by Eric Martin
But Virginia Tech, with its own senior star in Green, is not filled with love or entertained.
And soon, as the game begins, the Hokies are awfully open. Duke’s guards gamble for every steal, 40 feet away from the ball, as if confident the White Raven will save them, and Tech’s shooters are wide open. It takes Duke most of the whole first half to catch up and barely pass them, 38-35, at home, with the heavy breathing Kelly scoring 14, against a Virginia Tech team that will not have a winning season or be selected for the NCAA tournament.
“Emotionally spent,” explains Coach K after the game. He looks spent. His eyes are a little watery. His players are all hugged out, back in the locker room, where moments before even poker-faced Seth Curry has admitted to “things getting emotional” this evening. “You try to just wipe it away,” Curry said, shaking his head.
By half number two, it’s been wiped. The guards pound it into Plumlee, as if they’ve been shown photographic evidence that he’s much larger and better at basketball than those assigned to stop him. For the first five minutes of the half, the Duke seniors are their own dream come true. Help defense, blocked dunks, high low post plays, fouls drawn, a Mason Plumlee alley oop. The rest of the game is a muddle of foul calls, Erick Green scoring pretty much constantly on his way to his regular 25 points, and enough three pointers from Curry and Cook and Thornton to keep the Hokies in the lion pit/cellar.
The Duke seniors' seasons and their college career as players aren’t over yet. But it’s getting close. And if their basketball careers were tallied like GPAs (the BPA?), here’s where they stand going into their last regular season game against Carolina and the ACC/NCAA final exams:
• Mason Plumlee grew up to be a durable player, playing 87% of possible minutes for Duke this year. He makes almost 60% of his shots, which is pretty damn good. He can stay on the floor and out of foul trouble—even as he draws opponents fouls. And he got a lot better at those four things over the last four years. If anything keeps him down, it’s his defense—and the fact that he doesn’t get enough shots, only 20% of them while he’s on the floor, but that’s like getting graded for a group project, right? (We’re looking at you, Seth Curry). Maybe he graduates with a BPA of 3.85, which is really very good, even if everyone looked at him the day he showed up on campus and thought he had a shot at 4.0. Tonight, after a first half of being ignored, he ends his Cameron career on a nice enough note: 14 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and the aforementioned block on a would-be dunk that sent the crowd into conniptions.
• Seth Curry is a better shooter than ever. He never turned the ball over much to begin with, and he’s gotten even better at that. He draws more fouls, commits fewer. His legs hurt. He doesn't pass the ball enough to Plumlee. He’s carrying a BPA of 3.8 into the home stretch, and that’s with a pretty debilitating leg injury, which hurts him most on defense. Hard not to think he could have hit 3.9 without the leg thing. His three pointers go in more convincingly than anyone else's three pointers. He hits five of them tonight, with one assist.
• Ryan Kelly: most improved senior. He’s grown, perhaps literally, having started out listed at 6’10, 220 and now 6’11” 230 (or maybe that’s just for draft day). He used to foul horribly, but learned to stop, and he shoots better, especially from 3-point range. His effective shooting percentage (which counts 3s according to their bigger point value) is higher than Mason Plumlee's. He’s gotten noticeably better every year, and never more than between his junior and senior year, which is what every coach and teacher and parent and sports fan loves to see. Plus he has a nickname! And he’s the best talker! BPA: 3.7, and that’s with a rough freshman year holding him back. This season he’s cruising with a 3.95, frankly. Dude hasn’t lost a game, has turned into Duke’s best defender, and has the best chance of leading them to glory.
Of course, their final tallies are yet to be set. Together, they’ve won some 120 games, been champions of the conference and the nation, and gone undefeated at home three out of four seasons. It’s quite a class.
But if this team wants to earn their basketball honors to go with their excellent BPAs, the three seniors are all going to need to play their best, together, inside-outside, help defense, the extra pass, the works. If they do, they have as good a chance as anyone to win it all, which is what Mason Plumlee said too, as he and Kelly and Curry headed to center court after the game to share their shy and awkward love with the unshy and forward crowd. “You’ve got nice cars,” he told his fellow students, “I’ve seen them, so drive over to Greensboro next week, and drive to Atlanta come April.” He didn't stay four years for the cars - he's getting his own next year in the NBA, and it should be nice enough. He stayed for Atlanta, which is the site for the 2013 Final Four, and the only place that Plumlee, Curry and Kelly would like their hug their way to next.