Mason Plumlee is Mike Krzyzewski’s “guy.”
“Mason’s our best player,” the Duke head coach said. “I’ll take Mason any day. He’s my guy. I’m a one-guy guy.”
Plumlee has been Duke’s guy all season—he leads the team in both points and rebounds with 17.7 and 11.4 per game, respectively. He also paces the team with a 61.6 field goal percentage.
But the honeymoon is over for the senior forward, who is a midseason favorite for the National Player of the Year award: He is coming off his three lowest scoring outputs of the season and scored a season-low eight points in the Blue Devils’ 68-40 win against Clemson Tuesday night.
To Plumlee’s credit, he also grabbed 13 rebounds and tied the game high with five assists. But he also turned the ball over six times, struggling on the block against fellow senior Devin Booker, who snatched 15 rebounds and scored 12 points.
“Mason and Booker—nobody won that matchup,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s a win for us. Booker is their best player. If Booker doesn’t have a dominant performance, we have a better chance at winning.”
Plumlee and Krzyzewski identified two reasons for his dip in scoring: scouting and double-teams.
Now that the Blue Devils are in ACC play, teams not only have half a season’s worth of film on Plumlee, but they also have experience coaching against him from prior seasons.
“Coaches play against coaches who have played against you for four years,” Plumlee said. “They know what teams do. They know what they’re going to take away. I think that’s the biggest difference coming into league play.”
In the games against Davidson and Wake Forest, in which he scored 10 and 13 points, respectively, Plumlee faced regular double-teams on the block. That resulted in a six-turnover performance against the Wildcats, but he did not force shots in either game, making a combined 9-of-15 attempts.
Tuesday, Plumlee was not consistently double-teamed against the Tigers, but Krzyzewski pointed out that Booker—who, at 6-foot-8, weighs 250 pounds—has all the strength needed to guard him one-on-one. Squaring off against the burly big-man, Plumlee made just 3-of-9 field goal attempts.
“There will be a man and a half or two guys running at me sometimes, not all the time, but when it’s one-on-one, I have to be able to score, play through contact and finish,” Plumlee said.
Plumlee took advantage in the situations when Clemson decided to double-team him, tying a season high with five assists. Four of those five assists came on 3-pointers, two of which fed Quinn Cook, who recorded a career-high 27 points in the effort.
Plumlee has become Cook’s “guy” as well lately—after Cook went 0-for-11 from the field against the Demon Deacons, he said Plumlee was the first member of the team to text him.
“He told me you’re a great shooter, just keep shooting and believe in yourself. That’s the ultimate confidence builder,” Cook said.
Plumlee though, may need to rebuild some of his own confidence, at least at the free throw line. He was hitting 69.2 percent of his free throws entering the Davidson game, a dramatic 16.8 percent improvement compared to last season, but has struggled lately, making just 43.8 percent of his free throws in the last three games.
And his ball handling has also slipped after a steady start to the season. He recorded six turnovers against both Clemson and Davidson, compared to just two against Virginia Commonwealth, which forces the most turnovers per game in Division I, earlier in the season.
Like in the Virginia Commonwealth game, Plumlee was thrust into an important ball handling role against Clemson when the Tigers began employing a fullcourt press in the second half. This time, though, Plumlee and the Blue Devils struggled against the press, forcing a furious Krzyzewski to call a timeout.
“We’ve played better against the press,” Plumlee said. “I thought we would handle it no problem.”
Despite these struggles—with that term being relative in an All-American caliber season—Plumlee has never wavered on the glass. He has averaged 10.7 rebounds per game in the last three contests, while also averaging 1.7 blocks and a steal per game.
And as the Blue Devils continue ACC play against N.C. State this weekend, Krzyzewski will look for Plumlee to still be his “guy” just as he was Tuesday night.
“We don’t win the game without Mason,” Krzyzewski said.