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Duke just finds ways to win

February 20, 2012 Columns No Comments

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Looking at Duke’s numbers, one would think this is another powerhouse Blue Devil team. They are 23-4 overall, 10-2 in ACC play, and are very much in the thick of things in a tie atop the ACC after coasting to a 75-50 win at Boston College on Sunday night. They are also in the conversation for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament if it were to begin today. But this is far from their powerhouse teams of the past, as their bottom line is more reflective of a team that scores high in intangibles.

This isn’t a team full of athletes that forces numerous turnovers per game to dominate opponents. It’s also not a team that blows everyone out, although Duke has knocked off some teams by healthy margins. But a win is a win, and this team is proving to be pretty good at getting those.

“Our kids have earned everything they’ve gotten,” said head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “I do believe my team has a will to win. They’re a good group, we’re just not this juggernaut.”

As we approach the final weeks of the regular season, one can look at the top individual players in the conference as awards go and get a sense of this team. Austin Rivers will probably win the conference’s Rookie of the Year, having won the weekly honor several times. But the conference Player of the Year is almost certainly going to come from North Carolina (take your pick from Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall or Tyler Zeller), or it could be Mike Scott of Virginia, although his candidacy has cooled slightly from a recent stretch where his team lost three of four. In fact, Duke might not even land a player on the first team, although that’s far from a sure bet.

The Blue Devils start Tyler Thornton, a nice player but hardly an All-America candidate, at the point, and Seth Curry and Rivers see time there as well although one could be excused if they simply figure all three are simply guards. Curry is a nice player who fits the system and is the son of former NBA player Dell Curry, but he won’t make anyone forget Jay Williams. The frontcourt of Miles and Mason Plumlee has length, and overall they have the kind of personnel most of the more than 300 teams in Division I would dream of having, but no one in the frontcourt will make anyone forget Christian Laettner, Shane Battier or Elton Brand.

Duke ran a gauntlet in the non-conference schedule, beating the likes of Belmont, Michigan State, Davidson, Michigan, Kansas and Washington. This team also held off Virginia and found a way to win at North Carolina with an incredible comeback in the final minutes spearheaded by Rivers, whose buzzer-beating three-pointer capped off a 29-point night.

It would be easy for Rivers to coast after that game and the attention it got him, but he hasn’t done that. He had 16 points and seven rebounds on Sunday night and continues to have a terrific freshman season. Rivers is the one player on this team that can create a shot for himself or a teammate.

“That game is the biggest stage for college basketball because it gets such national attention,” said Krzyzewski, alluding to the win over North Carolina. “I think he’s played really well since then. He hasn’t scored another 29 points, but I believe his leadership, rebounding and defense have all stayed at a really high level. I still trust him to put the ball in his hands to create something for us when we need it.”

Duke doesn’t have a team loaded with McDonald’s All-Americans like they had at times in the last decade. What they do have is plenty of size, as they have had over the years, and they have players who are coachable and fit the system. And much like the team that won the national championship two years ago, this team finds ways to win games.

Evidence of the last point has come recently. There was the win at North Carolina, where the Blue Devils trailed by ten with 2:38 left. There was Thursday’s win over North Carolina State after trailing for much of the game and by as much as 20 with over 11 minutes to go. They are 5-3 when trailing at the half. And they did the same thing in many of their other best wins. Most of all, they learn from those games, as they did Sunday night.

“We really wanted to have the lead for the majority of the game instead of having to claw back,” said Rivers. “That’s what we did. The first couple of minutes were a little chippy, but after the first two minutes guys got together, we realized how we should play.”

Boston College started the game 5-5 and had a 13-7 lead, then missed their next 13 shots and struggled offensively the rest of the night. It was a testament to the continued great coaching of Krzyzewski and the players’ ability to respond to coaching. It was also a show of how this team doesn’t wow anyone, but continues to win games nonetheless.

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