Sunday, January 8, 2012

Duke's young team still learning to be great

ATLANTA – When it was suggested to Mason Plumlee that Duke looked a bit fragile during stretches of Saturday’s 81-74 win over Georgia Tech, the Blue Devils’ junior forward didn’t disagree.

“I would just say it’s part of having a young team,” Plumlee said. “I wish I wasn’t still saying this now, but the more we’re in these situations and close games, the better we’ll get at it. We’re getting better.”

Easy to overlook after Duke’s 78-73 loss to Temple on Wednesday is the fact that this Blue Devil team is still a relatively young, inexperienced team. In addition to the underclassmen who are playing key minutes, juniors such as Ryan Kelly, Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee have all taken on more expanded roles than in years past.
Growing pains, in other words, are to be expected.

“I know people think of Duke and we’ve got these chiseled guys who have been – they’re all-Americans right away,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “That just doesn’t happen.”

It is also important not to evaluate the Blue Devils’ non-conference schedule solely on the basis of one or two games. Duke did a lot of things well in November and December, starting with its win at the Maui Invitational and continuing through its triumph over Washington at Madison Square Garden.

“Temple was the end of 14 non-conference games,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve played a hellacious schedule. We want to make sure that we don’t judge what we’ve done by one game rather than take a look at the collection of what we’ve done.”

All that said, it is clear fifth-ranked Duke (13-2, 1-0 ACC) has some growing to do.

In light of the performance against the Owls, Krzyzewski said defense was the one area where he wanted to see improvement against the Yellow Jackets.

“We have to be better defensively on the perimeter,” he said. “We’re small on the perimeter. We have Quinn and Seth and Austin, who could be a point or a combo playing at the other wing. Athletic perimeters have hurt us. That’s one of the reasons we lost against Temple. … We have to keep getting better at that.”

The Blue Devils were inconsistent on defense against the Yellow Jackets, allowing Glen Rice Jr. enough open looks to score 28 points. Georgia Tech entered the game as the worst 3-point shooting team in the ACC, but it made 46.2 percent of its long-range shots against the Blue Devils.

At various times, Austin Rivers, Mason Plumlee and Kelly all seemed to have some confusion over who they were guarding or where they were supposed to be on the defensive end. Rivers was taken out in the first half after losing his man.

Even if Duke is still a work in progress, the win over the Yellow Jackets will help the team’s confidence heading into Thursday’s game against Virginia.

Between practices and team meetings, the two days in between the Temple and Georgia Tech games were arduous. The Blue Devils’ players said it was nice to have some positive reinforcement on the back side.

“The coaching staff believes we have a lot of potential and we can be a really good basketball team,” Kelly said. “We weren’t moving in the right direction leading up to Temple, and we needed to change the direction of our mentality and the way our team was playing the game of basketball. We did that (Saturday).”

-- Jack Daly