DURHAM — It wasnt some figment of the collective medias imagination that the Virginia game was a must-win for Duke.
"We needed it as a group," Matt Jones said. "Coaches had that in our heads early. We collapsed at Clemson, and we definitely had to protect our home court."
Quinn Cook referred to it as a "gut-check" game, and he told Jabari Parker it was a program game while they were sitting on the bench, waiting to go through pre game introductions.
There wasnt much time in between the Clemson loss in the Virginia tipjust about 50 hours, roughly. But despite just one hour of preparation, according to Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke that came out and beat Virginia was markedly different from the Duke that lost at Clemson.
Krzyzewski talked about how he personally hasnt been at his best since the Dec. 26 death of his older brother, Bill, after the game. That story is here, if you havent seen it. Now, lets take a look at more of the nuts and bolts that made Duke different:
***Jones, who had played a combined five minutes in three ACC games (and zero against Notre Dame) started against the Cavaliers. He played well, logging a season-high 19 minutes, scoring four points (all from the free throw line, where he was 4-for-6) and grabbing a rebound. Jones, though, was undoubtedly inserted into the starting lineup for his defensive abilities, something Krzyzewski praised in the preseason.
"Two days ago (Sunday) when we were starting to go through scouting reports and starting lineups, Coach called my name, and I was excited, but I couldnt show everybody," Jones said. "I just had to go with the flow.
"It was a surprise. When people said changes, I was thinking that Im just going to get into the game. And he called my name and I was just like, woah, its time now."
***Jones wasnt the only change to the regular rotation. Krzyzewski opted to make a line changesubbing all five playerson three occasions to start the first half and two more to start the second. He also swapped at least three players in and out on four occasions.
The result was much more balanced playing timeno Blue Devils played more than 29 minutes. In fact, heres the full rundown. I bolded the two that logged season-highs:
Quinn Cook: 29 minutes
Rodney Hood: 29 minutes
Amile Jefferson: 28 minutes*
Jabari Parker: 26 mintes
Rasheed Sulaimon: 24 minutes
Matt Jones: 19 minutes
Tyler Thornton: 12 minutes
Andre Dawkins: 12 minutes
Marshall Plumlee: 12 minutes
Josh Hairston: 7 minutes
Semi Ojeleye: 2 minutes
*Jefferson also played 28 minutes against Georgia Tech
"Weve been having three guys that play 35, 30-plus minutes," Cook said. "So we tend to pace ourselves. We couldnt pace ourselves today. It was good for us.
"We didnt know how Coach was going to do it, but he said everyone was going to get an opportunity to fight and to play."
****One player that clearly benefited from the change in lineup and subbing philosophies was Rasheed Sulaimon. He led Duke with a game-high 21 points, (finally?) looking like the scorer most people expected to see all year. He was aggressive and assertive with the ball.
Interestingly enough, the vast majority of Sulaimons points came with the "second string"Plumlee, Hairston/Ojeleye, Dawkins and Thornton. Its fairly obvious in that group that he would be a featured scorerother than Dawkins, none of the others are known for their offensive games.
Heres a look at Sulaimons stats when playing with mostly reserves versus the times he was mixed in with mostly starters
Sulaimon with reserves (about 10.5 minutes): 6-of-9 (3-of-4 from 3), 17 points, two steals, one assist, one rebound
Sulaimon with starters (about 13 minutes): 1-of-2 (1-of-1 from 3), four points, one assist, one turnover
It should be noted that the one shot he hit with the starters was the game-winning 3-pointer, which went in thanks to a ridiculous bounce off of the rim.
"Thank goodness we got the bounce," Krzyzewski said.
So yes, Sulaimon played well, re-found some of his offensive mojo from last year. Now lets see if the "blending" with Hood and Parker comes next.
***While it probably would have been less stressful for the Blue Devils if they were able to hold onto their double-digit lead for the last three minutes, 45 seconds of the game (Duke was up 63-52 at that point), Virginias 13-1 run that gave the Cavaliers the lead with 38 seconds remaining did present an opportunity. In both of the Blue Devils conference losses, once the lead was blown, they never were able to come back. A refresher:
*At Notre Dame, Duke had 10-point lead with 11:35 left before giving up a 20-4 run
*At Clemson, Duke had a five-point lead with 15:12 left, and the game was tied with 7:55 to go before Duke went the final six minutes, 23 seconds without making a field goal.
This game, though, went differently, and thats an experience Duke hopes will pay dividends down the line.
"Its a great win," Jefferson said. "It shows extreme character in our team. It shows the maturity that were gaining. We had a similar situation a couple of days ago at Clemson where the game was close and we kind of let it go. And tonight, we were strong. This was a game that we werent going to let go.
"This is a game where we are going to look back on come March. This has to be the game that when we look back and say that game against Virginia is the game our guys bonded together and became a real Duke team."
Ah, a real Duke team. If a reporter would have suggested such a thing to Krzyzewski, you can bet it would have ended poorly, with him talking about how unfair it is that this group has to live up to past standards (which I get to a point, but it goes both ways: Dukes history of success plays a key role in drawing these guysthese exceptionally talented guysto Durham in the first place).
Anyhow, like it or not, come play for the winningest coach in mens Division-I college basketball, who happens to have coached at the same school for 34 years, and theres a certain standard to meet. The players get that.
"Here, losing is not good, man," Cook said. "Thats just expectations you have when you have a Duke jersey on. When you lose, its rough. Were tired of losing."