Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Restoration: Duke is #1

RISE, YE DEVILS, AND ASSUME THY RIGHTFUL PLACE! LET THE WORLD BOW BEFORE YE!


Crap. That picture is a real missed opportunity.

After a topsy-turvy week in the rest of the top 10, Duke is king. If we can win the next four games to close out the regular season, I think we'll be guaranteed a #1 seed regardless of what happens in the ACC tournament.

Today's post will be kind of a smorgasboard, kind of a state of the Duke union, and kind of a chance for me to brag about the new purchase I made at the Duke bookstore:


You can imagine how thrilled my girlfriend is that my Robbie Cano bobblehead has a new friend for the mantle. Coach K definitely has a little creepiness to his style, and whoever made that bobble head captured the hell out of it. I mean, I'm a big Coach K fan, and that thing still gives me nightmares. Seriously, I've had it two nights and I've already had two nightmares of that wobbling head coming after me. (Nolan Smith has rescued me both times, thank God.)

Speaking of the Duke bookstore, I was all psyched to go there two days ago and pick up this year's team poster. I hadn't yet seen the design, so you can imagine my disappointment when I was confronted with this:


Bleh. Following last year's hilarious Goodfellas masterpiece, "One" is a gigantic disappointment. In my mind, a perfect team poster has a weird theme, is kind of corny, and maybe utilizes a bad pun. At the very least, it should have personality. Even this "Duke Rocks" poster from a few years ago does the job. There's absolutely no good reason for the entire team to be in front of a rock face. They're just there for the pun, and I can respect that.

I ended up holding off on buying this year's poster. It's too bland, too devoid of personality. I might buy it later, but they'll probably have to win a title before I pull the trigger.

Here's my idea for next year's poster: The Hoedown in K-Ville. Everyone on the team wears redneck clothes (especially Mason Plumlee). I'm talking cut-off jean shorts, tattered flannel, work boots, straw hats, the whole nine yards. Nolan is chewing a long piece of grass and plucking a banjo. Mason is fiddling, and his shorts are particularly short. Seth and Kyrie are dancing the do-si-do, Ryan Kelly is in full slack-jaw mode with a pitchfork at the ready, and Andre Dawkins, his mascara running, is looking bitter and holding a baby. The baby is Tyler Thornton. Josh Hairston is the quack village doctor, and he wears a white lab coat while sipping on a moonshine jug (XXX). On the left, Miles Plumlee is perched in a tractor and thoughtfully smoking a corncob pipe. Coach K is wearing overalls with no undershirt, and he's on the right foreground chasing a sheep. Oh man, what does he even want with that sheep? The sheep is Coach Wojo. The whole thing takes place on K-Ville, and there's a bonfire raging in the background. You can fill in the rest. Tell me that wouldn't be the most satisfying team poster in history. TELL ME.

It'll never happen, though. You guessed it: politics.

Okay, let's get serious and address some of the problems facing Duke as we enter March. What follows is all in service of answering a larger question: does this team have a chance to win a repeat national title?

1) The Singler Slump

In this Charlotte Observer article, Coach K talks fairly openly about his senior's struggles.

"We won’t win a really important game unless Kyle is playing with that spirit," Krzyzewski said on the ACC teleconference. "And if he hits his shots, then we’re a lot better. It’s kind of a phase during a season, kind of like a hitter who is a .320 hitter but is hitting .250. We think he will hit .320 and balance out for the season."

He admitted that the struggles reached during the UVA game, and he went on to say what we've been saying around these parts for a while: he still plays great defense, and he still gives maximum effort.

Still, you can't ignore the offense. Since ACC play began on January 2nd against Miami, Singler is 88-221 shooting. That's 39.8%. His lowest season average came last year, when he shot 41.5% for the season. His three-point rate is down to 35% from 40% a year ago. In the five games since his great effort at Maryland in early February, he's only shooting 32.7% from the field.

For comparison's sake, Nolan Smith is shooting 48.2% from the field. Granted, he's a Player of the Year candidate, but it's still a vast gulf for two guys who get roughly the same number of shots every night.

I don't think there's an obvious solution here beyond wait-and-see. Coach K and the staff have taken pains to get Singler his shots and integrate him into the larger offense. I don't think you can knock them in that regard. I liked the way Singler played against Georgia Tech, but at the end of the game he was still just 5-14 from the field. At this point, you have to wonder whether he's just not quick enough to create his own shot off the dribble. Further, you have to wonder whether it's worth our while to bend over backward getting him shots when we have other great options. Last, you have to wonder if Singler made the right choice coming back to school. It's great for Duke, and maybe not so great for his draft stock.

2) Good Mason vs. Bad Mason

The most I can say is this: I'm thrilled that we've come to a point where there's a 'Good Mason.' He's had some real gems in the past month. I'm man enough to admit it. When I went with my parents back to Duke's campus the other day, we saw he and Miles chatting with what looked to be family friends by Cameron. We sat and watched them for a while. Nothing really to report, except that Miles was wearing pirate-length cut-off sweat pants. My mom told me I should go up and say hello and maybe get a picture, and if it was anyone else, I probably would have. But I've taken one too many shots at the Plumlees in this blog, and it would've felt kind of exploiting to pretend to be a big fan or something. So I just watched.

But the point is, I'm starting to see a possible future where I like Mason. Both as a dude, and as a player. He's starting to show some real passing acumen, which is so, so valuable in a big man. A huge part of Zoubek's emergence last year was his ability to pass from the post to the perimeter and set our guards up for threes. Mason has shown that talent lately, and he's also crashing the boards harder than ever before. I thought his second half effort against Carolina was borderline heroic, especially considering how badly he played in the first half.

It can't have been an easy path for him this season. He thrived under Kyrie Irving, and the sky must have seemed like the limit after he scored 25 against Marquette. But then the toe injury happened, and the easy buckets disappeared. Mason's improvement has been slow, variable, and fraught with relapses. He's still prone to stupid fouls, as we saw against Georgia Tech. He'll still make bad defensive decisions that lead to easy buckets (we've been over this before; the stupid block, the ill-advised steal, the statue D, the unnecessary double team). And he still doesn't have a strong sense of where is on the court, especially on offense. It drives me nuts to see him take fadeaway short-range jumpers when a hard dunk would do.

But now there's a Good Mason, and that's a relief.

3) The Tragic Ballad of Young Threezy

We had some good chatter about this in the comments yesterday after my realization (about a month later than everyone else, apparently) that there's a good chance he'll transfer at the end of this season. GB had this to say, which I thought was pretty on point:

Dawkins needs to watch some Trajan Langdon tape and figure out how a shooter is supposed to work away from the ball to get himself open. He has just been standing in his corner, and although there are certain plays where that works like some of the top of the key ball screens, he will never get consistent offensive opportunities doing that.

Completely true, and Seth Curry had the same problem earlier in the season. During a recent game (Miami, I think), the announcers mentioned that Stephen called his younger brother up and told him he needed to work harder on offense, particularly on moving without the ball. That registered with Seth, and his season began to turn around.

Obvious question: why the hell did it take Stephen Curry to enlighten him? Where are the coaches? Why aren't they working with Dawkins on off-the-ball movement? It's a simple piece of wisdom, and it seems like they should be focusing on it every practice. Maybe they are, and Dawk is just lazy or uncoachable or something. I don't know. But it's aggravating to see that much potential go to waste. When you think about it, how much would Carolina just kill to have Dawkins right now? I guarantee Roy would do anything in his power to teach the kid to get open on his own. A shooter of that caliber should not be relegated to mop-up duty.

So...

Can Duke win a national title?

I have no idea. I don't see any teams that are obviously better (and hell, we are #1), but you still have to wonder if we can take down a series of big, athletic teams who can excel on the interior and pressure our guards enough to produce a low shooting percentage. Of the three guys discussed above, I think Singler and Plumlee are the most critical. You know what you're going to get from Nolan (excellence), and I think we can count on Seth Curry to be johnny-on-the-spot in important moments. I've written Dawkins off for this year, and anything beyond 'non-factor' will be a pleasant surprise. Kelly will play smart, opportunistic basketball, and be a little too weak to bang with the giants, and Miles will be a frustrating, barely-serviceable power forward.

The uncertainty lies with Singler and Mason Plumlee, and I think we'll know more by the end of the regular season. Tomorrow we play Temple, the only all-Jewish school in Division 1, in what should be a pretty stiff non-conference home test. (Trivia: can you name every "Big 5" Philadelphia team? Temple is one of them. I tried yesterday and blanked on one.) After the Owls come a'calling, the Dukies are at Virginia Tech, home against Clemson, and away against Carolina. It's a brutal end to the year- a miserable gauntlet that will call the fabric of our team into question. Stay tuned, Moody Blues.

18 comments:

  1. Must be nice to "be guaranteed a #1 seed regardless of what happens in the NCAA tournament." Seems like a loss in the NCAA tournament might be worse than not getting a #1 seed! :)

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  2. Not just politics. Nolan will have used up eligibility and can't be in the hoedown poster. Others, a pretty creepy "thumbs up."

    PS - I'm glad someone found Missy
    (http://www.27bslash6.com/missy.html),
    though the shock of being lost turned her fur gray. Jill can fill in the details.

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  3. He meant to say 1 seed regardless of what happens in the ACC tournament I'm sure. The talking heads wouldn't be happy with giving Duke a 1 seed this year unless they won the ACC regular season and the ACC tournament.

    I'm not convinced the UNC/Duke game will be that close the second time around. Duke probably won't spot them 16 points in the first half this time around. It will probably end up being a battle anyway, and hopefully Curry will have a repeat performance, and Singler shakes off his issues and lights it up like we all know he can.

    That being said, Temple also recently lost one of their big men to an injury (Eric) and Scootie probably won't play because of a foot injury (who names a kid Scootie anyway? Spoiler alert: mothers who did crack while pregnant) Temple will not be near 100% in Cameron. Their front line is not the same front line that put them in the top 25, but they haven't played anyone noteworthy since the injuries. Duke will put the hurt on them tomorrow night.

    -GB

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  4. Did you blank on Bryn Mawr? People always do.

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  5. As for a repeat National Championship here is the formula.

    3 Players who show up almost every night

    Smith
    Singler (he will be there in March. Period.)
    Curry? (I think he's turned the corner)

    1 Player who can light it up when one of the above is having an off night

    Kelly
    Mason P
    Dawkins (once he decides to remove his head from his ass)

    A hall of fame coach
    Check that one off

    I'm still not entirely sure Kyrie is completely out of the question for a late season appearance a la Boozer in 2001, but maybe that's just wishful thinking

    -GB

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  6. Yup, obviously meant ACC tournament, mi malo. Changed.

    I like your formula, GB (and your optimism). Kyrie just changes things completely, and it would be incredible if he came back. I'm thinking/hoping we'll have some information by March 1st on that front, but I'm proceeding, like all Duke fans probably should, as though he's done for the year.

    Blanked on LaSalle, Carrie, Bryn Mawr is not among the chosen. Although I suppose that might have been a joke. I'm not up on what Bryn Mawr is.

    Dan, did someone find Missy? I didn't see any change to the link you posted. Still hilarious, though. And I'm in favor of having Nolan on all future posters, even when he's old.

    -Shane

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  7. Oh, and I disagree with you on the #1 seed, GB. If Duke wins out, they'll finish the season ranked #1 overall. Even if we drop a first round game, it would take a perfect storm to knock us below 4th in the minds of the committee. It would require perfect finishes and conference championships by Pitt, OSU, one of Kansas/Texas, and...San Diego State? And I doubt that happens. 4 more wins, and we're a 1.

    Not that we're going to lose before the finals of the ACC anyway.

    -Shane

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  8. Kyrie Irving = chance for National Championship. It would be a miracle without him. We don't have a difference maker a la Zoubek. I do agree with you that Mason has really turned a corner. I love when he faces up and drives by his defender.

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  9. Just my guess, but I don't think Baby Dawk will transfer. Nolan almost left after his freshman year, and now he is on top of the world. I think he will give Dre a pep talk and Dre will turn it around (but maybe not this year).

    Also, there are a lot of positive signs on the Kyrie front!! He tweeted this yesterday: "Look out for a @dukeblueplanet video coming soon of one of my rehab sessions...I'm definitely op(toe)mistic!!" That's obviously not definitive, but it is the most positive thing we've heard in a while! Also, Coach K and Duke are notoriously negative on the outlook for injuries -- players always come back before they say they will. *fingers crossed*

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  10. Mason is about where Zoubek was around this time of the season last year. Zoubek was a huge disappointment for 95% of the time he was at Duke. History sees him in a more favorable light because of the championship last year and his role late in the final game.

    This Duke team can beat anyone in the country of that I have no doubt. They definitely have their vulnerabilities. I still think they overplay on defense with guards way too often and in doing so give offenses really good looks in the paint. I think part of the reason Duke managed to beat UNC in the second half was less overplaying for the threes and transition turnovers, and more stopping the easy twos, jamming up the paint, and forcing UNC to rely on 3's they couldn't hit (Reggie Bullock claiming nobody on Duke could guard him and then couldn't hit a shot to save his life).


    -GB

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  11. Shane,

    Thought you found Missy (pic of her in blue dress to start your post). Hope so, though pretty clearly NO REWARD.

    ReplyDelete
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    -Shane

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  15. Jo, I desperately hope you're right, and GB, I somewhat agree on Zoubek, though I think by this point in the season he was a little further along than Mason is currently. Not much, but a little better on the boards and the kick-outs at least, and certainly tougher.

    It's also funny you mention the overplaying, because I was thinking about that during the Tech game. I'm sure it creates turnovers, but I do agree that it creates easier driving lanes and more inside opportunities. I was wondering if it was even worthwhile as a strategy. And you're right about UNC...everyone at Duke, especially Coach K, talked after the game about how making Marshall into a shooter instead of a driver was what turned the game around, and that essentially amounted to fewer overplays and more classic man-to-man defense...stay between your guy and the basket.

    Do you think maybe the success of the overplay against weaker teams fools them into thinking it will function the same against better teams? Is it the equivalent of the option offense in college football, which inevitably fails against top competition but can look amazing against lesser foes?

    -Shane

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  16. It almost felt like when Kyrie left the lineup they were very quick to change their style of offense to make up for him not being there, but they stuck with the same overplaying defensive strategy that would have taken advantage of his ability to push down the floor for easy transition baskets. It guards the three fantastically but makes it a ton easier to beat the Duke guards off the dribble.

    How much easier? Look back at the Saint Johns game. They racked up 93 points against Duke. 9 of those were points from 3 point shots. They only made 3 3's. Duke got crushed in the paint by a team with no forwards or centers larger than 6-8. Duke overplays all the guys on the perimeter even if they are ridiculously far outside the 3 point line. When someone beats their guard there's only one guy left standing in front of them at the basket usually Mason or Miles and the Plums have to either let the guy go to the hole or leave their man and end up giving up the easy dunk we have seen so much this season.

    Gary Williams was the first coach to exploit the chink in Duke's armor, and everyone after has tried to do basically the same thing. Gary didn't have the personnel to pull it off. Nobody tries to beat Duke with the three.

    I don't think Duke has the personnel this year to really run the defense they are trying to run. They don't have the quickness to guard for the three and the drive at the same time. Singler and Kelly are slow. The Plums are slow and don't run the floor well. Curry and Thorton are developing stopping power, but earlier this year Thorton was pretty easy to get turned around. Dawkins is...well... we have picked on him enough this week. Nolan is beyond reproach but he is only one man.

    I would be very interested to see Duke play man to man without pressuring beyond 1-2 feet from the three point line. I would say I'd like to see them in the zone but we know Coach K would never go to zone for more than 1-2 token possessions.

    -GB

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  17. Just a killer song to finish up the post. The best band from NC in operation, other than Megafaun.

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  18. My local music connection keeps telling me Megafaun, Jake. What's a good album to start with?

    -Shane

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