CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/ DURHAM—On my way out of the arena after the Duke Blue Devils whomped the University of Pennsylvania Quakers, a.k.a. Penn, 85-55, I said howdy-seeya to one of the other sportswriters I know from the Durham Bulls beat. The guys who write for the dailies are already writing their stories minutes after the game is over. Actually, a bunch of them leave the court a few minutes before the game ends, if the outcome is well in hand—which lately it has been at Cameron, by the middle of the first half—and get the jump on it, keeping an eye on the dregs of the action on the TV in the Media Room. Then they hit the locker room for interviews and listen to Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s post-game comments, plug in a few pro forma quotes, hit SEND. Outta here.
I asked my acquaintance what he was going to say about last night’s easy Duke win—their third laugher in a row—and he replied that he could practically use the same story he filed for Duke’s drubbing of Western Michigan on Friday. Just change a few names and numbers.
My colleagues David Fellerath and Eric Martin, in their respective write-ups of Duke’s recent consecutive blowout wins, have been articulating why it is exactly that games like these exist, and why we should trouble ourselves to care about them. Let me play along, since there’s little to tell you of any major interest about last night’s doings. I tweeted right before opening tip-off that I’d be back on Twitter in short order, as soon as Duke had a double-digit lead. Didn’t take long: It was 12-2 after less than four minutes, 20-6 at the second media time out. The rest was just an exhibition.
So just what exactly was exhibited?
You all ready with your jokes about “Quakers”? Non-violent, anti-hierarchical radicals? In short, candy-asses? Sportsfans, I am a proud alumnus of Carolina Friends School, and I am here to tell you that we will kick your ass in consensus-building. Quietly. And furniture. No, wait—that was the Shakers, not the Quakers. Never mind. Let’s settle in.
Who are we kidding, anyway? Penn is no more “Quaker” than Quaker Oats (a PepsiCo subsidiary) or Quaker State Oil (which merged with Pennzoil and is publicly traded on the NYSE). No, Penn is an Ivy League titan with a top-five business school (Wharton) and all that goes with it. You may be shocked to learn that Penn is 10th all-time in wins in NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball history. Indiana is 12th. Penn’s 1,673 wins are a scant 33 games behind UCLA, which won seven straight national championships from 1967-73. But times have changed, of course—Penn started hooping in 1897, when players still threw a peach into a chamberpot or something, 23 years before UCLA had a basketball program—Hollywood didn’t exist yet. Remember that the Ivies used to dominate college sports. Then big business gave sports the business, but Penn just stuck with its business school—and the Ivy League. Its conference brethren have similarly stayed out of the sports market, which is why college hoops followers still get excited when Harvard (coached, don’cha know, by Dukie Tommy Amaker) cracks the Top 25, as they have this season. But I wouldn’t start bracketing the Crimson into New Orleans, if I were you. You gotta pay to play.
In other words, yesterday’s affair was much more a business deal than a basketball game: Penn got a chunk of easy money and some ESPN exposure, Duke got an easy win to keep its prestige well puffed. Krzyzewski lauded the Ivies’ competitiveness for a while after the game—a costless thing to do after beating one of them by 30 points—but that’s just good sportsmanship, as opposed to good sport. The Ivy League, as you may know, prohibits giving athletic scholarships; thus its teams aren’t playing in the same league with the Dukes of the NCAA. That’s yet another reason to disdain the superannuated and hypocritical governing body of most of our college sports. It’s preposterous that Penn and Duke should be competing in the same milieu—ah, but the rub is that Duke’s leonine esteem in that milieu (which is not Penn’s, even though the Quakers play ball in Division I) relies on having lots of Quakers/Broncos/Blue Hose upon which to gorge itself during the fattening-up time of the holiday season.
Speaking of fattening up: I happened to run across the Penn ballers on New Year’s Eve in the Washington Duke Inn, where they stayed in the closest thing to swanky luxury Durham offers (make sure to remember your comb or brush, because the WaDu’s hospitality desk has none available anywhere in the building should you forget to pack it). All I could think of was soldiers being lavishly fed and lodged before going off to slaughter. It was kind of touching, watching the Quakers’ 6-foot-8 forward Henry Brooks duck to avoid hitting his head on the beams in the corridor, as though he and his teammates weren’t going to be thoroughly brained 24 hours later.
That’s not to say that Penn has no game. They’ve got a much-ballyhooed point guard in Zack Rosen and a sharpshooting swing guard, Tyler Bernardini, who has hit eight three-pointers in a game twice already this year. The telling thing is that Krzyzewski said, after the game, that Duke’s strategy was to thwart those two players, and it worked: the two were held to about half their combined average point total, and Bernardini only had five shots, plus four fouls trying to guard Duke’s superior athletes.
What Krzyzewski wasn’t saying, but which was solidly communicated by its very omission, was that Rosen and Bernardini were the only two Quakers it was really necessary for the Blue Devils to contain. The rest of the team wasn’t going to be able to compensate, Krzyzewski knew, mostly because they were so much smaller than Duke: the tallest Penn player to see meaningful action was the 6-foot-8 Brooks, who drew two fouls in less than a minute midway through the first half, trying to match up with the bigger, taller, stronger Plumli, which took him out of the game.
Duke, by contrast, has three players who are 6-foot-10 or taller, and one of them is Ryan Kelly, a “EuroBig,” as Jay Bilas called him, and basically unguardable by the likes of Penn’s roster. Kelly made all four of his three-pointers (all of them wide-open looks, if I recall) and got 12 rebounds; the Blue Devils outrebounded Penn 47-29, and Kelly and Mason Plumlee combined for 26 boards, just three fewer than the entire opposing team. It wasn’t a fair fight to begin with. At one point, Penn head coach Jerome Allen (a former four-year star player for the Quakers in the 1990s) could be heard calling a defensive set to his charges. He may have been saying “double flex” or something like that, but mixed into the minor din of the sedate New Year’s Day crowd at Cameron, it sounded for all the world like he was shouting, “Boba Fett! Boba Fett!” And indeed it would have taken a hired gun, a clone specimen, a rogue bounty hunter from the Dark Side, to give the Quakers a fighting chance last night. But, of course, Duke is the Evil Empire, right? Krzyzewski (and Calipari et al) have already recruited all the Boba Fetts. They go by names like John Wall and Austin Rivers—very obviously aliases. Some of them, like the Plumli, are even clone specimens.
The emblematic injustice in last night’s game came in a brief sequence with about five minutes remaining in the first half. The score was 36-22, Duke, and it was about to be 38-22 as Miles Plumlee loaded up from the left block for a thunder-dunk—but he clanged it off the front iron (derrr!)—that embarrassing blooper move where it’s like the rim itself somehow rises up and stuffs you—and the ball wound up in the hands of Penn’s Miles Cartwright. But Plumlee, who like his younger brother Mason is deceptively quick, reacted fast: He enterprisingly poked the ball out of Cartwright’s hands from behind as Cartwright tried to start a fast break. It went right to Duke’s Andre Dawkins near halfcourt. Dawkins calmly passed the ball right back to Plumlee, not far from where Plumlee had commenced his original slam-dork move, and this time the big man consummated his relationship with the basket. Jam! Miles’ stones!
Which is to say that this was one of those games where Duke’s superior athleticism and overall talent made it seem like they got to do everything twice for every time Penn did it once: they manufactured so much more product with their personnel that some of that product could be rejected, like Plumlees blown dunk (in truth, Duke made few blunders last night). Plenty of raw statistics in the box score appear to suggest a more even battle than the 85-55 score tells: the turnovers were about equal, Penn made only three fewer free throws than Duke, and the Quakers had 11 steals to the Blue Devils’ five. But games between two mismatched teams aren’t decided by the stats. They are decided, as the Triangle Offense meme now has it, when the game is scheduled. The stats are recorded in essentially different registers. Penn’s 11 steals simply don’t compare to Duke’s five.
But the rebounds—you can definitely compare those. After the game, Krzyzewski, talking about Mason Plumlee, who had 14 boards, said that “rebounding is hunger and pursuit.” True enough when all other things are equal, but last night things weren’t equal: rebounding was about being 6-foot-11, built like G. I. Joe, and with pogo sticks for legs, instead of 6-foot-6 with a scruffy beard or a nice 21-foot jump shot.
The sheer difference in physicality was interesting in hindsight, from another angle. Krzyzewski said after the game that Duke played really well last night, and they did. To go back around to my beginning, to the essential question Triangle Offense has been asking about Duke lately—What is the point of blowout games like these?—the answer is that they are where Duke sets its cogs and teeth on edge in preparation for for the higher gears of the Atlantic Coast Conference season, which commences in less than a week. Players’ roles (and how well they can play those roles) are being established. The team’s overall style is coming into focus—indeed, that focus has changed, as Duke is starting to look like a more uptempo team than we might have predicted. “You have to adjust to your personnel,” Krzyzewski said, and his greatest strength as a coach, I’ve always thought, has been his ability to do just that. If he had a pure talent like UNC’s Harrison Barnes, I bet Barnes would be averaging 18 shots and over 20 points per game, instead of the 12 and 17 he gets as a Tar Heel.
But in addition to adjusting to your personnel, you also have to adjust your personnel. The dominant theme lately in the Duke locker room has been physicality and conditioning. Practices, the players tell reporters, have grown more intense, more physical. There’s more running, more strength-building, more getting bigger, faster, more powerful. Krzyzewski was asked after the game about Quinn Cook’s development and his increasing playing time: Cook has 17 assists and zero turnovers in the last two games, more minutes logged than starter Tyler Thornton, and he did much to shut down Penn’s guards last night. It was revealing that Krzyzewski answered by talking first not about Cook’s skills or his “learning the college game” or such abstract stuff. Cook is playing more, and better, Krzyzewski said, because “Quinn, physically, is better able to do that than he was even at the start of the regular season. He’s gotten stronger; his knees are better; he’s in better shape; he’s had more reps.”
Given that Duke seems to be putting it all together just as the January-February ACC grind gets going, I asked Tyler Thornton in what areas, if any, the Blue Devils still need to improve. Thornton didn’t hesitate: the team has to be “stronger with the ball,” he said. Not smarter, mind you, stronger. “A lot of teams try to come out and be physical with us,” Thornton continued, “so we’ve just got to get tougher in that respect.” Seconds later, he was summoning, unprompted, the haunting memory of Duke’s demoralizing loss to Ohio State a few weeks ago. If Duke turns into a Final Four-caliber team, you can bet they will look back on that humbling at the hands of the Buckeyes as the moment when they were awakened to their calling. They came out that night without “intensity,” as Thornton (and others) put it—but intensity is sort of hard to really read. What they visibly lacked, I thought, was the Buckeyes’ physical commitment. Ohio State brought more thrust, more torque, more weapons and better aim. They taught Duke something that night, and it would be no surprise to see the Blue Devils go deeper into March than Ohio State. Another of Krzyzewski’s great gifts as a coach is his ability, once he “adjusts to [his] personnel,” is to keep getting the most out of that personnel long after most coaches would have seen it spring leaks. And he confers his adaptability on his players, a key asset in tournament play, which tests resiliency as much as talent or execution.
A few closer glimpses before shutting eyes:
* Austin Rivers had some flashy moments last night but looked out of sync for much of the game. I was surprised to discover that he actually led the team in minutes played (27); I guess he wasn’t as involved in the flow of the game as Krzyzewski would like him to be. Rivers, the No. 1 recruit in his class, lives in a world of unfairly close and pitiless scrutiny. It was quite interesting to see Duke rout Penn more or less without him, and more interesting still to see him unvisited by reporters at his locker. Players like Rivers are used to attention, and invite it—check out this video for evidence—and it will be educational to see how Rivers deals with not being Duke’s constant cynosure.
* As the first half drew to a close last night, with about 15 seconds to go, Duke was holding the ball for a final shot. Penn’s Steve Rennard was defending down the left side toward the baseline, with one eye on his man out on the wing and another on the ball up top. He had no view of the clock, though, and I saw him counting down the seconds to himself in a whisper, trying to anticipate whatever move his man would make based on the number of seconds remaining. Unsurprisingly, Rennard ran ahead by a couple of seconds—and in any case the play developed on the right side, not the left—but it was a neat thing to watch: the intense mental activity that goes with the physical demands of playing defense in a halfcourt set.
* As the game’s final seconds wound down, almost exactly 20 minutes of action later, Duke had the ball after a Penn miss. Quinn Cook and Andre Dawkins had tussled for the rebound for a moment, with Cook wresting it away from his teammate. The two came up the court in tandem, sharing a last laugh—I wondered if Cook was explaining to Dawkins, jocosely, that he really wanted to score one rebound: he’d had none to that point; Dawkins had four. After they crossed the timeline, they resumed their private banter. I wonder if they got a talking-to for that mild cutting-up. It was a mostly innocent moment of youthful cliquishness (if perhaps a little too cool for school), but it read as a little unsportsmanlike, these two cutting up while the game was still in session. Cook finally chucked the ball out of bounds when there were actually still fractions of a second left on the clock, although the officials let the horn sound anyway.
Lest you think that such trifling stuff is beneath the notice of Krzyzewski and his staff, be advised that Krzyzewski moved assistant coach Jeff Capel down the bench for last night’s game, mixing him in among the players. “We evaluate everything,” Krzyzewski said. “You can get engrained with a certain procedure, and be a slave to that procedure, and it may not be the right thing for this group. That was something we evaluated over the holidays: How we sit on the bench. What are we doing when [the players] come off the court. Who’s talking to guys? Where are guys sitting?” Nothing escapes scrutiny, consideration, reconsideration, formalization and reformulation. Krzyzewski then added the quip that “we evaluated all of you, too,” telling us sportswriters that “your evaluations are in the mail.” That elicited laughter from the media, because he was joking. I think. I mean, I haven’t gotten anything. So far.
* Priorities: The bulletin board in the Duke locker room has four pieces of paper on it. They are:
1) Pictures of the housekeeping staff, to remind the players who cleans up after their clubhouse mess.
2) The five-day daily schedule, including team meal times.
3) The season schedule.
4) A list of the team’s season leaders in charges taken.
* College athletes who play TV sports at high-profile schools are used to reporters, and they tend to be very adroit at fielding our unvaryingly stupid and/or condescending and/or cardboard-bland questions while we point our ungainly bodies and annoying little digital devices in their faces. A moment last night provided quite a poignant reminder—one I like to get often, so that I don’t get too caught up in the faux-pro machinery of big-time college athletics—of just how young and raw college athletes really are. A bunch of reporters were surrounding Mason Plumlee, and they were asking him questions about something to do with the beginning of the previous game against Western Michigan. I wasn’t there, but it seemed (from what I could piece together) that Plumlee hadn’t “come in lathered up,” as Krzyzewski later put it, to start the game, and I guess maybe he was abruptly benched? Something along those lines.
Anyway, the media wanted to know why that was, exactly—why Plumlee hadn’t been ready for action, and also what sort of competitive lather he needed to soap himself up with. He supplied a couple of short answers, and then he was asked yet another question, something like: What does it mean to come out ready to play? At this, Plumlee, trying hard to find a suitable reply but clearly feeling as though he was being asked a mountain-high question about a molehill to which he’d seen no reason to give any thought, became totally tongue-tied, as though he was in class and struggling to keep up with a professor’s increasingly abstruse line of inquiry. He finally, after an excruciatingly long pause, blushed in embarrassment—not over the latherless incident in question, which was trivial enough, but over his inability to explain it away—and then he smiled sheepishly, exposing his braces. Right: these are kids, still close enough to their childhoods to have woken up at home a few days ago, on Christmas morning, and raced to the tree to see what surprises awaited them there. Whether you’re a fan, a hater, a casual reader—whatever you bring to your personal following of college basketball, remember to go easy on them.
Duke goes up to Philadelphia on Wednesday night to take on the Temple Owls in the Owls’ own barn. Temple is a pretty good team, although they lost 6-foot-11 center Micheal Eric to a knee injury in early December and struggled to beat Delaware on Thursday night. Still, they have tallish guards who can shoot it, and Duke will have to play well in order to win in the opponent’s gym—it’s only Duke’s second real road game of the season. (Pace, those of you who protest that the Wells Fargo Center isn’t technically the Owls’ home court. It’s close enough; just ask UNC, which got bombed by UNLV on a Las Vegas court that wasn’t the Runnin’ Rebels’ “home”—the sea of red shirts said otherwise.)
Temple is coached by Fran Dunphy, who is in his sixth year there. For 17 seasons before that, he was the head coach at… Penn, where he won 310 games and 10 Ivy League championships, got the Quakers into the AP Top 25 one year and the NCAA Tournament nine times. (It was easy to confuse him last night with Fran Dougherty, currently a sophomore forward for the Quakers.) Dunphy has had good success with Temple, too. Oddly, the Owls’ first two opponents this season were Duke’s last two: Penn and Western Michigan. Temple won both games.