So what have we learned in the two weeks following the St. John’s loss?
1. The Red Storm is better than the perception leading into that game. So, the defeat is less than an upset than originally thought. Since beating the Blue Devils, St. John’s has beaten UConn and Cincinnati, two quality teams headed to the NCAA tournament.
2. Other players besides Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler are beginning to step into a prominent role, which is an important component in winning any title — think Greg Zoubek. Seth Curry has emerged as the type of dependable shooter Coach K has preferred in previous March Madness games, scoring in double-figures in three consecutive games before Wednesday’s low-scoring affair against Virginia. Mason Plumlee is showing the same comfortable and confident demeanor that he exhibited earlier this season, missing just eight shots from the field on 31 attempts over five games. Ryan Kelly has become the type of team player Coach K appreciates, giving way to others when necessary as demonstrated by the 18 combined minutes in blowout wins over Maryland and N.C. State and stepping up when needed as in the 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting in 33 minutes in the 56-41 win over UVA.
3. The Blue Devils, who have already had to adjust to Kyrie Irving being gone, showed the ability to persevere through adversity even more so when Nolan Smith went down temporarily with an eye-injury during the 81-71 win over Miami. Despite Smith tallying a season-low 29 minutes, the Blue Devils received key contributions from Ryan Kelly, Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry, who combined to score 33 points on 14-of-22 shooting from the floor.
4. Smith is more and more looking like a player of the year candidate and the one who will lead the Blue Devils into another Final Four. Smith is just one of three players in the nation to lead conference play in scoring and assists, averaging 21.4 points and 5.6 assists per game (Charles Jenkins of Hofstra in the CAA and Norris Cole of Cleveland State in the Horizon are the others). With 22 points against UVA, Smith notched his ACC-leading 15th game with 20-plus points and was the main reason the Blue Devils were able to separate from the pesky Cavaliers as Kyle Singler had a season-low two points.
“Nolan was a huge difference in the game,” Krzyzewski said. “To get 22 points in a game like this is a lot of points. It’s a lot of points.”
5. Duke proved it has the moxie to play in a half-court, slow-it-down type game. The Blue Devils entered the affair in Charlottesville as the third-best scoring team in the nation with 84.3 points per game and were coming off up-tempo games against Miami, UNC, N.C. State and Maryland. Virginia coach Tony Bennett went to a methodical approach and it was understandable considering the Cavaliers are without their best player for the season. The 56 points were the lowest output this season and the lowest since the Sweet Sixteen in 2009 when they managed just 54 in a loss to Villanova.
“You know, points were hard to come by,” Coach K said. “Their defense was good. I thought ours was a little bit better.”
Through it all, what I’ve seen from the Blue Devils is a team that has chemistry, that has cohesion, that has players who step up, that has a go-to player and that looks like a title-contender. Last season, when everyone and their grandma was hatin’ on Duke, I started to notice a team coming together late in the season. Stats can reveal much, common opponents can reveal even more, but often times, simply conducting the eye-test can reveal the most. Duke looks good and has played excellent since the loss to St. John’s a little over two weeks ago. The season still has a long way to go, but things are looking better and better for the Blue Devils.
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.