By Jim Sumner
Mike Krzyzewski began his 33rd season at Duke pretty much like he began the first 32, with a win. Georgia State was the opponent and 74-55 was the final score. Duke has only lost two season openers under Krzyzewski, a home loss to Vanderbilt in 1981-82 and a neutral-court loss to Stanford in 1999-2000.
Georgia State was the perfect opponent for an opener, a mid-major with enough talent to make Duke work hard but not enough to be a credible threat to walk out with a win.
Duke's trio of senior's keyed the win. The best part of the sentence is the part where Seth Curry was part of the win. Channeling his inner-Mark Twain, Curry showed that the rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated. Curry started, played 30 minutes and scored 15 points. He says he expects to be sore tomorrow but the doomsday scenarios of a week ago seem to have been more than a bit overblown.
But the dominant player on the floor was Mason Plumlee, who led everyone with 19 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks, making 8-of-12 field goals. Georgia State coach Ron Hunter praised Plumlee's poise and patience and said that he was the only player for whom his team had no answer.
Ryan Kelly only scored eight points but he made four assists, getting inside Georgia Southern's 1-3-1 and breaking it down better than any of Duke's guards.
It's no secret that Duke's defense was sub-standard last season and tonight's game was a tentative sign that Duke has made strides in that area. Georgia State shot 37.3 percent from the field and had a 4 assist/16 turnover stat line that isn't going to upset anyone.
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Duke started Tyler Thornton at point, largely to counter Georgia State's guard-centric offense. Point guard Devonta White scored 19 points but he also committed six turnovers, with a single assist. `Freshman R.J. Hunter-the coach's son-went 4-11 and scored 14 points. He scored 52 points in Georgia State's two exhibition wins.
Duke was not quite so effective on offense, at least in the early going. The Panthers played mostly zone, pressed on defense, worked the shot clock on offense and fouled with some regularity, all of which disrupted Duke's rhythm on offense.
Plumlee noted that Duke couldn't practice much against zones because they don't play any zone.
It showed early. Kelly said that Duke was "timid" in the first half, not taking the shots that were there. Curry agreed. "We need to be more aggressive. We had some open shots that guys passed up. We can't do that against good teams."
Still, Georgia State only led once, at 2-0. Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon and Curry each knocked down a 3-pointer early, giving Duke twice as many 3-pointers in the first 3:33 than Duke mustered in its entire exhibition win over Winston-Salem State.
Duke methodically built its lead, hitting double-figures at 28-17, then 13, then 10 at 32-22 at intermission.
Plumlee had 10 points and eight rebounds at that point, including a highlight-reel play with about four minutes left in the half. Plumlee got a block inside, dug out the loose ball rebound near the sideline, got the ball to Thornton, got it back and finished in traffic, 90-feet from where it all started.
He missed the foul shot, leaving it 24-15. Georgia State never again got closer than seven.
Duke became much more efficient after intermission. Curry and Sulaimon again started with 3s, the second after a nifty drive-and-dish kick-out from Kelly. That made it 38-22.
Kelly had an even niftier assist later in the half, finding Plumlee inside for a behind-the-head dunk.
Curry said after the game that Duke should have built the lead to 30, an oversight that Krzyzewski blamed on careless passing. Krzyzewski noted that Duke needs to do a better job of playing off Plumlee. "We want Mason to touch the ball. When's he's strong with the ball, guys need to move."
Losing coach Hunter was practically giddy after the game, saying that he didn't know what to expect and now he thought he had a good team. "Duke had McDonald's guys, we have Burger King guys. We kept trying to super-size during timeouts. But their size just wore us down."
Krzyzewski said Duke is "still looking at what our team can do. Our defense was good. Overall I was pleased."
Alex Murphy had what is known in the business as Did Not Play, Coaches Decision. Krzyzewski said that the game "didn't get to where Alex was able to play." Duke led by 14-to-21 points down the stretch.
Draw your own conclusions.
Krzyzewski has been known to send messages. This is a guy who brought Elton Brand off the bench after a lackluster effort and this was the year Brand went on to become the national player of the year. The key isn't what message was sent but how it was received.
Krzyzewski said that Marshall Plumlee is getting close and might play as early as the Florida Gulf Coast game a week from Sunday.
Duke has now won 13 straight season-openers and 95 straight non-conference home games.