Duke schedules teams like Central Missouri for a reason: it's a championship team, albeit at a lower level, and as such it presents certain challenges and offers certain lessons.
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Duke's young stars got just such a lesson in the opening minutes of the game as the Mules came out and played brilliantly together. U.C.M. is much smaller than Duke and much less talented. However, this is a team that knows how to stick together.
So while Duke fans and perhaps Duke's players were somewhat surprised to see the Mules go out to an early 13-7 lead, but it doesn't appear to have come as a surprise to Coach K:
"This is a good game for us because Central Missouri is so well coached. We are bigger than they are and more athletic but not any better coached than they are. They really play off of each other well. They have a system and that’s why we have played the Division II national champions every year because you’re always going to get a team that is well coached, they are winners, they believe they can win."
A nice summation, really.
After that early success, though, the cavalry came off the bench: Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook led the defensive charge with the help of Marshall Plumlee, Semi Ojeleye and Grayson Marshall, Duke turned the game pretty much on a dime.
The Mules hit 13 at the 13:24 mark; the next points came with 5:32 in the first half.
The half-time score was 40-22 and the route was well under way.
We got a better view of Jahlil Okafor, who might have been tentative in his first outing against Livingstone. He's agile, he scored over U.C.M. despite being double teamed and zoned a lot, and he got a bit nastier inside, grabbing nine boards and blocking four shots (including one where he just sort of ran by and stuck a hand up as a smaller player shot the ball. Ooops).
Justise Winslow continues to be a much more solid and finished player than we expected. He just came, like Grant Hill, needing some work on his jumper. We aren't comparing him to Grant, just his current level to G. Hill's when he got to Duke. He's very mature and understands the game quite well.
Tyus Jones was much better and had six assists and five steals. He also had eight points and just one turnover.
Amile Jefferson is trying on a new role, and it seems to fit him better. His scoring, while valuable, isn't as critical as it was; he's operating more as a rebounder, defender and facilitator. He's the classic on-court coach, getting information circulated to his teammates.
Matt Jones finished with seven points and two steals, continuing his role as a defensive stalwart.
No matter how Duke ultimately uses the younger Jones and Quinn Cook, they should provide pressure on both offense and defense. Cook has always had an ability to drive and score, and he can shoot outside as well. Jones gets points off the pass more but doesn't mind shooting at times either.
Rasheed Sulaimon didn't shoot well (1-5) but had four assists and two steals.
Semi Ojeleye also defended well, had a spectacular block, and hit a three.
Grayson Allen continues to impress as well. He's the most lightly regarded freshman (although that's a relative term), but he is a superb marksman and connected on a beautiful alley-oop which underscored his athleticism. He's going to be really good.
And Marshall Plumlee was solid as well. Because he has a teammate who is a prodigy in Okafor, Plumlee will to an extent be overlooked. He shouldn't be.
He's always been the most intense Plumlee, by far, and has a bigger mean streak than either Mason or Miles. At times he still seems a bit like a fast-growing puppy, but more often now, he grabs boards with authority and bodies up on guys.
He's become a really big, strong player. He's not as athletic as his brothers, but he's athletic enough. Years against those two and now practicing daily against Okafor will give him insights few big men have. Pretty clearly, he's not intimidated, and that mean streak is going to be handy this season. Okafor doesn't have it yet, and there will be times when Plumlee will come in the game to be the big, mean upperclassman. And he'll continue to improve as well.
Overall, the best aspect of Saturday's game was defense. Duke forced 23 turnovers and held Central Missouri to 3.7.5% from the floor. You'd think that a smaller team would chuck up a lot of threes when it sees Okafor, Winslow, Jefferson, Plumlee and Ojeleye defending, but that didn't happen: the Mules took just 10. This is a disciplined, well coached and smart team. It just ran into one which has more talent and played really solid defense.
That team has nothing to be ashamed of. It's an excellent group, very cohesive.
Duke's cohesion isn't at the same level yet; relying on three freshman, how could it be? But like last time, you can see hints of a theme: Okafor scoring inside, passing out when needed, Winslow, a smooth, muscular 6-6 forward with guard skills, a group of three point snipers and several slashers.
If we're lucky, this team is going to emerge as one of the best passing teams in the Krzyzewski era. The gold standard for that was the 1978 team, which passed like a Ferrari on I-40 at midnight. It was beautiful to see.
That kind of chemistry will develop as it does. Right now, the better chemistry is probably on defense, which is good, because that will feed into the offense's development as well.
All in all, a solid performance, even though the parts are not entirely in sync...yet.
A new addition to our game reports: we're going to give the singers 1-5 Reddings for the national anthem. This is in honor of the elegant Frances Redding, who sang it for Duke for a long time.
In this case, we'd give the singer 4.5 Reddings. She did a wonderful job with the notoriously difficult song and didn't overly personalize it. It was restrained and beautiful.
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