The last thing expected from Duke’s student section during Monday night’s men’s basketball season opener was a “Let’s go Duke!” chant inflected with urgency. Indeed, Duke’s opponent for the first round of the 16-team Coaches Vs. Cancer tournament was the Blue Hose of Presbyterian College, a small, private school in western South Carolina. This is Presbyterian’s second season playing Division I basketball. Last year, they finished 5-25.
It’s the sort of game, you know, where, during the post-game press conference, the visiting team’s head coach, Greg Nibert, said: “It’s a dream for our program to come in here and play on the opening night of college basketball. They’re awesome. He’s awesome. Their players are awesome. And we couldn’t be more thankful to have this opportunity.”
But the mildly worried chant came from the crowd with 8:31 seconds remaining in the first half. Duke was up 17-11, but it was a hard-won lead for the No. 8 team in the country. Starters Gerald Henderson and Kyle Singler had missed easy shots, and Nolan Smith and Miles Plumlee had both committed turnovers. PC Sophomore Al’lonzo Coleman, a Vance High School graduate, was giving Duke fits down low, moving Singler and Plumlee mostly at will. By the time the kids got to chanting, Coleman had dropped three field goals on the Devils.
The Devils responded to the chant much as you’d expect, though: Jon Scheyer hit a jumper one second later, sparking a decisive 19-0 Duke run, and Duke maintained its impressive lead the rest of the night. Its corner-blocking defense forced 28 turnovers and plenty of points in transition. Duke out-rebounded Presbyterian 3 to 2, too, grabbing 30 defensive and 14 offensive boards. Despite several rough streaks and 21 turnovers, the Devils nearly doubled Presbyterian’s score by game’s end, advancing to tonight’s second round versus Georgia Southern as expected.
Still, Coleman’s performance for Presbyterian is noteworthy. He stopped moving early on, scoring only 7 more points after those initial 6 before fouling out. But he looked like an early indicator of the type of disruption big men could cause for Duke again all year. It’s not that Duke doesn’t have any big men of its own. It’s actually a relatively tall squad, guards 6-foot-1 Greg Paulus and 6-foot-2 Nolan Smith excepted.
It’s just that, so far, there seems to be no clear big man. Duke’s five players over 6-7 that aren’t the impressive forward Singler (Plumlee, Thomas, Brian Zoubek and Olek Czyz) combined for 18 points, and 11 of those came with 10:15 or less remaining. Bulky junior Brian Zoubek and lanky junior Lance Thomas seem more like freshman or sophomores these days—emotional and big, but rather unrefined. This could work in Thomas’ favor, as his athleticism and fiery on-court manner seem to be the sort of things that can spark a team in tough games down the stretch. He scored 12 points in 18 minutes last night. Zoubek, though, fouled out after seven minutes of play, scoring only 2 and looking mostly like a flustered fish out of water.
“Something’s not right there. The kid’s playing pretty well,” Coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “It’s tough to foul out in seven minutes, unless you’re playing hack-a-Shaq. It’s very difficult to do that. I don’t know if it broke a record.”
As Luciana Chavez notes in her sidebar in The News & Observer this morning, Duke will rely heavily on its deep versatility this year: Singler can step outside, and Henderson can rush inside, says Chavez. But you have to wonder how tiring that ruse will get unless a true anchor emerges at some point, holding the team steadfast down low.
In brief: An interesting discussion took place between Krzyzewski and The N&O’s Chavez. After Krzyzewski lamented empty seats at Duke’s exhibition win over Lenoir-Rhyne, the headline for Chavez’s story read, “Empty seats leave Coach K steamed.” Last night, he insisted he was only goofing when he said, “I’ll sell tickets. It’ll be a cool thing. I’ll get my grandkids out there. We’ll put Cameron Crazy wigs on and we’ll get everyone in there.” Coach K wanted to know who’d said he was “steaming.”
Click the links below to listen to the exchange between Chavez and Krzyzewski, prompted by a question from WRAL reporter Bob Holliday.