Duke hit with ugly stick in 28-point win over Clemson

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Quinn Cook, in action last season
CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/ DURHAM—In one of the strangest games ever played at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke and Clemson put on a clinic, in a neighborhood rec center clinic kind of way: two awkward-looking groups of young men staggering around trying to put an enormous ball in a very small basket. And for grand stretches of a first half that ended with a historic score of Duke 25, Clemson 10, it looked like the two coaches had made a secret clinical agreement to have their team ignore the overrated business of points and work on underappreciated fundamentals: defensive rebounding, aggressive footwork, and how to use the whole entire shot clock on as many possessions as possible.

“We have to find new ways to score,” Clemson Coach Brad Brownell said wistfully post-game on the losing end of a 68-40 final tally, seeming open to any suggestions or even rule changes that might compensate his team for something other than field goals, which his team had spent the game converting at a rate of 28.3%. He did not seem to be enjoying his job.

When it wasn’t a youth clinic, it was a health clinic. Ryan Kelly, the one Blue Devil for which no opposing team yet has a convincing answer—a senior so Euro as a worldly, thin, slow 6’10 shooter than it seems like he should be smoking unfiltered Gauloises after the game—suffered an as-yet unnamed injury to his troubled right foot in the waning minutes of half one, and did not return to the game. Coach K called it “precautionary” and “we’re hopeful it’s not that serious”, although said there would be x-rays and/or CAT scans Wednesday.

It was the kind of game when someone gets hurt. This is the getting hurt time of year, between the big games of the fall and the big ones of the spring to come. It’s when Elton Brand got hurt, and Brian Zoubek, and the best than could have be said for Duke in a game like this one, between #1 Blue Devils and the perennially mediocre Clemson team, who play an arrhythmic, bruising, and chaotic brand of basketball, would have been that nobody got hurt.

Duke missed Kelly in the 2nd half, although it was hard to notice, what with Quinn Cook going bat-crazy on his way to a career high 27-point game. They missed Kelly on inbound plays, as Clemson pressed Duke to three turnovers in a row. They missed him on the interior passing, as Mason Plumlee struggled to get the ball from his guards, held to 8 points by a shorter (but not smaller) Devin Booker in a matchup Coach K called “a wash” (Booker led his team with 12 points, shooting 5 for 13). They missed him, and the possible loss seemed prescient in the wake of Coach K’s Saturday’s comments that “the development of our starters is much more important than the development of our depth.”

By the end of the game, it seemed like Quinn Cook was the only player on the floor moving at full speed as he cycled through impersonations of his teammates, hitting Curry’s 3-pointers from the corner, Kelly’s pull-ups in the key, Sulaimon’s slashing drives, and even scoring semi-Mason-like on a non-dunking alley oop. At the end of his post-game comments, when asked about the key to Cook’s success, Coach K joked that with all Cook’s recent assist prowess they’d been working on plays where Cook passes to himself. If you’re a Duke fan of the worrying variety, that might not sound like a laughing matter, not if Kelly’s hurt, Curry’s gait continues to slow, Sulaimon’s confidence doesn’t bounce back, and Mason’s jump hook has stopped falling. And yet Duke still stands at the top heading into the showdown at NC State on Saturday, its first true away game, and another chance to test the swirling January theories about where this team is headed in March.

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