Marshall Plumlee once was lost. In Duke's first meeting with Syracuse, he played only 10 minutes despite nearly every other Duke frontcourt player either getting disqualified or flirting with it. He himself had as many fouls as rebounds in that game, often looking uncomfortable in the high post against the Orange 2-3 zone.
Over the next four games, Plumlee logged only 21 minutes combined. For good measure, he didn't even play against Boston College.
Three weeks after the first date with Syracuse, the second seemed much more successful. In 15 minutes, Plumlee put up five rebounds, four points and three blocks. And then he went to the locker room for halftime.
The second half of that game was marred by leg cramps that limited Plumlee to four minutes, but all parties seemed pleased with Plumlee's effort.
The player himself told the Raleigh News & Observer's Laura Keeley, “I’m proud of it.”
If Duke's third Plumlee brother is going to live up to that praise, Coach K needs to start utilizing the 7-foot sophomore now.
They say you are what you eat, so Marshall Plumlee clearly ate his two older brothers today.— Duke M. Basketball (@Duke_MBB) February 23, 2014
Plumlee's struggles to find playing time have been well-documented.
All set to take the floor after redshirting in his first year in Durham, Plumlee suffered a stress fracture in his left foot on the eve of the 2012-13 preseason. The foot nagged him through the entire campaign, hampering him to the point where he drew only 50 minutes all year long. Surgery in April kept him focusing more on rehab than conditioning even into this season.
Playing time was sporadic this season as well while Krzyzewski mixed and matched lineups, looking for a group that could blend offensive skill and defensive intensity. Plumlee earned double-digit minutes only twice in Duke's first 16 games. He didn't play at all in a loss to Clemson, one that saw Duke get out-rebounded 48-30.
Since then, Plumlee's put in 11.1 minutes per game, averaging 2.9 rebounds in that span. He ripped a career-high seven rebounds—all offensive—against a massive Florida State front line.
The rehabilitation is still a work in progress, as evidenced by the leg cramps in the second half against Syracuse. The above story from Keeley alluded to a remark from Coach K that Plumlee needed to get used to playing as many minutes as he did in that first half.
The Blue Devils' final three regular-season games seem like a great time to acclimate him.
The opponents in those final three games—Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and North Carolina—are all among Ken Pomeroy's national top 60 in effective height (subscription required), which isolates the average size of a team's post positions. (The serious wonks can find a more detailed explanation here.)
Tech and UNC each have five players in their rotation standing at least 6'8" and/or weighing more than 230 pounds. Those players all have the bulk, if not the athletic ability, to make life difficult for Duke's current primary rebounders Amile Jefferson and Jabari Parker.
Plumlee was whistled for three fouls in seven minutes in the first meeting against Wake Forest, but he lasted 16 minutes against UNC, pulling six rebounds in that time. Saddled with four fouls in that game as well, Plumlee did play three minutes after picking up his fourth. After Coach K pulled his big man with 6:37 left, the Tar Heels outscored Duke 23-13 and out-rebounded the Devils 6-2.
While the Devils have never been a great defensive rebounding team this season, the first meetings with Carolina and Wake are two of the team's three worst defensive rebounding percentage games this year, according to StatSheet.com.
Wake was unable to capitalize on its extra opportunities at Cameron Indoor Stadium, but North Carolina had no such problems in Chapel Hill. A change of venue could affect results both ways, but having a fully available 7-footer almost always helps a team's rebounding.
Plumlee's ability to protect the rim is his other primary selling point, and it's one that Duke has sorely lacked all season. Opponents still make 49.1 percent of their two-point shots against the Blue Devils, ranking Duke's defense 186th in that category, per Pomeroy.
Hoop-Math.com ranks Duke 246th nationally with opponents making 61.4 percent of their shots at the rim. Luminary programs like IUPUI and Texas-Arlington rank just ahead of the Blue Devils on that leaderboard.
If Plumlee's ready to play more minutes, it takes some of the heat off Jefferson and Parker to be defensive post presences. That, in turn, will relieve pressure on the offense to score on every possession.
Big Man, Big Plans
How much would you play Plumlee now?
Duke's players and staff are optimistic regarding Plumlee's capacity for a bigger workload going forward.
Keeley's story quoted Coach K in a bit more depth, saying, “We feel that he’s running and being the athlete he was before, about 17 months ago, right before he was injured at the start of last season. [...] He’ll have more and more of a prominent role on our team now that he’s reached that level.”
Parker told the Sporting News, "He’s going to be there for us in the postseason and here on out."
After his breakout game against Florida State, Plumlee himself told Keeley, “It’s still a transition from getting back to playing healthy and getting back to the level of athleticism you had before the injury. It’s been a longer process than I anticipated. I just make sure I’m taking a step forward every day and I’m not taking any steps back."
The Seminoles and Tar Heels didn't see the "little" Plumlee brother take any steps back when he played them. Syracuse didn't recognize the guy it had tormented in the first meeting.
Marshall Plumlee once was lost. Now he's found. As Duke charges toward the postseason, it needs to prepare him for a more extensive role, because a lot of big, hard-nosed rebounding teams could lurk on the road to the Final Four.
For more from Scott on college basketball, including links to his new podcast, check out The Back Iron.