Saturday, November 12, 2011

Duke 77, Belmont 76

[recap] [box score]

Give a lot of credit to Belmont. There aren't many teams who go into Cameron Indoor stadium, get down 16, and then nearly come back and win.

Duke has now won 87 consecutive home games against non-conference opponents, their last loss in such a game coming eleven years ago. College basketball scheduling being what it is, a large number of those wins have come against mid-majors like Belmont; teams who don't have a lot of blue-chip recruits and All-America candidates. Often those less talented teams lose more or less before they take the court, having psyched themselves out.

Duke, of course, helps that progress along, playing pressure man-to-man defense, pushing the tempo, looking for the three-point dagger. With their crowd and their style, things can get out of control quickly.

The Belmont Bruins, though, are an experienced team, having won 30 games last year and garnered some votes for the Top 25 in the preseason polls. They like to run and gun, too, and they weren't going to slow it down just because a faster pace plays into Duke hands. So they pushed the ball on offense, and applied some light full-court man-to-man pressure. They took every tough call, every bad break, every turnover in stride, and nearly came away with the victory -- on a night in which they didn't make a three-pointer in the first half and their leading scorer didn't tally until the second half, either.

Belmont has like 11 guys who averaged double-digit minutes last year, and they substitute frequently. Part for that reason, I don't have a lot of notes on any individuals. The one other point I want to make about them is that their guards' poise against the tenacious Duke halfcourt defense.

Duke usually defends the perimeter very well. They like to extend their defense out to midcourt and put a lot of pressure on the ballhandlers. This means that opposing guards usually need to beat their defenders with the dribble in order to initiate the offense. I don't mean that they need to penetrate the lane, necessarily, but use the dribble to relieve some pressure and open up a passing lane.

To vary degrees, Duke's guards defended these initial moves of Belmont's guards quite well. Against a lot of teams, that's all it would take for a successful defensive possession. But Drew Hanlen, Kerron Johnson, and Ian Clark didn't panic when initially thwarted -- they kept their dribble alive and made a second move, and, if necessary, a third. It's very difficult to defend a ballhandler with that level of intensity for an entire possession, and often, these second and third efforts at breaking the ball pressure often ended with a Bruin ballhandler dribbling towards the basket, with big men cutting to the basket and shooters spotting up on the perimeter. The layups kept the team in the game as they opened up with a prolonged long-distance shooting slump, and had they knocked down a few more open jumpers, they might well have won this game.

Duke notes: Duke appears willing to rely on its post players a bit more this season, and Mason Plumlee (the blond one, if you're like me and can't remember which is which) demonstrated why against Belmont. In addition to an expanded post game that includes some nice moves with his off-hand, Mason may well be Duke's best passer and playmaker for others. He has a good understanding of where Duke's shooters are on the floor, and unlike his older brother Miles, he doesn't get married to the idea of shooting once he initiates a post move. On one play, he posted up on the right block, turned and faced, drove left, then found a teammate spotting up in the corner with a perfect left-handed bounce pass ... Mason also looked somewhat competent in the open court, and being able to rebound and bring the ball up himself might be a boon to a Duke team that lacks a true point guard ... Austin Rivers made his much-awaited debut to mixed reviews. His one-on-one game is already elite; his hesitation dribble is deadly but legal, and while I haven't kept close track of such things, I feel confident that he has the best stepback jumper of anyone I've ever seeing playing his first college game. He's also great at getting to the line, a skill enhanced by the jersey he wears. On the other hand, his shot doesn't look like anything special, and he made some questionable decisions throughout, including a couple of turnovers late ... Seth Curry looked pretty comfortable at point guard, but also committed a couple of late turnovers ... Andre Dawkins twice got burned on inbounds plays underneath the basket simply because he lined up on the wrong side of his man and didn't protect the basket. That's inexcusable for a player of his experience ... Dawkins did provide the dagger, though, drilling 25-footer from the top of the key at the end of the shot clock that put Duke up 75-71 with about 20 seconds left ... Dawkins was in the game because freshman Tyler Thornton, a defensive sparkplug all night, had fouled out, after unexpectedly stealing second-half minutes from Dawkins.

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