Five games into his freshman season at Duke, Austin Rivers is still arcing his way through a learning curve.
If he’s this good now, imagine what he’ll be like later in the season.
Rivers shook off some early mistakes to hit four 3-pointers and score 18 points, lifting the No. 6 Blue Devils to a 77-67 win over Tennessee in the first round of the Maui Invitational on Monday.
”When you’re a freshman, you start evaluating what you’re doing and sometimes you’re a step slow to the next thing and that’s because you care,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. ”You want to be good. You’ve just got to get through that.”
Rivers had a few wild drives that led to nowhere early, but settled down more as the game went on, hitting 4 of 6 from long range to key a couple of runs for the Blue Devils.
Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly added 17 each, and Duke (5-0) improved to 13-0 all-time in Maui by wearing down the young Volunteers with its depth and versatile lineup in the second half to pull away.
Mason Plumlee had 13 rebounds and Andre Dawkins added 10 points for the Blue Devils, who move on to Tuesday’s semifinals against No. 15 Michigan, which knocked off No. 8 Memphis.
”Late in that game, the biggest plays we could have made were defensive stops and defensive rebounds,” Kelly said. ”I thought we did a pretty good job in the closing minutes of getting to all of those balls.”
Tennessee (2-1) is in rebuilding mode after the NCAA fiasco with coach Bruce Pearl, but still managed to keep up with Duke for a while. The Vols just couldn’t make shots at the rim early or from the perimeter the whole game, missing all eight of their 3-point attempts.
Jeronne Maymon had 14 points and 12 rebounds to lead Tennessee, which has No. 8 Memphis up next on Tuesday.
”I thought our guys competed,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin. ”They just made plays down the stretch and really executed. I thought we had a couple of quick shots, but it was tough.”
The Blue Devils have been the kings of the Maui, winning titles in 1992, 1997, 2001 and 2007.
Krzyzewski called this year’s team his most inexperienced group headed into Maui after losing its top three scorers from last season: ACC player of the year Nolan Smith, 2010 Final Four Most Outstanding Player Kyle Singler and Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
The Blue Devils are young but talented, with a heralded class of five freshman headed by Rivers, the consensus top recruit in the nation and son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
Duke has already been through a string of tough opening games, beating Belmont, Presbyterian, Michigan State and Davidson. The win over the Spartans, last Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, gave Krzyzewski his 903rd win, passing his mentor and former coach Bobby Knight for most all-time in men’s Division I.
The Blue Devils kept rolling against Tennessee behind Rivers.
The freshman was out of control at times in the first half, making just 1 of 5 shots from inside the arc. He was good outside the 3-point line, though, hitting 3 of 4, including a pair late in the half that put the Blue Devils up 39-33.
Rivers started to hit a few shots inside the arc in the second half and dropped in another 3 as the Blue Devils stretched a 2-point lead midway through the half up to 13.
”This is our fifth game in about 10 days and he’s learned a lot. He came through,” Krzyzewski said. ”He’s not afraid. He’s going to be a terrific player for us.”
While Duke always seems to have talented to new players, about the only thing the same at Tennessee are those bright orange uniforms.
The Vols are under new direction this season after Martin replaced Pearl, who was fired in March after admitting that he lied to NCAA investigators.
Tennessee lost forward Tobias Harris and guard Scotty Hopson to the NBA draft and four other seniors who saw regular playing time, and will rely on five new scholarship players – not to mention new offensive and defensive schemes.
An annual favorite to win the SEC under Pearl, the Vols were picked 11th out of 12 teams in this year’s preseason media poll.
Martin has tried to retool what Tennessee does, using a basic form of the motion-style offense that helped Missouri State become one of the Missouri Valley Conference’s top scoring teams and a high-pressure defense similar to what Pearl ran during his early tenure in Knoxville.
Long and athletic, the Vols were able to keep up with the big Blue Devils early on, keeping it close despite missing numerous shots at the rim and a few wild ones. Tennessee missed all six of its 3-point attempts in the half on the way to shooting 33 percent, but was still within six.
After Duke’s short run to end the first half, the Vols rallied to tie the game at 45-all early in the second. The Blue Devils made another run and Tennessee answered, pulling within 2 midway through.
Duke again started to pull away and the Vols had no answer this time, headed to the loser’s bracket in their first trip back to Maui since 2004.
”They obviously did a good job on chesting us up, keeping their hands high without fouling,” Maymon said. ”We’ve got to focus on finishing more around the basket. That’s mostly on us.”