Friday night against the University of Virginia, Duke fought hard in the trenches and grinded out a tough win at home. Sunday afternoon, the Blue Devils used timely three-point shooting to put away a tricky Clemson squad. Neither game had Crazies feeling this team was the fourth best in the nation, much less a championship contender. What needs to change? Work the ball inside, focus on kicking it out on offense.
Since college basketball adopted the 3-point shot in 1986, Duke has shot 40 percent or better four times. Of those squads, two teams made it to the national championship, with the 1991-92 Blue Devils winning it all. This Duke team is shooting 41% from behind the arc thus far, but on the lowest number of attempts per game (19.38) since the 2006-07 campaign. To put into perspective how important the three-pointer is to Duke, Coach Krzyzewski watched VCU defeat his prestigious program in the first round of the 2007 NCAA tournament.
The 2011-12 Blue Devils have the firepower, but the problem has been finding separation to get a quality shot off. In its past four games, Duke has managed only 11.5 assists per game, far lower than their season average of 13.2, which ranks 150th in the country. At times this season, Quinn Cook has looked as though he may be breaking through as the difference maker at point guard, but the freshman has stalled recently moving the ball, managing only 2.25 assists per game in those last four games. If the Blue Devils are to be considered an elite team, they must find a way to move the ball around in a consistent manner.
The primary reason I think Duke can do this and win the ACC and perhaps a national title is Miles Plumlee. Over the years, I haven’t been the biggest advocate of the oldest Plumlee brother, but we may be seeing a Brian Zoubek 2.0 transformation. Think about it: here’s a guy that has put on 25 pounds of muscle since he arrived in Durham and has embraced his role as an important X-factor off the bench. Against Clemson, Miles ripped down 14 boards, six of which were on the offensive end. In addition, he went 3-for-5 from the field and scored six points in only 23 minutes of action. Translation? Miles is making the best of his minutes and understands that he doesn’t need to shoot to make an impact. All he needs is a beard to turn into the Zoubek of January of 2010.
All of these numbers and factors are tied together; all the team needs to do is take advantage of their offensive weapons. The best way to get the shooters more focused on kicking the ball out on offense after they drive. Last year, I wrote extensively about a drive-and-kick offense, where a guard would penetrate and pass to an open shooter behind the arc. With that being said, the Blue Devils have not found the same success getting into the lane as last year. Therefore, utilizing the Plumlee brothers must become at least an experiment of sorts these next few games.
Over the course of the season, we’ve seen that both Mason and Miles are capable of putting up offensive numbers when necessary. This makes both worthy of attention in the paint. Why not feed the post and then pass it back outside? Accounting for this offensive attack means more crowding in the paint and, you guessed it, more space outside. This was evident in the second half of the game against Virginia, when the Blue Devils consistently fed the post, consequently opening up the offense on the outside. Mason Plumlee showed this with an assist to Seth Curry on a trey that put Duke up three in the second half, a lead it would never relinquish. Austin Rivers has the ability to lead a drive-and-kick offense, but until he figures it out, a post pass is a good idea.
Over the next four days, Duke will face Wake Forest and a talented Florida State team, who just made North Carolina look like the California Institute of Technology. According to the stats, it will take a new offensive approach to beat a tenacious defense like the Seminoles have and it should start by looking inwards to open up the outside.