By Matt Norlander
NEW YORK — Light your torches in Durham, but I must ask: Why can’t I fully buy into this Duke team as elite yet?
I know the answer: because it's not yet put it all together, nor should it necessarily should at this juncture. Disagree? Then you side against me and Duke's players, who agree the team is not yet consistently playing at the highest of levels.
“We can get better. There’s things we must work on,” Austin Rivers said after Dukes 86-80 win Saturday afternoon over Washington. “For instance, we were up 17. At our full potential, we don’t let up that lead.”
Saturday's game in Madison Square Garden wasn’t ever in doubt, but Duke’s 86-80 W in a blasé way. The Blue Devils shot badly from the foul line (61.4 percent), saw Rivers and Seth Curry foul out, but still coasted past a Huskies team that will now have to play for its life to earn bubble-worthy talk in about six weeks. Duke also had 15 turnovers (five coming from Curry) and 21 hacks in an ugly 50-foul game.
This isn’t me doubting Duke as a top-10 team — in fact, just the opposite. I think when you play as badly as they did Saturday and still beat a plenty-capable team without too much trouble, it’s a very good sign. Washington’s a team that, even if it can’t ever string together a slew of Ws in a row, it won’t ever be an easy out.
“It’s frustrating because we played better than a six-point win,” Rivers said. “There goes your two best scorers on the team, and I think the main thing is, we started getting complacent. We basically just got safe instead of attacking — that’s what got us the lead in the first place. The first half we were playing defense, making them turn the ball over, getting charges, and every time we got a rebound we kept attacking, attacking. And then we get this 18-point lead, and it’s like, ‘All right, let’s calm down.’”
But with Duke, there’s an ingredient there that’s not quite mixing in yet. If it was playing at its peak today, it’d have beaten Washington by 25. Instead, it won by six. This sounds like nit-picking, but that’s what happens when you’re Duke, you’re so good every year and the expectations of your team are top-five-in-the-nation level. Duke can get there; it's not playing like it just yet.
“It was weird, because we thought we played better for the whole game until the last five minutes. We should’ve won more than by what we did,” Curry said. “We weren’t aggressive until the end.”
It was only the second time Curry’s ever fouled out in his college career. Perhaps Curry's issues at point guard are the legitimate long-term concern, but at least he's aware of it. And at least Duke's in a better position with him than a team like Vanderbilt, which seems downright handcuffed at the 1, where Duke might just be tied up at the moment.
“We’re still finding our rotations, how guys are going to play where, and I’m still trying to work on my point-guard ability,” Curry said. “The biggest thing is trying to find my scoring, these past few games I haven’t been scoring as much as I usually do. I need to balance my scoring abilities with running the team.”
Yes, absolutely, part of it was Washington, which can be so erratic but also continues to draw us in because of the natural talent, speed and ability on Lorenzo Romar's team. Duke’s players said Washington’s backcourt was the best they’ve faced this season.
Mike Krzyzewski looked to the free throws as the reason it was so close at the end. Totally legitimate, but if Duke remains aggressive and plays with gusto, free throws aren't an issue. Mason Plumlee was the worst of it, going 2-of-11, but he's a 42-percent foul shooter as it is. There's not much you can do to fix that in three months' time.
“We must get better at free throws, and we cannot let up at any point in the game,” brother Miles Plumlee said. “But when we get up sometimes, people get settled. … We’ve let up in almost every game.”
Duke teams letting up ... sounds out of character, right? The Devils have the pieces, and I think eventually Rivers needs to be given the keys without abandon, but for now, a little more toughness and aggressiveness is what's got to come as Duke heads toward the new year.
Quick note on Rivers, who's had his fair share of criticism just seven weeks into his college career. As of late, the chirping has piped down on his game. I asked him if he'd heard, known, paid attention to the scrutiny. He said yes, but is a media-savvy kid. You can tell when you talk to him that he gets the game. I think his quotes above the asterisk right there and down below are telling to who he is.
“It just made me more motivated, to tell you the truth,” Rivers said. “I thought I was actually playing well, the coaches though it was doing everything in needed to do. The media got on me a little bit, but they haven’t gotten on me since, because I fixed things. … They’ve all said positive things since, so whatever I’ve been doing, I guess it’s been right.”
The matter was never addressed in practice, Rivers said.
“I started calming down, realizing how to play my game through the college game,” he said. “I got it. I can play now.”Photo: US PRESSWIRE