I remember watching my first Duke basketball game in the 8th grade. Actually, I was in class watching it because watching ACC college basketball is almost a requirement for all North Carolina schools, especially during the ACC tournament time. Needless to say I've been watching Duke play for more than two decades. I've seen the good, the bad, the ugly and the great Duke teams.
The 2010 team is not one of the greats, but this could be their year to win the Big Dance.
And when they do, the conspiracy theories will emerge. "Duke had an easy bracket." "Coach K berates the refs." "Dickie V bribed the tourney crew!"
The doubters point to Duke's shooting and lack of star power. At this point, any Duke player would be lucky to be a second rounder in the NBA.
But here is what those doubters and conspiracists are missing when they watch Duke play and take a closer look at how they've won.
1. Offensive Rebounding.
Duke's rebounding is overwhelming, especially in the offensive rebounding category. Take a look at the matchup against Baylor. They matched duke players pound-for-pound, inch-for-inch. They had a 7-footer just like Zoubek. They had perimeter-oriented big men who were stronger AND could jump better than Singler or Smith. But Duke outrebounded them 41 to 35 with 22 offensive rebounds. They out-rebounded Purdue, once the #1 team in the nation, 45 to 22 with 11 offensive boards versus Purdue's 4. Baylor had dominated the boards earlier vs. St. Mary's (25 to 37).
Zoubek is finally playing like the Zoubek Coach K recruited. He is clearly a game-changer at 7-foot tall and a decent ball handler. Injuries and early foul trouble kept him off the court for the first three years, but now Zoubek is no stranger to double-doubles with many points scored from offensive boards. He's posted 36 rebounds in the last three games; 22 have been on the offensive side.
3. Interior passing.
If you watch Duke's assists, you'll see that they mostly come from interior passing. It takes a lot of skill to pass the ball within the paint, leading to a jam. The Plumlees have come along and developed this skill. They don't score a lot of points or grab a lot of boards, but they always seem to be in position to make that extra pass that leads to a Singler jumper or a Scheyer 3. Scheyer shot 5-10 beyond the arc versus Baylor while Singler was 4-6 versus Purdue.
4. "No offense" offense.
Naysayers claim that Duke lives and dies by the 3. This is true, but more effective this year because of the new inside presence. Having said that, it appears that Duke's offense is basically NO offense. The whole point of Duke's scoring is to shoot as many open shots as you can without running a play. This doesn't give an opposing coach much to work with. As much criticism that has come against Duke's lack of shooting power, the point is that accuracy isn't as important as volume is. This year's Duke isn't relying on any one or two players to score like past teams did a la JJ and Sheldon Williams. This year's Duke has three primary scorers but none "own" the bucket or have plays called just for him. That's why Duke can shoot 28 percent in one half and 60 percent in another yet win 11 out of their last 15 games with 70 or more points.
Almost all good teams start off well against Duke but somehow seem to gas out in the end. I liken it to Ali's Rope-A-Dope style. They absorb the offensive runs and stick to the defensive game plan. Duke's defense is remarkably stingy and allows for very few clear-open shots. But the heart of the defense comes from conditioning. They never seem to tire from playing tight team defense. It doesn't seem to matter who is on the floor; everyone is playing as a solid defensive unit until the last basket. The doubters say "oh, Duke gets all the calls" to explain the number of free throws. But it's really about conditioning. Their opponents seem to tire out in the second half from working hard for every shot in the first, leading to more fouls. That's why the offensive boards are more prevalent in the second half. They are ready to play beyond 40 minutes.
And when Duke is on the court for 40 minutes, they win.