Duke often uses a play where guard Nolan Smith inbounds from under the opponent’s basket to center Mason Plumlee, then immediately runs to the corner for a quick return pass and a look at a 3-point shot.
Opposing coaches watch film. They know it’s coming. And lately they’ve had Smith’s defender and Plumlee’s defender cheat toward the perimeter to prevent the 3-point shot.
In the past two games, Plumlee has anticipated this. Once against Maryland and again vs. N.C. State, he has faked the pass to Smith and attacked the basket for a dunk.
The subtle adjustment is just one more sign that Plumlee is maturing as a sophomore and becoming a reliable starting center for Duke.
“Mason has led with his strengths during this last month, being a rebounder and a runner and a shot-blocker,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “He’s helped us tremendously with that. We just felt that, along the way if you keep playing to your strengths, your scoring will come. That hasn’t been a strength for him, but it’ll come.”
In the last two games, Plumlee has made strides as a scorer. He has continued to struggle with his free throws (2-for-10; he is at 38.8 percent for the season), but he scored 12 points with 11 rebounds at Maryland and had 16 points and 12 rebounds against N.C. State.
“I feel like I’m taking more shots and they’re going for me,” Plumlee said. “I’m not fading away as much, trying to attack the basket more. I feel like guys are looking for me more and I’m converting. If you convert, they’ll keep looking for you.”
Plumlee is getting baskets by beating opposing centers down the floor for dunks in transition. He is scoring off offensive rebounds. In the second half against N.C. State, he even scored twice on a right-handed jump hook that he has been developing in practice but hasn’t used much in games.
His emergence is significant as Duke (21-2, 8-1 ACC) prepares to play host to North Carolina (17-5, 7-1) at 9 p.m. Wednesday with first place in the ACC on the line. North Carolina has two outstanding low-post starters in Tyler Zeller and John Henson.
Duke needs at least one player who can match them in the low post, and Plumlee is the best candidate to do that. In fact, he made a huge contribution last season as a freshman in the first game between the two rivals in Chapel Hill.
The score was tied 43-43 when Plumlee entered the game with 10 minutes, 9 seconds remaining. Over the next 3:06 he grabbed four rebounds, including three on the offensive end. After one of those rebounds he jammed home a reverse dunk to put Duke ahead for good in a 64-54 win.
There’s a theory that Plumlee performs his best when matched with outstanding post players. That will have to hold true Wednesday night if Duke is going to hold its own against a strong front line.
“The last couple of games, he’s had to go up against some really good post players, and I think that’s raised his competitiveness and just his game,” said Duke senior forward Kyle Singler. “When you’re going up against [Jordan] Williams from Maryland and [Tracy] Smith, I think that helps him get into a different mode. If he can keep that going, it’ll be good for our team.”