Numbers Never Lie?
In Duke’s 66-56 victory over Connecticut on Thursday night, the numbers say Duke won by double digits (just like they have in every game so far this season) and UCONN is a 4-4 team, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The game was nip and tuck until the very end, and two of UCONN’s four losses have come when opponents hit last second shots. The Huskies are an extremely talented team that plays a style Duke hadn’t yet seen, and the young Blue Devils passed another test in proving themselves worthy of title contenders.
Duke’s biggest games prior to Thursday had been against Michigan State, Stanford, and Wisconsin, teams that play a style of offense suited for team control, in which points are generated by an efficient system rather than individual play. Connecticut is the antithesis of these teams, playing a style designed to give their players freedom and ability to stand out individually on offense and defense. Led by Senior point guard Ryan Boatright, who continues their excellent tradition of great point guards, and raw but extremely talented center Amidah Brimah on defense, UCONN was aggressive and ready for a battle.
Jahlil Okafor: I mentioned after the Elon game that, for the first time, I’d seen the game seemed to slow down for Jah. He looked quicker and more decisive in the way he played, which was huge considering that UCONN double and even triple teamed him on the perimeter, forcing him away from his comfort area in the block. His passing and rebounding without fouling are the two most underrated aspects of his game at this point. I’m still waiting to see if he can be more dominant getting to the rim instead of relying on spin moves and bank shots from the perimeter, but all in all, I thought this was his best game.
Amile Jefferson: Jay Bilas was dead on when he called Amile a star in his role. With so much attention always focused on Okafor, Amile can park down low and wait for rebounds. He’s even shown the ability to hit turn-around jumpers. Duke struggled at times to get points in the first half, and Amile bailed them out with three huge buckets. It says a lot that the general consensus was that he, a guy that shot 3 for 8, was Duke’s player of the game.
Jah/Amile: While neither player is explosive, I wanted to point out how quick they are off their feet. It’s something to take notice of, and very impressive.
Tyus Jones: Tyus jump started Duke with two 3’s and a runner in the beginning, and once UCONN was forced to take risks, began penetrating more in the 2nd half. In a big game, Tyus stepped up once again and showed his colors. The kid is impossible to rattle.
Justise Winslow: I called him my x-factor and thought that he could break out in this game. During a 1st half featuring many lowlights, the play that stood out in my mind was when he had an open jumper from the right elbow, jumped to shoot, and then decided at the last minute to pass to Marshall Plumlee, a big man who was running to the basket for rebounding position. That is the first time this season that I became frustrated with Winslow. The young man who I thought was bringing attitude back to Duke had lost all of his confidence, continuing a trend for him. But with 17:45 left in the game, he rebounded a miss and put it back in on the low block. This seemed to invigorate the entire team. When Winslow has energy, everyone else on Duke falls in line. From that point on, he was ballhawking on defense, rebounding inside and scoring 10 points in the 2nd half. If this is the Winslow Duke gets moving forward, it’s a great sign. The key play for me was on his blocked shot in transition that had many people mesmerized. The block is just Justise being Justise. The thing that impressed me was that it came after he bricked a three pointer. In the last bunch of games, he’s hung his head and felt sorry for himself after misses. In this case, he kept his head up, hustled back, and provided the highlight block.
Offensive Rebounds: Terrific job, and Winslow joined in on the action when he started to get aggressive in the 2nd half. If he’s attacking the glass, the sky is the limit.
Free Throws: Tyus and Amile both missed their first free throws, but after that, Duke was 19-21 on non-Okafor free throws. Very impressive.
Passing: 55.6 assist to basket ratio. Very, very good.
Defense: UCONN couldn’t throw the ball into the ocean from outside, and Duke seemed to have game planned for this, playing off their man and forcing a special move to get all the way to the rim. Smart.
Rasheed Sulaimon: I’ve been of the opinion that Sheed is a classic overthinker, and after the incident in the Elon game, I wonder if it was still on his mind. I can’t sugarcoat his performance against Connecticut. It was the worst that I’ve ever seen him play, on every level. He was a total liability for Duke, and that can’t happen. I go into detail about his mistakes on my podcast, but to summarize, everything was bad.
Quinn Cook: Cook provides leadership and a good attitude, but he hasn’t been making shots, plain and simple. Since his 10 for 18 start to the year from 3, he is barely shooting above 30%. And when he isn’t making 3’s, he’s more inclined to force his drive rather than pick his spots like he had been prior. He did bust a zone with a key 3 pointer against UCONN, and hopefully this shooting slump won’t continue too much longer.
Bench: Remember at the beginning of the year when Coach K said they would go 10 deep and everyone would play? I mocked his statement then, and it seems even funnier now. Plumlee, Matt Jones, and Grayson Allen played a total of 13 minutes in the game. Hopefully this was because Duke will have another long break before their next game. Otherwise, the six guys playing major minutes will tire out quickly during ACC play. Plumlee still isn’t trustworthy enough to have on the court for any extended period of time, Grayson Allen seems unsure of himself (as opposed to his aggressive play early in the season) and Matt Jones all of a sudden went from a key sub to a guy playing six minutes in a huge game.
Mid-Range/Turnovers: Karl Hess is gonna call games (especially charges) very closely. Duke seemed unable to adjust, lowering shoulders and shooting floaters with momentum moving forward into waiting defenders. Offensive fouls count as turnovers, so this explains the high amount. As for other turnovers, well…Sheed. Becoming more consistent at shooting mid-range jump shots would help. I’ve seen it at times from Sheed, Cook, Winslow, and Tyus, so I know it’s possible. Right now, though, the non-big men seem to only shoot 3’s, runners, or finish at the rim.
3 Pointers: Like against Elon, sometimes they just don’t go down. The shots are open, though, so it’s less negative and more unfortunate.
Standing Around When Jah’s Doubled: I want to see more cutting to the rim to give Okafor passing options besides out for 3’s. This is something that can fall into Justise Winslow territory.
Tyus Too Patient?: Tyus started dribble driving when UCONN had to take risks at the end of the game, but he’s extremely crafty on the drive, and would like to see it earlier in the game as well to give the offense more options.
Gritty, gutsy effort. Kevin Ollie is a great coach, and changed up his defense throughout the contest, trying to muck the flow of Duke’s offense, yet the Blue Devils overcame the challenge. It’s a different guy every game for Duke. They have played against different team styles, different types of refs, and different kinds of crowds. They have played games in which their opponent forced them into isolation, and they have played other games in which the passing lanes were open and they took advantage. They have won when shots have gone down, and won when shooting ice cold. If Winslow becomes more aggressive, rebounds leading to transition will increase. The keys to everything Duke has done so far this year are their unflappable mindset as well as their defense, which is what winning teams are all about.