So why, a writer asked the other day, is Duke playing Tulsa now? Well because that's what they've been doing for the last couple of decades now.
Duke likes to bring in someone from outside the ACC when it's getting close to tournament time, to experience a different sort of opponent. The last few years, they've scheduled someone specifically because they might best resemble an early game with a lower seed. The profile, more or less, is a team with experience and cohesion from a somewhat less well regarded conference. Tulsa, last seen by most people getting clobbered by Memphis last spring, fits the bill.
And for the first 20 minutes, they lived it. Tulsa has a nice blend of experience, ruggedness, and savvy. When Duke tried to press, they attacked. When they had a chance, they took it straight to the rim. It's a nice group. We're just surprised that they have lost four straight games. They're better than that.
Obviously, Jerome Jordan and Ben Uzoh were their best players. Uzoh is pretty good, but not great. He's smart enough to understand how to take what's offered. Duke threw him off by, basically, throwing the kitchen sink at him. Nolan Smith did a lot of the work, but he found himself at times guarded by just about everyone, and his opportunities to take advantage were correspondingly lessened.
Lance Thomas took a few turns too, just as he guarded 6-11 Steven Idlet and Jordan.
Jordan picked up a couple of early fouls, but that doesn't entirely explain his relatively poor output. He's a talented and big player, but he doesn't go up strong. If he did, he'd be a lot more effective. He was 5-9 for 12 points, where Uzoh hit 11 on 3-15 and two free throws.
It's not exactly that he tries to finesse his shots. Lots of guys do that. It's more like he tries to avoid contact.
Collectively, Duke held Tulsa to 32.8%, which is impressive but perhaps a bit less so when you realize that Duke only managed 34.9% for the game. They won the battle of the boards of course (47/18 to 37/14) and more remarkably, only had five turnovers to Tulsa's 13.
Obviously, shooting is a concern - Kyle Singler was 4-12, Nolan Smith 6-18 and Jon Scheyer 5-16 (Brian Zoubek was best with 4-5).
Toss the Big Three and Zoubek out and the rest of the team was 3-12.
But the mark of a good team is that it figures out how to get past obstacles, whether it's a skilled opponent or their own poor shooting.
Duke's doing it through defense and rebounding. We don't have an exact stat for this, but they converted roughly half the offensive rebounds into baskets. Zoubek and Lance Thomas grabbed 11 and 10 respectively.
When they quit pressing in the second half, Duke's defense pushed Tulsa's shooting down from 37.1% to 26.1% for the second half and Tulsa rather quickly went from a confident, assertive team to a tight, tenuous one.
It's not the first time Duke's had an offensive/defensive balance: when Quin Snyder moved to point guard, it took everyone time to adjust. There were a number of games that year which saw Duke fall sharply behind only to claw back into the game with sheer hard work on defense.
While the balance on Duke's offense is open to debate, what is clear is that a stronger performance from the bench would be helpful, and not just scoring-wise. Fortunately, they did a solid job against Tulsa.
Miles Plumlee got six points and six boards in 17 minutes; brother Mason had two boards, one point and a block.
And while Andre Dawkins didn't score, has anyone noticed the improvement in his defense? He's an amazing outside shooter although he hasn't shown that lately. But at Duke, a good shooter without defense is like, well, try a fish with a bicycle, to pull one out of the 70's. Ask Taylor King how far you get as a gunner in blue.
Dawkins is not getting time lately because he's shooting well, it's because he's starting to defend at a higher level. The kid's had a tough years in some respects, most obviously when his sister died. But we admire the fact that he's kept working and fighting to get better.
That's broadly true of this team. Like Dawkins, shooting hasn't always been what it could be. But his teammates are working hard too and sticking together, and at the end of games, they find a way to get it done. There are worse things you can say about a team.
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