After a long hiatus, Duke back at it

lkeeley@newsobserver.comDecember 15, 2013 

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Duke forward Amile Jefferson (21) goes up to contest a second half shot by Michigan guard Caris LeVert (23).

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

When asked what was at the top of the Duke Blue Devils’ basketball team’s to-do improvement list, assistant coach Jeff Capel laughed.

“It’s so much,” he said. “It’s hard to say just one thing, because it’s so much.”

Realistically, every coach in the country would say the same thing – teams that peak during December do not typically play into April. The No. 8 Blue Devils (7-2) are in an enviable position, with their ranking (the losses have come to No. 1 Arizona and No. 13 Kansas), an offense that ranks as the second-most efficient in the nation and an improving defense.

It’s that side of the ball, naturally, that Capel mentioned first when accessing areas of improvement. Rebounding, ball-screen defense and offensive execution have been the main focuses in the Blue Devils’ 12 off days, which were primarily spent on the players’ final exams and papers.

Now that the semester is over, Duke will re-take the floor, facing Gardner-Webb (6-5) at 7 p.m. Monday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“We’re all itching to get back on the court and play someone other than ourselves,” forward Josh Hairston said. “Guys are starting to focus back on basketball.”

Throughout finals week, Duke focused more on individual workouts, running three vs. three, lifting weights and running to stay in shape, because players were in-and-out because of exam schedules. It wasn’t until Friday when the whole team was able to regroup and, for the next three weeks, focus solely on basketball. The hope, Capel said, is the Blue Devils will be mentally fresher and in position to take a big step forward.

Defensively, Duke has been taking steps forward, beginning with the Alabama game Nov. 27 (and in the games against Arizona and Michigan that followed). Against the Wolverines and the Crimson Tide, the Blue Devils posted their best defensive rebounding efforts, collecting a season-high 75.8 percent and 73 percent of the available boards, respectively, according to Statsheet. The 69.2 defensive rebounding percentage against the Wildcats ranked as the fourth-best of the season.

Part of the reason Duke was able to rebound so effectively against Michigan was the production out the center position. Coach Mike Krzyzewski resists assigning his guys specific positions – why limit guys is his thought process? – but the Blue Devils’ primary post production comes from not one, but three players.

“We kind of look at them as a three-headed monster, with Josh, who starts, and Marshall (Plumlee) and Amile (Jefferson), Capel said. “Those guys combined for a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds between the three of them. And hopefully that’s something going forward, that we can get a double-double from that position, from those three guys. We have something to build on off of that.”

Jefferson led the way on the score sheet with six points and six rebounds in 17 minutes against Michigan. Hairston, who played 21 minutes, had two points, one rebound and, in effective spurts that added up to six total minutes, Plumlee turned in his finest performance as a Blue Devil, with two points, three rebounds and a notable hustle play to save a loose ball that does not appear in the box score.

Combined, the trio recorded nine fouls – four apiece to Hairston and Jefferson and one for Plumlee.

“Marshall can bring something to the team just with his size,” Capel said. “We don’t have anyone who is 7 feet tall besides him. When you’re a guy that’s 7 feet that has that energy, the enthusiasm and is playing that hard, that can be, hopefully, contagious. You saw the players’ reaction to Marshall playing well against Michigan. Hopefully that’s something that he can build on.

“Sometimes for big guys, it happens at different times and it comes a little bit later. But when it happens, certainly Duke fans know about that, it happened with Brian Zoubek late in his career. Once the light came on, it stayed on, and it led them to a national championship.”

Hoisting another banner in April is always the goal for the Blue Devils, and it’s far too early to assess their chances at this point.

It’s a team that has taken longer to come together than some of the more veteran squads of the past, but the upside for this season’s team is much higher, too. The defensive improvement is coming, and the offense has shown it has the potential to be the best in the country. The cohesion is coming, Hairston said. And Monday will bring a public look at that.

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