Nolan Smith couldn’t have been too far gone from Cameron Indoor Stadium Monday night before he logged into his Twitter account: “I’m back!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!,” wrote Smith at 10:01 p.m., about an hour after Duke had wrapped up a surprisingly difficult win over a defensively frustrating Coastal Carolina team. Five minutes later, he recapitulated his enthusiasm by losing some exclamation marks: “I’m back!!!!!”
Smith spent the first two games of Duke’s regular season on the Blue Devils bench, thanks to a short suspension after he participated in a basketball game over the summer that hadn’t been sanctioned by the NCAA. Tuesday night, in Duke’s second game in as many days as part of the NIT Season Tip Off, he wasted no time getting his season into gear. Smith shot on his first possession en route to a team-leading 24 points in a 101-59 rout of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
And he had a somewhat frustrated team at his back, too: With Jon Scheyer playing point guard Friday against University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Duke responded well to the sans-Smith setback by beating the outsized and outhustled Spartans by 34. Monday night, though, Coastal Carolina gave Duke fits early, jumping out to a 6-0 lead that the Devils spent three minutes chasing. Duke didn’t do itself any favors, either, with cold shooting in the first half (freshman Andre Dawkins hit his first three and missed his next four in the first half) and eight turnovers in the first 20 minutes. Indeed, Duke struggled against the triangle-and-two defense presented by Cliff Ellis, an old opponent of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski from his tenures at University of South Alabama and Clemson.
At least it often felt as if Krzyzewski was simply exploring what his team might have this year: Dawkins and fellow freshman Ryan Kelly looked to have an irrevocable green light on shooting, as they combined for 15 three point attempts in spite of landing only three. In Smith’s absence, Duke tested the defensive versatility of Lance Thomas, the senior forward who’s going to work the blocks inside as well as the perimeter this year. Thomas looks a bit sluggish on preventing inside moves by those quicker feet outside, but his wingspan serves him well in recovery mode.
Little of this mattered Tuesday night, though, given the dominant performance of Duke’s own perimeter S’s—Singler, Scheyer and Smith. They combined for 61 points in just 87 minutes of combined play in their first contest together this year. “I know [Nolan and Jon] are happy to be together again and also Kyle. Those three guys on the perimeter are the strength of our basketball team,” Krzyzewski said after Tuesday night’s victory, Scheyer to his right and Smith—grinning off the court, like usual—to his left. They’re versatile with the ball, as capable of slashing to the basket as they are dishing it to the open guy. And they’re tough, too: Early in the season, one of the most impressive things about Duke is its fearlessness and—against teams it’s almost certain to beat—its willingness to risk bodies for loose balls. Only three games in, Scheyer’s been on the floor scrapping for possessions several times, and twice during the first half Tuesday night, he sliced blindly through the lane to (successfully) rebound his own missed shots.
Duke, of course, must continue to show that it can be strong inside and that a rotation that includes Brian Zoubek, Miles Plumlee and Lance Thomas (and, at some point in the season, will include the injured Mason Plumlee) causes opposing defenses to respect what’s in the paint, even if Duke’s strength is elsewhere. Despite foul trouble for Thomas and Zoubek and a relatively unproductive numerical night for Thomas, the triumvirate still managed to score 25 points and wrangle 25 rebounds Tuesday night. With their point guard back, if they can even threaten those sorts of nights regularly, especially before the younger Plumlee enters the lineup, look out for the Devils.