It’s been a while since I’ve written, but I decided to take a couple weeks off, while Duke took some time off. I got a newborn sitting at home and he can be a handful to say the least.
However, with the Devils about to enter into the ACC schedule, it’s time to jump back on board and take a look back at what we know so far and what can we expect.
First and foremost, this team is better than last year’s squad. Don’t get me wrong, Duke misses Gerald Henderson and Elliot Williams (20ppg at Memphis so far). Hell, you could argue Duke misses Taylor King (He’s average 11+ at Villanova, shooting 47% from three, pulling down nearly seven boards per game).
Yet, this Duke team has what matters in college basketball, upperclassmen/experience and manageable size (I’ll explain later).
The upperclassmen; seniors Scheyer, Thomas and Zoubek and juniors Smith and Singler really seem to know their place on the court. They know their roles on this team and they know what needs to happen to get that win for the Blue Devils. Now don’t get me wrong, there are always going to be issues. Singler at times has struggled at his new position, while Zoubek & Thomas have still not developed a go-to shot in the paint after four years of college. Yet, here we are…11-1 and the favorite to win the ACC.
GRADING THE PLAY
JOHN SCHEYER…GRADE: A
Clearly, he’s been the best player in the ACC. While there is zero flash in his game (if he’s driving left, he couldn’t cross over if he tried), he is the unquestionable floor leader for this team. His understanding of what to do is paying off big time and you can look no further than his incredible 5.5/1 assist-to-turnover ratio. While no one is going to confuse him with Bob Hurley, his ability not to turn the ball over makes up for Duke’s inability to get steals this year.
Earlier in the season, I was just going to give him a A-, because of concerns with his shooting average, but he has gotten hot lately and he is above 45% from the floor right now, including 43% from three and 90% from the charity stripe.
NOLAN SMITH…GRADE: B
If you’ve watched as much college basketball over the years as I have, you can really appreciate the sophomore-to-junior jump. This is when a college player really starts to figure it all out. Thanks to Coach K’s “no-position” lineup, Smith has finally come into his own. He’s averaging 18ppg and is Duke’s only player capable of creating his own shot. This is key, because in the ACC, with the game on the line, Duke down one, needing a play maker with seconds on the clock, the ball will have to end up in Nolan’s hands. Don’t get me wrong, he is no Gerald Henderson, but Gerald never had the range Nolan has.
Since his first game (after the two-game suspension), you could see a confident Smith, something missing last year when he was pigeon-holed into a point guard. The only problem early on was, to get his points, he was needing to take a ton of shots (he was 31-80 from the floor in his first five games). However, his shots have really started to land of late. Over his last five games, he’s hit 35 shots, but only needed to take 65 shots. Most impressively, he’s nailing 53% of his three’s. While the three-point stats are impressive, it’s his mid-range jumper that has really elevated his game to the next level.
Currently he’s being asked to run the point about 10-13 minutes per game and he’s producing a 2/1 assist-to-turnover rate, doubling up his career average coming into his junior season.
KYLE SINGLER…GRADE: B
After two seasons down low, Singler finally moved over to his natural position (small forward). Looking at his stats (only), one would think the move hasn’t paid off. His scoring is down a point, his shooting and rebounding has also dropped slightly. This should be expected. He’s been bouncing with the big bodies down low for two years. He’s now playing with shorter, quicker forwards/guards. It will take time to adjust.
Yet, the numbers don’t tell the whole picture. Defensively, he’s been a disruptive force. He’s mastered the hand-in-the-face technique that Shane Battier uses so well in the NBA. He really is the key to Duke’s rotation defense, as he can defend a smaller guard, then can switched to the biggest powar forwards.
Getting back to scoring though, not everything is his fault. One of his favorite moves on the court is to come off a high screen from the corner. At this point, the Duke guards need to get him the ball while he’s moving at full speed. If the ball gets to him at the right moment, he’ll have an easy jumper or he can slide down low for a lay up.
However, more often than not, he’s rode off the screen and been left empty handed…and that’s my point. While he’s certainly trying to adjust to a new position, the team is trying to adjust to him and his skill sets. That’s the exciting part, it CAN get better.
MILES PLUMLEE…GRADE: C
At the beginning of the season, there was a lot of hope. The older Plumlee was bigger, stronger and confident, yet while he’s started the entire season, his playing time has dipped. He was averaging over 20 minutes on the floor at first, but over his last five games, he’s only averaging about 14 minutes per game. What happened?
While he’s developed the confidence to score down low, giving Duke a presence it desperately needs, he has yet to develop the skill set to finish. Example: He worked on a hook shot and one will look great, while another will barely hit the rim.This won’t work in the ACC.
So if he’s not going to be a legit low-post option and his defense is still suspect, then the playing time will not get bumped back to 20+ per game. If he can’t produce his own shot, then Coach K will roll with Thomas and Zoubek, who are better defensively and better at crashing the boards.
LANCE THOMAS…GRADE: C
Oh Lance, what is there still to say about him? After four-years he’s basically become a more athletic David McClure. First and foremost, he’s about defense and with his athletic ability and long arms, he can certainly make life tough for opponents. Offensively, he’s still makes me cringe, but he has certainly developed a decent mid-range jumper (something he has lacked for three years), but most importantly, he’s knocking down 81% of his free throws, a 30-point jump from his career average. This is key because it allows the coaching staff to keep Thomas on the floor in the closing minutes of important games.
In reality though, he’s only starting because Coach K’s strategy dictates that a senior big man will be on the floor at all times along with a Plumlee brother or Ryan Kelly. To me, this strategy has paid off and Duke’s been rolling ever since.
BRIAN ZOUBEK…GRADE: B-
Four years ago, Brian Zoubek was so bad, he was called for traveling checking into the game. As a senior, he’s become a offensive rebounding machine. This is why having upperclassmen is so important. You see, not everyone turns into a great basketball player, but those players can still be great players for their teams if they accept their limitations and understand their roles.
Zoubek knows (as we all know), he’s not going to become a scoring threat. We’re not going to see guards dumping the ball down to him to throw up sky hooks. Zoubek is a seven-footer with very little hop, but he’s big, so his job is to grab the boards…especially the offensive boards and he’s mastered that. He grabs 7.7 rebounds per game, half of which are offensive.
Most importantly, where he has improved at is what to do with that ball once he has the rebound. Zoubek use to grab the board and look confused. He’d look for a pass or shuffle himself into a travel. Now he grabs it, keeps the ball up above the shoulder and just puts it back into the basket.
For Duke to remain successful, he needs to continue this production in the bigger, stronger ACC. It’s one thing to do this against Penn, it’s another thing against the front lines of FSU, UNC and Clemson.
MASON PLUMLEE…GRADE: INCOMPLETE
How can you judge a guy who’s only played six games? Here’s what I do know. First, I was surprised by how big and strong he is. I, for whatever reason, thought he was skinnier. Secondly, he is athletic as advertised and I can honestly say the Christian Laettner comparisons are not unfair. He really has the goods, he just needs the experience.
Right now, he’s a face-the-basket player and you can see he is more comfortable sitting outside (probably too comfortable). While he doesn’t always finish the plays, it sure is fun watching a 6’11 guy dribble drive to the basket.
Against Penn, he has his best game, playing 21 minutes, scoring 18 points. Most of his points came on dunks set up by drives or great passes from Scheyer and Singler. Don’t think I’m minimizing his role though. What it shows his ability to get himself into the right spot. That’s understanding your role. That’s experience.
Defensively, he is oozing with talent. He loves to make the “big play,” going for the steal or the big block. This of course has led to fouls. While he’s never had more than three fouls in a game, he’s only played 20 minutes once. If he is to get 20-25 minutes on the floor, he’ll need to reduce the fouls.
RYAN KELLY…GRADE: C-
If there is one player who could see his minutes disappear down the stretch, it could be Kelly. When playing, he’s done a decent job. He hasn’t been a liability on the defensive end and he seems to know his role. However, he was suppose to bring outside shooting for Duke. He was suppose to be the guy who could set a pick up top, accept the pass and nail a three.
Right now, he’s only hitting about 30% from the three-point line. In fact, he’s made only four all season. If he can’t score from the outside, then he doesn’t really serve a purpose and you know that Coach K likes to shorten his rotation down the stretch. He’s only played 10+ minutes since Thanksgiving three times, all blow outs, and didn’t sniff the floor in the Wisconsin loss.
ANDRE DAWKINS…GRADE: B
What can you say about him? The kid lost his sister in a car accident, yet not only has he not missed a game, he’s continue to play good basketball.
Heading into 2009-2010, Dawkins was the most important freshman in a long, long time. He is the only guard option for the Blue Devils coming off the bench. Duke did not have time to be patience with this kid and he has come through…big time.
He’s been a fearless shooter, not afraid to take a shot. While his numbers have slipped a bit lately (6-19 from three in his last five games), he’s still hitting 47% from downtown, but one number stands out that hasn’t. While Scheyer gets all the talk regarding turnovers, Dawkins has turned the ball over only four times, despite playing 230 minutes of basketball so far this season.
Right now, his number don’t equal Scheyer/Singler/Smith, but his 9.8ppg puts him on the cusp of being a solid fourth option, something that is key for Duke this season.
So far, the Coaching staff has done a great job. Heading into ACC play, it appears they have found the right rotation. The best decision was after the Wisconsin loss, they decided to always have a senior big man (Thomas, Zoubek) on the floor. In that loss to the Badgers, the two Plumlee’s started and played together, but it was clear early, they were little match for Wisconsin’s experienced front line.
Time will tell how much Coach will tighten up the rotation. Like we said, the only person we see losing minutes is Kelly, but I’ll be honest, I hope he continues to get 7-10 minutes per game. Without him though, the Devils have a nice 8-man rotation, with the big three playing 34+, while everyone else gets about 20 per game.
THE HIGH’S: Obviously Duke has already produced two huge wins, both in Madison Square Gardens. They not only beat Connecticut and Gonzaga, they crushed them. Those games were never close after the 10-minute mark. In fact, they held those two teams without a three-point shot until the Bulldogs hit one in garbage time (with time expiring). They combined for 1-14 from three.
THE LOW: The loss to Wisconsin was a tough one because in reality, Duke really never let themselves into the game. Of course all props go to the Badgers, but that game exposed Duke’s one continuing flaw (we’ll get to that below).
However, that’s the lone low light. Not bad. Duke has managed to beat the rank teams and crush the weak teams. Duke’s 26.9-margin of victory is the best in the ACC.
OUTLOOK: Based on what I’ve seen, I see the best team in the ACC. Partly because of the improvements we’ve made, but mostly because let’s face it, the ACC is down this year.
While there is still plenty of great talent in this league, Duke has three potential All-ACC players. While Scheyer and Smith aren’t the most athletic guards in the world, they clearly are the best combo in the league.
The issue heading into the season has been their ability to stay healthy and stay on the floor. So far, so good. In fact, neither Scheyer or Smith have ever committed four fouls in any game this season.
While I believe this team will win the ACC this year, do I believe they can win a title? Short answer…yes, long answer…maybe/doubtful, because I said the same thing last year.
Duke’s lack of inside game and lack of quickness on the outside killed any shot at the Final Four over the last few years. This year, while there is still no dominant inside player, overall our inside game is less of a liability. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the five-headed monster of Zoubek, Thomas, Kelly and the Plumlee’s will dominant anyone this season, I’m just saying they have the ability to handle themselves. I’m not predicting they’ll lead Duke to victory, but on any given Thursday night, they are certainly capable of playing with some of the better front lines in the nation and not getting manhandled.
However, the issue Duke was unable to address and will remain a problem is defensive quickness. Duke simply doesn’t have the speed to defend quicker guards, especially if and when teams spread out.
The Wisconsin game was the perfect template. Guard, Trevon Hughes drove through and around the Duke D, hitting 9-16 and handing off perfect assists down low. He didn’t even have to take a single three-point shot to be effective.
In the ACC, Duke is lucky. The guards who could do this last year (Douglas, Johnson, McClinton, Lawson, Rice) are all gone. However, what could Duke possibly throw at a player like John Wall and stop him?
If you want a true prediction (that should be completely ignored), I’d say Duke goes 12-4 in the ACC (while also beating Iowa State and Georgetown), finished the season 26-5. I’ll go way out on a limb and say they get upset in the ACC tournament. They’ll still get a No 1 seed, but they’ll get shipped out West, where they’ll drop in the Elite Eight to the either Texas or Kansas (whichever doesn’t win the Big 12).