While it's a long way from a polished performance, what we saw from Duke on Friday night was dramatically better than what we saw against Kentucky.
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Or at least in the second half.
The first half wasn't quite as good. VCU managed a lot of penetration and on a number of occasions, Duke was careless with the ball. There were a lot of passes that were close enough for VCU to tip or intercept, which, being VCU, they pushed downcourt in a big hurry.
Duke went just seven deep and the star, clearly, was Grayson Allen.
After an awful performance against Kentucky, Coach K brought Allen off the bench and he really responded, scoring 30 points on 9-15. And unlike the UK game, he mixed it up, taking eight three pointers (hitting four) and shooting 9-15 overall.
Derryck Thornton, who moved into the starting lineup with Allen's benching, also played well, scoring 19 and passing out four assists. He played a really smart game overall and we expect it'll be hard to get him out of the lineup now.
Matt Jones also played well overall, though he probably tried a few things on offense that were ill-advised.
Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee played well again, though neither scored as much - or needed to - as they had against Kentucky.
Jefferson finished with six points and seven rebounds, while Plumlee managed four points and three boards. But check this out: in 105 minutes, Plumlee has just nine fouls. That works out to one every 11 minutes, and that's counting four in the Bryant game. In the last three games, he's had just five. If you remember, earlier in his career Plumlee could pick up a couple of fouls on the way to the scorer's table. It's a dramatic improvement. Plumlee probably won't play as well offensively as he did against Kentucky all the time, but it looks like he can stay on the court, and his defense has been solid. VCU got inside a lot in this game, but it's not entirely Plumlee's fault that they did.
Duke did have some issues with Brandon Ingram. As we've said since he signed, Ingram's lack of strength is going to be a problem until he matures. At one point he drove and he...kind of crumpled.
It instantly reminded us of Danny Ferry as a freshman, when he wasn't confident enough to power to the basket. He, too, kind of crumpled.
On another occasion, there was a loose ball and rather than diving for it, Ingram leaned over to grab it (he didn't get it).
As he fills out, Ingram will be able to assert himself physically, and like everyone at Duke, he'll be, uh, encouraged to play physically. Strength will come, and before that, smarts. He just needs some time. The talent is there.
Luke Kennard's situation is somewhat different. He's physically more mature than Ingram, and he's a really fine shooter, but he hasn't shown it much lately.
Kennard hasn't hit a shot since the Bryant game.
It won't be a problem for long; he's an outstanding shooter and beyond that, he's just a good basketball player. The ball seems to find its way to him somehow and so far, he hasn't given it away yet. For a freshman to play four games and, basically, four halves (he's getting 20.7 mpg) with no turnovers, that's pretty darn good.
Perhaps because of VCU's powerful inside game, Chase Jeter didn't play. Like Ingram, Jeter needs some more muscle to reach his potential.
There were issues in this game as we said - Duke had 14 turnovers, several of which were just dumb mistakes, poor ballhandling or weak passes - and the defense wasn't what it could have been early in the game.
It came around in the second half though - in the last 12:00 minutes or so Duke held VCU to 5-20 and pulled away.
Free throws were a problem too. Although Allen was 8-9 from the floor and Thornton 3-5, Ingram and Jefferson combined for just 6-16.
Still, you can see the broad outlines of the emerging team. Allen is an emerging star who can drive, hit threes and pass - and defend.
Plumlee and Jefferson are solid inside players who will rarely score a lot but who are rugged and reliable. Jones is a tough guard who can defend multiple positions and hit from outside. Thornton is a talented but still iexperienced point guard who will grow into his job. He's capable of putting immense pressure on the ball. Ingram is a huge talent who is physically immature but he can jump out of the building and his arms are incredibly long. He's going to be a special player, more so when he bulks up a bit.
And Kennard is going to be a very, very good player. Shooting is what he's best known for, but he has a grasp of the game that's really advanced. As soon as he fully adjusts, you'll see a very different and valuable player.
With so many new players it's going to take some time to fit the pieces together, and for Ingram and Jeter, sometime to become physically imposing.
This year, in short, instead of seeing a team which was really advanced, this year we get the pleasure of seeing a young team find its way. It's going to be fun.
Duke plays Georgetown on Sunday in the finals as the Hoyas knocked off Wisconsin, 71-61.