On the eve of last years tourney I wrote a piece musing about Duke’s title chances. I was appropriately pessimistic at the time, but I gave the Devils a punchers chance primarily because of the incredibly stifling team defense that team played.
Here we are one year later, one trophy richer, asking the same question: can Duke win it all? The obvious answer of course is yes, they are capable. The 2011 Devils are not close to being a defensive juggernaut, they don’t start 5 upperclassmen, and they don’t have an established third scorer to help carry them (or at least a 3rd scorer who isn’t just coming off a 3 month layoff). But even without a particularly large mountain of evidence to draw on, I find myself slightly more optimistic this year.
The nay-sayers have plenty of ammo to burst my little balloon. The most obvious point is Duke looks to have a much tougher path this year. On paper that is so, with Tennessee, Texas, and even SDSU looming in their bracket as athletic teams with a lot of length that could force Duke to struggle like they did against FSU and St Johns. Duke’s over-reliance on the three point shot is another potential weakness. In their four losses this year they have gone 11-35; 5-26; 4-20; and 6-27. But as you can see those losses were as much about simply not hitting shots as they were about the volume of attempts from distance. Kyle Singler’s shooting woes have been an issue all year, but there’s not much to say about that. He’s a player and he has to keep shooting. I would remind you that Jon Scheyer finished last season in a miserable shooting slump. But perhaps the biggest ‘issue’ for Duke all season is their lack of interior production. Not enough points in the paint, not enough rebounds grabbed, not enough of a threat to keep teams honest. For those ‘issues’ I would present the evidence of the ACC Tourney. It’s a small sample but encouraging in that it shows improvement from early in the year.
The truth is Duke has a few rough patches that could stand to be worked over with a pumice stone, but they also have a lot of the ingredients called for by the championship recipe:
- 1 Pound Guard Play. Duke has the strength where is matters most - on the perimeter. Curry has emerged into a growing star and Andre Dawkins seems to have turned the corner in the last few games. And then there is that other guy who is coming back today. Everyone seems to be weighing in on whether or not it’s appropriate - but I seriously doubt Coach K and medical staff would be risking Irving’s health unnecessarily. It makes sense to me to bring him back in a game where he can just probe a bit without any pressure on his performance.
- 2 1/2 cups Star Power. Singler’s shooting struggles have cast a shadow over the solid fact that he is a great player who plays consistently terrific D. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, but he is relentless. And what can you say that hasn’t been said about Nolan Smith? He probably won’t win national POY honors but he has played at that level. All year.
- 3 Heaping Tablespoons of Big Bodies. When you think about where and what Ryan Kelly was last year, you have to marvel at how far he has come. His shooting has waxed and wained but his savvy is always there drawing charges and blocking shots. Bart said, rightly, to me the other day that Kelly seems more comfortable coming off the bench. Mason Plumlee is an athlete that could never be confused with Brian Zoubek, but he has been a rebounding machine with bonus offensive production in very Zoubekraken-like form. But Miles Plumlee’s recent stretch of games has been the real eye opener. Much like Zoubek last year he has been a bright light that no one was really expecting to start shining so late in the year.
- 1 Well Seasoned Coach sprinkled liberally. I’ve always believed that coaching matters much more in college that in the pros. And Duke has a pretty good coach. Nothing affirmed that more clearly to me than last years run to the title. Krzyzewski showed he is not too old a dog to learn some new tricks - or at least not remain obstinately stuck in doing things only one way. For a team that lacked some athleticism but had high reserves of ‘helping’ awareness, Coach K reigned in the high pressure aspect of his man to man D to great effect.
Today’s game may not be much of a test, except to see how healthy all the Duke toes are. And though the challenge is more clearly greater, the 2011 Devils are perhaps more ready. The results will speak for themselves but I like our chances. Just look at my bracket…