Duke's win hardly convincing
Posted March 23, 2013
The record shows that Duke beat Albany 73-61 to advance to the NCAA tournament's 3rd round on Sunday. Officially, the jokes about last year's loss to 15th-seeded Lehigh on Day 1 can now be retired.
However, the National Championship season of 2010 notwithstanding, the recent run of Blue Devils squads have not had great success in the tournament.
In 2007, there was the first round loss to VCU. The following season, the second-seeded Devils were stunned in Washington by West Virginia in the 2nd round. The year after that brought another No. 2 and a thoroughly embarrassing beating in the Sweet 16 at the hands of third-seeded Villanova.
And in the last two years we had the dominating come-from-ahead loss to Arizona backed up by Duke joining a list along with the likes of Syracuse, Arizona and South Carolina -- the 2s that lost to 15s in tournament history.
Friday's win over the Great Danes will do nothing to change anyone's opinion that this Duke team isn't dramatically different from last year's, or the year before, or the group that was dismissed by Big East opponents in the two years prior to the championship season.
Oh, you could look at the box score and say Duke shot 59 percent from the field while holding Albany to 37 percent accuracy. Or you could point out that after leading by nine at the half, the lead was in double figures for almost the entirety of the second half and was never closer than seven points -- and even that was after the Danes scored the first basket after halftime. Or you could talk about the dominance of Mason Plumlee inside and think that as long as Plumlee can be an offensive force the only way for Duke to lose would be a terrible shooting night for the Seth Curry-Ryan Kelly combo.
Statistics and box score aside, Duke got away with one Friday in Philadelphia. They struggled defensively to keep Albany out of the interior of their defense. Dribble penetration forced the Devils' defense to collapse and the team that held ACC opponents to under 30 percent shooting from outside the 3-point line was carved up by the Great Danes' shooters to the tune of 9-of-15, or 60 percent. That was the defensive story.
Offensively, this game was the last time Duke is going to be able to take advantage of being physically dominant. Creighton isn't going to let Mason Plumlee treat this like intramurals. The 6-foot-11 senior converted nine of his 11 shots from the floor, but most of them were dunks over less imposing Albany defenders and that is unlikely to happen again on Sunday or in any subsequent games the Devils will play the rest of this tournament.
If Duke is going to seriously challenge for Coach K's 5th national title, two things have to happen. They must get better defending the ball being driven into the middle of their defense. Miami, Maryland and Albany all created problems driving to the basket and since the teams only get better from here on out, you'd have to think that issue isn't going away.
Duke also needs more than just two players filling up the score sheet. Seth Curry and Plumlee combined for 49 of the Devils' 73 points. But if the Blue Devils are going to make loud noises this month, Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Ryan Kelly need to command the attention of the opposing defense.
In the case of Kelly, three weeks ago, he napalmed Miami for 36 points making seven of his nine 3-pointers. Since then, he's converted just two of his 15 attempts from long distance. Duke's offense is only lethal when opposing teams can't afford to double down on Plumlee. Kelly being Kelly, which is to say a 50 percent shooter from beyond the arc, opens up the floor for the Devils to drive the ball inside. If Kelly, Cook and Sulaimon can't do better than a combined one for eight, it's unlikely Duke is going to last much longer this month.
Duke's second half against Albany was better than their first, and it isn't that the Blue Devils didn't play well. Being a high seed usually only buys you one less-than-spectacular game. And, while the numbers say easy win, the reality was far different. Sunday against Creighton and certainly beyond if Duke heads to Indianapolis, the Blue Devils will need to be much better on both ends of the floor.
Otherwise, the really loud noises will be questions about why another tournament ended earlier than expected.