HOUSTON — Kyle Singler leaped to steal a pass Friday night and quickly passed ahead to Jon Scheyer to start a Duke fast break.
The Blue Devils were desperate for a knockout shot in the South Regional semifinals against a determined Purdue team. As Scheyer rushed down the court, he looked over his shoulder at teammate Nolan Smith.
Immediately, Smith knew what Scheyer wanted. Smith, Scheyer and Singler have performed a synchronous basketball ballet all season, utilizing their complementary skills to lead the Blue Devils (32-5) to within one game of the Final Four.
Top-seeded Duke meets No. 3 seed Baylor (28-7) at 5:05 p.m. today in the South Regional final at Reliant Stadium, in large part because its three primary scorers have carried the team. Purdue coach Matt Painter said there's not a better trio of guards in the country.
"They're not just good shooters," Painter said. "They get to the free-throw line. They drive the basketball. They create for their teammates. They've got intermediate games. ... They've got the whole package, and it's why they're a No. 1 seed."
Scheyer, Singler and Smith combined for 57 of Duke's 70 points Friday and have accounted for 67.6 percent of the Blue Devils' scoring this season. Their 53.1 combined points per game is the highest this season for any group of three players on any Division I team.
They've done it by looking for each other. Early in the second half Friday, Smith delivered driving, inside-out passes to Scheyer and Singler for 3-pointers.
With Duke ahead by six, Smith knew Scheyer would find him on the fast break.
"He knew where I was," Smith said. "He glanced over his shoulder as he was in front of me. And I knew just to get there and be ready, and he was going to pitch it back."
Smith settled right in front of Duke bench, and Scheyer pitched a pass back to him. Smith delivered a 3-pointer to extend Duke's lead to 49-40 with eight minutes remaining.
College basketball's most formidable trio had struck again and would survive to play another game.
Finding a balance
The advent of Duke's three-pronged attack dates back to the 26th game of last season, when the Blue Devils were struggling to find consistency at point guard.
It was almost out of desperation that coach Mike Krzyzewski changed Scheyer's responsibilities. Smith had lost his confidence, and Greg Paulus had struggled at the point, so Krzyzewski moved Scheyer from shooting guard - where he had played his first two and a half seasons - to point guard.
With that move, Duke found a balance that carried over into this season. Scheyer proved a steady ball handler and floor leader who rarely turned over the ball. But while he had to initiate the offense and look for his shot, he wasn't in charge of the grueling, on-ball defensive role.
That job was given to Elliot Williams last season and taken over by Smith this season. Smith and Scheyer agree that the division of traditional point-guard duties has been good for both of them.
"His ability to create and his ability to guard the ball on defense is the big thing that helps me," Scheyer said. "It would take a lot of extra pressure to bring the ball up and to have to guard the ball for 40 minutes."
While Smith and Scheyer have handled the backcourt roles, Singler has provided an inside-outside game as a 6-foot-8 "small" forward, making Duke extremely difficult to defend.
With Smith and Scheyer drawing the defense out to the perimeter, Singler attacks smaller defenders in the low post with a variety of drives, hooks and curls into the lane. Smaller players also have difficulty disrupting Singler's shots from the perimeter, and he is 8-for-17 from 3-point range in the NCAA tournament.
Over the last seven games, Singler has averaged 21.9 points. Duke has won every one.
"His ability to be bigger and guard bigger guys and really handle the boards takes a lot of pressure off both me and Nolan," Scheyer said.
Room for improvement
Making the most out of each player's skills hasn't always been as easy as Scheyer, Smith and Singler made it look on that fast break Friday night.
Singler, who moved from power forward to small forward at the beginning of the season, struggled at first with his new position. At the beginning of February, coach Mike Krzyzewski incorporated more motion offense into Duke's system to help jump start Singler and get him to use his creativity more.
"In the beginning of the year it was kind of a struggle, getting to know each other's game and to go and try to get a rhythm together," Singler said. "Over the course of the season I think we've gotten better and we're playing much better."
There is the sense though, that even though Duke has won 32 games, its high-scoring trio still can get better. All three players rarely have played their best for an entire game in the same game.
Scheyer was hot early in the season when Singler was struggling. Singler is playing his best basketball now, but Scheyer shot 1-for-11 from the field last Sunday against California and missed all six of his first-half, field-goal attempts against Purdue.
"We're continuing to strive for those games or that set of games where all three play great games at the same time," Duke associate head coach Chris Collins said. "It feels like sometimes in the game you might have Nolan and Jon playing. Or Kyle and Nolan. Ultimately I feel if we can get all three of those guys playing well at the same time we become very difficult to beat."
There are hazards with an offense that depends so heavily on three players. One is that the rest of Duke's players, who all average less than six points per game, will become resentful.
That hasn't happened, as Brian Zoubek, Lance Thomas, and Mason and Miles Plumlee have embraced their roles.
Another hazard is that an opponent that plays outstanding defense will find a way to stop Scheyer, Singler and Smith, and Duke's offense will grind to a standstill. So far, though, that hasn't happened often.
Krzyzewski is proud of the way Scheyer, Singler and Smith have unselfishly carried the team while looking for one another.
"Everybody has different game plans, and a game plan might be to take Jon out or ... Kyle, or two of them," Krzyzewski said. "But it's tough to take three of them out. So what they've done a good job is adapting to whatever game plan is thrown against them."
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