Only a few games into the Duke Blue Devils season, and already I have heard basketball pundits asking “is it possible that this team is better than last season?” The way I see it, the loss of seniors Brian Zoubek, John Scheyer and Lance Thomas left two key questions to be answered. One was who was going to fill in for the 7’1″ Zoubek in the paint? His presence was paramount to the Blue Devil’s success last year. All of those offensive rebounds and second chances for Duke’s three point shooters were immensely important. Not to mention a massive body to matchup against other teams big men. The other question is simply a matter of leadership. Who is going to fill the shoes of the those three graduating seniors?
Duke couldn’t have made the answers to these questions any more clear last night in the finals of the CBE Classic against #4 ranked Kansas State. For Kansas State it was a home game away from home playing in the Sprint Center in Kansas City Missouri. This didn’t seem to faze Duke at all. Getting every teams best shot is something that Duke is used to, even when they aren’t ranked number 1 in the country. But the energy in the Sprint Center wasn’t enough for Kansas State to get the win. The two teams played a close game for only 8 minutes until Duke took a lead and never looked back. Kansas States best player Jacob Pullen went cold shooting only 1-for-8 from 3-point range. But the blame can’t be put entirely in Pullen’s hands, as Kansas State shot 3-for-17 from 3-point range and a putrid 11-for-23 at the foul line.
Duke’s backcourt is one of the most talented in the country. They are lead by senior guard Nolan Smith and freshman stud Kyrie Irving. Each of them possessing the ability to both slash to the hoop and sink a quick three. If you didn’t know any better, you would think Kyrie has been playing college ball for years. His first step is lightning and he’s fearless when he drives to the hoop. Smith and Irving each had a team high 17 points against Kansas State.
But the backcourt only gets better when you look to the bench. First there is the sophomore transfer Seth Curry, the brother of the phenom shooter Stephen Curry, who was an absolute star at Liberty two years ago. Then there is sophomore sharpshooter Andre Dawkins, who worked hard in the offseason to develop into a ball handler as well. Both of them can shoot lights out from 3-point range. You could argue that Curry and Dawkins would start for 98% of college basketball teams in the country, that’s how good these two are.
In the search for a new Brian Zoubek, Mason Plumlee has answered the call. Plumlee put up 25 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 blocks against a talented Marquette Golden Eagle team in the semifinal of the CBE Classic. Coupled with his Brother Miles Plumlee coming off the bench, these two can create some real havoc in the paint. Leaving Duke to do what they do best, spreading the court and shooting the three.
It isn’t just the backcourt that can shoot the three, and no I’m not just alluding to Kyle Singler. His name is Ryan Kelly and he epitomizes a trojan horse of basketball. He looks like just another average goofy looking 6’10″ forward. Only this big guy won the McDonald’s All American Three Point Shootout in 2009, joining prolific Duke greats like Shane Battier, Chris Duhon, and J.J. Redick who have also previously won the Shootout.
Then of course there is the near-unanimous preseason All-American selection Kyle Singler. It’s no stretch of the imagination to assume that Singler along with Nolan Smith will be looked to as the leaders of this team. So with Mason Plumlee taking over the big man role, and the seniors Singler and Smith filling in nicely as leaders, is it possible this team is better? You would be a fool to answer definitively one way or the other but what is startling is that it isn’t a resounding no. What makes this Duke team so great is that Kyle Singler does not need to be relied upon for all of the scoring like Kansas State relies on Jacob Pullen. Singler was one of five players to score in double digits for Duke. Yes, Singler is the “best player,” but when he’s surrounded by so much talent maybe all he needs to do is be a great leader.
This surely must be a feel good moment for Coach K and his squad. They’ve passed their first big test against a ranked team but it’s not the only true test Duke will face in the preseason schedule. Their next game will be a very similar environment as they play the Oregon Ducks in Portland on Nov 27, followed by a home game against a highly ranked Michigan State on Dec 01.
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Written by Brian Ivory