Duke’s wins over UNC and Florida State on Saturday and Monday represent a high water mark for big wins in the recent past. It’s not just the fact that they were both wins although that’s obviously nice. It’s the heart that Duke showed, because while UNC is always an emotionally demanding game, turning around and playing a tough, athletic team like Florida State on one day’s rest is a huge accomplishment.
Playing FSU is never easy, as Duke demonstrated last season when Cam Reddish hit a huge three at the buzzer, and showed again Monday night. They come at you in waves and the idea is the waves overwhelm you and ultimately drown you.
The formula works to a point yet it always seems to come up a bit short in big games or tournaments? But why?
It could partly be that Leonard Hamilton just isn’t great in difficult circumstances. He’s highly successful yet if he’s coaching against Mike Krzyzewski, Tony Bennett or say Tom Izzo, we don’t bet on Hamilton’s team.
Imagine one of FSU’s better teams against a Brad Stevens’ coached team. Who would you bet on?
It’s not all coaching though some of it may be. Here’s our theory: at a certain level, Hamilton’s focus on depth and substitutions ends up working against Florida State. Coach K has a somewhat opposite philosophy which is when you have a horse, ride him.
Hamilton’s system, as effective as it is, doesn't really allow a dominant player to emerge. What would have happened with Reddish if he had gone there? He’d have been a face in the crowd.
It works, but only to a limited degree.
Coach K’s system, usually relying on an eight-man rotation, sometimes has the opposite effect of wearing good players down.
That’s not happening so much right now and our theory is that it’s because of Wendell Moore. His versatility allows players to play to their strengths. He’s a pretty handy player himself as he has shown many times in the last two games, but it’s more than that. As we said the other day he’s a force multiplier.
We’ve seen this before though. Can you remember? Let’s get in the WayBack Machine and turn the dial to....2000.
This was the year after Elton Brand, William Avery and Corey Maggette had departed for the NBA early, something that at the time was still shocking to Duke fans (we’ve gotten used to it lately).
That left the team with Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer, Jason Williams, Chris Carrawell, Nate James and Mike Dunleavy as the main rotation guys.
The bench offered Nick Horvath, then a skinny and untested freshman, Casey Sanders, an even skinnier freshman and an athletically limited Matt Christensen.
For a big part of the season, Duke stayed pretty fresh. Why?
Because of Mike Dunleavy and the versatility of some of the other players.
Dunleavy allowed Krzyzewski to substitute creatively and often. Dunleavy might have gone in at the first timeout, for say Carrawell. At the next timeout Carrawell could have gone in for say Battier. He could have come back in for anyone on the floor but let’s say Dunleavy.
Next time out? Dunleavy for Wilson.
This worked unbelievably well until Dunleavy contracted mono.
This year’s team is deeper but Moore offers a similar benefit: his versatility allows everyone to focus on their own skills package and to use them more effectively.
His defense could allow him to guard a tough opponent which might free Cassius Stanley up to attack on offense. His ball handling gives Tre Jones a break. His rebounding lets Vernon Carey concentrate on other things more.
You can just use him in any number of ways because he’s solid in so many areas but his greatest value is that he lets other guys focus on their strengths - and that makes the team much better.
One other intangible to keep in mind: a three-time NC state high school champion, Moore is used to winning.