Cameron Indoor Stadium / Durham – “Shell shocked,” said Virginia Tech basketball coach James Johnson, age 42, describing his young team’s play in the first 10 minutes of Tuesday night’s game, during which the Blue Devils applied full-court pressure, denied interior passing, and held the Hokies to four points.
“Coach constantly tells me he thinks I can be a lockdown defender,” said Rasheed Sulaimon. The Duke guard stalked Virginia Tech point guard Devin Wilson like a hungry leopard for much of the game, pouncing on balls and gliding around the court in a terrifying wide-armed hunting crouch. His efforts helped force the freshman into six turnovers and seven points on 3-12 shooting.
“Long,” said Johnson, drawing the word out a full two seconds to describe Sulaimon.
“6’3, 6’4,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “He’s quick.”
“He’s big,” said Johnson. “He’s long,” he added again.
“He wants to play defense,” said Krzyzewski.
“That was the difference in the game,” Johnson said.
“One of the reasons we’re playing better is Rasheed’s pressure on the ball,” said Krzyzewski.
For the third game in a row, Duke didn’t shoot well, yet continued to produce offensive highlights that pleased the crowd and one another. Jabari Parker dunked twice lustily on breakaways, once with one hand, once with two, while Rodney Hood soared to alarming heights to jam home a Tyler Thornton alley-oop. Sulaimon drained a falling down three from the corner, then popped up off the floor, scowling happily at the crowd and jabbing a finger at his own head as if to point out that he’s crazy. Marshall Plumlee scored twice, both elbow-splayed knee-pumping follow dunks on a miss by Sulaimon and another by Quinn Cook, who played sparingly, as did sharpshooter Andre Dawkins.
“We need to get Andre shooting again,” said Coach Krzyzewski, looking ahead to what the team will work on in the week of game-free practice. “Quinn should be a bigger factor. Marshall has emerged. How do we rotate?” With the game behind him, he was looking ahead to the tournament. “We have to take a look at how we sub. I like our starting unit. I think they’ve developed a really good chemistry,” Krzyzewski said.
Duke appeared comfortable with Virginia Tech’s zone defense, after a season of facing stiffer zones from the likes of Syracuse, Miami and even North Carolina, who threw a few 1-3-1 sets into the mix last week to disrupt the usually potent Blue Devil offense. This time, Duke guards found better passing angles to the foul line, where Hood flashed repeatedly and turned to make short jumper after jumper on his way to 21 points, shooting 6-10 from inside the three point line. And for the first time all season, the Blue Devils seemed systematic and deliberate in pounding the ball down low to Jabari Parker, with mixed results, which included four shots blocked brutally and a pair of other turnovers.
“I kinda did a bad job playing in the low post,” said Parker. “I got a couple looks but didn’t really finish them. I need to get more feels in the paint, see where defenders are, seeing where the doubles are.”
“When we got it inside we were not smart about how we tried to convert,” said Krzyzewski.
Parker, who just picked up his ninth ACC rookie of the week award for his body of work against the Tar Heels, Orangemen and Yellow Jackets, had a below-average scoring night, totaling 11 points on 3-11 shooting from the field and 5-6 from the line. He was blocked four times and turned the ball over three times. Yet with five minutes left in the game, he reached up one long arm and snapped a fierce rebound in heavy traffic, one of 12 he would claim tonight, and a reminder of the things he can do on the court that few other players can.
After playing four games in eight days, Duke is poised to rest for a week before facing off against Wake Forest in Winston Salem on March 5. “Bumps and bruises but we got to get used to it if we want to win games,” said Parker.
“It’s kinda like getting that last last bit of toothpaste out,” said Krzyzewski. A master of metaphors, he has compared fighting for a roster spot to old journalists fending off their newsroom competition; evoked Broadway musical rehearsal to describe game day preparation; mused about gardening and soil to frame the growth of Jabari Parker. “Even though you’ve got two full containers, you’ve got to get that last little bit.”
“We think this team has a chance to do something special this year, and to do that we have to mature,” Sulaimon said. “Lockdown defender,” he continued. “If Coach K is telling you something, it must be true.”
Box score here.