You know, as losses go, that really was about as good as it gets.
Going up against the other top-team in the conference (and pre-season favorite) on their geeked-up home court having just lost one of your best players is pretty far from an ideal scenario. Taking those factors into account, you have to like what you saw this past Saturday for the most part if you are a Duke fan. This was a game that NC State won more than a game that Duke lost. While it is of course frustrating to know that had various things gone a little differently Duke could very easily have won the matchup, I will confidently chalk this one up as a good loss. Here are a few post-game impressions.
The Replacement Factor - I was ecstatic with the contributions of Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson. Collectively putting up 18 points and 9 rebounds ( 6 offensive !) these two guys played their butts off. In one 3 minute span early in the first half Amile had a block, a steal, grabbed 2 offensive rebounds and scored 6 points. Not too shabby. Josh worked extraordinarily hard down inside, making every kind of hustle play you can think of, and did a great job staying out of foul trouble. Alas for Amile, he was the victim of several horrendous foul calls and only played 12 minutes before fouling out. Where Duke actually ended up feeling the loss of Kelly most keenly was on the defensive end as it turns out. In his post game presser Coach K ( not a fellow given to hyperbolic praise) actually called Ryan one of the "best defenders in the country". K noted that his absence as a defensive communicator and organizer was particularly evident in Duke's poor transition defense (which was probably the worst thing about this game, honestly. Duke gave up some eeeeasy fast break buckets, with several even coming after made field goals by Duke.) It was also pretty evident that Duke missed his length and shot blocking ability on the interior where Howell feasted on easy second-chance putbacks and where Leslie was able to get too near the rim too many times. Again, State is a particularly tough matchup in that regard, and there are many other teams in the ACC against whom that particular adjustment would not have been as challenging. But , c'est la guerre. It will continue to be an issue going forward, but I don't see any tests quite as difficult as State on the defensive horizon.
Rasheed and the Wall - Well, it may not be the wall , but it's definitely a wall of the proverbial freshman variety. In his last 5 games Rasheed is 9-40 from the floor, has only two made threes, and has only 4 assists. Saturday he was 0-10 from the field with no points, no assists, no steals and no blocks in 27 minutes of play. His defense is always solid, but the bottom line is that Duke has to get more from him, particularly in Kelly's absence. Perhaps a visit to the local climbing gym is in order...
Quinn - Much praise has been heaped on the Sophomore PG and deservedly so. One area where a great deal of improvement is needed, however, is shot selection. The Clemson game notwithstanding, Quinn has been good for at least 3 to 4 "facepalm" shots per game. At 66 shot attempts in the last 5 games, he is only 2 behind Seth Curry for the most on the team during that span. Even more disturbingly, that is 22 more shot attempts than Mason Plumlee in those games with only 5 more makes to show for it ( 30 for Quinn, 25 for Mason). That is an adjustment that simply must be made. Quinn needs to cut down on the bad shots and turn them into good passes into the post. In the State game Quinn was 6 for 16 and Mason was 7 for 10. That's just not OK.
Credit Where Credit is Due - In order for Duke to win Saturday, I figured one (or both) of these two things had to happen: someone (likely Seth or Mason) had to have an absolute monster game and/or someone else ( say Rasheed or Quinn) had to have a very, very good game. As it turns out, neither thing occurred. Instead, the monster games were had by (Sir) Richard Howell, the not-so-round mound of rebound, who had 18 rebounds and 16 points ( 12 of which came from putbacks after his 6 offensive boards) and CJ Leslie ( 25 and 6). Leslie displayed the kind of focus and tenacity that can make him an absolute force in the conference and at times nearly unguardable. At arguably the game's most critical juncture, Duke had just trimmed the lead to 58-57 on a Seth Curry 3 with 10 minutes remaining ( Aside : Outside of Seth, no one else for Duke came through with any big, timely, momentum shots in the second half. They got the looks, just not the makes.) Calvin took over and went on a personal 6-0 run, elevating over Mason to make several impressive shots, and State never really looked back.
Final Thoughts - If NC State can harness the way they played on Saturday, they are a legitimate Final Four contender. A focused Leslie, a foul-trouble free Howell ( another area where Kelly was missed, by the by), a timely 3 shooting Scott Wood, an attacking Zo Brown, attentive ( if unspectacular) defense, and just enough quality help from the 3 freshman are the ingredients for success. But can they bring it against the GTechs and BCs of the world and not just for the high profile games? And will fatigue be a factor late in the year, since they play only 6 players ? As for Duke, they'll tackle an 0-3 Georgia Tech team at home on Thursday. If they bring they same kind of effort and Seth Curry is good-to-go, I look for them to notch another ACC win.