DURHAM — With the nonconference schedule winding down, the Blue Devils appear to have taken care of any big-picture issues and are down to fine-tuning. Thats how it looked in the 82-59 win against Eastern Michigan Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Two assumed starters who have had their fair share of early season struggles Amile Jefferson and Rasheed Sulaimon turned in strong performances off the bench. Jefferson posted a career-high 14 rebounds, six on the offensive end, in 21 minutes. He also made all five of his free throws on the way to seven points.
I started overthinking things, started taking everything people said literally, and it just got to a point where it was like, Ive just got to play, Jefferson said of his personal struggles, which turned him into a reserve after starting the first six games. Ive really just been trying to do that, fight down low and just help our guys.
Coach Jeff Capel talks to me a lot. He always keeps me straight. Im down a little bit, he pulls me to the side and talks to me. He was really integral in me just putting my head back on straight.
Sulaimon played 22 minutes and scored 13 points on 2-of-3 shooting from the field and a 9-of-11 mark from the free-throw line. He also recorded three assists and two steals and rebounds apiece.
One of those steals brought Cameron to its loudest level. In the midst of a 10-0 Duke run that effectively put the game away in the second half, Sulaimon pressured Eagles guard J.R. Smith full court, eventually trapping him against the sideline at half court. Smith attempted to throw the ball out of bounds off of Sulaimon, but it never rolled out as Suliamon collected it, and Smith was called for an intentional foul on Sulaimons shot attempt. He made both free throws. At the end of the run, the Blue Devils were up 53-35 with 13:12 left on the clock, ending the competitive portion of the game. Eastern Michigan (7-4) made only three field goals in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
As Sulaimon made plays in the second half and played 12 of the final 20 minutes, Tyler Thornton, who was effectively getting replaced, was the most boisterous on the bench, yelling, dancing and just generally smiling as the rout went on.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski referenced Thornton supporting Sulaimon in his post-game press conference as one example of how teammates support one another. Then he was presented with a quote from Andre Dawkins, who had been asked earlier about Duke moving into more of a fine-tuning mode, as far as fixing flaws.
At the beginning of the year, we really had to fix our defensive philosophy, Dawkins said. Weve been doing a good job at that, and obviously we can keep getting better at it, but right now, were really just tweaking. We have all our guys ready to contribute. The coaches arent coaching attitude, theyre coaching basketball. It makes it easier for us to keep getting better, because all we are focused on is Xs and Os and not anything else. As long as we keep doing that, it will be fine.
Krzyzewski was then asked about coaching Xs and Os instead of attitude. He didnt agree with Dawkins assessment, saying that attitudes have been good all year. He then used one of his favorite analogies.
A couple of the veterans early on in October and November, when the reality of this isnt last year, its like a different play, Krzyzewski said. Last year was a drama, and this is an action movie, or, I guess in some games a comedy or whatever, but you have to get a different part. Sometimes, people want to stay in what they did and not adapt to what they need to do. We always have to adapt.
We all get it right now. Its never been about a bad attitude. Its just about learning. When you start out with a different team early on, you have to give it time to grow.
If Rodney Hood had not gotten sick right before the tip, forcing the coaches to choose a new starter in Dawkins, his 20 points would have counted as bench production and combined with Sulaimon and Jefferson for 40 points and 19 rebounds. That type of bench production hasnt been common in Durham in the recent past, but, then again, most things about the 2013 Blue Devils seem to break from the way things are normally done.
And with conference play less than a week away, it seems as if the Blue Devils are well on their way.
Its the chemistry, Jefferson said. I think its been there the whole time, but we were just working out the kinks. Were a young team; were growing.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley