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Duke finally has its Mr. Clutch

After Duke beat Georgia Tech for the ACC Tournament title Sunday afternoon, head coach Mike Krzyzewski said his team was better than it was the week before.

It sounds like typical coach speak. Of course a head coach is going to say his team is improving as it enters the NCAA Tournament. It doesn’t matter if the team won its conference title by playing three teams in the bottom half of the standings in a down year for the conference as a whole, or that the team looked as good as it did all season a week earlier, dismantling its archrival at home.

But Krzyzewski is right. The Blue Devils are better than they were a week ago, and it’s not just because they managed to win three games in three days. And it’s not because Duke is shaking its label as a late-season underachiever—failing to collapse is not the same as improving.

No, the greatest benefit of the ACC Tournament was Duke’s positive experiences late in games. Particularly, it was the success of one player in those situations: Jon Scheyer.

The senior guard’s 3-point dagger to sink Georgia Tech may be the most clutch shot any Duke player has made in the past four years. (The only other candidate: Gerald Henderson’s game-saving layup against No. 15 Belmont in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. Henderson leads in helping his team avoid historic embarrassment, but Scheyer has the edge in degree of difficulty, especially considering he was 4-for-12 from the field before that shot.)

Scheyer’s role in tight games is not a new development that emerged Sunday afternoon. One shot, after all, does not make a player clutch. (Sorry, Dave McClure.) Scheyer hit two big 3-pointers against the Tar Heels Feb. 10, and he was the force behind a game-changing 11-0 run Friday against Virginia.

After that win over the Cavaliers, Krzyzewski compared him to a baseball player who knocks in the winning run after going 0-for-4. Lance Thomas kept his praise basketball-related after the championship game.

“I knew it was nothing but the bottom,” he said. “I didn’t even go for the rebound.”

That’s a huge compliment for a player who had struggled with his shot all weekend, and it indicates that Duke once again has a go-to scorer in late-game situations. The shot against Georgia Tech probably wasn’t necessary to prove that fact, but it leaves no doubt that Scheyer can come through in the clutch.

Every great team needs a player like that: a reliable scorer who can convert with the game on the line in the final minute, regardless of what happened earlier in the contest. In the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 seasons, Duke didn’t have that player. Last year, it was Gerald Henderson, but when he left for the NBA after his junior season, the Blue Devils once again faced a void at the end of close games. The team had several capable candidates for a deciding shot going into this year—three, to be exact—but no clear-cut choice.

But of the trio of Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, there’s no longer any doubt who that choice is. Scheyer saved Duke’s ACC championship if you believe Georgia Tech head coach Paul Hewitt.

“If he misses that, we’re winning the basketball game,” Hewitt said after the championship. “We’re getting the rebound—it’s going to come out long—and we’re going to score.”

At some point in the next three weeks, that kind of clutch performance will be critical for the Blue Devils to advance. It wasn’t very common in the regular season, mostly because there weren’t many opportunities.

Prior to the ACC Tournament, the Blue Devils had played surprisingly few contests that went down to the wire. By my count, there were four: road games at Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, Boston College and Maryland. Almost every game in Cameron Indoor Stadium was a blowout, and the ones that weren’t, such as contests against Wake Forest and Florida State, turned into comfortable wins before the end.

In a single weekend, Duke almost doubled the number of close games it has played this season. You can argue that some of them should not have been as tight as they were, but that’s the danger associated with playing teams fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives. In any case, it’s irrelevant whether the games should have come down to the final minutes. What matters is that they did, and that the Blue Devils came out on top.

That wasn’t always the case in the regular season. Of those four close regular season games, Duke only beat the Eagles. (Important note: This statistic depends on how you define whether a game goes down to the wire. If you include Duke’s wins at UNC and Miami—and I didn’t because they were both at least two-possession games for the final four minutes—the Blue Devils are a respectable 3-3 in tight games.)

One of the problems, especially in the early games, was that Duke did not have an established clutch player to take a critical last-minute shot. That’s no longer a problem with Scheyer, and it’s why I’m fairly confident in my pick that Duke will make it to Indianapolis.

Well, that weak South region doesn’t hurt, either.

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