Tag Archives: Tom Rubenson

Battle for Atlantis Preview: Duke vs. VCU

Coming off a solid 18 point win over Minnesota, the Blue Devils next face the Rams of Virginia Commonwealth, who upset Memphis by 13 later on Thursday in the Battle for Atlantis in the Bahamas.  Duke (4-0) enjoyed outstanding performances from Seth Curry (25 points on 8 of 11 shooting), Mason Plumlee (20 points and 17 rebounds), and Quinn Cook (a career-high 17 points) in controlling things against the Gophers, but will have to come back on short rest, and with (or without) a gimpy Curry, against VCU.

Of course, Duke and VCU have a history, and that history is not a pleasant one for Blue Devils fans, as the Rams knocked Duke out of the 2007 NCAA Tournament in the first round on an Eric Maynor bucket in the final seconds.  That signature win solidified VCU's status -- initially earned under coach Jeff Capel, Sr. and continued under Anthony Grant and then Shaka Smart -- as one of the top mid-major programs in the nation.  VCU's program is best known, however, for its magical run in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, when the Rams, after winning in the play-in game, proceeded to blow out Georgetown and Purdue to reach the Sweet 16, then took out Florida State and #1 seed Kansas to reach the school's first Final Four, where they finally bowed to Butler.  Coach Shaka Smart has been mentioned for virtually every significant coaching vacancy since, but has turned them all down to remain in Richmond.  Last season, the Rams were outstanding again, going 29-7 overall and 15-3 in the conference, winning the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, and reaching the third round of the NCAA Tournament (to me it's really the second round),  having upset #5 seed Wichita State before losing a heartbreaker to Indiana by a bucket. For the 2012-13 season, VCU has moved to the more prestigious Atlantic-10 Conference, so even referring to them as a "mid-major" seems to be a misnomer.

Despite losing last year's leading scorer, Bradford Burgess, this team is expected to immediately contend for the A-10 title.  The 2012-13 season has started out well for the Rams.  They beat Florida Gulf Coast (common opponent with Duke) by 23, lost by a bucket to Wichita State, and blew out Winthrop before the upset of Memphis down in the Bahamas.  As in past seasons, Smart runs a perimeter-oriented attack.  Perhaps the most talented Ram is 6'5" 215 pound sophomore guard Treveon Graham, averaging 14.5 ppg and 4.2 rebounds as he has moved into the starting lineup this year.  Graham went off for 26 against Memphis, including 4 of 6 from the 3-point stripe.  The floor leader is 6'3" 200 pound senior point guard Darius Theus.  Though Theus only averages 10 ppg, he dishes out over 5 assists per game and most importantly is a real floor general out there who excels at getting his teammates involved in the offense; he also is aggressive at the defensive end.  The third guard in the starting lineup is 6'4" 200 pound senior and 3-point specialist Troy Daniels, averaging 9.5 ppg.  Amazingly, 247 of Daniels' 299 FG attempts last year were from 3-point land.  The main man inside for the Rams is 6'9" 235 pound junior forward Juvonte Redic, averaging 14.3 points and 8 boards per game; he has to hold down the fort, as he is VCU's only true post player who can hurt you.  7'0" 250 pound junior center D.J. Haley has gotten most of the starts this year as well.  He's a big body on defense, but a non-scorer.  The Rams' top guy off the bench is 6'2" 180 pound junior guard Rob Brandenburg.  Averaging only 6.3 ppg coming into the Memphis game, he had 15 big ones against the Tigers, including two three's in the second half that helped thwart a Memphis comeback.  Sophomore guard Briante Weber is a nice player off the bench as well, but the other Ram to watch is freshman guard Melvin Johnson, a top 100 prospect who was released from his commitment to Miami, and then was recruitied by several Big East schools.  The sharpshooter is going to hurt somebody this year when they're not expecting it.

As usual, Shaka Smart's team plays very hard on the defensive end, applying relentless full court pressure.  They're averaging 14 steals per game.  That's a ton.  As usual, they are deep.  This year's team is shooting the ball well from distance as well, hitting 37% from 3-point range.  The gym on Paradise Island was no impediment against Memphis, as the Rams hit 13 of 22 three-balls to help sink the Tigers.

The Rams are going to present some real challenges for the Blue Devils.  Their guards are big and solidly built -- just the kind of guards who gave Duke problems last year, as they shot over the smaller Blue Devil perimeter players.  Having a savvy playmaker and penetrator like Theus is going to provide a test for Duke as well.  Can the Blue Devils guards move their feet and prevent penetration and the kickouts to VCU's array of shooters?  If Seth Curry is hobbling, as seems likely, or certainly if he doesn't play at all, the other Devils perimeter defenders are really going to have to pick up the slack.  Quinn Cook is likely to have the first stab at containing Theus, and at the other end he'll have to resist Theus' in-your-shirt D.  I assume that Rasheed Sulaimon will have primary responsibility for Graham -- that's a real challenge for the freshman, but one I'm sure he relishes and, frankly, I think it's one he can handle.  Ty Thornton will probably get his cracks at Graham as well.  On the inside, Redic is the real deal, and he's a load in there.  But Mason Plumlee has been playing at an All-American level, and if he continues to do so, Duke will be in great shape in this game.  But he's going to have to be on his game against a strong and aggressive opponent like Redic.  If Redic guards Mason, the Blue Devil big man will have a couple of inches on him for starters, and his length and athleticism will provide additional advantages, but Redic will make him work hard for everything -- at both ends.  Cook is also going to have to protect the ball against top-flight pressure, and if Curry doesn't play, then an even greater responsibility for handling that pressure will fall on Quinn.  In that situation, I would expect Ryan Kelly, a very good ballhandler for a 4-man, to help out as a release.

Look, Duke has a better team, but it's a game the Blue Devils can lose.  I didn't really think Minnesota had the horses to beat Duke, but VCU does.  If Mason is off his game or gets in foul trouble, if Seth doesn't play, if we have trouble with their drive-and-kick game or their pressure D -- any of these could spell trouble.  But the bottom line is Duke has more margin for error than does VCU.  Duke has the best player on the floor in Plumlee, and may have the next best (or even two) as well.  When push comes to shove, I expect Duke to get to the winners circle here, but I also expect VCU to play them very tough.




BDN Preview: Duke’s Sophomore Class

Lance King Images for BDN

A year ago, anyone planning to write about Duke’s then-freshman class would have had a lot of work to do, as there were five, count ‘em five, new Blue Devils to assess.  Today, the job is much easier, as that group of five frosh from 2011-12 has for a number of different reasons dwindled to a one man sophomore class.  Nobody really expected Austin Rivers to stick around for more than a year, and sure enough, he declared for the draft after his freshman year and was a lottery pick of the New Orleans Hornets.  Alex Murphy, who had been playing very well in the off-season, the trip to China, and the pre-season, suffered a concussion and ultimately took a redshirt.  Marshall Plumlee just wasn’t ready physically to contribute at this level, and would have just ridden the pine behind his brothers, so he was redshirted as well. And then Michael Gbinije, who never earned any significant playing time despite the team being in dire need of some length and defense on the wing, bugged out for Syracuse.

That leaves point guard Quinn Cook, a player whose development many observers, including this one, believe will be critical to the success of this year’s Blue Devils.  The 6’1” Cook had an outstanding high school career, playing his first three years at DeMatha before transferring to Oak Hill for his senior campaign.  He was widely regarded as the top player in the D.C. metro area, and one of the top point guards in the nation.  Quinn suffered a partial tear to his knee, however, in practices leading up to the Elite 24 game in the summer of 2010, between his junior and senior seasons in high school.  He came back sooner than expected and had a solid senior campaign, though, was named a McDonald’s All-American, and wound up ranked as the #31 ranked player in the RSCI ratings – very likely lower than he would have been absent the knee problem.  But he probably rushed back too soon from the injury, and he was never 100%.  The knee continued to bother him, so much so that Duke shut him down last summer, meaning Quinn did not play in the games during Duke’s trip to China and Dubai, and missed a number of preseason practices as well.

Cook was ready for the start of the season, though, but it never seemed that he quite got untracked all year long.  His performance was up and down, which is not uncommon of course for a freshman, especially a freshman point guard.  His minutes were inconsistent because his play was inconsistent.   He had moments where he was brilliant in taking the ball to the hoop and finishing.  He dropped dimes to teammates who didn’t even realize they were so open.  But on defense, he struggled to move laterally and therefore to stay in front of penetrating opponents, and he did not always seem quick to the ball.  He also had mental lapses where he just flat-out missed defensive assignments, which usually resulted in an immediate hook from Coach K.  Quinn appeared to be making real progress though, with a string of solid games in December and early January, but then he re-tweaked the bad knee at Clemson, and that set him back again, and he never regained any real consistency.

Quinn finished the year with averages of 11.7 minutes, 4.4 points on 40% shooting (25% from 3 point land), 2 assists, and an excellent 3.5:1 assist to turnover ratio, clearly the best on the team.

So why is he going to be such a key component of this year’s team?   After all, Duke lost only Austin Rivers on the perimeter, and he didn’t play point.  Well, one of the real weaknesses of last year’s squad was the absence of a true, natural point guard, one who could both penetrate and dish, as well as score on the offensive end, and then also D-up opposing guards – and be a floor general out there.  You know, the kind of player that Quinn Cook can be.  The Seth Curry Point Guard Experiment did not go as planned, and was scrapped.  Tyler Thornton is a hard-nosed, energetic defender and a real leader, but he is quite limited offensively.  Rasheed Sulaimon, while showing great promise, may turn out to be an option at the point, but I don’t think that’s his natural position and I don’t think that’s where K would ideally like to play him.  The best thing for this team would be for Quinn Cook to remain healthy and to take over as Duke’s unquestioned point guard, and stay there.

Quinn had an excellent summer in 2012.  He got some solid international experience playing for the East Coast All-Stars at the Four Nations Cup in Estonia, where he ended up averaging 22 points per game and being named to the All-Tournament team.  He was outstanding at the NC Pro-Am as well, where he joined forces with a number of Duke teammates, and spent time working out with his God-brother Nolan Smith.

Best of all, Quinn is healthy.  He appears to have finally given the knee a chance to heal, and it shows.  From all reports from the summer and as pre-season practice begins, he is moving much more smoothly, he is quicker, he is faster, he is pushing the ball on offense and moving his feet on defense.  This is a kid who has all the skills and all the talent needed to take over as the quarterback of this team, as Coach K envisioned when he recruited him.  Quinn doesn’t need to score 20 points per game.  What he does need to do is what he does naturally, which is control the flow and tempo of the game, push the ball when the opportunity arises, penetrate into the lane, dish, and hit open jumpshots.  That’s on offense.  On D, he needs to be in the shirt of the opposing point, and be ready to move his feet to contain dribble penetration.  He’s simply got to commit on the defensive end.  Quinn is not a tall point guard by any stretch, but he has a solid body.   He needs to use it, so the opponent cannot get in position to shoot over him.

Tyler Thornton is a nice player who does have some skills, and is a kid who definitely has a role on this team.  But let’s face it:  he's not the natural PG nor does he have some of the tools Quinn Cook possesses.  If Cook can maximize that potential – and now that he’s healthy, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t – as well as develop into a leader out there, he can solidify Duke at the most important position on the floor.  If you then consider the three solid seniors in Duke’s lineup, plus dynamic freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, highly skilled redshirt freshman Alex Murphy, an intriguing prospect in Amile Jefferson, and others, well now we’re getting somewhere.

BDN Season Preview: Duke’s Junior Class

Next on our class-by-class preview of this year’s Blue Devils is the junior class, which consists of just two players, guard Tyler Thornton and forward Josh Hairston.  The third original member of the class was a guy you may remember, name of Kyrie Irving.  Irving was always going to be the obvious star of the class, and though he only played 11 games in a Blue Devil uniform, he did not disappoint – either in his on-court play or the kind of teammate and representative of Duke University that he was and continues to be.

Neither Thornton nor Hairston has the natural ability to be a superstar at the high-major level.  But both have made valuable contributions to the team in their first two years, Thornton in particular, and both still can carve out significant roles going forward, depending on their own play as well as the dynamics of the team.

It was actually Josh Hairston who was the more highly regarded prospect coming out of high school in Fredricksburg, VA.  The 6’7” forward was the #32 rated prospect in the RSCI composite rankings.  Just for context, the four guys rated directly above him were Roscoe Smith, Meyers Leonard, Trey Ziegler, and Dion Waiters, and the player ranked just below him was Terrance Ross, the excellent wing who enrolled at Washington.

Josh saw limited minutes as a freshman, however, getting just 6 mpg, scoring 1.4 ppg and getting 1.2 rebounds and assorted other minor stats.  Duke had four other frontcourt players in Kyle Singler, Miles and Mason Plumlee, and Ryan Kelly who were not only more experienced than Hairston, but frankly, better players, and Coach K was just not inclined to give much PT to his ninth man (tenth when Kyrie played) and fifth best frontcourt player.

Tyler Thornton, 6’1” out of Washington, D.C. was not even ranked in the RSCI top 100 players in the high school class of 2010.  Nobody would’ve been all that surprised had he been nailed to the bench as a freshman, given that Duke had Kyrie and Nolan Smith, as well as Seth Curry on the roster, none taller than 6’2”.  But then Irving got hurt, and Thornton got some play.  He only averaged 10 minutes per game, and his numbers were nothing to write home about.  At the offensive end, Ty sometimes got overwhelmed by the size and athleticism of the opponent.  But what he did was establish himself as an aggressive on-ball defender, a hustle player, and a kid with a nose for the ball.

As sophomores, Thornton’s role expanded much more significantly than did Hairston’s.  Ty started 19 ballgames last year, and whether or not he started, Coach K used him in a variety of roles.  This was partially due to the fact that K was tinkering all season with the lineup and, truth be told, never found many combinations that he was comfortable with.  Thornton played point guard, he played off the ball, and he even guarded some small forwards when Duke employed a 3-guard lineup.

Perhaps his most memorable game came early in the year, in the Maui Invitational final against Kansas.  Thornton, never known for his three-point shooting, hit one with just over a minute to go to give Duke the lead, and then threw in another, off-balance three to beat the shot clock with 20 seconds left in the game, and ice it.  Folk hero time.

Over the course of the year, Tyler continued to establish himself at the defensive end, as he worked hard to harass opposing ballhandlers.  He did get beaten into the lane too often, though, and his 6’1” frame left him susceptible to bigger guards shooting over him.  And he was frequently over-aggressive, as he fouled out of four games, including the Lehigh debacle, and had four fouls in eight others.  The kid hustles every minute out there though, and Coach K clearly values that.  He also values leaders, and has said that one of the reasons he plays Thornton is because of his leadership qualities.

On the offensive end, though, Thornton did not bring nearly as much to the table as did Duke’s other guards, and this contributed to some of the team’s struggles.  He did not force the defense to react to much of what he was doing.  He does not have the quickness, the handle, or the athleticism to get into the lane, either to get his own shot or to set up others.  And most of the passes he throws are relatively easy ones on the perimeter, rather than penetrating passes that hit teammates at advantageous spots on the floor.  He shot 38% overall from the floor, including 35% from three point land, but only 28% on three pointers in ACC regular season play.  Duke was so confused and out of sync that Thornton somehow hoisted 13 threes in the ACC tournament game against Virginia Tech (hitting three), and then reverted to the norm against FSU and Lehigh.

What about Josh Hairston’s sophomore campaign?  Well, he only got 8.5 mpg and contributed 2.7 ppg and 1.4 rebounds.  He only scored in double figures once, against Western Michigan, and only got more than 10 minutes of burn in three ACC games prior to the tournament.  The only frontcourt players ahead of him were the Plumlees and Ryan Kelly, yet Josh was not able to break into the regular rotation.  Essentially, at 6’7” and 235 pounds, Josh was not quick enough or athletic enough to play the small forward position, and he’s not tall or long enough, or athletic enough, to play effectively down low.  He’s a tweener, one who plays below the rim, and with an uncertain jumpshot from 15 feet.  Consequently it’s been tough for him to find a role.

Another hindrance to Josh’s development has been the fact that he has not been in top condition.  By his own admission in a recent Chronicle article, he is now in the best shape he’s been at Duke, and he also says that he understands that Coach K couldn’t give him minutes in the past because he wasn’t in shape and would tire quickly.  While it’s somewhat disturbing to have a player not in top condition during the basketball season, it is at least encouraging that Josh is now being up front about the problem, he’s taking responsibility for it, and – at least according to him – remedied it.  Hopefully it will mean a leaner, meaner Josh Hairston, one who can get up and down the floor and regain the explosiveness in his game.

By all accounts, Josh is a terrific kid and a great teammate.  He has embraced the role he’s had his first two years, and been completely supportive of the guys playing ahead of him.  But this is an important year for him.  Will he continue to be basically a bench guy, one who gets real minutes only when other bigs are in foul trouble?  Or will the newly in shape, rededicated Josh Hairston learn to harness his energy, calm down a little out there, play hard without forcing anything, and just use his experience and his understanding of the system to be a steadying influence on the floor?

What is fair to expect from Thornton and from Hairston heading into this year?  It certainly appears that Coach K intends to start Quinn Cook at the point, Seth Curry (depending on his injury status) at the 2-guard, and to bring Thornton off the bench.  That’s a good thing for the team.  Most observers, including this one, believe that Ty is much more effective as a 10-to-15 minute per game energy guy, one who can come in, harass the opposing point guard, force the other team to really work to run its offense, and on offense simply not make mistakes and take only open 3-point shots.  That type of contribution from a point guard works in the type of limited minutes I just suggested; as a 25 or 30 minute player, not so much.

Hopefully, Alex Murphy will eat up the major minutes at the 3, and Coach K won’t need to insert Thornton at that position, where it is obviously not a natural fit for his body type or his skill set.

While it is often the case that a team is best served when its best player(s) are its leaders, Tyler appears to be the type of kid who can be a respected and effective leader even if he comes off the bench and plays limited minutes.   That’s rare, and valuable.  Coach K respects his leadership qualities, and with Ty now being an upperclassman, I would think his teammates would look to him even more than they did in the past.

As far as Josh goes, he’s going to have to battle for minutes.  It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that being in shape will help him.  Of course Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly will get (and deserve) the lion’s share of the big man minutes.  According to Coach K, Marshall Plumlee was in the top 6 before he suffered the stress fracture to his foot.  Marshall’s absence for the next 6 to 8 weeks provides an opportunity for Josh to prove he can contribute to this team in a meaningful way.  But Amile Jefferson is going to be fighting for time too, and though he is a different type of player than Josh, they both could fit in at the 4 when Ryan is sitting or when Mason sits and Ryan plays the 5.

When he gets his opportunities, Josh is going to have to hustle; he’s going to have to body up bigger guys on defense; he’s going to have to be smart and be aware of what’s going on defensively so he can make the appropriate rotations; he’s going to have to block out better than he has, in order to make up for being shorter than most opponents.  On offense he’s got to slow down and make better decisions.  I haven’t seen any practices or other pre-season action, but I hope he’s worked on his shot.  It’s been flat since he arrived in Durham, and his putting a little more air under it and giving himself some margin for error on that jumpshot would help too.

It’s really going to be an interesting year for both members of Duke’s junior class.  Tyler Thornton may be the most natural leader on the team, and Duke is going to need him in that role for sure.  Helping the Blue Devil defense return to its accustomed level would be a huge contribution as well.  But if Quinn Cook is healthy and playing well – and early indications are “yes” to both -- and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon is ready to make an impact as well, Tyler will have to make his contributions in relatively limited minutes.

For Josh Hairston, this year may be a crossroads of sorts.  He’s an upperclassman now.  Can he fight his way into the rotation and actually help this team win games?  Or is he destined to remain lower on the depth chart and contribute mainly at practice and in a support role?  We will soon find out.