The Duke Blue Devils advanced to the semi-finals of the ACC Tournament with a 81-67 win over the red-headed stepchild of the ACC, Maryland. The loss was the official ticket for the Terrapins into the N.I.T. Maybe while in Greensboro, they can look up the Tar Heels and get some advice on how to advance in that tournament.
Of course the big story in the Duke win was the potential loss of Nolan Smith. God damn toes! I’ll save my toe thoughts for the end. For now, lets you and I focus on what happened tonight.
There was a lot to be impressed by. Where to start?
Duke senior, Kyle Singler, who has recently found it tougher to score than a North Korean soccer team, really had his best game in a long, long time. This was even more impressive than his 28-point outburst against Temple. In that game, all his points came at or near the basket, attacking a smaller team. Like I said at the time, he didn’t really end his “shooting” slump.
Maybe because he’s finally starting to realize this is the end, but tonight he was able to avoid the slump (note I’m not using the word ending. One good night does not end a month long slump). I loved what I saw from him tonight though. His first shot was a mid-range jumper, his last shot was a mid-range jumper (both from the elbow). He did a little from the inside. He did a little from the outside. Sure he didn’t hit any threes (0-4), but props should go to Maryland’s D. Gary Williams had his boys on the line, in their grill, daring Duke to drive.
HE’S NOT HEAVY, HE’S MY BROTHER
Smart move by Coach K to stick brother Miles into the starting lineup with Mason. Ryan Kelly has become sort of a defensive liability the past few weeks and a liability is not what you want when you’re facing Jordan Williams (in my mind, the best big man in the ACC). By sticking in Miles, it puts a thicker body on Williams and helps keep Mason out of foul trouble.
The brother duo really jelled tonight. Mason had a double-double, 10 points, 11 rebounds, but most impressively, five assists. Slowly but surely he’s starting to do two things well.
First, he’s putting his back to the basket and scoring (or dishing). Second, he’s hitting his free throws. I think it certainly helped to have another big man playing well early. When his brother Miles or Ryan Kelly do well, Mason seems to just relax and becomes a smoother player.
Miles arguable had his best game of the year. He finished with 10 points and nine rebounds. More importantly a stunning eight of his nine rebounds were on the offensive end.
I will argue that Duke will need to improve on actually making teams pay for allowing a rebound. Ironically I always argue that our big men tend to pass out after offensive rebounds. Tonight Miles did do just that. He took it back up, just not very successfully.
Overall, the Blue Devils only scored off of two of Miles’ eight offensive rebounds. However, he took six of those shots. For the record he produced all four points that were scored off his boards.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when Kelly’s cold, I can feel the frost on MY nipples all the way here in NY. When he’s hot, he can light up downtown Durham. Tonight it was the latter.
With Nolan Smith and Seth Curry unable to produce points in the first half (one combined basket in the first half), Ryan Kelly came off the pine and nailed five jumpers, including his first three pointer away from Cameron since February 16 at Virginia.
Sorry, stopping to watch the mud wrestling scene from Stripes…man I miss John Candy…okay, I’m back.
Tonight, the ACC’s leading scorer really struggle to put the ball in the basket. This was clearly Smith’s worst game scoring since the Bradley game. If you recall, that was the first time Nolan took over the point for Kyrie Irving. This game and that game had one very familiar tone.
In both cases, it appeared Smith made a concerned effort to be a facilitator for the rest of his squad. In both cases though he was never able to find that shooting touch later. Of course in the Bradley game back in December he finished with 10 assists. Tonight, he only got two.
You could really see his frustration towards the end of the first half. He threw up bad lay ups and that awful rainbow three. Coach even sat him down, which is rare.
I hate to say it, but it’s becoming a trend at the wrong time. In his last five, he’s hit only 35-percent of his shots (30-85). He’s hit only two of his last 17 three pointers. He’s gone back-to-back games without a three for the first time since mid-February…of LAST YEAR.
Add this with the fact that he’s now hurt (yes, I’m ready to talk about the toe).
What is it with damn toes this year?
Right now, Nolan looks questionable for Saturday’s game. Coach K even said he “hopes” to have Smith back for the NCAA Tournament. The question is, how important is this ACC tournament and a possible #1 seed? Is resting Nolan and his second toe more important than winning another ACC Tournament? Good questions, too bad I don’t have the answer.
SO WHO STEPS UP FOR THIS INJURED TOE?
Maybe he gets the start if Nolan doesn’t, but he’s simply not a scoring threat. I think he would be put in for key defensive moments, simply because he’s a better defender than Dawkins. I will say that Thornton has a bad tendency to reach and bump too much and picks up way too many fouls for the amount of minutes he plays. I think that’s what happens when you don’t start playing much until the heart of ACC play.
I’ll be honest. I was surprised that the coaching staff put Dawkins in when Smith went down. Sure he hit that three in the first half, but that’s not shocking. In the first half, he struggled again on the defensive side, allowing his player to escape him without the ball, which is why Dawkins’ minutes have shrunk.
Whether he starts or not Saturday, Dawkins will clearly get more minutes than Thornton (assuming Nolan sits). Duke’s offense needs an outside shooter and Dawkins is just too good of a shooter.
When Nolan Smith went out, I’ll admit, I was worried. Sure we had a five-point lead but with Smith out and Thornton sitting, there was no point guard. Seth Curry proved me wrong…quickly. For a guy who has not proven to be a “great” ball-handler, Curry did an excellent job of dribbling, keeping the ball alive and penetrating when the time was right.
I loved how he came right out and took over with a drive, basket and a foul. He followed that up with a pair of free throws after another solid drive. He would end up scoring seven of the next nine points, plus that fantastic steal.
Like Nolan, Curry isn’t the quickest cat on the floor. He’s not going to blow by anyone. However, if he dribbles smart, uses the crossover and keeps his head up (all while remembering to throw up some threes), he can certainly do it against a team like Virginia Tech.
I know, I know…I saw him warming up too. I’m telling you what my wife says when she’s undressing in the bedroom, “don’t count on it, buddy.” Sorry folks, he’s out until someone says he’s not.
LOOKING AHEAD: VIRGINIA TECH
Obviously the big question is, will Nolan Smith play? Without him, Duke is not as good. You don’t remove the ACC player of the year and get better. However, the beauty of what I saw Friday was, Duke seemed to get better as the game went on. They seem to grow more confident, even when the game was tight with about 10 to play. They also didn’t seem fazed by Smith leaving. All good signs.
The beauty of playing Virginia Tech is that this will be their third game in three days. Add in the fact that they are down to about a one-man bench, plus they’re coming off a late-night rough-n-tumble nail biter against Florida State and you can see why Duke will probably be able to take care of business.
The two big questions will be…if Smith is out, can Curry/Dawkins/Thornton slow down guards Malcolm Delaney and Erik Green? More importantly, can they keep them out of the paint?
Secondly and most importantly to me, only because it is relevant for the remainder of the season…can Duke have fun? Sometimes I watch them and I feel like they’ve reverted back to the tense, overly focused teams from a few years ago. Teams that worried about losing and never enjoy the win.
Tonight, you saw the coaching staff jumping up, imploring the bench and the players to get excited at a timeout. While this may not be the NCAA Tournament, this is it boys. This is the time. If you’re not enjoying this, then why are you doing it?
Last year’s squad was special because they looked like a team having fun. I think part of that had to do with the fact that last year’s squad wasn’t the favorite. There was less pressure. This year’s team was suppose to win it all, yet they didn’t even win the ACC regular season title. That’s got to put pressure on them.