Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In Nolan Time...

If last night is any indication of what we can expect from Nolan Smith this year, the NCAA better BUCKLE THE F%*& UP.

After being suspended for the first two games because he played in an unsanctioned summer league, Nolan came out gangbusters last night, scoring 24 points and playing an aggressive, slashing style that trumps anything we've seen from him so far. His 24 points were a career high, and he did it in relentless fashion, starting with the first possession of the game. The dude had something to prove, and he made no bones about it. For those of us who know how crucial he is to the success of this year's team, it was a beautiful performance to watch.

This is really, really terrific news. I struck a somewhat pessimistic tone in my preview last Friday, but if Nolan plays like this, we will be much better than I thought. As I mentioned, Scheyer is a competent point guard who will be somewhat stifled against the best defenses because of his average quickness. But he's an excellent shooting guard, and Nolan Smith, who has the motor and quickness and point guard ability Scheyer lacks, can free him from the claustrophobia of floor leader and let him blossom off the ball.

It was just a matter of whether Nolan (I prefer calling him 'Nolan' instead of 'Smith,' which sounds too generic...I don't mean to imply I'm on a first name basis, even though he and I have lunch together every Tuesday at the VFW) could assume that role. Before the season and after the first two games, Coach K asserted that in practice, he'd looked "not just good...great." But you never know whether to take that at face value, or what. Fans got the first part of their answer last night, though; the potential is there.

He always had the talent, and yesterday he had the fire. There are certain positions in sports where you can't get away with not being a badass. Point guard in basketball is one of them. That doesn't mean you have to be a gloating primadonna, or a poor sport, but it does mean you have to be utterly confident and play every game with something to prove. The kind of responsibility a point guard shoulders demands a certain type of arrogance, and previously Nolan had seemed too timid, too retreating. Against Charlotte, you started to see some personality. A great sign.

Of course, "against Charlotte" is a key factoid. It's not like he was running amok in the Deandome or anything. But I'm still excited; he's clearly worked like a dog in the offseason, and my gut tells me his shrinking violet days are over.

By the way, here's a great story about Nolan and his dad from last year. Derek Smith was an NBA player who came from nothing, an illegitimate child from Georgia who became the quintessential 'hard worker' and played nine journeyman seasons in the NBA. When Nolan was eight years old, he and his dad were on a cruise ship (where Derek, then a coach for the Washington Bullets, was running a youth clinic) when the older man collapsed. He died of a heart attack with his son by his side, asking him to "wake up." Very sad stuff, and it's always made me read a certain portion of sadness into Nolan's quiet demeanor. I'm thrilled that he's on the verge of maturing into a great college player; it seems a lot like his destiny.

So, the last two Duke wins have been part of the preseason NIT tournament. I guess we've now won the East Regional, which means we'll be taking on Arizona State next Wednesday in...Madison Square Garden!! An early chance for me to see the Devils, and it comes as a complete surprise. Good, good stuff. UConn and LSU are the other semi-final.

Briefly, some other thoughts on last night's game:

*Scheyer and Singler look great. No surprises. At the moment, Coach K is going with a two-guard offense, meaning Nolan and Scheyer will share the point position. I think it's a great move, and if things go well I'd like to see an eventual transition to Nolan making the position his own.

*Coach K threw out a 3-2 zone in the second half last night, which I absolutely love. It seems like every three years or so, Syracuse manages to advance further than they have any right because of their zone defense. When done well, it can give even good teams big headaches; the only tried and true method to break it is by shooting, and that can come and go on any given night. It seems like no other teams have caught on, or they're just not interested in the novelty, or something. As an intermittent gimmick, I think this is a great call, especially with Singler and guys like Kelly and the Plumlees able to play the top wing positions.

*Andre Dawkins is a little unsure of himself at the moment. He has moments where he looks confident and able, but other times he's still finding himself on the court. Granted, we're only three games in, but I'd like to see a bit more assertive behavior. He's supposed to be someone who can penetrate with the best, and Coach K needs to loosen the reins.

*Ryan Kelly is going to be better than I thought. There's merit to my fears that he shies from contact and lacks bodily comfort in the paint, but he's not clumsy or too awkward. His development is very uncertain, but at least we're not looking at another Zoubek here.

*Brian Zoubek is still useless. Lance Thomas looks "competent," at best. Miles Plumlee had a nice game, and might be the most athletic of the three, but I still don't trust him against bigger, stronger front lines.

*All the sudden, I'm anxious about Mason Plumlee. If his wrist injury isn't serious, which was the speculation last night, I'm thinking he might be more useful than previously imagined. If he was truly slated for a starting role, above his brother and Thomas, he must be something more than a gangly freshman.

Reading over this post, I realize that after watching one game against inferior competition, I've completely abandoned myself to the optimism that strikes every single year. Crap. Crap. Crap.

Anyway, about the post title: there's this excellent band called "Mew," from Denmark. The leader singer, Jonas Bjerre, writes in English, but because his English wasn't always fantastic, the lyrics are more expressionistic than narrative or even poetic. The first line in that song is "In Nolan time sign, what does the mind cover?" I got kind of obsessed with them, and was lucky enough to conduct a very long, very fascinating (to me) interview with Jonas two years ago. I touched on this particular line:

A details question: In "Apocalypso," what is Nolan time?

Jonas: Apocalypso is about the fear of Death. I have a lot of anxieties; in fact I'm chock-full of them. And in recent years I have come to believe that they all derive from fear of dying. Many of my nightmares involve bodily malfunction and disintegration. When I was staying in LA recording the album I got this horrible tooth ache. I have a fear of dentists as well (so I take very good care of my teeth) and was trying to put it off, always keeping whiskey in my mouth, that sort of thing. But in the end I had to go and it was actually not such a bad experience. But the pain was pretty excruciating and the dentist was called Doctor Nolan. But in reality, I don't know why I'm even telling you this story because at that point the lyrics were already written and the name was just a coincidence. I guess I have no real explanation for it.

And I don't know why I'm telling you this, except that part of the function of my obsessive brain is that any word in the English language will remind me of a song. When I'm conversing with someone, and they say a trigger word like "holiday," little snippets of music will begin playing in my head, such as that whiny "and here's your holiday!" song by Blink-182. Don't worry: I'm not the obnoxious guy who immediately starts singing and is a total pain to have a conversation with. Nor am I unable to focus and listen. But inside, there's a soundtrack playing. Now, when I'm watching Duke basketball and Nolan Smith scores, the first line of "Apocalypso" starts playing as a sort of theme song. Sometimes I hum it, and if I'm alone I'll actually belt it out sometimes, since it's sort of a celebratory melody and seems to fit my enthusiasm.

And now, if possible, I would like to convey this madness, this curse, onto you.

Rough sports night this evening. Good luck making it through Wednesday.

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