One could be forgiven for seeing that Air Force was within seven points of
Duke deep in the second half and think, wow, mediocre game by the Devils.
One couldn't be more wrong. Air Force is a really, really good team, and was an
ideal opponent for Duke at this point in the season. And it was a great
game for Duke and would have been even if they'd lost.
Why? That's simple: adversity. Air Force gave Duke plenty of it,
too. The Falcons are a mature team and the core has been together for a
while, longer than most college teams these days. And while service
academies have some real and permanent limitations, these guys can play with a
lot of people, as indicated by their trouncings of Stanford and Colorado would
Despite a remarkably hot first half, and despite dominating Air Force on the
boards, Air Force hung around through a combination of smarts and
As you would expect out of the Princeton offense, Air Force does a wonderful
job of backdoor cuts. They also do a solid job of anticipating
passes. They actually forced more turnovers than Duke (17 to 11 in their
favor) and did a lot to overcome Duke's physical advantages.
And when the second half started, and Duke cooled off offensively - as you
must when you are shooting almost 75% - Air Force was ready to capitalize.
The veteran team started making plays and the younger Devils forced things just
a bit - but enough to cut the lead significantly.
But perhaps the key play in the game came on a brilliantly executed backdoor
cut, with Duke up by seven. Jacob Burtschi missed an easy layup, and Duke
seized control of the game again and momentum never streaked back to the
After a DeMarcus Nelson layup and a Greg Paulus trey, the game was in the
But it was no sure thing, and that's the beauty of it: watching a young team
come together and play with intelligence and confidence. They didn't
buckle under pressure, and perhaps more impressively for such a young group,
they are communicating very well on the court.
Perhaps no one had a better night than DeMarcus Nelson, who was sensational
offensively and defensively. Now that he's healthy you can see the immense
talent more clearly. Perhaps no where was it more evident than when he was
on the ball as Air Force brought it up and stripped the ballhandler in the open
court. But he showed signs of being a dominant offensive player too, able
to drive, to shoot outside, and to rebound. There are some guys who are quicker
and some who are stronger, but not many who are stronger and quicker. He's
going to be a nightmare for defenses.
Greg Paulus continues to play his way back into shape, going for 34 minutes
and finishing with six assists. He also scored eight
Jon Scheyer also continued to show signs of being perhaps an even better
player than his lofty high school reputation would suggest. Yes, he can
shoot. But he also understands the game, and is a better athlete than most
guys who are called shooters (which is often a nice way of saying unathletic).
His remarkable shot to beat the shot clock is the clearest testament. It's
a shot that J.J. Redick could probably not have hit. Not many players
But in some ways the most exciting player in the Air Force game was Lance
Thomas. He scored 15 on 7-10 shooting, but what was great was watching how
quickly he did it, how fast he could pop up and bank a shot in, or spin to the
basket. He's a wonderful asset, and he makes the frontline radically
different than last year.
So does Josh McRoberts. Last season, it was argued that he deferred to
Shelden Williams in the post, but that's not necessarily true: he's too skilled
to simply live down low. He's going to be moving in and out as the games
dictate. McRoberts has the potential to be as versatile a big man as Duke
has seen, and that's saying a lot.
Dave McClure came off the bench and while he didn't score, he did get five
boards and played solid defense. Brian Zoubek had some foul trouble and only
played three minutes. Gerald Henderson got nine minutes as he, like Paulus,
works towards game shape. Marty Pocius got two minutes.
Next up is Marquette, Tuesday night at 10. It's a fast
turnaround, and Marquette is a tough squad. We'll see. Let's go