Friday, November 27, 2009

Duke wins on the strength of their front line

Coming into the season, everyone knew that Duke had size on their roster.

Brian Zoubek is 7'1". Miles Plumlee and Ryan Kelly are 6'10". Kyle Singler and Lance Thomas check in at 6'9". And 6'11" freshman Mason Plumlee, who may actually be the best of the group, has not yet suited up as a result of a wrist injury he suffered in the preseason.

The issue wasn't size, it was experience and ability. Was this group going to be good enough, strong enough, to handle the best front lines in the country?

I think we got the answer tonight.

Duke out-muscled, out-physicaled, and completely outplayed the Huskies front line tonight, winning a battle 68-59.

The biggest reason? Two unheralded seniors.

"I thought Thomas and Zoubek were the difference-makers for us," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. "I mean, they both had 11 rebounds."

It was more than just the play of those two inside. The Blue Devils as a team played phenomenal defense, controlling the tempo of the game and preventing the high powered UConn transition game from getting into gear.

The game sure didn't start that way, however.

For about the first 10 minutes of basketball, this one had the look of a game that could get into the 80's or 90's. UConn's transition game was in full effect as Duke was struggling to get back on defense, resulting in some easy baskets (including a two-handed windmill from Stanley Robinson that nearly brought the house down).

But Coach K made a change.

Typically, Duke picks up at half court when playing their man-to-man, but Walker kept beating the Duke defenders down the floor.

"What we normally do with a point guard like that is try to corral him at half court," Krzyzewski said, "you know, just to hold him back. So after the first TV time-out, we just said 'Get back. Don't worry about corral. Everybody is responsible for corralling him.'"

It worked.

By slowing down the Huskies, Duke took control of the tempo of the game. By keeping the Huskies from getting easy baskets in transition, the Blue Devils played to their strength and the Huskies weakness - a half court game.

"We knew we shouldn't try to fast break with them," said Krzyzewski.

What made Duke's transition defense all the more impressive was their rebounding numbers; the Blue Devils grabbed 25 offensive boards. Typically, when a team goes to the glass as hard as the Blue Devils were, it leaves them susceptible to leak outs and fast breaks.

Not so, for the Blue Devils.


Because it was their bigs doing the dirty work. Of their 25 offensive rebounds, only five came from perimeter players, mostly the result of long rebounds or tip outs.

"It's been a problem four out of our five games, for whatever reason," Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said after the game. "You can't leave an 18 year old freshman (Alex Oriakhi) to be the only guy rebounding.

"I'm so appalled by the lack of rebounding by us as a team. You can't beat anybody if they get 25 offensive rebounds."

Stanley Robinson, in particular, faced the wrath of Calhoun.

"For [Robinson] to play 35 minutes and get four rebounds in a game of 87 misses just can't happen."

Playing as poorly as they did offensively and as weak as they did on the glass, UConn still had a chance at this thing late, and it was because of their defense.

Duke opened up a 58-38 lead on a Andre Dawkins free throw with 12:21 left in the game. But over the next 11:29 of game time, Duke managed just four points and one field goal.

UConn failed to capitalize, however. During that same stretch, the Huskies missed a number of lay-ups, including two open lay-ups from Jerome Dyson in transition, and went 4-10 from the foul line. Even with those missed opportunities, the Huskies were able to get the lead down to 62-54 with 52 seconds left.

Would this have another Duke-UConn classic if the Huskies hadn't left those points on the floor?

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