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Duke Wears Down Broncos, 81-60

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Thursday night's game against Cal Poly Pomona proved, yet again, the difference between talent and team.  Despite having far less talent, the Broncos played with more unity for much of the game and, therefore, kept the game closer than perhaps it should have been.

That's not to suggest any problems with Duke, though.  The returning players are all adapting to new roles and the newcomers are working their way in. It's going to take a little while to fit all the pieces together, and Duke fans will have to understand that and not expect perfection.  Last year's model had the benefit of three seniors and two juniors who all had a superb understanding of their roles.

Nonetheless, while there are a lot of rough edges, and while on-court communication needs work, this is a team with immense potential (we usually don't link to premium articles but if you have ESPN's Insider, this is a must-read).

The communication cost Duke a lot of easy baskets in the first half.  CPP, as we mentioned Wednesday, is a team which understands how to win. They were outmatched but when it came to working together, they outperformed Duke.  They came the Devils immediately, winning the tip and scoring a quick bucket.

And after that, they managed to score quite often inside despite their lack of overall size.  We didn't know a whole lot about them going in, but we got the clear impression that the core had been together for awhile.  This was exacerbated by the imperfect communication on defense.

In Duke's case, by contrast, the seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler were fairly quiet in the first half, and the younger players stepped up.  Duke fans got a good sense of why there was such a fuss over Kyrie Irving.  He was almost impossible for CPP to double team and went around their defenders with ease.  At one point in the first half, we looked up at the scoreboard and realized that Irving, listed at 6-2, was Duke's most effective inside scorer.  We'd have to go back and watch again, but we think all of his points other than foul shots were scored in the paint.  He's very difficult to contain.

With the new body Ryan Kelly put together, Duke again has three effective inside players.  Miles and Mason Plumlee are reasonably well understood players right now and both are starting.  Kelly though will make things interesting.

He was the leading shotblocker in this game with three and while foul trouble limited him to nine minutes (he fouled out), it was immediately clear that this is not the same player.  He's powerful inside and can throw his weight around.  Last year, he could never have done it.  He may be the most improved player on the team.

The Plumlees both showed enough athleticism to either make steals or break up plays in the backcourt, and Mason finished with 11 points and 12 boards.  Miles put up 14 and grabbed four boards of his own. Together they were 10-17 from the floor. Kelly finished with two points and five boards.  Add it up and the big men finished with 30 points and 21 boards.  You have to remember that the Broncos can't match Duke's size, but it's still impressive, and even more so when you consider they could have done a lot more damage.

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Seth Curry didn't have a great game -- for one, he had a couple of ugly turnovers and shot 2-7 -- but on the bright side he was very alert on defense which is going to get him on the court.

When the first half ended with a Poly Pomona rally, Duke up just six and Singler with just two points, we figured there would be some remedial coaching at halftime.

And sure enough, Duke came out with a very different effort in the second half.  Singler was immediately involved offensively, scoring five quick points.  Communication was better, defense was more fluid, and the ball moved around much better.  There were a lot of easy shots suddenly and Duke built a 32 point lead.

Duke also got some nice minutes out of Josh Hairston and Andre Dawkins.  Hairston finished with seven points and four boards.  Dawkins had just two, but the bigger question for him is his defensive intensity and overall effort.  That cost him last year.  This year, it looks to be better.

And finally, while he's been billed as something of an understudy this season, we loved what we saw out of Tyler Thornton.  He's a passionate defender and at Duke, that will get you time.  You will see him on the court.  We'd heard comparisons to Wojo and we understand them.  But even though he's smaller, his defense reminded us of Billy King's.  He's going to get after people. Our prediction: he becomes a Cameron cult figure.

After the game, Coach K said this: “Well we played against a very good team tonight. Those kids are very well-coached. They play hard. I guess they could be a national championship team the way they play. That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to play, and why we scheduled the Division II national champion from the year before. So that early on in the season you’re going to be tested by a team that may not be as big as you. They have talent, they are unbelievably well-coached, they have great heart and they have a system that we are not going to see very often. Especially early on in the season, which is, their match up zone. I thought it was a great game for us. We had to defend a lot of ball screens, we had to play against a zone, we had to play against a team that went after every loose ball hard. I thought the 12 minutes of the second half, the first 12 minutes, I thought we played really well. I thought sporadically in the first half we played okay. But I thought they played great in the first half. And in the second half, in those first 12 minutes, I think we got up to a 32-point lead. I thought we learned a lot from the first half. I was very pleased with the game. I thought our younger guys were knocked back a little bit. They have to learn. They have to know how physical the game can be and finish plays, take charges, get loose balls, and all of that. We had a lot of time during the last eight minutes for guys. A lot of good learning experiences. It was a good night for us.”

He also pointed out that, unlike last year, Duke has only three upperclassmen.  So it's going to take a while for all of it to come together.

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