The light has come on. Whatever awakening needed to take place has taken place. Duke is playing the way Duke needs to play to be successful. It didn’t happen right away. It’s happening now.
The Blue Devils passed another test Saturday, dramatically outrebounding a much bigger and stronger Florida State frontcourt on their way to a 78-56 win, their fourth straight in the ACC. But they won’t find out how far they’ve really come until this week, with games at No. 20 Pittsburgh on Monday and No. 2 undefeated Syracuse on Saturday.
“We’re not a powerhouse or anything,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Maybe not. But the way the 18th-ranked Blue Devils have played lately, they’re giving themselves a chance to become one.
In many ways, this is becoming the Duke team Krzyzewski envisioned before the season: athletic and deep; making up for a lack of size inside with effort; embracing a defensive mentality; even working in more of the full-court pressure defense that Krzyzewski talked about before the season, not that Duke needed it Saturday.
The blips – on defense, in the paint, in Jabari Parker’s game, in Rasheed Sulaimon’s confidence – appear to have passed.
“Anybody can be beaten,” Duke guard Quinn Cook said. “We can’t just keep outscoring teams. I think we realized that. Everybody is giving us their best shot. When we play defense and we play hard, the offense will come.”
Even without the hockey-style line changes, at halftime Krzyzewski had used more players (11) than Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton (eight), a shocking inversion of their usual practice. Hamilton typically goes deep into his bench, picking and choosing so freely that at times it appears random. Krzyzewski, who historically has been more comfortable with a smaller rotation, trumped him Saturday.
Duke’s bench outscored Florida State’s 42-11, and that’s with the Seminoles’ two leading scorers both coming off the bench. When Rodney Hood missed the opening tip after getting sick, Andre Dawkins came in cold and hit two quick 3-pointers to get things started. Todd Zafirovski didn’t get into the game, but he did give Hood his shorts, a major contribution. But it was really Marshall Plumlee’s afternoon among the Duke reserves. Not only did he break his career-long 0-for-16 free-throw drought, he played with such crazy-man intensity that Hood actually had to give him the palms-down, simmer-down gesture at one point.
“We got a lot of depth, so we’re using all of our guys, everybody getting an opportunity, everybody being ready,” Cook said. “Just keep playing unselfishly, that’s what we envisioned. That’s what we’re getting to.”
It didn’t happen right away. The Blue Devils couldn’t beat teams they would consider peers early, Kansas and Arizona, then lost their first two ACC road games at Notre Dame and Clemson. For a team with national-title aspirations, it wasn’t exactly a smooth start to conference play.
But the Blue Devils held on to beat Virginia at home, and have found their stride as the schedule has softened. Neither N.C. State nor Miami posed much of a challenge, but Florida State did have some favorable matchups to leverage, particularly inside.
Duke never let those matchups materialize, shutting down and frustrating guards Ian Miller and Aaron Thomas, Florida State’s two leading scorers, and outplaying the bigger, stronger Seminoles inside, with Parker matching his ongoing offensive improvement with back-to-back double-digit rebound games.
“They did a very good job playing to their potential,” Hamilton said. “They did the things that would give us the most trouble.”
That’s what Duke will have to continue to do this week if it wants to continue to be the kind of team it wants, and hopes, to be.