Duke makes its initial foray to Pittsburgh Monday night to take on the Panthers, a team which was expected to take a major dip with the departure of Steven Adams for the NBA. Hasn't exactly worked out like that.
Pitt, along with Syracuse, has rule the roost early in the ACC season. But like Syracuse, Pitt hasn't yet played the better ACC teams (other than each other).
Check it out:
- NC State 74-62
- Maryland - 79-59
- Wake Forest - 80-65
- Georgia Tech - 81-74
- Syracuse - 59-54 (L)
- Clemson - 76-43
- Maryland - 83-79
- Miami - 49-44
- Virginia Tech - 72-52
- UNC - 57-45
- Boston College - 69-59
- Pitt - 59-54
- Miami - 64-52
Both teams have some big wins - Pitt hammered Maryland, Wake Forest and Clemson, while Syracuse has beaten up Virginia Tech, whipped Carolina (it looked worse than the final score) and BC.
Yet Pitt also got a 1st half haymaker from State before taking over in the second, barely got by Georgia Tech and nearly fell at Maryland.
Syracuse just did beat Miami the first time, got a rough game from Pitt and Miami gave them trouble again down in Miami.
That starts to change now, although not in a great way for Duke: the Blue Devils go from Pitt on Monday to Syracuse on Saturday.
In other words, #2 and #1, on the road, back-to-back.
Pitt relies heavily on fifth-year senior Talib Zanna, who is arguably doing a better job in Pitt's frontcourt than the more celebrated Adams did.
Zanna, a 6-9 native of Nigeria, is averaging 13.6 ppg and 7.8 rpg. He's also a key to Pitt's defense.
The other Big Deal for Pitt is Lamar Patterson, who, like Zanna, is a senior.
Patterson is an All-ACC candidate, with 17.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg and 4.7 apg. He's also shooting 51.3% from the field and 42.9% from three point range.
Pitt is also starting Michael Young (6-8, 245 lb. freshman), James Robinson (6-3, 200 lb. sophomore) and Cameron Wright (6-4, 205 lb. junior).
One guy who won't be playing: 6-6 sophomore Durand Johnson, lost for the year with a knee injury.
Somehow the idea took hold with some people that Pitt is a senior dominated team. It is as far as Patterson and Zanna are concerned, but that's it for seniors. There are seven other returnees though with three juniors and four sophs.
Pitt is holding teams to 60.2 ppg, which is pretty good, certainly better than Duke's 66.5.
Statistically, Pitt's defense is a bit better than Duke's, as the Devils are still statistically held back by early seasons deficiencies on that end of the court.
Duke is defending the three better than Pitt (29.3% to .311) and shooting it better as well (40.8% to 35%).
Both teams lead the ACC in scoring average at 81.6 for Duke and 76.3 for runner-up Pitt.
But you could argue that this game comes down to a few basic factors:
- Pitt's relative experience vs. Duke's relative youth.
- Duke's newly exploited depth vs. Pitt's shallower bench.
- Duke's ability to deal with Pitt's aggressive defense
- Pitt's ability to deal with Duke's outside shooting.
What also intrigues us is how quickly and comprehensively Duke has changed directions.
After a few hard knocks early, none harder than Coach K's personal loss when his brother died, Duke shifted gears and kicked it into high.
The first sign was when Matt Jones moved in as a starter against Virginia. The second was when Coach K brought five players in simultaneously against the Cavs.
The commitment to playing more guys has paid off, not just in fresher legs but in another very key way.
With the second unit, Rasheed Sulaimon and Andre Dawkins, both of whom can defer to other offensive talents, sort of have to take control because the other guys are limited offensively.
Remember last year, and how Sulaimon at times had to be encouraged to shoot? Now, it's different. He's aggressive, he's stalking the basket, and he's a much keener pass, too.
He's playing with a sort of ruthless abandon, and he's been instrumental in Duke's sudden improvement.
So has Dawkins. He's always had a beautiful shot, and at any point in his career, he could go for 25...or nothing.
Now, he's more consistent, in tremendous physical condition and still deadly accurate.
Bringing Tyler Thornton in in this capacity also works well. He's been a tough guy his entire Duke career, a guy who is always reliable and who defends with a passion.
Josh Hairston has also been a reliable guy and a largely misunderstood asset for Duke. He's done everything he's been asked to do and he's always ebullient. Like Thornton, he defends with passion.
And Marshall Plumlee, who has been showing signs of significant improvement as a player, also brings an attitude that's really important.
His brothers, both more successful early at Duke, and more talented, never played with the mean streak MP3 is showing. He seems to relish the contact and the physicality in a way the others didn't - and in a way that not many on this team do, either.
It's kind of different to get to this point and not have discussed the starters, but that's changing, too.
Not the actual starters - that seems set for the moment.
Quinn Cook seems to have figured out his role, and has become a slippery point guard offensively while still an improved defender.
Jones is in for his defense; anything else at this point in his career is gravy. It's funny because his shot was his drawing card as a recruit. Since becoming a starter, he's hit four against Virginia, four against State, five against Miami and none against FSU.
In the frontcourt, Rodney Hood has become a reliable scorer, but also is a vastly improved defender and rebounder.
Amile Jefferson has become a much, much better rebounder and defender, and is beginning to show his offensive chops as well.
But the biggest change has been in Jabari Parker.
It could be easy for him to just sort of wait the year out, score a lot, and be a high draft pick. A lot of guys would take the easy route.
Parker, instead, is taking the coaching, and what may be counter-intuitive coaching as well.
His team needs him to drive and to rebound and to be better defensively, so that's what he's doing.
In the last two games, Parker has pulled down 29 rebounds. And in the last three games, he's gotten to the foul line 27 times, hitting 22.
Taken all together, its a lot of change to process for a young team. But so far, so good. This week is going to be a huge test, and the key isn't necessarily winning, though Duke has a chance in both games, but extending the lessons.
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