by Matt Saldaña
CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/DURHAM – After beating Michigan to clinch the Coaches v. Cancer Classic title on Saturday, a tired Duke team returned to Durham on Sunday to face the lowly Montana Grizzlies--who, last season, finished fifth in the Big Sky conference. For the first time this year, former starting point guard Greg Paulus sat out the entire game, and did not participate in a shoot-around at the half. That left sophomore standout Nolan Smith--who led Duke with 16 points and 4 assists in the Michigan win--to take the reins, beyond a nominal starting position over Paulus, who has had several nagging injuries this season. In the end, Smith split ball-handling time with shooting-guard Jon Scheyer (14 points, 0 assists), in a Jordan-Pippen two-guard format, while Coach Mike Krzyzewski also subbed in freshman Eliot Williams (4 points, 3 assists) at the point. Smith finished with a team-high 14 points and one assist (along with 3 turnovers) in the 78-58 victory.
"I had to pick it up vocally," Smith said after the win. "I realized, the day without Greg in there, I had to speak."
Though his stat line may not have shown it, Smith demonstrated confidence on Sunday as a playmaker on the court. Described by teammates as quiet, Smith--with some encouragement from Krzyzewski--began to order the troops.
"He led our team in the second half," said power forward Kyle Singler (13 points/5 rebounds/3 assists), who was tournament MVP in the Coaches v. Cancer Classic. "Nolan I think matured, and took a new step tonight."
Indeed, when asked if he planned to keep the starting five of Smith, Singler, Scheyer, center Brian Zoubek, and small-forward Gerald Henderson (who had a breakout performance in the Coaches v. Cancer Classic semifinals, scoring 20 points against Southern Illinois), Krzyzewski replied, "Well, yeah. We're 6-0."
He was quick to add of Paulus, who is nursing a bruise on his forearm, "Greg is a huge part of us being a successful team--we just got to get him healthy."
But all eyes are now on Smith, whom Krzyzewski said he wants to "keep developing" at the point.
"Last year, he didn't have to do this, as the primary guy, and all of a sudden it's the fourth game in a row" as starter, he said.
Sunday's game also saw the development of two emerging talents: Williams, who previously had been assigned to forward and showed Sunday that he can also run the point, and freshman center Miles Plumlee. Plumlee looked tentative under the hoop--and, at one point, Henderson stomped his foot and yelled "come on" when he balked on a cut--but he began to find a groove, thanks to razor-tight passes from Henderson and Wiliams. Plumlee's soft touch could provide some much needed backup at the 5 spot, but he'll have to move more quickly on both ends--and not look like a deer-in-headlights--to be successful this season.
"He's a kid who could really shoot up quickly, once he feels comfortable on the court," Krzyzewski said.
Finally, Duke demonstrated perhaps their greatest strength on Sunday: the ability of its guards, and small forwards, to drive to the basket. Scheyer, Henderson and Smith--along with the critically-underused sub Martynas Pocius--all made strong takes from the top of the arc. The inside-outside game still needs work, but against weak defenses (read: not Rhode Island), slashing has been surprisingly effective. When used sparingly, it could prove to be a secret weapon in conference play (and a welcome change to Duke's tendency, in the past, to hang out behind the three-point line).