It wasn't the game we were expecting, frankly. We were expecting the normal script: Ivy comes in, gets down 15 fairly quickly (certainly by halftime), and the rest of the game is just pulling away. Didn't happen. So the question is: was it that Duke didn't play well? Or that Cornell is a better team than most (including us) realize? Or both?
Our money is on both. If these two teams played every day for a week, chances are the average margin of victory would be around 25-30 points. But of course it doesn't work that way.
Cornell came into Cameron with a young team, a mediocre record, only one opponent of consequence, and never backed down from the Blue Devils. Duke won, but they had to earn it, and it wasn't easily earned.
Cornell, suffice it to say, isn't your typical Ivy team. Princeton has a tradition of outsmarting more talented teams by forcing them to play a radically different style that turns athleticism against them. Penn periodically gathers enough talent to make an NCAA push, although it hasn't happened lately.
Cornell has a really nice backcourt and some significant size, and they can hit three point shots. It's a winning formula.
In the early part of the game, Cornell really impressed us with their rebounding. Duke didn't get a whole lot of second attempts in the first ten minutes.
But they also impressed us with their physical play and their heart. It's easy to come into Duke and to be essentially a sacrificial lamb. Happens to lots of schools - and sometimes the players stop and ask for autographs or pose for pictures after the game. Who cares if they just lost by 40? It's Duke.
Cornell was having none of that. They came to win and they were nearly in a position to do so.
Their point guard, Louis Dale, wouldn't look out of place on an ACC team (we're guessing Sidney Lowe or Paul Hewitt could find a use for him). He's quick, he penetrates, and his turnovers aside (he had nine), he can run his team.
They also exploited a mismatch with their seven-foot center, Jeff Foote, and got him the ball regularly down low, where Duke's frontcourt had trouble matching up.
They're a very solid, extremely well-coached team.
As for Duke, as the Big Red's coach said after the game, and Coach K agreed with much of this, they're still quite young, and they were off for 17 days. Coach Donahue:
"In all due respect to Dukeâ17 days offâtheyâre a young team. I think people just forget that sometimes because they have Duke across their shirt that theyâre not freshmenâbut they are. I think heâs going to have a very good team as it goes on. After 17 days itâs just very difficult. We had the same stretch. We went out and played our worst game of the year at Bucknellâwhich is a team at our level who I think weâre better than and we play terribleâlose by 20. Itâs just really difficult to simulate a game situation and get your guysâin particular with a young team... "
âWeâve had a long break. I donât know if weâre in game shape or game talk yet. We werenât communicating very well out on the court. At stop actions, you could see us â we just werenât sharp. Not so much Xâs and Oâs, but weâve got to get back to playing basketball, being sharp and doing these things. And they are a good team, so they put you in that position. With that long of a break, youâve got to get into the habit of doing that again.â
Okay, so there's a consensus, at least among the closest observers. And though the game was tighter than maybe most expected, Duke did win, and there were some good things to come out of it.
For one, DeMarcus Nelson continues to develop as a first-rate leader. He made a number of key plays, whether it was a shot, a key defensive stop, or a big rebound. He was really solid.
And as the team continues to develop, Brian Zoubek got his second start and Nolan Smith got his first as Lance Thomas and Greg Paulus came off the bench. For Thomas, who hurt his ankle shortly before the break, he may still be recovering. Certainly he didn't make a huge statistical impact.
Despite not starting, Paulus ended up getting 23 minutes and made some key plays at the end of the game.
And it's also worth noting that a tight game that a young team wins is almost always a plus. There wasn't really much danger of Cornell winning, because they had trouble getting it under eight in the waning minutes, but as a team you get to learn more about being in a bit of a tight spot and how to handle yourself when you find that you're in one.
Before the game, we heard Matthew Laurance say that the long break was planned, that with a young team, the staff felt it would be a good idea to let the players have some extended home time. Makes sense.
The flipside of it though is the lack of time on the court and in practicing communication skills, which is a cornerstone of what Duke does. No doubt it's been a major focus these last few days, and you can expect that it will continue to be in the near future. Temple is coming up next, and while Fran Dunphy didn't have a great year, he is a sharp coach, and Temple will be improved. Duke will need to be as well.