Preview: Cornell at Duke, ESPNU

Duke faces first test as No. 1 team

lkeeley@newsobserver.comDecember 19, 2012 

— At the ACC’s preseason media day in October, Mason Plumlee, in a half-joking manner, said he had answered nearly as many questions about N.C. State as he had about Duke.

“It is different,” he said then about the lack of preseason hype. “We’re fine with it. So much can change.”

Seven weeks into the season, Duke (9-0) has earned the No. 1 spot in the rankings. The Blue Devils will face their first test as the nation’s top team Wednesday at 7 p.m., when Cornell (4-6) visits Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“We’ve definitely embraced the No. 1 ranking,” Plumlee said, Tuesday. “It’s a lot different than a preseason ranking. Preseason rankings are based on guys coming back and how people project and whatever. This is something that we’ve earned.”

Now that the Blue Devils are on top, the goal is to stay there for the rest of the season.

For that to happen, Duke needs to keep improving. At this point, the Blue Devils’ clearest weakness is defensive rebounding.

The Blue Devils are allowing opponents 36.6 rebounds per game, which ranks 259th out of 347 Division I teams and seventh in the ACC. Duke’s average of 26.2 defensive rebounds per game ranks 74th overall and fifth in the ACC. Mason Plumlee averages 11.3 rebounds per game, which ranks sixth in the nation. Ryan Kelly is the next most productive with 5.2 boards per game.

“I know myself that I get so caught up into his 17 rebound games, 20 rebound games, we think that he can get every rebound,” point guard Quinn Cook said of Plumlee. “But we need to get better at defensive rebounding.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski would like Cook and the other guards – Seth Curry, Tyler Thornton and Rasheed Sulaimon – to help out on the defensive glass, as well. The example Krzyzewski often cites is Jason Kidd, the 18-year NBA veteran, who has logged 107 triple-doubles in his career, third-most in league history.

“He does a lot of loose ball rebounding,” Cook said of Kidd. “Those long rebounds are the ones we have to get. It’s not all of us getting in there and trying to out-jump the centers, it’s us getting to loose rebounds.”

But, help around the basket is on the way. Marshall Plumlee, a 6-foot-11, 235-pound redshirt freshman, is set to play for the first time this year on Wednesday. Marshall suffered a stress fracture in his left foot two days before preseason practices began in October and has been rehabbing since. Before his injury, Krzyzewski said he was Duke’s sixth man.

“You can’t teach 7 feet,” Cook said of Marshall. “He plays hard. He’s that guy that you hate having to play against but the guy you love having on your team. He sets hard screens, he can rebound.”

With back-to-back games against Cornell and Elon, Marshall will be able to ease his way onto the floor in time for ACC play in January. As for the rest of the team, which has faced the toughest schedule in the nation and come out with three wins over Top-five teams, there isn’t any fear about a potential slip-up or letdown against the mid-major opponents. That’s because Duke is focused on one thing: Duke.

“One of our mottos this year is, ‘It’s all about us,’ ” Sulaimon said. “It’s not who were playing, whether it’s Ohio State, Kentucky or Louisville or some of the other games we will play where teams are not, on paper, up to the same caliber. We’ll go out there and play the same way that we played against Kentucky tomorrow and Thursday.”

Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley

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