Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski thought Seth Curry was the difference-maker for Duke in its win over Kentucky. Credit: CHUCK LIDDY
ATLANTA—It was a matchup with March Madness-level intensity. And here's a fittingly in-depth analysis from yours truly:
First, the game story from No. 9 Duke's 75-68 win over No. 3 Kentucky and the full story behind John Calipari's comments on Duke flopping at halftime.
***Duke needs all three of its seniors to be successful.
The trio of Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry is greater than the sum of its individual parts. That’s not to say that, as individuals, they’re not good, but the three of them clicking on the court will be necessary for future Duke success.
Right from the start, their importance was apparent. The seniors combined to score the Blue Devils’ first 28 points. Kelly had two consecutives blocks on Alex Poythress shots in the first half, which featured no lead larger than six points. And Kyle Wiltjer, who was guarded by Kelly, finished with just five points and three rebounds after recording 19 points and six boards in Kentucky’s season-opener. Kelly finished with 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting (he’s yet to find his shot this season), but his defensive contributions, with three blocks and three steals, were invaluable.
Curry finished with 23 points, the second-highest total in his Duke career (he scored 26 against N.C. State last season). Fourteen of those points came in the second half. Curry scored six points in the final 2:04 of the game, four on free throws and two on a key lay-up in traffic that made it a two-possession game at 68-63.
The ability to drive through the lane and finish in traffic is a new element to Curry’s game.
“I thought Seth’s play was the key factor,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “One thing he’s added to his game, he’s not just a shooter, he’s a scorer. He’s got little hurky-jerky moves that, when he keeps good balance… he’s got a way of making a guy commit. Really, not many people can do that.”
For the second time in three seasons, Duke’s fate rests on an injured body part. Remember Kryie Irving’s big toe on his right foot from 2010-11? Well, now it’s Curry’s right shin. The injury (which doesn’t have a name but does have pain and swelling) has limited him to spot work in just four practices this year.
“I’m shocked at his level of conditioning, that he’s been able to do that,” Krzyzewski said of Curry's success.
Curry’s previous experience—he is a fifth-year senior—helps. Only a seasoned veteran could get away with not practicing and carrying a team in a huge game.
“Coach did a good job of getting me in and out of the game," he said. "Certain periods allowed me to get rest and be fresh for the end of the ball game. I did a good job of trying to stay sharp with my limited practice time, work on my ball handling, stuff like that. My teammates also did a good job of finding me early in the game. I haven’t really been around them as much as I usually am in practice, so they did a good job of finding me in certain situations early in the game, which got me going with some open shots. That was key.”
Plumlee, battling down low all night against Nerlens Noel and Poythress, was particularly effective on the offensive end, going 7-of-8 from the floor and 4-for-4 from the free throw line for 18 points. Defensively, though, he ran into foul trouble, picking up his fourth foul with 16:04 remaining in the game, sending him to the bench.
“The fourth one was such a terrible foul,” Plumlee said after the game.
He wasn’t lying. It was a foul on Noel at the top of the key, well outside his effective range.
Plumlee sat for six minutes, but Duke was able to extend its lead from six to 12 points during that span (more on that below). According to Basketball Prospectus’s John Gasaway, Plumlee is averaging exactly 5.0 fouls per 40 minutes of action. Simply put, Duke cannot afford for Plumlee to be on the bench with excessive fouls. He’s got to play smarter.
***So, how exactly, was Duke able to extend its lead with its best player on the bench? Well, the explanation is multi-pronged:
When Plumlee is in the game, the Blue Devils try to feed him down in the post. This becomes easier if the paint is clear, so the guards don’t look to drive. Without Plumlee, clogging the lane is no longer a concern, changing the alignment of the offense completely.
“I told the guys we had more spacing with Mason out, so we could drive it and kick it and things like that,” Curry said. “When I got to into the lane, I knew Noel would try to come over and block it up and block shots and things like that, so I was just trying to get it up on the rim.”
Four of the points scored in that span came as a result of Josh Hairston scoring off of offensive rebounds he collected. Hairston finished with a team-high four offensive rebounds. For comparison’s sake, Plumlee had three rebounds—all defensive—total.
“Josh Hairston’s play was really critical,” Krzyzewski said. “His offensive rebound buckets were really big.”
Hairston on 6-foot-10 Noel was no doubt a mismatch defensively, and Hairston had four fouls himself with 11:06 remaining in the game. Kentucky coach John Calipari also subbed in 7-footer Willie Cauly-Stein in attempt to exploit the size advantage on 6-foot-7 Hairston even further. But Noel and Cauly-Stein only managed one basket each during Plumlee’s absence.
“I figured we’d have some size and it would let us go inside,” Calipari said, “But it didn’t work.”
***When Plumlee came back in at the 10:05 mark, Duke was up by 11 points at 55-44. About 6:30 later, though, and the lead was down to three.
During that span, Kentucky was able to score down low at will, as Poythress, Wiltjer and Noel slammed home emphatic dunks on three straight possessions. The pro-Wildcats crowd (it was like a road game for Duke) went nuts.
“At first, he was in, and he didn’t play defense,” Krzyzewski said of Plumlee’s return. “They went right at him. After a timeout, Steve [Wojciechowski] got on him and was like, ‘look, you can’t play like you have four fouls. You’ve just got to play smart.’ And he did. He made a couple of really neat passes out for 3s.”
***Hairston was the clear first reserve option for reliving Kelly or Plumlee in the post. I would suspect that Marshall Plumlee will take over that role once he returns next week from the stress fracture in his left foot, but in the interim, the bulk of the playing time went to Hairston. He logged 14 minutes and did the job with his two huge offensive rebounds. Meanwhile, Amile Jefferson saw just four minutes of action, and Alex Murphy, who has an inch on Hairston at 6-foot-8, was in for a brief two-minute span.
While Murphy was in, he was absolutely schooled by Poythress, who dunked over him and Plumlee. Murphy came out shortly thereafter. I mentioned in the preview post that Krzyzewski wants Murphy to play with more confidence. And, in his short opportunity, Murphy didn’t do that. With him buried on the bench and Rodney Hood (along with incoming recruits Semi Ojeleye and Matt Jones) looking for playing time on next year’s team, don’t be shocked if Murphy opts to transfer from Duke before the second semester. That way, he would be able to play—actually play—half of next season somewhere else.
***Speaking of preseason starters who had already lost their jobs before the season began, Krzyzewski offered unsolicited praise of Quinn Cook after the game.
“In the first half, Quinn Cook really gave us a will,” he said. “We scored in transition. It was difficult for us to score in the half court in the first half. We got some rebounds, and he really pushed the ball up the court and got some early 3s and got us to the foul line.”
Cook played 30 minutes, shot 3-of-5 from the field for seven points, and recorded three assists and two turnovers. He is the more offensively minded option, over Tyler Thornton, to run Duke’s offense. But, in light of Curry’s injury, Krzyzewski prefers to start Thornton for defensive purposes.
“Having [Seth] start out, and then Tyler usually gets the toughest defensive assignment, and Rasheed [Sulaimon]'s been playing really well,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s a good way to do it. You’re not going to do anything with Ryan or Mason. Quinn would be like a sixth starter. Or he could start, maybe start the second half. He really asserted himself. He’s had a great week of practice, and he has to keep building on it.”
Plumlee said after the game that the coaching staff was not pleased with Cook’s performance in the two exhibition games, which is the last time he started.
“Quinn gave us such a lift in the first half, and that’s how the coaches want him to play," he said. "I know they were getting on him a little bit after the exhibitions, and I think he responded really well. Now he just can’t look back, he’s got to keep playing the way he can play.”
***Just one note on Kentucky: the ceiling on this team is incredibly high. The Wildcats do need a point guard though, and it remains to be seen if Ryan Harrow is the answer there. Of the highly touted recruits, Poythress was, far and away, the most impressive. He had several rim-rattling dunks and finished with a team-high 20 points.
“He is a beast,” Calipari said. “So be a beast. I don’t want to see any of the cute stuff. Get the ball and dunk on somebody. And he did.”