WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—In sports, wins are a statistic—the most important statistic. But even though a team’s record doesn’t ultimately count as anything more than a number, wins also represent experiences for a team.
Wednesday night in Winston-Salem, the No. 5 Blue Devils earned another tally for their win column but also got a valuable experience beating an upstart Wake Forest squad on the road 75-70.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski spoke after the game and emphasized wins as numbers rather than experiences, aggressively downplaying any notion that this particular victory was any more important or meaningful than any other win.
“Every game is important,” Krzyzewski said. “You don’t qualify wins. They don’t say at the end of the year, ‘How many did you win neutral?’”
But this is not the end of the year. Teams learn and grow in different ways based on the experiences that they have and the adversity that they face. In the context of best setting up a team up to win even more games as the season goes along, some wins can mean more for a team than others, even if they all count the same at the end of the day.
And to hear Mason Plumlee tell it, the challenge that Wake Forest presented Wednesday was a good experience for a Blue Devil team still working to define itself without Ryan Kelly.
“It was so big,” Plumlee said. “This was our first true road win, and I like that it wasn’t—I mean, you’d like to win every game by 20, but that’s not realistic. So to win a close game on the road, to show that we were together. We executed down the stretch.”
This conference contest against an improving Demon Deacon squad threw a series of different curveballs at Plumlee and his teammates, and even though the result was not especially pretty for much of the night, the Blue Devils adjusted well enough.
Wake Forest head coach Jeff Bzdelik threw Duke off balance at the outset by going with a different lineup than usual. Small forward Arnaud William Adala Moto has typically been the fifth starter for Bzdelik alongside guards C.J. Harris and Codi Miller-McIntyre, wing Travis McKie and forward Devin Thomas. Against the Blue Devils, though, Bzdelik opted to start freshman Madison Jones, a point guard, to match Duke’s three-guard lineup.
Bzdelik would only go so far as to say that he thought his team “matched up better” with the modified lineup, but Krzyzewski elaborated on the effect of the lineup change.
“They started a different lineup, I think to get more speed and really push the ball down on us,” Krzyzewski said. “I thought it knocked us back early.”
Duke struggled to handle the pace out of the gate, as dribble penetration by the Demon Deacon backcourt opened up easy looks for Thomas, who made four of his first five shots. Wake Forest shot 10-for-15 overall to start the game, with seven assisted field goals among the 10 makes.
Both teams appeared somewhat unprepared for the uptempo start, as the teams combined for 12 early turnovers alongside their 14 assists, and each squad struggled with defensive breakdowns that led to easy baskets.
“It was a little hectic out there,” Plumlee said.
Plumlee in particular had to make a different sort adjustment as well, as he picked up his second foul with 3:14 to play in the first half and then a crucial third foul fewer than five minutes later, with nearly 19 minutes still on the clock in the second half. To make matters worse, all three fouls were offensive, contributing to his seven giveaways on the night.
Joining him in foul trouble were Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson, who each had three personals by the 12:00 mark. Even with Tyler Thornton struggling on both ends, Krzyzewski had to turn briefly to a lineup featuring Thornton, Josh Hairston and Marshall Plumlee all at once.
Even once Mason Plumlee returned to the game, his defensive effectiveness was clearly diminished against big-bodied Thomas who finished with 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting.
With six minutes to play, Jefferson picked up his fourth. He looked to the bench for a sub, but none came.
“I was definitely a little surprised, but he left me in there and I’ve just got to play better.” Jefferson said. “You don’t give coach a reason to take you out.”
Krzyzewski was forced to improvise, but his team clung to its lead nonetheless. Hairston was called upon more as well, even after a rough showing in the first half. He came up with a big loose ball in crunch time that helped seal the win for Duke.
“I thought he played very poorly in the first half,” Krzyzewski said about Hairston. “Most kids—that’s it for the night.”
For many teams, any one of these unexpected developments might have been “it for the night”—just ask N.C. State or Virginia, two ACC contenders who have both lost at Joel Coliseum since the holiday break. But none of those twists did in Duke Wednesday night, and sometimes a win like that can be more than just a number.
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