Dukes Austin Rivers drives the lane against Belmont, November 11, 2011
  • Photo by Al Drago
  • Duke’s Austin Rivers drives the lane against Belmont, November 11, 2011

CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/ DURHAM—With nine minutes left in the first half of Duke’s 77-76 season-opening win over Belmont last night, one of the kids in the student section behind me—and I mean Right. Be. Hind. Me—took a brief, thoughtful pause between profane taunts and asked his neighbor: “Where is Belmont?”

The answer, last night, was: About as close behind Duke as the kid was behind me. A rather ragged game—the teams combined for 37 turnovers and 46 fouls—saw the Blue Devils build a 53-37 lead with 14:19 to play, only to give nearly all of it back thanks mainly to some sloppy offense that led to easy Belmont baskets. It took Andre Dawkins’s clutch, hand-in-his-face three-pointer, with Duke clinging to a one-point lead, the shot clock down to three seconds and only 20 ticks left in the game, to seal Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 901st career victory (a Belmont three-pointer at the buzzer narrowed the final margin to one). His next win, which he ought to get this afternoon at home against Presbyterian, will tie him with his mentor, the charming Bobby Knight, for the most in Division I Men’s Basketball history.

This was the second game ever played between Duke and Belmont, and Duke’s second straight one-point escape over the Bruins. In the 2008 NCAA Tournament, the No. 15 seed Bruins took the No. 2 Blue Devils to the wire, losing 71-70 in the final seconds.

Belmont University is in Nashville, Tenn., by the way. Duke fans probably won’t need to be reminded of that ever again.

Multiple times during his postgame remarks, Krzyzewski made sure to talk about how good Belmont is, after opening by confessing that he had been “worried” about the season-commencing Belmont sweepstakes all summer and fall (the poor guy! I bet he had CMT blocked from his cable service).

And good they are. The Bruins returned 10 of 12 players from the rotation in last year’s 30-5, NCAA tournament team out of the Atlantic Sun Conference; they shoot well; they have serviceable big men who scored at will against Duke’s Plumli et al; and a good penetrating guard in junior Kerron Johnson.

The mature Belmont bunch wasn’t cowed by Duke, especially since veteran head coach Rick Byrd (610 career wins in 33 seasons) nearly upset the Blue Devils in the NCAA Tournament a few years ago. Also, Belmont is seventh in the country in road and neutral-site wins since 2005—06. They can play, and they can play anywhere. The Cameron lunacy didn’t rattle them at all. You’re likely to see them again in your 2012 March Madness bracket. “They remind me so much of Butler when we played them [in the NCAA Championship Game] a couple of years ago,” Krzyzewski said.

All fine and good, but A) Duke beat Butler, of course, and won the championship, and B) Belmont may be pretty good on the road, but Duke is even better at home—way better, in fact, than just about anyone. Duke hasn’t lost a non-conference home game since 2000—that’s 11 years, sportsfans; like, as in, Mike Dunleavy Jr. was on that team. Certain laws of the universe can be counted on to prevail, and sometimes by the simplest means. As Krzyzewski put it, succinctly, “I thought we were a little bit better than [Belmont] tonight.”

By a single point, yes. In most statistical categories of the game, the difference was actually very hard to descry. Belmont shot the ball better than Duke, 47.4 percent to 42.9 percent. Duke committed 19 turnovers, Belmont 18. Belmont outrebounded Duke, barely, 35-34. Duke committed two fewer fouls. Duke was a little better at the free throw line, 76.9 percent (20-26) to 72.7 percent (16-22, including one much-taunted airball by Ian Clark, the pre-season Atlantic Sun Player of the Year; oh well, Miles Plumlee missed this dunk:)

The difference in the game, then? Three-point shots. Both teams took 19 of them. Duke made nine (47.4 percent), Belmont six (31.4 percent). It was fitting that Duke built its 16-point lead—which really won the game for the Blue Devils, in hindsight, because it allowed them to survive the slovenly minutes that followed—mostly on the strength of three three-pointers, one each by Seth Curry, Austin Rivers and Tyler Thornton. And it was fitting as well that Duke’s fourth marksman, Dawkins, hit the final three that put the game away.

So Belmont head coach Byrd was justifiably upbeat afterward. “When your team can come into Cameron and make that kind of comeback, down 16″—and, he added, with the Devils hitting nearly half of their three-pointers, better than he expected them to shoot from outside—”we can be a top-25 team for sure.”

And as for Duke? Does one dare make any serious assessments after a single, season-opening game, in which Duke’s top minutes-getter was a freshman (Rivers, who looked very good. all things considered); their three best players from last season (Kyrie Irving, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith) have moved on; and Seth Curry has gone from being a third or fourth option to the team’s probable leading scorer?

Of course not. The interior defense needs work, that’s sure. Belmont’s bigs possessed the paint confidently throughout the game, and they got more offensive rebounds than they should have managed. On the other hand, Duke is dominated by its guards—its four most dangerous players are guards, and the tallest Blue Devil, Ryan Kelly, plays like a small forward. As the guards go this season, so will Duke go, more than likely. Mason Plumlee had a nice game last night—somehow he tied a career high for assists in the first half alone, and wound up with a 13-point, 14-rebound double-double—but he isn’t going to be one of those big machines you can run an offense through.

Interior defense aside, it was Duke’s sloppy offense that hampered them last night, according to Krzyzewski. “Our offense let us down,” he said, twice, adding: “Our offense gave them offense.” Poor Duke possessions allowed Belmont to get out in transition, which helped their shooters, who were ice-cold in the first half (0-7 three-pointers), find their stroke. “Our defense was pretty good when our offense didn’t hurt us,” Krzyzewski said.

What Duke needs, really, is nothing more or less than time. Kryzyewski made multiple mentions of the word “maturity” after the tense win. “We grew up a lot tonight,” he said, asseverating that “we’ll be a lot better after playing this game.”

Right after playing it, more or less, he has to hope: Duke plays its next game this afternoon (!) at 4:30 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium. After winning the Belmont by a nose, the Blue Devils run the Preaknessbyterian today. Presbyterian College is, like Duke, 1-0 this year, having won its season-opener at home last night over Montreat, 107-73 (attendance: 488). This ought to be a much easier game for the Blue Devils than Friday’s bats-in-the-Belmont, one-point craziness—Krzyzewski’s record-tying 902nd win a relative cakewalk—but it might be well, just in case, for Duke fans to know before showing up that the Presbyterian Blue Hose hail from Clinton, South Carolina.