Entering the 2011 NCAA Tournament, Duke once again faces the critics, who say the Blue Devils have certain deficiencies that will prevent them from repeating as champs. In fact, similar to last year, when no national analyst or writer selected Duke as the eventual winner, the Blue Devils have even more detractors this season with even less people picking them for the Final Four. The same old argument comes into play — no third scorer and no inside play. Yet, Duke showed how it has become a complete team in the three games of the ACC Tournament in which Duke rolled through the competition, including North Carolina, a team that had embarrassed the Blue Devils a week prior. So with that being said, here are my reasons why Duke has the make-up to repeat as National Champs:
1. Experience: Duke has the veteran leadership to go far. Mike Krzyzewski will be seeking his fifth title and could pass his mentor, Bob Knight, as the Division I all-time coaching leader in wins. He made the right adjustments last season in starting Greg Zoubek at center towards the end of the year and he certainly figured out what was wrong with the team after the Carolina loss (see below). When asked about leaving Nolan Smith in the game with foul trouble against Carolina, Coach K talked about how the training the players get during the season has prepared his guys for tournament play — “If you watch us throughout the year, we’ll play guys with two early fouls, a number of minutes in the first half, a guy will get his third and I’ll leave him in just because the regular season should prepare you for tournaments. They learn to be disciplined. You can’t learn in practice to be disciplined with fouls. You have got to learn in a game.” So Coach K’s experience with tournament play will clearly benefit the team this season. The Blue Devils also have two seniors who have been there, done that in Smith and Kyle Singler, who were major contributors in last season’s run to the title. As in years past, winning a championship comes down to having a proven point guard with Jon Scheyer last year, UNC junior Ty Lawson in ’09, Kansas junior Mario Chalmers in ’08, and Florida’s Taurean Green in the back-to-back years from 2006 to 2008 as a sophomore and junior, respectively. In fact, the last time a program has won the whole thing with a freshman point guard was in 1997 when Mike Bibby led the Arizona Wildcats to a win over Kentucky in the final. (side note — yes, I know Chris Duhon was a freshman on Duke’s 2001 championship squad, but we all know Jay, formerly known as Jason, Williams led the way in that win over Maryland.)
2. Defense, defense: Duke prides itself on man-to-man defense and it has been a mainstay throughout Coach K’s regime. In the Carolina game, the Blue Devils were exposed…or beaten down to a point each player had to take it upon himself to step up his play on the defensive end. After the win in the ACC Tournament final, Coach K discussed the importance of improving on the defensive front. ”We got better this week, the guys practiced well…today our defense, especially our defensive rebounding, in critical times, for the most part we did not give them easy baskets.” Coach K inserted Miles Plumlee back into the starting lineup after a seven-point, 11-rebound effort against North Carolina in the regular season finale. The junior forward responded with a solid offensive effort in each tournament game, but his defensive effort was even larger, starting with the Virginia Tech game in which he was the primary reason Jeff Allen scored two points on 1-for-7 shooting after dropping 18 points in the Hokies’ win in Blacksburg. In the Carolina game, Smith and Singler proved why they are two of the best players in the country as each held their own in their defensive assignment. Smith put the clamps on Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall to 3-of-10 shooting for 8 points and forced him into five turnovers versus four assists a week after Marshall had 15 points and 11 assists with just two turnovers. Singler kept Harrison Barnes a non-factor early in the game as the senior co-captain held the freshman sensation without a point until Barnes sank a free throw over 11 minutes into the game and without a field goal until a made jumper early in the second half. Singler had this to say after the win: “Personally, I tried to limit his touches. It was a team defensive assignment, though, where we all made an effort to limit his chances.”
3. Third scorer has emerged: It’s beginning to sound like a broken record (or warped CD or marred audio link) how often the so-called analysts say Duke is lacking that third scorer to help win the championship. Yes, Duke had the three “S’s” last season with Scheyer, Smith and Singler, but if you take a closer look at Duke’s stats, you can see a “third scorer” is there in the name of Andre Dawkins and Ryan Kelly. Over the three ACC tourney wins, Dawkins-Kelly scored a combined 20 points in 31 minutes against Maryland, 14 points in 39 minutes versus Virginia Tech and 18 points in 41 minutes against Carolina. Coach K had this to say about the role players — “The guys who don’t get much credit and our big guys, really played well this week. Ryan Kelly had a great week here in all three games. ” Perhaps an even better sign moving forward is the compliment Smith gave to his compatriots — “I trust my teammates to the fullest. They want to win championships. I have full belief in those guys to take shots with confidence.” Add the Dawkins-Kelly factor to the way Seth Curry has been playing over the past month and you have one potent “third scorer.” Over the three games, Curry had 11, 10 and 11 and has now scored in double-figures over five consecutive contests. Pretty good “third scorer” if you ask me.
4. The emergence of an inside game: Similar to how Greg Zoubek became an integral part of the title run last season, the sudden emergence of the Plumlee brothers have put Duke in a perfect place to get to Houston. In the ACC tourney, they were brilliant. In the Maryland win, they went a combined 8-for-14 shooting from the field for 20 points while grabbing 20 total rebounds (10 offensive). In the VaTech win, they went 6-for-10 from the field for 13 points and 8 rebounds. In the Carolina game, they combined for 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting with 12 rebounds. Coach K had this to say about his inside guys — “Putting Miles in the starting line-up makes us a little more physical. (Miles and Mason) were really good. We continually put more things in where they will get touches inside where they can score or where they can make plays. ” — K emphasized how the Plumlees do a tremendous job in setting up their teammates, noting Mason making a play in the Carolina game where he drove and kicked it out to Dawkins, who drained a three-pointer.
5. Chemistry: Each Duke championship has had that “it factor” from the aura of Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill in the back-to-back titles to start the 1990s to the will-and-desire of Shane Battier and mastery of Jason Williams in the 2001 title team to the get-it-done mentality of Jon Scheyer and Greg Zoubek in last year’s squad. This year’s team again has “it.” They’ve overcome many hurdles this season from Kyrie Irving going down with an injury to finding themselves as a team again to losing twice as the No. 1 team to getting embarrassed in Chapel Hill. But they’ve found that all-important mojo in the ACC tournament. Coach K perhaps summed it up best with his description of Smith in the ACC tournament — “He had a bounce in his step. The bounce he had, the spirit he had to play defense. His defense was key. And that’s what we need.”
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.