February 21, 2009
A few thoughts . . . .
DUKE MVP: Elliot Williams. Told in practice to ďbe ready,Ē he took full advantage of the opportunity (heightened because of McClureís unavailability due to illness) to break out in a huge, huge way. According to Elliot in the postgame interview with Bob Harris on the Duke Radio Network, K was interested in him serving as a defensive stopper, and he certainly did that, but he also scored 11 nifty points on 5-6/0-0/1-2 shooting, which included a monster slam and a spinning move in the lane that had most St. Johnís fans within our earshot saying things like ďWho is THIS guy?Ē Heh. Yes. Thatís it exactly. On defense, Elliotís long wingspan helped frustrate both of St. Johnís starting guards, shooting guard Paris Horne and point guard Malik Boothe, into a very low number of shots - - the duo scored 17 points on just 11 total FGAs as EW switched between them for much of the action, with the majority of his coverage on Boothe. Elliot stayed in front, did not bite on screen switches, and hardly fouled at all - - Horne never saw the stripe and Boothe made two of three freebies. Interestingly, Elliot began the game with two miscues on the first two possessions, but K did not even appear to think about pulling him, and the freshman settled down. What a breakout performance! After the initial jitters, Elliot settled down and played almost the entire second half. I would imagine that he is ticketed for another start against Wake Forest, which would include a defensive assignment against Teague. Wow. No pressure! As a bonus, Williamsí postgame interview with Harris was hilarious. Great attitude about being a freshman and being ready to respond if needed. Ohhhhhhhh, was he.
Jon Scheyer also broke out of his slump in a pretty big way. He was the point guard on offense, while Williams guarded the opposing one when the Red Storm had the ball. Scheyer was just 3-8 from the field, but he did something that Duke point guards have failed to do all season - - drive the bucket and draw fouls. He ended up converting 10-14 shots from the free throw line. Eight of those attempts were in late-game action, but the other six (of which he converted five) came on nice slashes at the basket while the outcome was still to be determined. The most key of these plays were drawing a foul on burly STJ forward Sean Evans at the 16:34 mark to take the lead from nine to eleven, and a nice move in large traffic just right of the paint at 14:19 to covert a bucket and run the score to 50-34, drawing a Norm Roberts timeout. Scheyer was also completely under control with his three-pointers, hitting two on four reasonable to very good looks. Defensively, he formed a great backcourt tandem with Williams. Iíve heard griping that he had only one assist, but Duke only had sixteen two-point field goals in a low-possession game, three of which were Scheyerís. Probably not time to conclude that this idea is misguided just yet! Geez. Coach K switches it up, and some people still arenít happy. Whatever - - I thought Jon was outstanding. Key stat: zero turnovers in 37 minutes, plus two steals. By contrast, Booth and Horne collected eight misplays combined.
HONORABLE MENTION: Gerald Henderson scored 18 points. He didnít shoot well from the floor, but two of his six two-point misses rolled out after being halfway down, and one of his threes was in the cylinder before being possessed by the spirit of Big East Masons Local No. 131 and rolled out. He went to the line thirteen times, converting 11. One St. Johnís booster directly behind us muttered, ďWell, this guy doesnít miss,Ē right before Gerald nailed two. Nice.
Kyle Singler had a bit of a frustrating game, fouling out and committing five mishaps while snaring only three boards, all defensive. However, he notched 15 points in 30 minutes and, most importantly, took full advantage of the lack of desire on the part of Evans and other Red Storm bruisers to escort him to the perimeter, where he capped four of five triples. (Sweet!) Singlerís DQ came at the 0:16 mark on a sliiiiiiiiightly questionable charge call drawn by Boothe, and he landed awkwardly and limped to the bench, but he pronounced himself fine after the game and has apparently suffered no ill effects in practice since.
NEEDS WORK: Well . . . Nolan Smith wrapped up his second game without a field goal and had three turnovers in 21 minutes. The worst of these came in a bad sequence late, when Nolan was in as part of the hands team to close the game out. Not so much! Boothe blew by Nolan like he was nailed to the hardwood at about the 1:27 mark, drove the line, missed, and Evans collected the board for an OR stuff that excited the crowd. Nolan immediately lost the ball in the corner on the ensuing play, leading to another lay-in by Quincy Roberts to cut it to eight. I donít know whatís wrong with Nolan, but he hasnít really played well since the Virginia game on February 1. I think it has become clear that heís not a point guard, but can he still be useful as a defender and wing option?
Greg Paulus fared poorly as well, collecting only five almost stat-free minutes. His sole mark on the box score was an ill-advised, off-balance three from the top of the key at 14:03 of the first half, after which he was immediately taken off the court. Two of his minutes came when he was inserted into the lineup after Elliot Williams appeared to twist an ankle on a second-half play and came out briefly.
GOOD STAT: .535/.697/.467 shooting, including 57.9% in the second half from the floor. Duke took what the defense gave them and shot just fifteen threes, making seven. Roughly five of the eight misses were good looks - - including Hendersonís nothing-but-net airball, which looked good all the way . . . from directly behind him. There was a very obvious strategy, just as there was against Boston College, to drive the bucket more and force fouls, rather than pump threes repeatedly. It worked very well.
ANOTHER GOOD STAT: Fouling out 80% of the entire starting five canít be bad (Boothe ended with four); Duke also rebounded 18 of St. Johnís 26 missed shots (field and line). Miles Plumlee - - who played a very, very solid eight minutes with four points and three boards - - had two great blocks to help stem the Stormís late run.
BAD STAT(S): St. Johnís shot the ball extremely well, notching .540/.813/.667 for the game. There wasnít anything Duke could do about the free throw shooting, which was about twenty percentage points over St. Johnís average and the only reason the Red Storm really stayed in the game. In addition, the three-point percentage came on 2-3 shooting from behind the arc. No, the Johnnies werenít looking to score from there, but neither were they able to get many looks thanks to the wing defense of Scheyer, Williams, and Henderson, who stopped Kennedy from any sort of wing activity other than one make in his sole attempt. But see below on the Red Stormís overall shooting.
BAD MATT: I thought Horne would do better, but he was very frustrated by Williamsí and Scheyerís defense, and simply could not stay with either one nor Henderson on offense. He fouled out on three personals against Henderson and two on Scheyer. Dukeís handling of him deserves high praise given that he hung 24 on Connecticut back in mid-January and 23 on Marquette in the Red Stormís previous game.
STRIPE GRIPES: Amazingly, Bob Donato appeared to have familiarized himself with the officiating manual before the game, and missed few if any calls. Thanks, Cryptkeeper! Ed Corbett was fine, and Tony Greene had no impact as usual, except continuing the game that he or some unseen agency plays where the boxscores call him ďTony GreenĒ and that torques up referee databases because of the assumption that itís a different guy. Itís not. All in all, the Zebraic Influence Factor (ZIF) on this one was minimal to nonexistent. St. Johnís fans did think that Scheyer stepped out of bounds on the press break at about the 0:39 mark before passing it off to Singler, who was fouled, but replays didnít support the conclusion. By gameís end, Singler and four of St. Johnís starters had been DQed.
PROPS: Iíll have a little more on this early in the week, but traveling companion The Short Fuse and I had a real treat on Thursday afternoon before attending the game. Matthew Laurance, the Duke Radio Networkís behind the bench/sideline reporter and Hollywood actor, was kind enough to join us for a really fantastic lunch. For some reason, Matthew is as big a fan of this site as those of us who contribute to it are of his work, and his generosity in sitting down with us and also visiting with us at halftime was amazing. Ever hear some story about a meeting with a celebrity that doesnít go right? Not this one. Matthew was a fantastic person to hang out with and regaled us with some really good stories. The fact that heís reading the site is something of which Iím very proud, on behalf of duhomme, myself (playing a small role), and all of our great guests. Matthew has graciously agreed to an interview for publication on the site, which weíll conduct and run as soon as his schedule allows, and later wrapped up a big day for us by mentioning the site and quoting from it (finding something halfway pithy couldnít have been easy) on the Duke Radio Networkís pregame show. Thanks, Matthew! What a terrific guy and a wonderful experience. Wow.
I DIDNíT GET IT DEPARTMENT: Criticism of this game on the Internet after this game was not all that surprising, because I think most fans expected a blowout of a 12-13 team, but itís important to remember that it was a 12-13 Big East team. As much as I joke around about the Big East, I think we can all agree that itís up there with the ACC in terms of it being a power conference, so St. Johnís record has to be looked at in that context. In addition, the Johnnies play very well at the Garden, especially this season, and they had absolutely nothing to lose going in.
Critics also focused on Dukeís overall defense in terms of St. Johnís numbers, and on the late-game skid that saw STJ cut the final margin to seven. First, Dukeís defense in this game was very good - - in fact, it was better than it was in many games this season in which opposing teams have shot far lower percentages. St. Johnís simply could not miss in the first half, shooting 61.1% on a variety of really tough shots. Where Dukeís defense came into play was in beating St. Johnís at their own game - - limiting possessions. The Red Storm had only 68 possessions in the game, and scored just 69 points, and the only reason they had that high of a point total was the capping of everything they put up, particularly in the first half, the late-game run of layups that Duke deliberately did not attempt to stop, and the unusually solid free throw shooting. If St. Johnís had shot that well all season from the line, they wouldnít be 12-14. Itís not easy to see from the box score, but actually, Dukeís defense was not just okay in this one - - it was good.
Finally, as far as the late-game margin-cutting sequence, Duke missed five of ten free throws in the last minute. Make three more of those, and itís a ten-point road win against a team that doesnít score much. In addition, the other reason the score was close was St. Johnís refusal to put the ball up from the arc - - as virtually all teams would - - in the final minutes. How many times have you heard XYZ Color Commentator, at the end of a game, say ďThey donít need to go for a three here,Ē when referring to the trailing team. However, most of the time they do anyway. St. Johnís did not, partly because of good coaching by Roberts, but also because they are not a three-point shooting team, as evidenced by their three attempts all game. Instead, they drove the bucket, and Duke, having little inclination to foul and stop the clock, let most of the drives go. Combine that with the five missed final-minute freebies, and there you have it. Nothing to be concerned about.
One final word about St. Johnís - - theyíre going to be good, possibly as early as next season and almost certainly in two years. All it takes is one guy - - Boothe, perhaps - - to improve his shooting, and theyíll be on their way. Mason, who missed this one, will get a shirt and come back as a senior next season, and Iíd be pretty surprised if they arenít above .500 in the Big East.
BOTTOM LINE: This was a very solid road win and should not be dismissed for any reason. The very welcome changes made by Coach K, if they are maintained, were very smart late-season adjustments, and the team seemed to respond to them very well. The game should be a sign of good things to come.
TEN WORDS: Duke earns tough road win, ends brief slide with changes.
ON DECK: Wake on Sunday night at Cameron, then yet another road game (this schedule is absolutely brutal) up at Industrial Park on Wednesday night, as the Twerps seek to ensure their spot in the NCAA Tournament with back-to-back wind over UNC-CH and us.
Please fire away with your own postgame take below. Thanks.