No Nolan Smith, no Mason Plumlee, no problem for Duke in its 105th season opener.
The absence of two key players didn’t stop No. 9 Duke (1-0) from bowling over UNC-Greensboro (0-1) 96-62 Friday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
With starting guard Smith suspended for the first two games of the season, the Blue Devils looked to senior Jon Scheyer to do most of the ball handling.
Scheyer’s intensity on the ball and refusal to let absences affect his team’s level of play allowed things to fall into place quickly. In an early 23-6 run that afforded Duke a comfortable lead, Scheyer and junior Kyle Singler contributed seven points each, giving the Cameron Crazies something to cheer about and forcing the Spartans into a series of timeouts. Singler, the ACC Preseason Player of the Year, scored 14 out of his 20 points in the first half, and his combination of size and skill created a mismatch that UNC-Greensboro had no answer for.
Singler’s 20 points led all scorers, and Scheyer chipped in 18.
Scheyer’s most important contribution, however, came through his ability to play mistake-free basketball at the point. With an impressive 37 minutes of play without committing a single turnover, Scheyer answered the skeptics and proved that with or without huge guard presence, Duke can adjust its lineup depending on the situation. Center Brian Zoubek was impressed with his teammate’s ability to modify his play without Smith.
“He does a really good job,” Zoubek said of Scheyer. “It’s tough as hell, I’ll tell you that, especially because he’s not a point guard and the guys on the other team are going to go after him because of that. He has to play the point guard role and the shooting guard role and he does a heck of a job and I’m proud of him.”
Entering the second half with a 48-27 lead, Singler quickly took advantage of the holes in the Spartans’ loose zone defense for a quick scoop shot that was immediately followed by a jump shot from Scheyer. Feeding off the older players’ energy, freshmen Andre Dawkins and Ryan Kelly sunk their first official 3-pointers as Blue Devils in succession to increase Duke’s lead to 60-37.
Singler said his hot shooting hand in the first half gave him more confidence the rest of the evening.
“I just had open shots and took them, and they went in,” Singler said. “Once you see some shots go in early, you might take some shots that you might not take if you missed a couple.”
Ultimately, it was the height difference between the two teams that made it challenging for the Spartans to execute their offense and trim Duke’s double-digit lead. With no one on the Spartan roster over 6-foot-7, the Blue Devil defense was able to dominate and UNC-Greensboro had a difficult time passing over and around Duke’s tall front line. The Blue Devils forced only 14 turnovers but blocked eight shots on the night.
“I thought our zone was pretty good,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We covered shooters and [our front line is] pretty big, it’s wide. Having Lance [Thomas] on top—and if he’s out Kyle’s up, so you have a 6-foot-8 guy…. The biggest thing is identifying shooters from that.”
Zoubek and Miles Plumlee consistently took advantage of their positioning inside throughout the contest and added in 14 and 10 points, respectively. Duke also dominated the boards with 44 rebounds to the Spartans’ 26.
“It feels good,” Zoubek said. “I think if I can come in and protect the basket, rebound, play off other guys and crash the boards, I’m going to have a good place on this team.”
Despite the success of Duke’s shorthanded lineup, the Blue Devils look forward to the return of two of their strongest players. While Smith comes back for Tuesday’s matchup against the winner of the Charlotte-Elon game—assuming Duke defeats Coastal Carolina Monday—Plumlee’s return is more tentative as the extent of his injuries has yet to be fully determined.
“Next Wednesday [Nov. 18th], we’ll take another look at Mason’s wrist,” Krzyzewski said. “Not that he’ll be ready to play at that time. We just hope that it’s weeks, not months…. The fact that he is not in a cast means that we can take a look at it.”
The Blue Devils face Costal Carolina in the opening round of the NIT Season Tip-Off tonight at 7 p.m. in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
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