Duke's performance against State was, without question, the most complete game the Devils have put together this season, clubbing State 79-56. They thoroughly imposed their will on the Pack, and there was nothing State could do about it. State's kids were in every sense outmatched and overwhelmed, which leads to an interesting question.Was it that Duke was that good? Or was State that bad?
We're not taking anything away from Duke by asking that. Everyone showed up, and everyone came to play. You'd have a hard time picking much fault with Duke. Maybe too many fouls; that's about it. At the end of the first half, Coach K told the team that they were relaxing on defense. Maybe you can criticize that. Maybe they could have gotten to the line more (on the other hand, with State shooting 27 free throws and Duke 13, at least they can't complain about the officiating.
The offense was crisp and the ball movement was the best we've seen this year and it was sustained throughout the game. Four players had multiple assists (Lance Thomas, who only played 11 minutes after getting into early foul trouble, was the only starter who failed to get one, continuing a pattern noted earlier by Barry Jacobs). Turnovers were sharply down from earlier games, with only 11, although in fairness, with such a short bench Sidney Lowe can't really press as much as he might like.
And as far as State goes, only Gavin Grant and Engur Atsin have ever played against Duke, and the coach was in his first game. So it wasn't a shock to see an inexperienced team wilt in the face of a potent defense. But it must have been disappointing.
Discouraging was the word Lowe used in his comments to the press. He said his team was distracted. But when you could see their eyes, it was something more than that. After one second-half shot, Courtney Fells came back on defense, and you could see a sense of alarm on his face. He wasn't sure what was going to hit next or where it was going to come from.
State's players seemed shocked. Duke basically picked them apart at will, taking the ball away 20 times, driving right into the gut of the defense, passing through the lane at will. And it could have been a lot worse had State not shot remarkably well from the foul line (88.9% as a team). If Duke had cut back on the fouls, State might have lost by 30.
Still, State fans should take heart. The core of a fine team is there. The frontcourt is certainly solid, with Costner and McCauley being the anchors, and Dennis Horner and Gavin Grant are both talented players as well. Courtney Fells can shoot and is athletic. It's hard to play without a point guard, and while Atsur is one of our favorite ACC players, he's not on a par athletically with many other guards. He's as smart as they come, but he's not a monster talent, at least not physically.
The other guy who really caught our eye, even though he was largely ineffective, was Trevor Ferguson. If we remember correctly, he originally signed with Pitt and later tried to bail on them and ended up at a prep school for a year. He's thin and weak at this point in his career, but he's quick enough and he's creative. He's (potentially) sort of the equivalent of what Clayton Christensen calls disruptive technologies: his game comes out of left field to an extent, but it's the product of a really good basketball mind. He has a lot of work to do, but you can't teach someone to see the things he sees, and you can't teach someone to move within the frame of the game the way he already understands how to do. He's a kid who bears watching.
For Duke, as we said, it's hard to find a lot of fault. DeMarcus Nelson shot 6-14. Maybe he could have done a bit better. Gerald Henderson had four turnovers. That wasn't ideal. But big whoop. Duke took it to State and played a swashbuckling game which saw the Devils basically punk State, and State had no answers.
It would be almost embarrassing to go over the list of easy dunks, alley oops, take aways and smooth passes. It would be easier actually to just play back the sounds of dismay which came from the RBC, because they explained it better than it could be explained in almost any other way. Everyone understood: this was a trip to the woodshed, and there was no escaping a major whipping.
The main thing to understand is that Duke's offense is maturing. The spacing, which was a real issue earlier in the season, was much, much better. As players get to know each other, they learn each other's habits, weaknesses and strengths. When you pair that with a stifling defense, your team is going to be in most games.
This has gone on over the last three games, really, although not every minute of every game. But enough to call it a significant improvement. During that stretch, Duke has gone from tied for last to fifth place in the conference, with fourth place on the line when Clemson comes calling this week. Arguably, the teams in the conference which are now playing the best are UNC (the best team without question), Duke and Clemson. Virginia Tech is also playing well, but the loss to Florida State undercuts the argument somewhat: if you just beat Duke and UNC, you ought to be able to hang with FSU.
It's not entirely coincidental that Greg Paulus has turned in his steadiest body of work in those three games, and as we have said before, he is capable of lifting the team to his standard of intensity. It's not knocking anyone else to say this, but we're not sure anyone else on this team can do that. When Paulus plays like that, everything else just falls into place. Josh McRoberts doesn't have to play point and post; Nelson can either shoot outside or muscle down low; Jon Scheyer can shoot, drive, pass, and outsmart other guys; and Dave McClure can come in and plug whatever leaks there are. Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek still have to bring their games up to a higher level, but the potential is definitely there.
Duke has a real opportunity to make a move in the conference race. Clemson comes to Cameron next, and the Tigers are vastly improved. It'll be a tough game, but if Duke can pull it out, then you might be able to say there's only one team in the conference which is consistently outperforming them. Regrettably, they wear an impoverished shade of blue and live close enough to hit with spitballs.