Nobody does the Big Ten/ACC Challenge quite like Duke.
After defeating Michigan 79-69 on Tuesday, the Blue Devils have 13 all-time victories in the event in 15 tries, which is good enough for the most wins and best winning percentage. The final deficit was only 10 points, but Mike Krzyzewski’s squad controlled the game from the outset. The outcome was never really in doubt.
So what did we learn from Duke’s first marquee victory of the season?
The most important takeaway is that this team can play some defense after all. The perimeter defenders served as escorts to the rim in games against Vermont, East Carolina and Kansas, but the Blue Devils showed what they are capable of on the defensive side on Tuesday.
Michigan turned over the ball 12 times, shot 23 percent from behind the three-point line and never looked comfortable with the ball. Coach K gave the starting nod to Tyler Thornton and significant minutes to Matt Jones for defensive purposes, and it paid dividends. Even Quinn Cook clamped down on that side of the ball and tallied two steals.
While the defense stood out on Tuesday and was much more effective, it still only ranks 108th in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings. Offense is where the Blue Devils will continue to thrive, and we learned against Michigan that the scoring can come from more than just the dynamic duo of Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood.
Yes, Hood and Parker combined for 29 points, but neither forced the issue. The ball consistently swung to a number of different players, largely due to Cook’s outstanding performance. He finished with a game-high 24 points and nine assists and made all 10 of his free-throw attempts.
He was the best player on the floor on Tuesday (and Parker and Hood are almost always special), but how about Andre Dawkins? The Wolverines cut the lead to six in the second half, and for a brief moment it appeared as if they were going to make a game out of it. The Cameron Crazies seemed to be growing a bit anxious.
Then Dawkins came in and drained two straight threes, slashed the lane and finished at the rim, and even tallied a steal. He completely altered the outcome of the game and whipped the home crowd into a frenzy.
While his performance was inspiring, it may have repercussions going forward for Rasheed Sulaimon. Sulaimon was buried on the bench and never saw the court on Tuesday (boy, did the ESPN cameras ever notice) in what was arguably the Blue Devils’ best performance of the season.
Dawkins provided the spark that Coach K was looking for when he inserted the sharpshooter in a critical moment, and Thornton added some offense with two three-pointers to go along with his formidable defense. If Dawkins, Thornton and Jones continue to play effectively, it will be difficult for Sulaimon to crack the rotation for significant minutes.
While Sulaimon never saw the floor, Marshall Plumlee did. We learned that the third Plumlee brother can be effective in short spurts. He scored two points, grabbed three rebounds (two offensive) and swatted a shot. Like Dawkins, Plumlee gave a spark of energy to the team and crowd.
Ultimately, it was important in the big picture for Duke to record a marquee victory after losing to Kansas and Arizona. The Blue Devils still have a clash with UCLA on the docket, so they needed a notable win before ACC play begins.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.