Duke delivers another November-to-remember performance
NEW YORK -- Duke's record in November is staggering.
The Blue Devils' record in the NCAA tournament the past two seasons is not.
How well the Blue Devils fare when the season matters most is still a marathon away from being answered.
But after an impressive sweep through Southern Illinois and Michigan in New York on Thursday and Friday, respectively, at the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer, the Blue Devils can pronounce that this edition is much better prepared for the trek.
Duke is 94-10 in November under coach Mike Krzyzewski over the past 29 seasons. This team is dominated by juniors and sophomores, a total of eight on the roster. They have won a combined one NCAA tournament game, squeaking out a first-round win over Belmont before losing to West Virginia in March. VCU nipped Duke in the first round the year before.
The players, and of course the coaching staff, aren't fretting about the NCAA tournament now. The Blue Devils can use those recent postseason disappointments as incentive come March, junior Gerald Henderson said, long after the rest of this nonconference portion (not to mention the brutal ACC slate) is done.
But the reason for increased optimism became clear this week in New York.
For some, like junior Lance Thomas, it was obvious to the players during the preseason because of Duke's depth and experience, and how everyone meshed.
But there are even more specific reasons why this Duke team is built for the long haul despite the loss of versatile wing DeMarcus Nelson to graduation:
• Henderson and Kyle Singler are better.
It almost sounds too simplistic, but it's true.
Henderson showed in the second half against Southern Illinois (20 points after going scoreless in the first half) and then against Michigan (12 points) that he can take over a game with his ability to make 3s, pick up steals and finish with a serious flush.
Singler's all-around game was on full display this week in New York. He, too, was scoreless in the first half on Thursday before getting 13 points in the second half against the Salukis. He scored a solid 15 against the Wolverines, made 3s, rebounded and continued to be a tough matchup by handling the ball on the wing and slicing his way toward the hoop.
• Nolan Smith is an improvement at the point. The sophomore point guard starts over injury-riddled senior Greg Paulus. "It's unbelievable that kid keeps getting injured," Krzyzewski said of Paulus, who had ice on three of four limbs.
While Paulus nurses his ailments, Smith is maturing into a steady performer. He scored 16 points, made 6 of 8 shots, and posted five boards and four assists (with only two turnovers) against the Wolverines.
"Kyle, G and Nolan are all better players,'' Krzyzewski said.
Added Henderson on Smith, "Everyone has seen how assertive he has become with his ball pressure. He can wear the opposing team's point guard down.''
• Brian Zoubek is now a serviceable big man. The oft-injured 7-foot-1 junior was an imposing presence against the Salukis with 10 points, six boards and plenty of shots altered. Zoubek doesn't have to score a ton, but if he can play in spots and be disruptive he can alter the game in spurts.
"Zoubek was hurt a lot last year, and now he's giving us quality minutes,'' said junior Lance Thomas, who was 9-of-10 from the free-throw line in two games off the bench in New York.
• Junior Jon Scheyer finds ways to help this team. He was 1-of-7 from the field against Michigan, but 5-of-5 on free throws. Through five games he has a team-high 11 steals.
• The bench is young but talented and likely will improve.
Paulus, Thomas and senior David McClure are experienced role players, and freshman guard Elliot Williams and center Miles Plumlee don't have to contribute major production but simply can't let anything slip when they're in the game.
"We're deeper than last year, both on the perimeter and with our bigs,'' Henderson said. "Lance, Brian and Miles are doing a good job. They'll show how important that center position is to our team. Elliot coming off the bench is giving us that spark."
• The Blue Devils are defending better, too. Neither Southern Illinois nor Michigan scored more than 58 points. Rhode Island did push Duke to the final seconds on Sunday and put up 79 points, but guard Jimmy Baron was scorching with eight 3s, a slew of them with a hand in his face.
Michigan shot 35.2 percent against Duke, compared to 43.4 percent against UCLA the previous night. Southern Illinois shot 35.1 percent against Duke on Thursday, then 46.8 percent in a loss to UCLA on Friday.
"We play defense,'' Krzyzewski said as to why the Blue Devils are better this season. "And the more we learn our offense, the better we'll be.''
And the more impressive they'll be in their march toward March.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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