ATLANTA — Seth Curry often chews on his mouthpiece, the transparent dental safeguard protruding at all angles during stoppages in play.
Some could call it a nervous habit, others a sign of unconscious relaxation.
Following the fifth-year senior guard’s dispensing of the defending national champions in Atlanta, the nervous theory might have to be tossed out the window. Curry looks right at home, confident in leading Duke in his final season. The ninth-ranked Blue Devils outlasted No. 3 Kentucky, 75-68, in the Georgia Dome Tuesday night — the very site of this year’s Final Four, the planned finish line for Curry’s winding collegiate career.
First thing’s first: Get off to a good start. Check.
“Seth was terrific. I think he was the difference-maker in the game, so the fact that he is a fifth-year senior has to help,” said coach Mike Krzyzewski, who is now 11-4 versus ranked opponents over the past three regular seasons. “I thought he kinda took control of the game. We wanted the ball in his hands. He made veteran, tough plays down the stretch.”
Curry led all Duke scorers with 23 points (7-of-14 shooting) against Kentucky, using a slew of crafty, elder-statesman moves to provide the young Wildcats with a few pointers. He hit floaters, runners and jumpers. He fooled center Nerlens Noel, the reining Gatorade High School Player of the Year, with an up-and-under move late in the game which should keep the frosh grounded a bit more from here on out.
When dealing with limited natural athletic ability, scoring can come in all shapes and sizes.
“One thing he’s added to his game: He’s not just a shooter, he’s a scorer,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s got little herky-jerky moves where he keeps a good balance, and is able to — not saying he has hang time, I won’t go that far — but he’s got a way of making a guy commit. Really, not many people can do that.”
Second thing’s second: Stay healthy. Psuedo-check.
The strange subplot concerning Curry, especially given the level of competition and athleticism he faced Tuesday, is that he played hurt. The 6-foot-2 guard has been hampered for months by an apparent leg injury that, to this day, has not been fully diagnosed. Curry has described it as a pain in his right leg, near the shin.
For precautionary measures, Duke took it slow with Curry’s on-court work, sending the Duke fan base into a minor frenzy: How could they get by without their senior scorer? For a team that was bounced in the first round of last season’s NCAA tourney by Lehigh, playing pivotal games without what could very well be its most valuable player was a scary thought.
So Krzyzewski and Duke took it slow — Curry practiced just four times leading up to the Kentucky game, and even those were half-practices.
“I think I did a good job of trying to stay sharp with limited practice time, whether it’s working on ball-handling or something like that,” Curry said. “My teammates did a good job of finding me early in the game, because I haven’t really been around them as much as I usually am in practice.”
Last season’s Blue Devils were caught between styles and concepts: dynamic, erratic freshman Austin Rivers’ capabilities demanded possessions but often produced equally erratic results; its defense was one of the worst units over the past two decades under Krzyzewski.
But this unit will rely on the seniors, like Curry, and it paid off against the inexperienced group they faced in Atlanta.
Seniors Curry, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly combined for 51 of the team’s 75 points versus the Wildcats, or 68 percent of Duke’s scoring output. As younger players like Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Alex Murphy develop into their roles, the Blue Devils will choose to error on the side of familiarity.
It paid off against Kentucky, which, in such a high-profile early-season game, looked off-kilter on numerous offensive and defensive possessions. Just don’t make that case to Krzyzewski.
“Veterans and talent,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind having some of their talent, some of their guys. I’m sure they would like to have some of our guys.”
The fact is that while this is a statement win for Duke — a program which always seems to make such statements at this time of year — neither team will look like this in March. Duke’s young players are still finding their niche. Kentucky’s guys are still learning how to get around campus, much less under Calipari’s demanding system. The Wildcats are waiting on potential starting point guard Ryan Harrow to return to full strength, too.
“What they don’t understand is how hard you have to play every possession, how you have to sustain it and how a minute and a half will cost you a game,” Calipari said of his team. “They don’t know it yet. It’s never been that important. So that’s our job is to continue to teach them. We’re a November team right now, and we have to get better. If this is what we look in December and January, we’re not gonna be the team everybody thinks.”
Seth Curry is trying to reach a different level, too. He redshirted during Duke’s last championship, in 2010, and he has one more season to get back to that level. The rest is unknown — he’s not considered a future NBA starter like his brother, Stephen.
Third thing’s third: Make the most of what could be your last chance.
Curry certainly looks ready to lead — “He’s primed for, I think, an amazing year,” Krzyzewski said. — and his fellow seniors are following suit. Bad losses fade slowly, but Tuesday’s win over the king of the college basketball world should help expedite the process.
“It’s the three of our seniors’ team. That’s what we worked on in the preseason, taking control of the team, having to be our team. Tonight I had it going a little bit so they came to me and I was able to come through.”