DURHAM, N.C. — The difference in the mood surrounding Duke’s basketball team late Wednesday night and Saturday afternoon would make the ebb and flow of the stock market appear like a straight line.
The top-ranked Blue Devils were reeling after a 27-point loss at Miami that seemingly exposed every one of their weaknesses. But on Saturday, Duke responded like you would expect from Duke in dispatching a solid Maryland club, 84-64.
The 47-point swing in final margins doesn’t come close to the emotional range the team has experienced.
“Very different, two different levels, totally different,” senior Seth Curry said, almost at a loss for words. “When you get a big win and a big loss, it’s going to change your morale just like that.”
And when a team does it being led by freshmen who either haven’t produced much of late (Rasheed Sulaimon) or weren’t even factors in the rotation (Amile Jefferson) until a few weeks ago, it can only be viewed as a major sign of growth.
“They gave us a big lift all game,” Curry said. “They made plays and kept making them.”
Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said he hoped this performance was the first step toward what Duke will eventually become in the post-Ryan Kelly portion of the season, which could last until the postseason.
Among the many team positives – collective intensity, focus, defense, aggressiveness, and the Devils’ no-fear attitude – and the play of sophomore Quinn Cook, who was instrumental in setting the tone of toughness for Duke (17-2, 4-2 ACC) with his early battles against Maryland’s Nick Faust, were the performances delivered by Sulaimon and Jefferson.
Without Kelly, Duke is down a perimeter scorer, among the other things Kelly does, but Sulaimon took care of that problem Saturday. He finished with 25 points while sinking six of eight 3-pointers. He actually made his first six attempts, including five before halftime. Maryland was hanging tough, so those 3s were enormous for the Blue Devils.
“I’ve always had confidence in my shot,” Sulaimon said. “A lot of people think I can do other things, and I think I can shoot the ball as well. And, knowing the type of players I’m playing with, they’re going to draw the defense, so that’s going to leave me a lot of open shots.
“So I just have to be ready to take them and shoot them with confidence.”
Sulaimon had three 3-pointers in four different games this season, most recently against Georgia Tech 10 days ago. But he’d also failed to connect from the perimeter in five of Duke’s previous nine contests before Saturday.
Jefferson isn’t going to launch any shots from beyond the arc any time soon, but he will play around the rim with tremendous intensity and desire. A thin 6 feet 7, Jefferson plays like he doesn’t look. He’s refuses to shy away from physical conduct, and in fact he actually absorbs it quite well.
Twice on Saturday, he got shots off while being hammered. His 7-1 wingspan helps, but Jefferson also appears to have a smidge more hang time than the average college basketball player. But most impressive is his willingness to muck it up and win the battles around the rim.
“I love contact,” he said. “Even though I’m a smaller guy, I don’t mind banging, I don’t mind getting down there and fighting with people.”
Jefferson finished with 11 points and nine rebounds, but perhaps most impressive in his 24 minutes was that he committed just three fouls. A fouling machine a couple of weeks ago, the Philadelphia native is learning how to play hard and physically without racking up so many quick fouls. This is a crucial part of Duke’s development.
“I think that just comes with experience on the court …” Krzyzewski said. “You get fouls, you learn, ‘I shouldn’t do that.’ There are things you can only pick up during games. He’s not afraid, plays with great enthusiasm.”
Duke still has a ton of improving to do to match the level it was playing when Kelly was healthy, but Saturday was a gigantic step in that direction.
The freshmen were excellent. Now they just need to become more consistent.