published Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Duke's Blue Devils hard to beat if they're healthy

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Ten days ago, Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski couldn't have felt better about his Blue Devils.

Standing 14-0 for the season after an 18-point home win over Atlantic Coast Conference brother Wake Forest, Duke was ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll and owned the nation's top RPI and strength of schedule.

Moreover, the core of his team -- senior center Mason Plumlee, senior forward Ryan Kelly and senior guard Seth Curry -- was spearheading the Blue Devils' crusty defense to a 19-point average margin of victory against that rugged schedule.

"[The reserves] are playing behind three seniors," Coach K said that night. "It's a different dynamic. There's more separation than normal. And that's good. That's why we're 14-0."

At least it's good if those three seniors keep playing. But in the two games since, both Kelly and Curry have been injured: Kelly's right foot repeating the problem that caused him to miss last year's ACC and NCAA tournaments; Curry spraining his right ankle, though he is expected to return Thursday against visiting Georgia Tech.

With both of those players sidelined for at least part of Saturday's game at North Carolina State, the Blue Devils lost for the first time all season and ceded their No. 1 ranking Monday to Louisville, a team Duke defeated by five in November.

Said Krzyzewski of the combined 18 points and nine rebounds turned in by the two players attempting to temporarily replace Kelly -- freshman Amile Jefferson and junior Josh Hairston -- "[They] played well. They just don't know the defense and execution of the offense as well as Ryan."

There certainly are reasons for Blue Devils backers to lament the absence of both Curry and Kelly.

Much as older brother Stephen -- the former Davidson star -- could score from anywhere, Seth Curry is hitting more than 40 percent of his 3-point shot and averaging 16-plus points a game.

Beyond that, assuming he quickly returns to the court, Curry should total enough career points to make the siblings the highest scoring brother act in NCAA history, passing Tyler and Ben Hansbrough's combined 4,485 points, Larry and Eddie Bird's 4,405 (who knew Larry had a brother who scored more points than Larry did at Indiana State?) and Chuck and Wesley Person's combined 4,377.

Curry needs just 102 points the rest of the season to secure the record for him and Stephen.

As for Kelly, there aren't many 6-foot-11 guys out there hitting 52 percent of their 3-pointers while also blocking 1.7 shots a night.

Not that either Kelly or Curry is Duke's MVP. That honor would go to Plumlee, whose motor, ironically, might reasonably be compared to Tyler Hansbrough, the former North Carolina great.

It's not just that the Indiana native is the Blue Devils' leading scorer (17.5 ppg) and rebounder (11.4). He tells his teammates stuff such as this: "We need to start starting games better. We need to come out with more energy. You want to be a 40-minute team."

Then there's sophomore point guard Quinn Cook, whose 11.8 points, 6.2 assists and 3.9 rebounds might be one of the more impressive sets of averages at his position in the college game.

How mentally tough is Cook? Despite shooting 0-for-11 from the floor against Wake Forest, he handed out 14 assists and committed zero turnovers.

All of this is classic Duke, of course. It's why Krzyzewski has won more NCAA titles than any active coach (four) and why he's won the most games in Division I men's history (942).

As Elon coach Matt Matheny said after a 76-54 loss last month: "Not only do they have talented players, but they play every possession like it's the most important possession."

But even Coach K admits that player K makes every possession smoother for the Blue Devils.

"We're not a great team with Ryan; we're a really good team," Krzyzewski said after Kelly was injured in the Wake game. "But we're better than our parts when we have them all together."

After all, when they've all been together, they've been unbeatable.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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