by Adam Sobsey
As Calcaterra checked in, a chant of "We want Todd!" rose up from the Duke student section. They were calling, of course, for Todd Zafirofski, the Zephyr, hoping to see the junior forward score his first career point(s). Under the circumstances—a 23-point lead, the visiting coach having put in his own scrimmage-level big man—it made sense that the faithful wanted their 6-foot-9 Zephyr to blow into the game.
Didn't happen, and here's why: "We're still very much a developing team," said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski after the game, cautioning that he needs maximum court time to put his team through that development.
That means leaving his regulars in the game for the full 40 minutes, and shuttling them in and out with regularity in order to work, work, work on improving them as individuals and as a unit. Nine different Duke players appeared in the game's first five minutes. Tyler Thornton got his first start of the season, but that may have been a sign not so much of sea changes, perhaps, than of Krzyzewski tinkering with parts. (Thornton will probably keep the starting role at least through the Blue Devils' next game: Andre Dawkins sustained a minor injury in the first half—a "tweaked back," according to Krzyzewski—and I won't be surprised if he doesn't play much on Saturday versus Washington.)
It also means fits and starts of success. Duke has far more talent than Colorado State has, yet with just over five minutes left to play in the first half last night, the Blue Devils held just a seven-point lead. Krzyzewski said after the game that his early strategy was to take away the perimeter shot from the Rams, who led the nation in three-point shooting accuracy (a little more on that eye-opening stat after the jump).
It worked—Colorado State took just five three-pointers in the first half, making three—but the cost was allowing a bunch of layups and dunks in the unprotected interior of Duke's defense, which was further pulled away from the basket by the Rams' guard-heavy lineup, who mostly just cut through the lane rather than try to post up in it. Yet even after Duke had extended its lead to 12 points (35-23) at the seven-minute mark, thanks to high defensive intensity that forced four straight Colorado State turnovers, the Blue Devils grew a bit lax, and the Rams cut the lead to 37-30 over the next two minutes.
Ryan Kelly made two free throws, and then... Mason Plumlee. He collected the rebound on a missed shot on Colorado State's next possession. On the next, he made a steal out past the three-point line and started a give and go with Andre Dawkins, who rewarded Plumlee with a big-man throwdown dunk. He made another steal, and another. He blocked a shot, then got another rebound. He assisted brother Miles on a short jumper; the Plumli would collaborate for 28 points on 11-13 shooting, 15 rebounds, eight (!) blocks and three assists, plus Mason's four steals.
Mason got two more rebounds in the final 90 seconds of the first half, at which point the Rams still had 30 points.
Duke had 47. Game.
Frankly, it wasn't a wildly exciting game to watch. And frankly, that doesn't matter all that much. Duke v. Colorado State, second week of December? It's a tuneup game for the home team, and a chance for a program like Colorado State to get some national, big-time exposure. The Blue Devils built the lead up to 25 points, 72-47, with just over nine minutes to go, on an Austin Rivers three-pointer followed by a Colorado State turnover that helped lead to a manly and thunderous dunk by Josh Hairston. The crowd went nuts, Rams coach Miles called timeout again, and the margin stayed steady and wide till the final horn. The rest was contemplation.
* Krzyzewski was asked, naturally, about his choice to give Tyler Thornton his first start of the year—he started three games in 2010-11—and explained it thus: "We keep looking for ways of getting better." Despite the pointedness of Krzyzewski's response to the question, his elaboration of it indicated less a dissatisfaction with Dawkins, it seemed, than with where the Blue Devils were as a whole. "A 23-point loss to Ohio State leads to a lot of things. It wasn't Andre's fault, but... you have to keep adjusting."
* As for Dawkins, he apparently started feeling some back discomfort partway through the first half—during which he scored a whopping 15 points in just 12 minutes of playing time, the beneficiary of good passing by his teammates—then aggravated the pain while contesting for a loose ball, which sent him to the floor, landing on his back. He stayed down for a couple of minutes before walking off the court and into the trainer's room. He didn't return to the court. Krzyzewski was hopeful that Dawkins would play against Washington on Saturday.
One never wants to see players get hurt, but in truth Dawkins's departure wasn't the worst thing in the world for Duke's development. It meant more minutes for everyone else, especially Thornton, who tied a career high, set last season in a game against Maryland, by playing 28 minutes. It would seem that Krzyzewski is at least attempting to think of Thornton as a starting point guard. He wasn't long into his postgame remarks before he noted that Duke assisted on 21 of its 31 baskets, easily the team's best assist-to-bucket ratio of the year.
Oddly, it wasn't Thornton but Seth Curry who led Duke in assists. Curry had eight of them from the shooting guard position, the most by a Blue Devil since Nolan Smith had 10 against North Carolina, nine months ago in the Atlantic Coast ConferenceTournament Championship game. Odder still is that Curry's assists were fairly quiet ones. There wasn't a lot of him getting dribble penetration that led to showy midair passes. There was mostly a swing guard simply being in the flow of the offense, which happened to flow through him rather than to his shot. Curry had only five attempts through the first three quarters of the game, and wound up going 2-8, including 1-5 from behind the three-point line, to finish with five points.
Krzyzewski said later that Curry "is unselfish," a reminder that it's too easy and too lazy to assign to him the same playing habits as his older brother, former Davidson great Stephen Curry, who was always looking to shoot when he had the ball (and when he didn't, too). Seth is a shooter, as well, and a good one, but he, Dawkins and Austin Rivers are all going to have to learn how to share the ball as the season wears on. That particular piece of development may, in fact, turn out to determine Duke's success or failure. If Thornton and freshman Quinn Cook (who played 16 minutes against Colorado State) handle most of the point duties, it will limit the minutes of the three scoring guards but increase their opportunities. It's too early to guess whether that will happen. It may be that Curry, Dawkins and Rivers are simply too potent to keep them off the floor for significant stretches of time, especially during the ACC season when you need firepower to win against good teams (except Virginia, oh, Virginia and its showcase slowdown).
* Krzyzewski noted almost immediately on sitting at the press table that Colorado State came into the game leading the nation in three-point percentage. True as far as it went, but the Rams were only shooting about 15 threes per game, which is actually a rate just below average (Duke, for example, averages 18). It isn't as if the Rams' offense is built around the three-pointer the way that a team like UNLV's is. (Ditto that of Duke's first opponent this year, Belmont, which shoots almost 27 of them per game.) And although Duke's strategy to take the three away from Colorado State worked, it was ultimately effective because the Rams had no inside game to go to against Duke's much bigger big men. They have no significant players taller than 6-foot-6, and were down a small forward anyway: Pierce Hornung, last season's Mountain West Conference Sixth Man of the Year, is out with a concussion.
So the Blue Devils simply worked to tire the Rams out, to "get into their legs," as Krzyzewski put it. Colorado State shot 40.7 percent from the floor (37.9 percent in the first half). Its top scorer, guard Wes Eikmeier, had 10 first-half points but, clearly tiring, went scoreless in the second half. His backcourt mate, Dorian Green, fared better, finishing with 14 points, but he managed only nine shot attempts against Duke's improved ball pressure. It was spry Rams forward Greg Smith who kept his team from total ruin, slashing into the lane for a team-high 18 points on 7-15 shooting.
Duke, meanwhile, shot 56.4 percent, although the free throw shooting was poor, barely 62 percent. And rebounding remains a weak spot, too. The Blue Devils outrebounded Colorado State just 34-32, despite a big height advantage.
* Both early and late in his postgame comments, Krzyzewski talked about the difficulties of playing at this time of year. Duke University is in its finals period. Actually, exams don't start until next week, but many classes have final projects and papers due over the next few days. "This week and next week are tough weeks," Krzyzewski said. His players are in the throes of plenty of extra work right now, and that is the tradeoff you make when you coach sports at a school with high academic standards. (If Krzyzewski wasn't cool with that, he'd have long ago gone elsewhere.)
That was a reminder—and we get them all the time, although we often fail to absorb them—that whenever we watch Duke, or any other college team, play basketball, we're watching students. They go to classes; they have to do homework, write papers, take exams. We may see them playing on national TV, before packed arenas and slavering broadcasters, immortalized by the Madness of March and so forth; but the milieu on campus turns them into different people—who are, let's not forget, no matter the setting, mostly not even old enough to drink.
The bridge between the ivory tower and Sportscenter, indeed the only thing that really legitimates big-time college sports, to my thinking, is the complementary learning process that takes place during team practices, in which Mike Krzyzewski and his assistants are as much teachers as coaches—probably more. The whole point of college athletics, in its original conception, should have to do with education, not money, not draftability, not mercenary coaches like John Calipari, and certainly not with the wheezing legions of media ghouls, from big-time celebs like Dick Vitale to small-town doodlers like, well, me, who have no choice but to bring to bear on amateur student-athletes our pitiless and often myopic professional scrutiny. All we really have to go on is what's right there under the lights, and on TV, all of which is in fact, or anyway in spirit, residue.
What we're not seeing right now—the late nights writing term papers, the endless practice drills, the ways that Tyler Thornton is trying, in an empty gym, to make himself into Duke's starting point guard—is far more important than the win Duke just notched over the Colorado State Rams. I daresay it's probably more important than the results of playing that other Rams Club, the one from UNC-Chapel Hill, when they charge into Cameron Indoor Stadium on the first Saturday in March, 2012.
But that's all in the distant future, really, a whole college semester's worth of weeks away. For now, the Duke Blue Devils concern themselves with final grades—and with Washington Huskies, whom they face at Madison Square Garden this Saturday, a return to the arena where Mike Krzyzewski became college basketball's all-time wins leader just three weeks ago (seems longer, doesn't it?). One wishes to see a non-conference opponent of Washington's quality (Krzyzewski called them "the most athletic team we [will have] faced this year") at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but Duke has a streak to protect: the Blue Devils haven't lost to a non-ACC team at home in nearly a dozen years—I repeat, a dozen. freaking. years—and one of the reasons the streak keeps extending is that Krzyzewski, like many elite-level coaches, doesn't schedule a lot of tough early-season games at home, which is a place where he wants to build early-season confidence, power and a sense of comfort and ease. He doesn't want Kentucky and Kansas and suchlike coming in here and making his team doubt itself every December. (That's why the near-miss Belmont game to open the season was a double scare: not only did the Blue Devils nearly lose, they nearly lost to an unranked team—which happens to be much better than anyone realizes.)
I'm away for Duke's next home game, against UNC-Greensboro on Dec. 19—Triangle Offense will send an able replacement—so I'll see you back at Cameron Indoor Stadium on the penultimate day of the year, when the Broncos of Western Michigan buck their way into town.