On Tuesday night, NCAAB fans were treated to some Madness in November as Kansas-Michigan St. and Kentucky-Duke took to the make shift court in the Georgia Dome for the Champions Classic. Participation in this event was abnormal for John Calipari and the Wildcats, as they are usually found beating up on mid-major teams at Rupp Arena at this time of the year. But in the last few seasons, they have been criticized for their easy schedules, that has allowed them to comfortably sit in top poll positions while the rest of the top dogs have challenged themselves regularly. Since the SEC is a reeling basketball conference, Kentucky chose to schedule Duke in the Champions Classic to prove their worth before their joke of a conference schedule starts handing them wins in the second half of the 2012-13 season.
But in a 75-68 loss to Duke at the Georgia Dome, Kentucky didn’t prove much, aside from those who had the revelation, “Wow, Nerlins Noel’s flat top really is THAT BIG!” Instead, Duke used UK’s thirst for national approval as a way of saying don’t sleep on us.
The Front Court
Duke hash the best front court in the ACC and arguably, the most well rounded one in the country. Barring a detrimental injury or an improbable terrible season, you can bet that Mason Plumlee will be a lottery pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. Against Kentucky, he not only made every shot difficult for Nerlins Noel, but he was 7-8 from the field and 4-4 at the line for 18 points on the offensive end. He also brings immeasurable intangibles that display Duke’s hard nose team character, and an emphatic dunk of his can change the tide of any game.
His running mate Ryan Kelly proved against Kentucky that he can be supremely effective, even when Plumlee is carrying their collective scoring load. On a night where he struggled to shoot, Kelly did add 10 points to the team’s total, but was noticeably dominant on the defensive end. Kentucky was desperately trying to get sophomore Kyle Wiltjer a clean look from beyond the arc after he swished his only three of the game early in the first half. From then on, Kelly guarded Wiltjer twenty five feet from the basket at all times, and when Wiltjer tried to drive by him, Kelly forced him to pick up his dribble in a panic. Kelly’s ability to not only score in many ways, but virtually erase opposing big men who play on the perimeter makes him the perfect compliment to Plumlee’s paint dominance.
The Guards: The Question Marks
To call freshman Rasheed Sulaimon a question mark is fair, after all, he’s a freshman. Sophomore Quinn Cook didn’t get much time as a freshman so he can justifiably be labeled one as well, and same goes for junior Tyler Thornton, who has given the Blue Devils quality minutes in the past but has yet to fully bloom as a college basketball player. That leaves Seth Curry, who is the question mark of ALL questions marks, yet holds the keys to this team because there isn’t really another option.
Against Kentucky, Curry flourished in the national spotlight, pouring in 23 points by shooting 50% from the field with three 3′s and a perfect 6 of 6 at the line. When Duke needed a bucket in the guts of the game, Curry drove into the paint, got Noel to bite on an up fake, and scooped in a lay up that sealed a win for the Blue Devils. He has reportedly been working to expand his offensive game beyond his evident shooting prowess, and if Curry can do so he will be the clutch time scorer that this team, as of now, lacks. Without Austin Rivers to be held responsible for this team’s late game successes and failures, Curry cannot disappear like he has in the past, as he will be looked to by Coach K and his teammates to provide necessary points throughout big games.
As for the other question marks, Sulaimon is immature but oh so fast, and was a good creator for Curry, Kelly, and Plumlee in his first ever game against a ranked opponent. Tyler Thornton will be this team’s defensive stopper as Sulaimon lacks size and Curry lacks ability on the defensive end, and Quinn Cook still has some growing up to do. There is a good chance that he is one of those touted recruits that spends four years doing not much of anything.
The worry for Coach K is that Seth Curry will not pan out as his main scoring option, and that the team will suffer in close games as a result. In space, Curry is an above average shooter and is highly capable of knocking down open jump shots. But it is much harder for him to get space and create his own scoring options without a drive and kick or off ball screen. Duke’s offensive scheme is going to need to be centered around getting him the ball with enough time to get his jump shot off, and if they cannot do that, the ball will be in his court, a court that may be a little too crowded for him to be effective.
This is what will keep Duke out of the top tier of teams in the National eye, and while I don’t think they are quite there yet, they could be well on their way. Tune in to their game against Ohio St. in the Big 10/ACC challenge, a game that will solidify their place in the rankings early on.