Duke continues a recent tradition of scheduling defendingÂ D-II champions as Western Washington comes to Cameron Saturday. And while Duke fans know that you always respect the opponent, some deserve more respect than others. And in this case, you better pay attention to what the Vikings did last time out, because it was impressive.
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Western Washington was within two of Washington, 74-72, with just 4:11 left.
Washington won by 10, but still: that's a very impressive performance. Doubly so since the guy who coached them to the national title is now an assistant at...UDub.
It's the sort of thing you'd expect from an experienced team. The Vikes have 10 upperclassmen and they clearly know each other and what they are doing.
None of them are names most of us would know, but that's a strength, not a weakness. Basketball teams get better as players understand how to complement and compensate for strengths and weaknesses. Schools like Duke and Kentucky get players like Austin Rivers and Anthony Davis, who drift through for a year; schools like Western Washington build commitments to each other. They won't be favored, but make no mistake: they are legitimate. And as you saw in the first and last games of last year, having commitments to each other is generally better than having a more talented but less defined group.
WWU has reasonable size - two 6-9 guys, three 6-7 players and a bunch of guys between 6-3 and 6-6. They're all from Washington State or at least the West Coast except for two: 6-5 Cameron Severson is from Alaska, which really is the West Coast but way higher, and 6-0 Rico Wilkins, from Dallas, Texas, who went to DeSoto High, where Duke commit Matt Jones is currently enrolled.
Duke's situation is somewhat compounded by the absence of Marshall Plumlee and Seth Curry. Plumlee is out for awhile with a stress fracture; Wojo said earlier that Curry could play but it would be foolish to not rest his leg. If it were March, he'd surely play.
This opens up a spot in the lineup for, most likely, young Rasheed Sulaimon and minutes for other guys.
This means that Duke will be going with a very young backcourt - sophomore Quinn Cook and Sulaimon, with Tyler Thornton in reserve.
Alex Murphy will be able to help steady ballhandling if needed, but he, too, has little game experience.
Duke will rely on Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly for size, interior play and experience, not to mention leadership.
There's a reasonable chance we'll see a similar game to the one UNC just had with Shaw: a tough, unified team will give Duke more than the fans - though the not the coaches - expect.
This is a game where we might see someone asked to do things they're not really used to to counter the experience and unity of the Vikings. We're thinking particularly here of Murphy, Sulaimon or Amile Jefferson. With his long arms and excellent motor, and with MP3 out, he's the logical inside backup.
We're also excited to see Josh Hairston, who says he has really whipped himself into top flight condition over the summer.