Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the lack of an inside game could very well spell defeat for Duke in this year’s tournament.
It was stated and repeated often leading up to the 2010 NCAA tournament and it was regurgitated countless times after Duke’s loss last week to Florida State.
So, it’s been over a week since the turmoil in Tallahassee took place and guess what?
The Blue Devils are righting the ship just as they’ve done often in the past when push came to shove. Last season, Coach Mike Krzyzewski inserted 7-foot-1 center Brian Zoubek into the starting lineup at just the right time to deal with the “lack of an inside game.”
The Blue Devils lost just once after Zoubek claimed a starting role and the fourth championship for Coach K followed.
After watching Duke over the past two games and after reading the diverse approaches to what Duke has done and what they must do, I’ve come to the conclusion that this year’s version of the Blue Devils is beginning to mirror elements of the 2000-01 and 2009-10 championship seasons.
And strangely enough, each season has some type of association with the foot.
The Blue Devils experience certain setbacks towards the end of the 2000-01 season that many critics signaled the end of Duke that year. The biggest one came in Duke’s last home game of the season when the No. 16 Terrapins defeated the No. 2 Blue Devils 91-80 on Shane Battier’s Senior Night in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
During the game, center Carlos Boozer went down with a foot injury that would sideline him until the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. In the meantime, Coach K moved Jason Williams over to shooting guard and used a smaller, quicker lineup that led to six consecutive games before Boozer returned.
Last season, Duke was just plain bad on the boards and had gotten beat by lesser-talented teams like N.C. State and Georgia Tech. Zoubek, who had struggled with foot injuries up to his senior season, had played over 20 minutes in a game just three times since the start of the 2009-10 season, but with Coach K sensing a change was in order, Zoubek was given the opportunity to start against Maryland on Feb. 13 and scored a season-high 16 points and grabbed a season-high 17 rebounds in the Blue Devils’ 77-56 victory.
Zoubek would start the rest of the season, average over 20 minutes and most importantly, grab over 10 rebounds a game over the last 14 games of the season, which ended with Zoubek getting 10 boards in the Blue Devils’ 61-59 win over Butler.
So, this past week has demonstrated that Coach K is trying to re-invent the Blue Devils after Duke’s loss to the Seminoles exposed the Blue Devils in similar ways to the past. Yes, they’re suspect inside and yes, they have relied dearly on the three-pointer since Kyrie Irving went down with a foot injury, or more specifically a toe injury.
In the Virginia game, while many critics commented that Duke was experiencing a hangover from the Florida State shocker, I noticed that Coach K was trying to create a different version of the way the Blue Devils had been throughout December. In the Florida State game, without the quickness and elusiveness of Irving in the lineup and with the Seminoles hounding Nolan Smith, panic set in and the Blue Devils let loose one three after another until they had taken 35 of them.
The biggest thing that Irving provided for Duke was his innate ability to get to the rack whenever he wanted. This gave Duke an “inside” presence without actually having a dominant post player.
Coach K used the same type of spread offense during the 2010 World Championships with Derrick Rose at the point. Whenever Team USA needed a bucket, Coach K had the ultra quick Chicago Bulls point guard start near mid-court and simply use his skill set to break down the opposing guard to create an easy shot in the paint for himself or on a dish to an open player down low or wide open at the three-point line.
With Irving, Duke had a team similar to Team USA with athletic big men (Mason and Miles Plumlee, a la Lamar Odom and Tyson Chandler) who are better facing the basket than with their back to the basket and three-point sharpshooters (Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry, a la Eric Gordon and Stephen Curry) who benefit from a creative point guard.
In the short time Irving was in the line-up, Mason Plumlee had four games in which the sophomore center scored more than 10 points, including a career-high 25 against Marquette. Since Irving went down with his injury, Plumlee has had just one game with over 10 points and has averaged just 4.2 points a game over 10 contests.
Over these past two contests since the Florida State loss, Coach K is searching for that new and improved Blue Devils lineup. Who will it be to step up over the second half of the season?
Ryan Kelly scored 11 points and had eight rebounds in Duke’s 92-78 win over N.C. State on Wednesday. Miles Plumlee, who had logged a combined 10 minutes over the previous two games, scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the win over the Wolfpack.
While many have jumped to conclusions about Duke the same way they did last season, if history plays itself out the way it has in the past, then the Blue Devils will find a way to evolve and improve for another run for the title.
About the Author
Written by Chris Girandola
I currently write for the St. Petersburg Times, MLB.com, the Naples News, Demand Studios, LiveStrong, Fuel Football, Fuel Basketball and Fuel Football.