Surprising Blue Devils continue surge
Having already dispatched then third-ranked Kentucky, then second-ranked Louisville, and fourth-ranked Ohio State, Saturday’s 88-50 victory over Delaware was more like a scrimmage for the 8-0 Blue Devils.
Looking at last week’s scintillating win against the Buckeyes, who thrashed Duke 85-63 in last year’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge, gives a better handle on the Devils’ progress.
“Ohio State is really good, a veteran team, unbelievably coached, and they play defense as a very physical defense,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “I have unbelievable guys on my team because they beat a heck of a team.”
Mason Plumlee is growing into the potential long projected for the 6-foot-10 senior, a player to build a team around, one that aims to play late into March.
“He has always been a really good player, he is just a terrific player now,” Krzyzewski said. “It is called maturity and learning the game.”
While Plumlee’s jump shot is still a work in progress, his strength inside and ability to run the court make him the first focus of any defense.
Plumlee promises no one took more foul shots during the off-season than he did and as a result, he is no longer a weak link at the free throw line.
While his form and low arching shot looks, shall we say, non-textbook, it works for him and opponents can no longer use a fouling strategy to limit his impact.
After hitting only three of seven in the opening game of the year, Plumlee has shot 80 percent from the line (48 of 60) in the last seven games, and is the third best foul shooter on the squad.
Averaging 19.6 points and 11 rebounds per game – he had 21 and 17 against the Buckeyes – Plumlee is the pivot around which the Duke offense spins.
Sophomore Quinn Cook’s development at point guard has been another crucial improvement for the Devils.
In the last seven games, Cook has a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, with six and one in the second half comeback against Ohio State, and six assists and one turnover as well in the game against Delaware.
Cook says his confidence and comfort has grown through the early season and when Ohio State choose to send him to the free throw line in the closing minutes he knocked down the last six in a row.
Plumlee’s improvement has also meant less reliance on the 3-pointer than in past versions of the Blue Devils.
Although the team’s 37.1 three-point shooting percentage is better than Duke’s average during the last six (post-J.J. Redick) seasons, the trey only accounts for 26.7 percent of its points, the lowest percentage for a Duke team since 2007.
Krzyzewski says unequivocally that this squad is better than last season’s 27-7 unit and the picture emerging is of a team that belongs in the group at the top of the rankings.
While North Carolina’s youthful team has been unsteady and N.C. State’s more experienced squad has struggled playing up to its expectations, this Duke team is used to playing with a target on its back.
Although the Devils will heavily depend on the contributions of freshman Rasheed Sulaimon (12.9 point per game) and sophomore Cook, the heart of the team are seniors Plumlee, Seth Curry (15.1 ppg) and Ryan Kelly (13.0 ppg).
These guys were around the 2010 championship squad and have played in spotlight games over their careers, so the early season’s challenges were second nature to them.
“The schedule at Duke is part of the reason you come to Duke, and I think this team embraced the schedule and the challenges we’ve had,” Plumlee said Wednesday night.
This experience should give Duke an edge going into December and the ACC season in January.