So far, Duke fans are feeling great about the season.
In Atlanta, Duke knocked off defending champ Kentucky. After that, the Blue Devils bounced Minnesota and VCU from the Bahamas to make it to the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament. There, Duke defeated second-ranked Louisville in a hard-fought game where every starter scored in double digits.
Early concerns about Seth Curry’s injury, the point guard play, and whether or not Mason Plumlee could live up to his physical promise all seem to have been answered in the affirmative.
With sports, however, there is always another obstacle in one’s path. And in Duke’s case, the impending clash with Ohio State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge may be the toughest test yet.
The Blue Devils, brimming with confidence, are looking to defend home court against a nonconference opponent for the 97th straight game and at the same time avenge last season’s blowout loss in Columbus.
In order to beat Ohio State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Duke must make sure these five things occur.
The big senior really looks to have hit the potential that Duke fans had been waiting for. Thus far, Mason Plumlee is averaging 19.7 points and has had three double-doubles in six games (via ESPN).
On top of all that, Plumlee has shot 80 percent from the free-throw line after being absolutely abysmal from the charity strip as an underclassman. He’s been nothing short of a revelation for the Blue Devils.
For a team full of shooters, Duke is vulnerable to stretches of cold shooting. But Plumlee has established himself as a reliable post presence. If the outside shots aren’t falling, Duke can feed Mason Plumlee in the low blocks where he is capable of getting off a high-percentage shot.
Plumlee is also hitting the boards with a Brian Zoubek level of determination. This gives Duke opportunities for second-chance points and prevents wasted offensive possessions. Plumlee is also limiting lost opportunities by not turning the ball over as much as he had in his previous three seasons.
In all, Mason Plumlee is providing Duke with consistency and leadership. On bad shooting nights, Plumlee steadies the ship. On defense, he protects the rim and rebounds. And, importantly for the game against Ohio State, Plumlee sets an example of toughness that permeates throughout the team.
In last year’s loss to Ohio State, Duke was simply beaten to bits by a more physical team. Mason Plumlee will be counted on to counter that physicality and provide reliable inside scoring.
The true freshman Rasheed Sulaimon is finding himself an integral part of Duke’s season. Not only is Sulaimon averaging 12 points per game, but due to Duke’s three-guard lineup, he is frequently facing a defensive matchup against a bigger player.
Last year Duke really struggled to defend the small forward spot. Against Minnesota, Rodney Williams, who is 6’7", went off for 16 points while being guarded by the 6’4" Sulaimon. So the wing position remains an area that opposing teams can exploit.
On the bright side, Sulaimon is a highly capable defender and Duke’s help defense has been a vast improvement on last year’s effort. The result has been an ability to at least slow the progress of wing players that otherwise outsize and out-strength Sulaimon.
Against Ohio State, this wing slot will again be an area of emphasis. The Buckeyes will send either Deshaun Thomas or Sam Thompson against Sulaimon. Both those Buckeyes stand at 6’7" and are over 200 pounds.
Sulaimon should be able to exploit their size with his quickness on the offensive end, but either Thomas or Thompson will be a tough mark defensively for the smaller Sulaimon.
Ohio State sports a lineup that features three physical forwards, but none of them are terribly tall. Evan Ravenel and LaQuinton Ross are the two biggest Buckeyes that see substantial playing time, and both stand at 6’8".
As previously mentioned, Mason Plumlee can be counted on to reliably exploit his height advantage in the post. Ryan Kelly, however, hasn’t quite established the same reliability.
Kelly is doing a lot of positive things for the Blue Devils. At the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament, he was excellent in terms of help defense and picked up several blocks. His passing has also been instrumental to Duke’s offensive sets.
Kelly’s scoring, however, has suffered from somewhat erratic shooting and therefore his offensive contributions haven’t been as substantial as one might expect.
Against the shorter Buckeye defenders, the 6’11" Kelly will be presented with an opportunity to post up in the paint. This is something Kelly has certainly shown a willingness to do. In the three games at the Battle 4 Atlantis, Kelly only attempted a total of six three-pointers.
Instead of just launching threes, Kelly sought to find his shot from closer in. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to score with a high level of consistency from inside the arc. During the course of the Battle 4 Atlantis, Kelly was just 12-of-22 from two-point range (via ESPN).
For the Blue Devils to beat Ohio State, Ryan Kelly will need to show that he, like Mason Plumlee, can be a reliable scorer in the paint.
My dad, a retired high school basketball coach, hated when people pointed to the stat of "bench points." The fact is that points are points no matter where they come from.
For Duke, the starters are the scorers. Against Louisville, every Duke starter hit double digits in points. For the season, the lowest scoring starter is Quinn Cook, who is averaging 10.7 points per game. So Duke isn’t looking for scoring from its bench players.
With that being said, what Duke does need from the likes of Tyler Thornton, Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson, is strong defense and rebounding.
If there has been one criticism of an otherwise beyond-expectations start to the season, it’s that the bench players haven’t fully established their roles yet. Each of them has had an outstanding game at some point, but none of them have proven to be essential commodities along the lines of a super-sub.
Tyler Thornton has been the closest to consistent, but in terms of a sixth man capable of changing the game or shifting the lineup in such a way as to strike fear in the opponent, Duke hasn’t found its man.
Ohio State is a deep team, particularly at the forward position. For Duke to win, it will need at least one of the bench players—especially those playing in the post—to make a significant contribution.
Maybe it’s just me, but it feels as if the Cameron Crazies aren’t as Crazy as they once were. Maybe they, like Atlanta Braves fans, got so used to dominance that it is hard to muster the same enthusiasm that made the old gym as hot as a humidor.
In recent seasons, even Coach K has had to call upon the fans to step up their fanaticism.
Whatever the reason for the perceived decline in frenzied fandom at Cameron, Ohio State will enter the game with a roster that includes only one freshman. A Buckeyes team full of sophomores and juniors will not only be difficult to rattle, but will remember beating last year’s Duke team and this year returned essentially the same roster.
If Duke is to defend its longest ever nonconference home winning streak, which currently stands at 96, the Cameron Crazies will have to bring back the raucous atmosphere that made Cameron Indoor Stadium basketball’s best venue.