“This is a tough week for us,” Krzyzewski said before Duke’s 83-81 loss at the hands of unranked Maryland. “I mean it’s been great, we have two wins, but travel, emotional play….” From where he sat, Duke’s impending road match against the Terps evoked last weekend’s one-point win at Boston College, where a rested, desperate and well-prepared foe failed narrowly on a missed elbow jumper and botched offensive rebound. “Hopefully we’ll be ready,” he added.
Duke didn’t look ready, and their upset at Maryland’s hands didn’t look like luck.
Here are some questions on my mind to ponder for the stretch run:
1. Is Miami really that good? And if the Hurricanes are, does this mean Jim Larranaga really is a great coach, the equal of Coach K and Roy? And if this is so, doesn't it mean that our Triangle-centric view of the college basketball world is skewed, and that there are any number of other great coaches toiling away in the lesser conferences who would thrive given the opportunity? Or is Larranaga just a rarity—a lifer at the top of his game who made the move to the ACC at the peak of his powers, unlike the young up-and-comers generally favored by athletic directors?
2. If Duke is ranked No. 1 nationally, why are so few convinced that they can get any better? Are the Blue Devils headed for yet another slide to a fruitless March as the team wears down? Or will Ryan Kelly return to once again make Duke nearly unguardable?
3. What is the deal with N.C. State? The preseason favorites are lucky to have a winning record through 11 games. At times they have looked awesome—against Duke and Carolina at home in particular. And at other times they have paid the price for defensive and intensity lapses, as in the loss to Wake Forest. Will the Pack gel again and go on a run to close the season, echoing last year? At the end of the season, will high offensive efficiency make State the top 10 team so many expected?
CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/ DURHAM—The first time these two teams played, N.C. State (16-8, 5-6) had gone nine consecutive games without a loss. Coming into tonight’s game against No. 4 Duke (21-2,8-2), the Wolfpack had lost four of its last six games. They walked in Cameron Indoor Stadium with considerably less mojo than they had at home and without their crafty-passing point guard, Lorenzo Brown.
The Blue Devils, on the other hand, were still missing one of their senior captains, Ryan Kelly; and had to go without the reserve power of Josh Hairston, due to an infected cut in his arm from Duke’s previous win at Florida State. But, by now, the Blue Devils have mastered the art of playing with a few handicaps; and who can forget that day, last month in Raleigh when N.C. State knocked them out of their No. 1 spot. But still, this game wasn’t about revenge. It was about not repeating a loss.
In the games since then, Coach K has had enough time to play around with the lineup—letting Amile Jefferson fight his way through a bunch of mismatches, and encouraging Mason Plumlee to force his way to the bucket, no matter who or how many people were guarding him. All of that worked tonight, including some quality minutes from Alex Murphy, who tore his way through the lane and through N.C. State’s defense for a nasty dunk in the first half.
For the second straight game, Quinn Cook sank four three-pointers, matching his career high. Tonight, all of those came in the first half, along with four more from Seth Curry. N.C. State’s Tyler Lewis put up a tough fight against a killer backcourt, but wasn’t quick or sneaky enough to alter any of Duke’s perimeter play.
The C.J. Leslie/ Richard Howell combination failed against a confident and near-perfect (9-for-11 shooting) Mason Plumlee, who put up 30 points for the second time in Duke’s last three games. Howell, however, did manage to muscle his way into scoring 23 points—mostly against Plumlee.
But with 3:41 left in the game, Richard Howell fouled out of the game, leaving not much recourse for the Wolfpack. A couple of minutes later, after Mason Plumlee firmly rejected a Leslie layup in front of the rim, Leslie would also foul out and N.C. State would lose their third consecutive game. Let’s hope for a tie-breaker during this year’s ACC Tournament, when, hopefully, these two teams can meet in the championship game with a full roster. That is, if ACC powerhouse, Miami, doesn't ruin everyone's plans Click here for the full Duke/ N.C. State box score.
Next, the Blue Devils head to Tallahassee for their first and only regular-season, ACC match against Florida State. Before they get there, here are some ideas for postcards we might expect from Duke’s visit to the Sunshine State. Alex Murphy looks like he may have the best handwriting, so just imagine these cards written in his most impeccable cursive.
The “Wish you were here” postcard—This postcard is addressed to Ryan Kelly, the Cameron Crazies, and Rodney Hood. Even though he’s sitting several seats down on Duke’s bench; and this is more like a “wish you were in the game” note to Kelly. Ever since he injured his foot against Clemson Coach K still hasn’t found a sufficient replacement(s) and because of it, the Blue Devils lost at N.C. State, and lost by a lot at Miami (not even Kelly could have changed the outcome of that game).
Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood would have been Duke’s perfect fill-in for Kelly on the road; it’s a good thing that Hood—who’s redshirting—isn’t allowed to travel with the team, because it’s so much more painful to see him sitting on that bench, just as helpless as Kelly.
It’s painful to watch Josh Hairston out there, juggling every pass Quinn Cook hands him and occupying dead space just the sake of taking a charge. Marshall Plumlee’s performance has been equally torturous. Most of his touches are graceless and rushed. With older brother Mason, averaging almost 35 minutes per game and staying in foul trouble, and Kelly out, Marshall needs to be more of a defensive pillar. Go in there, hack a few guys, then, have a seat, little bro.
The “sense of humor” e-postcard—These are those annoying Pinterest postcards, and I don’t doubt that folks have been printing them off and sending them as snail-mail postcards. There are a couple of Duke-related ones, but none as good as this year’s real sound-bytes. It’s almost impossible for Coach K to get through one of Duke’s post-game press conferences without a smart-aleck response to a reporter’s question or a funny anecdote about the game—he told one reporter that he would need a 5-foot-tall basket to try Mason Plumlee’s spectacular reverse follow-up dunk against Maryland. He asked one young reporter, “What would you like?” following a question about the coach’s starting lineup for the next game, then he told him to post his ideas on Twitter.
Then there was the time he responded to a reporter asking him how he dealt with helping players make the transition from high school superstars to college-level role players. He jokingly said, “I go and I say ‘Do you realize that you’re playing for a legendary coach?'"
I have but two questions about this arrangement. First, why is ESPN providing a safety net to coaches who have been shown to violate major NCAA rules and to have lied to NCAA investigators?
Second, why does the NCAA allow one of its major broadcast partners to do this?
As Tennessee coach, Bruce Pearl effectively created a conspiracy to lie about a recruiting violation committed in the summer of 2008. The NCAA dished out a relatively stiff penalty: a three-year "show cause" penalty, in effect until 2014, which (by banning him from recruiting activities) essentially makes Pearl unemployable as a college head coach.
But it seems no one at ESPN thought this penalty should make Pearl unemployable by the network. ESPN is apparently not concerned with appearing to reward convicted cheaters with a cushy studio job and a way to keep their names and faces visible to potential future employers.
Since coming back to Chapel Hill in 2003, Ol’ Roy has added the N.C. State men’s basketball team to his list of long-term possessions. Quite simply, Roy Williams has owned the Wolfpack, compiling a 19-1 record against his Raleigh rivals over the past nine seasons.
(In the one loss, back in 2007, Tar Heel shooters were blinded by Sidney Lowe’s stunning red sports coat, allowing State to produce a four point upset.)
Just two weeks ago, all that seemed set to change. N.C. State was the team on the rise, and Carolina was a team staring into the abyss after consecutive losses to Virginia and Miami. State’s huge win over Duke cemented expectations that State could go on to take control of the conference standings.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. State followed up its Duke victory by coming out of the gate ice cold against Maryland in College Park, eventually losing the game on a last-second shot by Alex Len. Bad, but mildly forgivable. Then State allowed Clemson at home to hang around until the final minutes before finally putting the game away. A warning sign, but not a mishap in itself.
Then came Tuesday night in Winston-Salem. State started impressively, using defensive pressure and repeated drives to the rim to build a 14-point lead against the inexperienced Deacons. Neutral viewers could be forgiven for being tempted to turn the game off at halftime.
Maybe State’s players mentally did that, because they didn’t bother to play much defense over the first sixteen minutes of the second half, allowing Wake to completely turn the game around. The Deacons converted six consecutive field goal attempts in one stretch, en route to 59 percent shooting in the second stanza. State woke up and made an impressive push to nearly overturn a ten-point deficit in the final four minutes, but costly missed free throws by C.J. Leslie in the final minute allowed Wake to close the game out.
That lapse of effort in the second half, causing a clearly superior State team to a lose to an outfit outside the top 100, casts Saturday’s game against Carolina in a different light. After dropping two games in three, the pressure is on Gottfried and his players both to stop the recent bleeding and to finally get that win over the Tar Heels. With Carolina playing significantly better basketball in its last three games, that’s no longer a slam-dunk proposition.
Interestingly, the four rumored USL Pro affiliates for 2013—Rochester, Orlando City, Richmond and Harrisburg—will not play a home-and-home series against their reported MLS parent club—New England, Sporting K.C., D.C. United and Philadelphia, respectively. According to a USL Pro league official, this was done so that loaned MLS players would not have to play their MLS clubs. However, during a media conference call this morning, MLS EVP of Competition and Player Relations Todd Durbin indicated that loaned players would be cup-tied to their USL Pro club should it face their MLS affiliate in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and available to face their MLS parent club in the tournament. It is unclear what competitive difference there is between facing a MLS parent club during the regular season as opposed to the U.S. Open Cup. It appears this might also be a way to incorporate as many MLS clubs as possible into the restructured Reserve League arrangement in 2013, since MLS has 19 clubs and USL Pro currently has 13.
Many descriptions have already been breathlessly applied to today’s long-rumored announcement about a restructured Reserve League collaboration between Major League Soccer and third divison USL Pro: “groundbreaking,” “milestone,” "unprecedented," “...one of the biggest announcements” in the 18-year history of MLS.
The precise details of the partnership—many of which are still unknown or being formulated—are far less exalted. In 2013, each of the 13 existing USL Pro clubs will play an interleague home-and-home series against one designated MLS Reserve team. Oddly, these two interleague games will count toward each team’s official USL Pro standings or MLS Reserve League standings.
The second prong of the arrangement is that affiliations will be forged between certain MLS and USL Pro clubs. The terms of this affiliation include at least four players from each parent MLS club going on long-term loan to their USL Pro affiliate. Each of the 19 total MLS clubs will either field a Reserve League team or establish an affiliation with a USL Pro club. MLS clubs who enter into a USL Pro affiliation will not compete in the MLS Reserve League. However, MLS clubs are not currently required to enter into a USL affiliation.
A pivotal role in the win was played by recruited walk-on sophomore Jackson Simmons. For one game at least, Simmons looked like the second most well-rounded big man on the Carolina roster, behind James Michael McAdoo.
A big guy who can rebound, handle the ball competently on the perimeter, and consistently hit mid-range jump shots. Didn’t Carolina used to have a guy like that…or two?
Yes they did, and their names are Travis and David Wear. The California twins who left Chapel Hill seemingly in the dead of night following the 2009-10 season are now enjoying productive seasons as redshirt juniors for UCLA.
Carolina fans, up until the early days of this season, have snickered at UCLA’s welcome to three Carolina transfers—the Wears plus Larry Drew II, whose last act in Chapel Hill was to pack his bags and split midseason without saying goodbye even to roommate Justin Watts.
But now Tar Heel fans aren’t talking so loud or acting so proud. While Carolina has been struggling, UCLA has rattled off 10 straight wins to claim a spot in the Top 25. Drew II, who tallied over 200 assists in 2009-10 for Carolina, is averaging more than eight assists a game, fourth in the nation, with an assist-turnover ratio of nearly 5:1.
Fair-minded people will feel pleased that Drew II, who clearly was never comfortable in Chapel Hill, has found a good situation in which to finish his college career. But he is irrelevant to the question at hand, as his eligibility would have been used up at the end of last season had he not transferred.
The Wears are a different story. They would be seniors this year and de facto leaders, and at least one would have been a starter. A Carolina team with the Wears would be significantly more skilled on the perimeter and stronger in the mid-range game, and also would probably be better on the boards as well. Brice Johnson would have had older role models to learn from, Joel James and Desmond Hubert would be less critical, and Jackson Simmons would never have entered the conversation.
Of course the die-hard Tar Heel fans will insist they would rather have the home-grown Simmons, an easy player to root for, than any more from the too-cool-for-school California crowd. Depending on how you look at it, they aren’t completely wrong.
But the fact is the Wears are more skilled and polished players than Simmons is likely to ever become. Travis Wear is averaging 12 points and six boards on 51 percent shooting in 30 minutes a night; David Wear is averaging 7.4 points and 4.6 boards on 50 percent shooting in 21 minutes a night. Both are shooting over 75 percent from the line—outstanding relative to Carolina’s numbers at the line this year—as well as (headed into last night's game) a respectable 30 percent-plus from the three-point line. Both players bring solid, all-round efficiency, with ability to score multiple ways. Get the Wears a wide-open shot from 12-15 feet and chances are it’s going in.
Then, there’s still reason to wonder how much Duke expects Mason Plumlee to grimace and grapple near the basket, on both the offensive and defensive ends, without proper relief from younger brother, Marshall Plumlee.
Still, the Blue Devils will manage.
The kids are all right.
For N.C. State fans, last Saturday’s 84-76 win over No.1 ranked Duke was, indeed, a cause for court-storming, but it wasn’t the greatest achievement ever documented in mankind. According to the statistical gurus at The Wall Street Journal, “In the past 10 seasons, Duke has lost 31 true road games. Fans rushed the court after 25 of them (80.6 percent).”
Coach K called the Saturday’s celebration in PNC Arena “a sign of respect.” In this case, some of the greatest respect may have come from N.C. State star player and droop troop mascot C.J. Leslie, who rarely seems to give his team maximum leadership but somehow played against Duke as if it was the ACC Championship game.
The Wolfpack didn’t beat any real odds beyond nervousness and memories of their failure a year ago. Credit them for winning this first matchup and living up to the expectations most intelligent college basketball consumers had of them. In the end, the Blue Devils walked into the Wolftrap with multiple handicaps, lost a tough game to the rough-and-tough inside play of Richard Howell and Leslie’s game-high 25 points, and only dropped two spots to No. 3 in the nation.
The kids are all right.
At the center of all of the discussion about whether or not the Duke/ N.C. State rivalry was a real, breathing thing was the Rasheed Sulaimon vs. Rodney Purvis freshman matchup—an antagonism which started during the recruiting season when Duke signed Sulaimon instead of waiting on Purvis' questionable eligibility.
As the N.C. State Wolfpack embark on ACC play, the question remains how the Wolfpack can morph from late-season upstarts into the nationally ranked contenders that many foresaw before this campaign. Fourteen games into the season, the roles for the team’s regulars are largely defined: Scott Wood is the sharpshooter; Lorenzo Brown is the playmaking distributor; Richard Howell is the tenacious rebounder; C.J. Leslie, the team’s leading scorer, remains the mercurial straw that stirs the Pack. And freshman T.J. Warren has more than replaced C.J. Williams as a reliable converter around the basket, on the break and occasionally behind the arc.
When all these disparate parts are clicking, N.C. State can be one of the most dynamic teams in the country. But when Wood’s shot isn’t falling, or Brown’s playing olé defense, or Howell’s in foul trouble, or Warren’s getting outmuscled in the paint, or Leslie is being, well, Calvin, this Wolfpack looks rather toothless.
The X factor in this rotational equation remains a ballyhooed freshman, a local whose path to stardom is thus far as circuitous as his journey to PNC Arena. Rodney Purvis was one of the most sought-after recruits coming out of high school, a McDonald’s All-American considered the best prep player in North Carolina and one of highest ranked in the nation. After initially committing to Louisville, Purvis reopened his college selection process before eventually choosing to attend N.C. State and become head coach Mark Gottfried’s highest profile recruit since arriving in Raleigh.