental toughness. That was the difference, and that's what it will take moving forward while they await the return of Ryan Kelly.

From an x's and o's standpoint, it was important for this team to finally adjust to the new Kelly-less lineup. Going into the Maryland game, many were wondering where the offense would come from. As it turned out, it came in the form of freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, who fought off his recent inconsistency to hit for a career-high 25 points.

But Duke will not always be able to depend on Sulaimon having monster games. So it will be important for other players to step up as well individually, and for the team to continue to find its chemistry in the absence of Kelly. Chemistry was what put the Blue Devils on top of the polls for most of the season, and it is the only thing that will return them there by season's end.

That said, it is not easy for a team to suddenly revamp its lineup in mid-season without losing that delicate chemistry. Duke pretty much had to tear down the way they were doing things and rebuild, and that rebuilding is rarely smooth. Hence, a little doubt inevitably snuck in.

In short, Duke had to find their mental toughness first and foremost. Once that confidence is established, success in other areas of the game can follow. It's analogous to when a player is in a shooting slump; he has to play hard in other aspects of the game until he can get that easy shot to get himself rolling again. Hopefully now, the Blue Devils can start to roll again.

This year's version of the Blue Devils is surely talented, and with Kelly they were a wily veteran team led by three seniors. But without Kelly, they are once again quite young, starting two freshman. No surprise that the Kelly-less Blue Devils' two ACC losses came to two of the older teams in the league in Miami and N.C. State.

Duke is expected to get the services of Ryan Kelly back in time. But the important thing right now is for the team to take the momentum from the win over Maryland to Winston-Salem on Wednesday night. It is notable that for whatever reason, Kelly has had monster games against the Deacons when other Blue Devils struggled. He won't be there obviously this time. So it will be interesting: who will step up in his place?

We'll learn a lot more about this team between the Wake Forest game and the next road game on the horizon at Florida State. The rematch with a hot N.C. State team will follow. Duke can ill afford to let up against anybody, much less come up with an effort like they did down in Coral Gables. It seems as if they've made some real adjustments to their post-Kelly world, and have developed a newfound chemistry. Whether or not he returns, the team will likely have benefitted from the struggle.

Duke thumps Maryland behind Sulaimon’s career-high 25 points

DURHAM, N.C. - The Duke Blue Devils rebounded nicely after a blowout loss at Miami by taking out Maryland 84-64 on Saturday afternoon in Cameron Indoor Stadium.  The Blue Devils committed just four turnovers in the game -- none in the second half -- as Duke outscored the Terps 41-29 to pull away, and in the process improve to 17-4 overall and 4-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Blue Devils were led in scoring by Rasheed Sulaimon, who lit Maryland up with a career-high 25 points, going 6 of 8 from beyond the three-point line.  His six three pointers tied the all-time Duke record for made three-pointers by a freshman, and it was the second straight game in which he led the team in first half scoring.

All-ACC candidate Mason Plumlee added 19 points, with 15 of them coming in the second half; he finished the game an efficient 9 of 12 from the floor, and he also grabbed 7 rebounds and handed out three assists.  Plumlee has scored in double figures in all but one of the Blue Devils games this season.

Freshman Amile Jefferson continued to show improvement as well.  His play was one reason cited by Coach Krzyzewski in his assessment that this team was finding its identity without Ryan Kelly.  Jefferson scored 11 points while leading Duke in rebounding with 9 caroms, but perhaps most impressive were his three timely second half blocked shots which helped squelch any hopes the Terps had of making a run.

"He's getting stronger.  We're not exactly going to see who he is this year exactly, but given the opportunity to play, Amile will develop faster," said Krzyzewski.  He went on to say, " He's a good player.  He's going to be a really good player."

Check out Coach K's press conference comments below, and check back for more post-game videos shortly.


Duke Fans: Perspective, Please

NCAA BASKETBALL: FEB 09 North Carolina at DukeIt's understandable for Blue Devil fans to be worried after last night's performance against Miami. But some perspective is in order as well. Calm and reasoned analysis will soothe the nerves much more so than will flying off the handle or reacting with anger or other irrational emotions. When I put on my fan cap, last night's loss was disturbing in many ways. But on the other hand, I force myself to remember that I have seen this kind of thing before, having been around since day one of the Krzyzewski era.

Many fans cannot appreciate that perspective, because they have only been pulling for the team for a relatively short time, so all they have known is victories and championships. They haven't witnessed the team-building required to create a top-ten mainstay.  For those fans, last evening was an absolute and irredeemable train wreck, and many of them can't help themselves from ranting uncontrollably on various social forums.

Late last evening I had to remove a post on our Facebook page that lit into Coach Mike Krzyzewski, with the poster saying he was embarrassed. As if Duke is never supposed to face adversity.  Spoiled fans were uncommon early on in the Coach K era, because there was nothing to be spoiled about as he rebuilt the program after former Coach Bill Foster left the cupboard bare when he moved on to South Carolina.  But now, there are too many fans who don't remember those days, and are simply too entitled.

You think last evening was a bitter pill to swallow?  Those fans who have been around awhile remember a crushing loss to Louisville and another in the ACC Tournament to Virginia in the year before the program started to make real headway, led by the recruiting class that included Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas, and David Henderson. What about the huge lead lost in the blowout Fnal Four loss to Seton Hall? The blowout loss in the finals to UNLV? Or . . . The point is Duke has lost badly before, and they will again, but they rebound from it. Remember, folks, the sign of a true fan is to stick by your team through thick and thin. Today feels like "thin," so this is the time that one's loyalty as a fan is tested.

Granted, last evening felt a little different than some big losses in the past.  Duke is no longer a program on the rise. The Blue Devils are on top, ranked #1 in the polls.  Still, those willing to be honest with themselves knew that the ranking was a bit too lofty for a team that was minus a key senior in Ryan Kelly.  With Kelly, Duke has three senior leaders who have been through the wars and collectively, they gave Duke their best on-court chemistry in quite some time.  But without Kelly, Duke becomes much younger and less cohesive, relying on unproven freshmen to play big roles before their time.  Last night, Duke went up against the most veteran team in the ACC, and the wheels simply came off.

Everyone here wants Duke to figure out how to regain the chemistry it played with earlier in the season, but to do so without Kelly. Finding that mojo may not happen as quickly as some might like.  Yes, there are some glaring shortcomings that most of the Blue Devil faithful are not accustomed to dealing with. But my point is that there is also a serious lapse of memory happening here; we have lived through this before.  Judging by some of the lunatic fringe responses on social media last night, the sky has already fallen, and the Mayans were a couple of months late.  If you want to look at it like that, of course you can.  There are always going to be glass half full and glass half empty folks, but in reality, the glass at Duke is almost always pretty darned full.

Just remember:  Duke fans have four national titles to point to, a coach with more wins (and counting) than any in history and you know what?  This team is still 16-2 and that awful loss to Miami, as rough as it was, counts as only one game.  Each season is full of ebbs and flows, ups and downs, and this is but one of them.

Anybody remember the Miracle Minute comeback by Duke versus Maryland?  The distraught Terps went out and lost their next game, and the home fans booed them off the court.  They ended up rebounding and going to the Final Four and when they did, some players like Juan Dixon did not want the fans to celebrate with them, feeling the fans had thrown them under the bus earlier in the year, and now didn't deserve to share in the glory.  Could you blame him?

In 2010, who would have predicted Brian Zoubek would take on the role he did in the second half of the season and be a leader on a championship team?  And remember, there was a bad loss or two during that season, which ended with the hanging of a banner.  Anybody remember the Georgetown game? Duke once got drilled by UNC in the regular season finale by a 96-74 score.  That team went on to beat Kansas for the National Championship.

I am in no way saying I expect that to happen this season.  But I am making it clear that a bad loss is not the end of the world, or of the season.

I have yet to spin around the web today, but I am certain some media types have already begun the "Duke stinks" bit.  Of course, these are the same guys who were honking their horn about the Blue Devils when they were beating the nation's toughest schedule.  I understand, this is an ESPN-driven, "what have you done for me lately?" world we live in, but it would sure be nice to see things with a little more perspective than that. Sure, some fans can think that Duke will continue to play as they did last evening.  Let them think that.  The fan side of me feels that Duke could lose the rest of their games this season and I would still be grateful for all the memories the program has provided, this year and in seasons past.

Duke has some issues to deal with and we'll talk about those next go-round, but we'll do so in a grounded and rational manner.  Until then, some fans need to think about what the program has done over the years.  There is a reason you decided to back the Blue Devils.  They may not always play like we'd like, but they will certainly never stay down for long.  History is proof of that.

Bishop Gorman WR Ryan Smith commits to Duke

Ryan Smith is Duke's 5th commitment at WR in 2013.
Ryan Smith is Duke's 5th commitment at WR in 2013.

In 2013, the Blue Devils will have to replace the production of the ACC's all-time receptions leader in Conner Vernon, along with fellow graduating senior Desmond Scott. With only a handful of experienced receivers returning, the Duke staff is hoping to add playmakers in the class of 2013 with the ability to contribute early. To date, the Blue Devils have received verbal commitments from 4 receivers in Terrence Alls, Johnell Barnes, Quay Chambers, and T.J. Douglas. On Wednesday, they received their 5th receiver commitment from speedy Bishop Gorman star Ryan Smith. At 5'7" and 160 pounds, Smith is a threat with his impressive speed. As a senior, Smith averaged over 20 yards per catch, and caught 14 touchdowns. He committed to New Mexico, where his father served as running backs coach, back in December, but opened things up recently when Coach Lubick contacted him. An official visit last weekend sold Smith on the Blue Devils, and he informed the staff of his decision on Wednesday.  BDN caught up with Ryan just before his visit to Duke. Smith is the 20th commitment in the class of 2013, and with signing day 2 weeks away, the Blue Devils likely have just 1 scholarship remaining.


Speedy athlete Kylen Towner in town for his official visit to Duke

Speedy athlete Kylen Towner is in town for an official visit today.
Speedy athlete Kylen Towner is in town for an official visit today.

St. Paul's Episcopal school in Mobile, Alabama, produces a number of BCS prospects annually. Recent alumni include Alabama safety Mark Barron and quarterback A.J. McCarron. Under Head Coach David Cutcliffe, an Alabama native, the Blue Devils have recruited the Heart of Dixie well, landing players such as Johnny Williams and David Reeves in recent years. In the class of 2014, Duke has already secured a commitment from one St. Paul's star in LB Zavier Carmichael. With just two scholarships remaining in the class of 2013, the Blue Devils are hosting a speedy playmaker from St. Paul's on an official visit this weekend. Kylen Towner is a 5'7" 165 pound athlete with scholarship offers from Western Kentucky, Northern Illinois, UAB, and Memphis. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in speed, having been clocked at 4.32 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and winning a state championship in track. Though he has played everywhere from cornerback to running back on the football field, the Blue Devil staff loves Towner's speed at slot receiver and return. After a visit to Western Kentucky, the speedster will visit Duke on Sunday and Monday.

How did your senior season go?

This season, we went to the fourth round of the playoffs, we lost in the semifinals and that I had one interception and one touchdown in that game. Throughout the season, I don’t know all my stats, but I had 7 interceptions.

You've played all over the field in high school; what position are college coaches recruiting you to play?

Slot receiver, and kick return and punt return.

Where do you stand with scholarship offers so far?

I have offers from Western Kentucky, Northern Illinois, UAB, and Memphis.

Have you had a chance to take any visits, or do you have any scheduled?

I have only visited UAB so far. It went good. I have Western Kentucky Friday through Saturday, and then I am coming to Duke on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday.

Can you talk about your relationship with the Duke coaching staff and what you know about their program?

Coach Middleton has been recruiting me from there, and I know it’s a great academic school and the football program has been improving lately.

Do you know when you want to make your decision, or will you wait until Signing Day?

I want to make a decision by next week.