DURHAM, N.C.—Sophomore forward Ryan Kelly took the first shot for the Duke Blue Devils Tuesday night in Durham, missing a surefooted turnaround just beyond the paint less than two minutes into the game. That miss, one of Kelly’s two during the contest versus the Miami of Ohio RedHawks, is mostly significant because it means that, for the first time in his career, Kelly started, replacing junior forward Miles Plumlee. And that matters because it’s a sign that Duke, even during a year when its roster boasts six players over 6’7”, still doesn’t know how to dominate inside, even against outmatched teams like the RedHawks.
Take all of this with at least a pint of salt. Duke won, and they won big, securing a comfortable 21-point lead by the end of the first half. Respective 12-point and 14-point runs in the second half pushed the lead to as many as 44, driving the No. 1 Blue Devils to a convincing 79—45 victory. The outmatched Miami of Ohio didn’t even attempt to get offensive rebounds, putting four of its five back to stop Duke’s powerful transition. Still, the Devils dominated every statistical category, nearly doubling Miami’s rebounds and shooting 31 free throws to Miami’s eight. Once again, the Duke defense forced more than a dozen turnovers.
But last year’s national champions aren’t perfect, not yet. Despite that cadre of big men this year, the Devils have yet to find any stable presence inside. On defense, these big Devils are mostly tenacious, having studied under Lance Thomas last year but adding more power to his fundamentally sound, versatile approach. On offense, though, they’re still uncertain, a point epitomized by the Plumlee brothers. Mason Plumlee, the younger brother, shows flashes of brilliance. Tuesday night, he stretched high for rebounds (he grabbed 14 total) that were out of reach for most and landed two massive dunks in a two-minute burst in the first half. But he remains a tad coltish, whether dribbling in pressure that’s too intense only to throw up odd shots or launching an errant three-pointer too quickly. His older brother, Miles, looks a tad timid inside, scoring only five points in Duke’s two regular season games with one steal and no blocks.
“I was hoping they were going to be a little bit looser, but they weren’t tonight,” said Miami of Ohio coach Charlie Coles after the game, before extolling the virtues of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski at length. “This is a good team.”
This perimeter is going to be fine, maybe even legendary. Tuesday night, national player of the year candidate Kyle Singler struggled from beyond the arch, and senior guard Nolan Smith only scored 10 points from the field. But the underclassmen stepped up. Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins combined for five three-pointers from the bench. Curry even lead the team in scoring, followed by freshman point guard Kyrie Irving. Smith was brilliantly unselfish, though, with seven assists, including several two Dawkins for threes and a perfect bounce pass to Mason Plumlee. He turned that pass into his most dominant statement of the night, a physical, mean dunk. That’s the strength Duke will have to find next week when it heads to Kansas City for the second half of the CBE Classic.
“We’ll try some different things to see where our chemistry might be,” Krzyzewski said of the switches inside. “It’s not a demotion or a promotion. It’s just looking … to see how that would work.”