CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/DURHAM—It may have taken all of October and November for a couple of Duke’s veteran players to realize that this year’s basketball season was not a continuation of last year’s, but the Blue Devils may have finally arrived at a point where a good attitude and great execution have met where a championship run is eminent.
“This isn’t last year,” said a foggy-eyed Coach Krzyzewski after his 10-2 Blue Devils fought through a staggering Eastern Michigan University zone defense and ran over the Eagles, 82-59. “It’s like a different play. Last year was a drama. This is an action movie or, I guess, some games are comedy.”
In some ways, however, Saturday afternoon’s game was a sequel. The last time these two teams faced each other was in the 1996 NCAA Tournament Regionals in Indianapolis, when EMU, led by point guards Brian Tolbert and Earl Boykins, took advantage of an unhealthy Duke roster, eliminating the Blue Devils, 75-60. Duke assistant coaches, Jeff Capel and Steve Wojciechowski, were both members of that 1995–96 Blue Devil squad, but yesterday’s matchup was less about revenge and high stakes, and more about getting this Duke team to, as Coach K put it, “adapt” to this season’s issues.
Sophomore forward Amile Jefferson (or “Millie” as his teammates call him) rightfully tackled Duke’s ongoing rebounding woes, grabbing a career-high 14 boards against a bigger and longer EMU frontcourt.
“It was just about getting position,” said Jefferson. “They play a really, really wide zone. So, on misses, you kinda get more of a three-step start to the rebound instead of rebounding from one base. I think that really helped—being able to move a lot in the paint.”
Duke outrebounded EMU 47-32, which included eight rebounds apiece from Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood.
Now, back to Coach K’s movie genre analogy.
Below, I’ve highlighted some of the most action, drama and comedy-filled themes from the first half of Duke’s 2013–14 season. Of course, some of these scripts won’t be complete until conference play begins and adds some complexity to a few of these plots. But before that happens, the No. 9 Blue Devils have to face Elon University in Greensboro on New Year’s Eve for their last non-conference game of the regular season. Nevertheless, here are the joys, the buckets, the struggles and, yes, some vomit, from Duke’s first dozen games.
The Jabari Parker-Rodney Hood effect— Hood (17.6 ppg), in fact, may be a smarter and more patient player than freshman star Parker (22.2 ppg), while Parker may be the most lethal. Duke made an adjustment from its first several games by sticking Parker in and around the paint rather than let him stalk the wings with the ball. That gave Hood more space to roam, get open, and call for the ball. When Parker can’t dribble and wiggle his way to a down-low bucket, Hood’s left-handed jumper is the next dependable option behind a Dawkins 3-pointer. Parker’s residence further down low also frees up Hood to crash the offensive glass, especially against the kind of zone defenses that teams have been using against the Blue Devils lately. Together, the two are shooting 54 percent from the field, 44 percent from three-point land, and are currently the best scoring duo in college basketball.
Andre all day—Andre Dawkins scored a season-high 20 points against EMU on 6-of-10 shooting from behind the arc, sinking his last five in a row. In mid-November, he dropped five three-pointers against Florida Atlantic University. In Duke’s two losses, however, Dawkins either did not play (then-No. 5 Kansas) or played very limited minutes (then-No. 4 Arizona). The only other time the Blue Devils faced a ranked team (then-No. 22 Michigan), they won, and Dawkins shot a perfect 2-for-2 from the arc in only 10 minutes. So, if Duke wants to win big games, Dawkins needs play at least 15-20 minutes. By now, teams have figured out that his court presence and shooter’s touch is way too dangerous to ignore, so whether he puts up double-digits or just teases the defense, Dawkins will remain a threat for the rest of the season.
Rasheed Sulaimon’s self-rediscovery—With the addition of three highly recruited freshmen and redshirt sophomore Rodney Hood, this year’s Duke roster suddenly ballooned into a breeding ground for a battle for playing time. Unfortunately, last year’s standout wingman sophomore guard, Rasheed Sulaimon, lost himself in the makeover—sometimes playing through an illness, but mostly just not playing (or practicing) well or with the same kind of acuity that he exhibited as a freshman. All of that changed on Dec. 19, when Duke played UCLA on the big stage in Madison Square Garden. Sulaimon’s stats weren’t All-American worthy (8 points, 4 assists, 3 turnovers), but there was something remarkably improved about his confidence, body language and enthusiasm. Sulaimon was back. Then, against EMU, Sulaimon continued his comeback—this time scoring 13 points on 9-of-11 free-throw shooting, 2-of-3 from the field. He also dished off a few assists—one of which was a pretty, no-look pass to Marshall Plumlee for a two-handed jam.
Alex Murphy says goodbye to Duke—It wasn’t a surprise when Duke made the announcement that redshirt sophomore Alex Murphy would be transferring. He needed to. We all wanted him to. As talented a player as Murphy is, he was rotting at the end of Coach K’s bench. His in-game flubs were mostly a result of his limited game time experience at Duke, and with even more top recruits coming in for the 2014–15 season, there was no way his situation would improve. His new home with the Florida Gators has already been warmed up by older brother Erik Murphy—who now plays for the Chicago Bulls—and, under head coach Billy Donovan, the agile Murphy will fit in perfectly with this flowering Gators team.
Rodney Hood throws up—Sports vomit humor doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. It happens in every sport, and can be caused by things like overexertion, illness, performance anxiety or a punch in the gut. Still, it’s funny to watch these fine-tuned athletes at their most vulnerable, stomach-emptying moment. Prior to tip-off against EMU, Rodney Hood left the court to throw up because of an illness. He didn’t make it back in time, so Coach K had to throw Andre Dawkins in the starting lineup at the last second. Three minutes later, Hood subbed in, missed a few shots then hammered down a put-back dunk off of a Parker miss. What wasn’t funny, however, was that Hood had to receive an IV during halftime. Then, in the first seven minutes of the second half, Hood drained a pair of threes as if nothing had happened. The comedy here is that EMU let a sick guy with barf on his breath hit some big shots.
The doomed “Free PJ” signs — The “#FreePJ” hashtag campaign officially ended on Dec. 20 when UNC announced that it would not seek reinstatement from the NCAA regarding the Tar Heel’s former junior guard, P.J. Hairston’s eligibility. It might have began when the Chapel Hill-based clothing brand, Thrill City, printed up a few T-shirts with “SCAM” written on the front in the style of the NCAA logo, and most notably worn by former Tar Heel, John Henson in an Instagram photo. But, the campaign reached its ugliest and most hilarious point during Dec. 16’s Duke–Gardner-Webb game when three Hairston sympathizers held up a couple of “Free PJ” signs from their seats inside Cameron Indoor Stadium. Almost immediately, a Duke fan grabbed one of the signs, ripped it to shreds, then threw it over the balcony. The other sign was later confiscated by security.