CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/DURHAM—Ten minutes before tip-off of the Duke-Michigan men’s basketball game—a herky-jerky contest the 10th-ranked Blue Devils won with relative ease, 79–69—the Wolverines, ranked No. 22 in the nation, gathered territorially at center court, as if to claim Cameron as their own.
During the national anthem, they left the sidelines and stood spaced out across the court riot police-style, ready to face down rebel scum. As the home team was introduced, Michigan reformed their warrior’s circle at the foul line, ringing their leader Mitch McGary, the 6-foot-10, 255-pound sophomore, who strutted and yelled, prowling like a large dog in search of something good to pee on. They’d come to Durham to fight for ground, claim it inch by inch, and stick their flag in Duke’s gullet for their first big win of the year.
Then McGary missed his first two shots, both airballs, Michigan shot 31 percent for 20 minutes, and Duke reached halftime with the 10-point edge the game would end with.
“They’re a championship level program,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, as if trying to convince the press corps after the game, who’d all witnessed the same botched Michigan pick and rolls and missed backdoors that in more capable hands had plagued the Blue Devils in games against Arizona and Vermont.
“Our defense was outstanding tonight.”
It was a strange low-scoring affair between two normally prolific offenses until the second half, when Duke’s Quinn Cook and Michigan’s Caris LeVert started trading baskets, LeVert dropping 20, Cook 24, including two dazzlers, a beautiful up-and-under from the left and a double spin on the other side.
Some of the biggest crowd cheers of the night came for the Duke bench, whom fans seemed delighted to see, like regulars seeing new dishes appear on their favorite restaurant’s menu. The 7-feet-tall Marshall Plumlee spent just six minutes in the game, but it seemed longer, as he ran conspicuously, blocked shots, grabbed three rebounds, scored two points and checked his tendency to foul.
More roars went up for Matt Jones, who hounded Michigan’s best scorer, playing defense and rebounding as if these were things he liked to do. Amile Jefferson didn't miss a shot, scored eight, got one block, two assists and a steal, and yanked six boards from the ether like a bullfrog nailing flies.
And then there was Andre Dawkins, who checked into the game with the Duke lead down to six. Within 60 seconds he’d hit two three-pointers to put his team back up by 12, trying to look serious and hide his joyful smile as he headed back to the huddle.
“Dre all day!” cheered the crowd.
They've had five years to refine this personalized cheer for Dawkins, whose hard-won and inconsistent triumphs they seem to relish the most. A few minutes later he left the game after getting torched by LeVert for a layup, reminding his vocal supporters why they don’t see Dawkins more. He finished with eight points and a steal.
“I’m really happy for him,” said his coach.
In all, nine Duke players logged more than five minutes, just four days after a smaller Blue Devil rotation seemed worn down in the second half against Arizona, who beat Duke by six.
One player, however was missing against Michigan: the enigmatic Rasheed Sulaimon, who was not injured or sick or even grumpy looking yet did not play for the first time this year, after an Arizona game when his ill-advised drives into traffic were blocked brutally, again and again. He sat on the bench, cheering his team, his long legs folded in front of him. When he stood to huddle, he looked not unlike LeVert: both 6-foot-5 slashers, long-armed, hard to stop when they get going.
As Michigan’s offense sputtered, LeVert found his place and role, but with Duke’s offense working fine without him, Sulaimon seems lost.
“He has to play better than the guys who played tonight,” Coach K said curtly, when asked about the young star’s absence. “He contributed great from the bench,” he added.
“I’m glad you asked about him.”