Even Jason Williams—the fiery former Duke Blue Devils point guard who led his 2001 team to a national championship and himself to Naismith and Wooden awards the next year—doubted his alma mater. Since last year's NCAA tournament, Williams has worked as an on-air college basketball analyst. So last Wednesday night on ESPN, he frowned and offered his prediction: His Devils simply couldn't compete with the athleticism of the University of Connecticut Huskies Friday at the NIT Tip-Off championship in New York.
And Williams was right. Early in the game, the Huskies converted a series of fast-break opportunities into easy baskets because they were able to move into their transition offense faster than Duke could recover on defense down the court. The Huskies looked confident, agile and strong. But Duke ultimately won, lifted by a pair of three-pointers each from guards Jon Scheyer and Andre Dawkins (Connecticut attempted four three-pointers but made none) and steady free throw shooting (Duke landed more freebies in fewer attempts) from the whole team. Really, the Devils won a war of attrition in a sloppy game. Neither team shot very well (Connecticut's thin 40 percent was downright impressive alongside Duke's 29 percent), and neither team fell consistently into an even up-and-down-the-floor pace. In fact, the game was so sloppy that three of Duke's big men—forwards Lance Thomas and Miles Plumlee and the team's only listed center, Brian Zoubek—fouled out.
Maybe that last statistic—three of the four Duke players you could rightly call big men fouled out—looks unsettling to Devils fans, but opponents should beware. Against a challenging team with no lack of strength or size inside, Duke was able to remain competitive and win because it took away shots with fouls, of which it will have a few dozen to give down low every game. The Devils fouled. The Huskies missed their free throws. The Devils won. Expect a similar storyline for Duke opponents later in the year.
Last season, Duke didn't have a consistently great big man (that is, no Tyler Hansbrough). Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek often seemed lost on the floor, with clumsy hands bobbling passes and rebounds and busy eyes searching for the right position. And this year, they again don't seem to have a consistently great big man (maybe not a Tyler Zeller?), but they do have three variably decent big men: Thomas, Zoubek and Plumlee—with some support from spindly freshman Ryan Kelly—who look good enough to form a fluid rotation where fresh legs and fouls to give are always roving around in the paint. They're all distinct players. Thomas is a versatile defender who's long enough to handle the perimeter and fast enough to frustrate bigger bodies inside. His skills and smarts were crucial versus Connecticut. Zoubek still struggles to pass out of the post, but he's turned into a vacuum cleaner of rebounding this season, leading the team with 51 boards. He nabbed 11 against the Huskies. Most exciting, though, are the Plumlees, a pair of 6-foot-10 Indiana forwards named Mason and Miles. Miles, a sophomore, has outscored his freshman totals in just six games, and he pairs a powerful two-handed dunk with wide-eyed court vision. Though he struggled against Connecticut with early fouls, he had two momentum-shifting blocks and six points. Mason broke his wrist earlier this year dunking against Lance Thomas, but he could return as early as this week.
Looking at Duke's player totals after six games in descending order, the team's Schmingler—Scheyer, Singler and Smith—takes the top three spots, followed by sixth man and early standout Dawkins. Then come those three big men, bunched together like players who won't be stars but will do their jobs as a composite big man, or, as a team.
Some analysts have pointed to Duke's lack of a pure point guard as this squad's chief foible. And while it's true that neither Scheyer nor Smith have the finesse and firepower of Bobby Hurley and Jason Williams, or even the enthusiasm of Steve Wojciechowski, Duke's perimeter squad will likely be just fine. They're shooting well, having combined for 61 points against UNC-Charlotte and 51 against a very capable Radford team. They're tough defenders and scrappy opponents, all of whom have ended up on the floor and in the bleachers, chasing down loose balls this early in the season. Scheyer leads the team in scoring, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly 8-to-1. Singler, tall enough to be effective in the paint, has seven blocks and a lot of points both inside and out. And Smith, after missing the first two games, is driving to the basket with an urgency he's never had at Duke. And, if he misses, it looks like any one of Duke's three-to-five, decent-to-possibly great big men will be there for the board this season.