Duke and Michigan have a rivalry dating back to the '60s.Â It's gone through some high points, notably with the Fab Five. Judging by the last several games between Coach K and John Beilein, it's about to go through another.
Duke was the better team Tuesday night, but not by that much. Anyone who has played Michigan (or Beilein's teams at previous stops West Virginia and Richmond) understands just how dangerous they can be.Â If Krzyzewski once used the metaphor of an out of control car to describe his ideal defense, Beilein could reasonably compare his offense to the way we were once promised freeways would work: smooth, high speed precise traffic patterns, able to get from here to there in a damn big hurry.
On a freeway, you would (ideally) take the fast lane. The Wolverines take the three point shot, and it works better to get them where they want ot go than the freeway has in decades.
As Duke fans, we've all learned the value of an aggressive, hard-nosed defense, but there's something to be said for offense too. We admire whatÂ Beilein has accomplished on that end of the floor.Â His teams are highly entertaining, not least of all because they are capable of dramatic comebacks, which Michigan wasn't all that far from pulling off in Maui Tuesday.
Fortunately, Duke's offense was pretty damned good too.
Consider: Duke maintained a 15-point lead for some time in the second half despite a stretch of offensive pyrotechnics by Michigan and not getting as much from the Plumlees as they have recently: the Plumlee Daily Double was 10/10.
Ryan Kelly had a superb game though, showing his immense versatility and skill.Â Kelly ended up with 17 points, five boards, two assists two steals and two blocks.Â As we saw in the first game, he's gone from just being a big guy who can shoot threes to a guy who can drive, handle the ball and play with a remarkable intelligence.Â He's on the verge of a breakout.
As good as he was, the key in this game was the backcourt trio. Seth Curry (17), Andre Dawkins (14) and Austin Rivers (20) combined for 51.
Curry was remarkable, shooting 6-7 from the floor, 3-3 from behind the line and 2-2 from the foul line. He also had three assists.
Dawkins was 5-12 from the floor, including 4-9 from three point range.
And Rivers? Rivers was 6-14 from the floor, 2-5 from three point land and 6-10 from the line.Â More to the point, he's grown up a lot in this tournament.
He still occasionally puts his head down and just heads to the basket, but not as often as he did in the first few games.Â Now he's passing to teammates for easier baskets and pulling up for midrange shots and easier layups.
Moreover, he's showing what Coach in the past called a positive arrogance, the confidence that he can make a big play.Â And he can.
At times we're not even sure how he shakes off his defenders, frankly, because he does it so fast.Â On one play in this game, he faked his Michigan defender out and stepped back for a completely open jumper. On a late drive, he completely befuddled a Wolverine, who ended up basically stepping aside and giving the kid a lane before he realized his mistake. Too late!
The main point is that Rivers is figuring things out, and fast.Â He's going to be a different player by the time the ACC season rolls around.Â You might argue that he needs to straighten out his shot mechanics, but the last guy we saw at Duke who could come close to the level of what we could call the fake-out quickness Rivers has was Ricky Price. Price never lived up to his potential but he could fake somebody out of their shorts without moving out of the foul line circle.
This team, in other words, is developing a tremendous base.Â When you look at the improvements the Plumlees, particularly Mason have made, and add that to the perimeter fireworks,Â Duke's potential is suddenly much higher than it appeared as recently as the Belmont and Davidson games.
Not to say that it's perfect or anything. Al Featherston touches on some backcourt defensive issues in his latest article, and defending the wings may be an issue later on.
Still, that's sort of a K specialty. He figures out defensive solutions and works things out.
Kansas looms Wednesday and that will be a tough opponent and certainly there's no guarantee of a win, although Duke in a championship game is a very tough opponent.
Then it's off to Columbus for the ACC-Big Ten Challenge game with Ohio State and Jared Sullinger before a home tussle with Colorado State.
We'll have a really good idea of what this team could be after the next three games, but the improvement thus far is highly impressive.
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