It’s winter in Durham. The juniors are all back from places where fútbol is more popular than football, and the Gothic wonderland is at its most beautiful amidst grayer skies and barer trees—which also means that it’s ACC season at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Gone are the days of neutral-site games and week-long breaks between competition, and Duke got its second semester started a few days earlier than the rest of us, opening conference play with an 82-60 victory over Wake Forest Saturday. With the heart of basketball season upon us, here are a few hints from Saturday’s win that might foreshadow Duke basketball’s 2013.
1. Don’t get your hopes up that the Blue Devils will get deeper as the season goes along.
Against Wake Forest, it may not look especially impressive that Marshall Plumlee, Alex Murphy and Amile Jefferson combined to play 19 minutes. But after Duke built a 21-point lead, Murphy and the younger Plumlee played together for five consecutive minutes in what was clearly a “second unit” lineup with Quinn Cook, Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston. Again, that may not sound like much, but it has been a rare thing to see head coach Mike Krzyzewski order four-fifths of his starting lineup to take a seat.
The pair of redshirt freshmen even looked pretty impressive for not having played much this season, tallying a combined six points on 3-of-4 shooting. But in his postgame press conference, head coach Mike Krzyzewski was far from eager to tout his roster’s depth.
“The development of our starters is much more important than the development of our depth,” Krzyzewski said. “Those three kids—Amile, Alex and Marshall—are really good players. They’re playing behind three seniors. It’s a different dynamic. There’s more separation than normal. You have to develop your depth and those young guys in a little bit different way with this type of team.”
He emphasized that his young players will need to be ready in case any of the starters—especially a gimpy Seth Curry—struggle with injuries as the season goes along. But it certainly doesn’t sound as if the distribution of playing time is going to radically change for the team that ranks 323rd out of 347 Division I teams in bench minutes.
2. “It’s” important.
Even Krzyzewski found it difficult to describe “it,” but he spoke after the game how “it” was missing from the Blue Devils’ play against Wake Forest.
“There wasn’t the electricity here, and we didn’t provide that either. We played well, but there wasn’t it,” Krzyzewski said, snapping his fingers to emphasize the pronoun. “It was not going on here today. That doesn’t mean anybody was bad, it’s just tough to get it all the time.”
Call it moxie or poise. Duke has beaten top opponents this season with more than just talent. Behind senior leaders, consistently relentless play and clutch performances, the Blue Devils have earned confident wins against flashier opponents. Against the Demon Deacons, it was merely superior personnel that carried Duke to victory.
Despite the score, Duke did not exert its will the way it has many times this season, especially against weaker competition. There’s nothing wrong with winning on talent alone against a rebuilding team like Wake Forest, but other squads loom on the schedule that can match Duke on paper, especially away from Cameron Indoor Stadium. So even though they didn’t require “it” against Wake Forest, they’ll need to be able to rediscover it as the ACC slate gets into full swing.
3. Ryan Kelly may turn out to be Duke’s most important player.
“Most important” doesn’t mean best, or most talented, or highest-scoring. But Kelly may be the one player that proves next to impossible for opponents to neutralize. A strong defensive big man might be able to shut down Mason Plumlee, especially as the season wears on for the only post player in the ACC who has played more than 80 percent of his team’s minutes. There are opposing point guards in the country who can stay in front of Quinn Cook, and athletic wings who can keep a hand in Seth Curry’s face for an entire night. It’d be difficult for a team to do all those things at once, of course, and that’s a big part of why Duke is so dangerous.
But there are almost no teams in the country that actually have a defensive answer for Kelly. He is shooting an astounding 50 percent from beyond the arc, has shown excellent ball handling skills for a player his size by committing just 12 turnovers all year, and demonstrated excellent awareness against Wake Forest by posting up on the block when mismatches caused him to be guarded by 6-foot-3 Codi Miller-McIntyre or 6-foot-1 Madison Jones.
“Guys are switching a lot on my screens now, because we’ve been hitting the pop a lot,” Kelly said. “And when guys are switching we have to find a way to punish that, and that’s me rolling to the post.”
His game, in a way, is a lot like the Duke team game overall. With dynamic ballhandlers, sharpshooters from the outside, and a physical post presence inside, the Blue Devils have developed into a veritable Swiss Army tool of a basketball team. Figure out how to beat the knife, and they’ll pop out a screwdriver on you. If they can keep their starters in top shape and keep the it factor when they need it throughout the season, there’s the potential for plenty of celebration through this North Carolina winter.