Duke snapped out of its two-game funk in a big way, beating St. John's, 86-56, and maybe finding a new player along the way.
Brian Zoubek isn't literally a new player. But he's playing like one, and he's doing something pretty rare: usually after an injury, players take a while to get back to where they were. Zoubek is way past where he was when he got hurt. He's gone, really quickly, from a tall guy who plays basketball to a tall basketball player. He's more alert, more confident, and reacting far more quickly than he used to. It's a big difference for Duke, because it gives them a legitimate post player.
Zoubek pulled a double-double, which surely wasn't expected, and just as surely was welcomed. He had 11 points and 13 boards (five offensive), blocked a shot, and even had a little bit of attitude for his defenders.
It was a major surprise to pull out of the hat at this point in the season, and it builds on his recent games. Zoubek is getting better fast.
He was a big factor, but not the only one, of course. It took a couple of minutes, as St. John's went up 7-0, but Duke rediscovered their identity and took it to the Johnnies in a big way.
St. John's pressed their quickness advantage in the backcourt, picking up two very early fouls on Greg Paulus. Their 5-9 point guard, Malik Boothe, is small but smart and quick. He's at a real disadvantage size-wise, but it cuts both ways. He'll be a pain for four years.
Nolan Smith came in for Paulus and played very well. But in some ways, the best news of the game was the play of Gerald Henderson.
Henderson, who has been playing with an injured wrist, and who has been tentative, started asserting himself again, but in a different role, as he came off the bench for Jon Scheyer. For the first time in several games, he played like the Henderson we saw earlier this year, causing chaos offensively and defensively. His mid-range game is really important to this team's offense, and it gave St. John's fits. He also from time to time rose to the top of the defense, speaking vertically, and again, that's a big part of what's made Duke special this year. If you can't be big, it helps if you can fly. Henderson finished with 13 on 5-9 shooting, two steals, and a block.=
Kyle Singler played well also, but his best play didn't count: he hit a spectacular tip-in from the lane at the end of the first half, but it came after the buzzer. It was so nice that the refs should have given it to him on style points.
He also unveiled, for the first time we can remember, an authentic hook shot, a rarity in the game these days, hit three pointers, drove, and just played a brilliant all-around game.
It won't show up in the stats, but Lance Thomas made what, to the staff, might be the play of the game: he flew down court from under his own basket to disrupt a St. John's break, coming from far behind to cause enough problems to lead to a turnover. His offense is improving, but he doesn't have to score to be effective. That play really underscored his value to the team, and his role is really important, and we're not sure anyone else can do it.
There were a lot of small things to be happy with. Taylor King played 14 minutes and didn't score. Why is that good? Because he needs to be more than a shooter. King played 14 minutes -earned 14 minutes - because he rebounded well and defended well. Everyone knows he can shoot, but the rest of his game needs some work. Good to see he's doing it.
Unexpected play of the game: King passes the ball back to Paulus for a three from King's range.
DeMarcus Nelson started slow but really asserted himself in the second half. He finished with nine points.
Jon Scheyer, who of course got his first start of the season, gave what fans have come to expect: smart defense, solid shooting, and leadership. Nolan Smith ended up with 13 points, five assists and five boards, and two steals.
Duke pretty much dominated every phase of the game. They held St. John's to a paltry 33.3% from the floor, outrebounded them 42-34, forced 18 turnovers, and played with great intensity. If they flagged, Coach K popped up off the bench. At one point, he rushed to the edge of the coach's box so quickly that we thought he was going to join the offense.
Pretty clearly, a challenge was laid down, and just as clearly, his team responded. Beating St. John's is nice, but it's a rebuilding program, and a very young team. They'll get a different sort of challenge Wednesday when Georgia Tech comes calling.