'Unathletic' Duke finds a way vs. UConn
NEW YORK -- They've heard it over and over again. Heard it said about them, to them, in reference to them. On the television, on the radio, in the stands, in the newspapers.
And they admit it's tiresome and frustrating, but also know they can't do a whole bunch to change it.
Duke isn't athletic.
Duke is soft.
That's the knock.
That's the company line.
"I don't know what it is," senior Jon Scheyer said. "But no one has ever described me as athletic in eight years, so there's no reason to get frustrated by it now."
Maybe no reason to get frustrated, but there is reason to stop perpetuating the stereotype this season.
In Friday night's Preseason NIT final, the Duke Blue Devils beat the Connecticut Huskies 68-59 in a game that was decided not by the beauty of swishing 3-pointers or the brilliance of transition basketball.
It was decided in the trenches and in skid marks on the floor, where the ugliness of basketball can be rendered beautiful when executed flawlessly well.
Yet even in victory, a decisive victory with a final score that doesn't reflect how much Duke ran roughshod over Connecticut, these Devils can't seem to get their due.
"They're not very athletic," Connecticut's Stanley Robinson said. "We're more athletic than they are. They were just smarter than we were."
No, not just smarter.
"Who knows why people say it," Duke guard Nolan Smith said. "I don't care. People can just be surprised by us every game. If they don't think we're athletic, then we can surprise them with our ability."
Here are the hard facts. Against UConn, the Blue Devils missed 51 shots and shot just 29 percent for the game. All-American Kyle Singler scored six points on 2-of-12 shooting. Leading scorer Smith was just 5-of-22 from the floor.
The Blue Devils got beat in fast-break scoring, points off turnovers and points in the paint.
Beat badly, too.
Yet, save for a frantic UConn rally at the end of the game, Duke frankly won going away.
Statistically, there is only one place to point: The Blue Devils outrebounded the Huskies 52-48, scoring 15 second-chance points off of their 21 offensive rebounds. Brian Zoubek scored just two points but pulled down 11 boards, and undersung Lance Thomas notched a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
In a game in which buckets were harder to come by than a short line at Macy's on Black Friday, every rebound was priceless.
So choose your adjective of comfort, but the fact is the Blue Devils won this game on (insert word here): physicality, toughness, hustle or athleticism.
"They banged us inside, and you got a choice," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "You bang back and get the ball or get banged. That was the cause of it. They're a physical team. They go after the loose ball. A few times when they were up 18, they went down to the floor to get the ball and we didn't."
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has been hearing the knock on his team for years. He doesn't believe it and, more, doesn't really care.
What he does know is his Blue Devils came to New York unchallenged after four home game walkovers to start the season. They leave having tossed Arizona State and its pesky zone defense and stomped Connecticut, a team that prefers the game played with the oxymoronic speed of controlled freneticism.
"Oh yeah, we feel great," he said.
If there is a poster child for Duke's perceived athleticism drain, it is Scheyer. He is not the fastest point guard in the game; he's not going to break too many ankles with his crossover. Even his coach offers a backhanded defense: "Jon is not leaping tall buildings with a single bound, but he's a really good athlete," Krzyzewski said.
It really depends on how you define athleticism. Is Scheyer going to jump out of the building? No. Is he winning a dunk contest? Uh-uh.
Did he still somehow come up with 19 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals while holding the jet-quick Kemba Walker to 9 points and 6 turnovers?
In 209 minutes of basketball this season, Scheyer also has just four turnovers.
A flat-footed stiff probably couldn't do that.
"I'm trying to value the ball more," Scheyer said. "Not play conservative, just be smart."
Here's the fairest way to label Duke. The Blue Devils are good.
It's too early to anoint them Final Four good. This game pointed out Connecticut's glaring deficiencies -- no outside shooting threats whatsoever and no one to guide the team once Walker goes to the bench -- as much as it pointed out Duke's strengths.
But with talent on the perimeter, toughness on the inside and injured Mason Plumlee waiting in the wings, the Blue Devils certainly are headed in the right direction.
Plumlee, who has been out with a broken wrist, is expected back sooner rather than later. The freshman took second in the dunk contest at the McDonald's All-American Game.
Pretty athletic, right?
"Yeah, when we get him, we'll be even more athletic than people don't think we are," Smith said.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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