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.
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.