ATLANTA – Curiously, Austin Rivers didn’t touch the ball on Duke’s first possession inside a minute left in a tight game. The Blue Devils were up just four points over a pesky, but worn down, Virginia Tech team. But instead of giving the ball to its All-ACC freshmen stud, Duke fiddled around with it for a possession that ended in Tyler Thornton missing a three-pointer from the left baseline.
For a player prone to what Rivers’ father – Boston Celtics championship-winning coach Doc Rivers – derisively calls “hero ball,” it looked like his son wouldn’t even have a chance to save his team from the hovering, impending defeat. But then, on the other end, after a Tech miss, a loose ball squirted out to the top of the key. Right as two Hokies were converging on it, Rivers turned on his turbo booster, snatched the rock and streaked up the court for a layup and a foul. It was the game’s most important and spectacular play, made by the best athlete and player on the court – and it sealed the game.
Duke escaped with a 60-56 win. I say “escaped” because the Blue Devils played the entire game without a real cushion. They held a double-digit lead for what seemed like a nanosecond. The rest of the game looked like an ugly brawl between two equals, not a quarterfinal matchup against a team headed to the NIT and another headed for a No. 2 seed in the Big Dance.
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Duke shot terrible – just 37 percent from the field. Tech coach Seth Greenberg would later say the Hokies game plan was “to force Tyler Thornton to beat us.” He said Duke’s poor shooting was a testament to their defense, that they didn’t want Thornton to shoot 16 times – 13 from long range – that Tech’s defense made it so those were the only shots available.
The “make Thornton beat us” plan almost worked, except that Thornton – clanging for most of the day – came through with a career-high 13 points, the bulk of which were of the useful “man we needed that” variety. And as bad as Duke was offensively, Tech was worse, shooting an atrocious 30.2 percent from the floor.
Tech couldn’t get those scores because Duke played what coach Mike Krzyzewski said was the team’s most complete defensive game of the season.
“You’re not going to hit shots all the time,” said Rivers, who led all scorers with 17 points, but shot just 5 for 14 from the field. “There’s going to be nights where you can’t make anything, and there’s going to be nights when you make everything. But our defense won the game tonight.”
That’s a widely held maxim – that defense is all about effort and discipline, that it’s something a team can count on as an easier duplicated recipe for a win than offensive efficiency and/or potency. So, Duke has that going for it.
What it doesn’t have is the talent gulf that usually separated them from their opponents. North Carolina and Kentucky and Kansas and Syracuse and Missouri (a guard centric team like Duke) have it, but not the Blue Devils. This is a team that has a much slimmer margin for error than many of their predecessors.
Duke doesn’t have anything that overwhelms its opponents. They don’t wear you down with talent and aren’t super-athletic, super-big or super-deep. They’re just Duke.
What Duke does have is one player who – in almost every game he’ll play the rest of the season – will be the best guard on the floor, which is a boon for the guard-dominated NCAA tournament.
Rivers is conspicuously more talented than his teammates, but the odd thing is they don’t defer to him – hence the crucial, late-game possession where he didn’t touch the ball. The natural order of this team is beholden to the Duke philosophy. That’s a great thing, but maybe not in the team’s best interest this season. And it makes you wonder if Krzyzewski might scrap the egalitarian, system-driven ideology that has made his program so successful and just let Rivers roll for the rest of the season. Un-cage the young fella.
Although Rivers might not have deserved the nod over UNC’s Kendall Marshall on the All-ACC first team, his performance as a freshman has been remarkable. As Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn recently noted, “Only six freshmen were their team’s No. 1 possession user and had an offensive rating better than 100. Only two of them are going to be playing in the NCAA tournament, and only Rivers has led his team to a No. 1 or 2 seed.”
That nugget begs the question: Is Rivers actually underutilized? Should Coach K sellout and let Duke become Rivers and Riverettes?
You watch Rivers take ill-advised pull-up jumpers and force action periodically and sometimes it seems like he’s going rogue. But look at Duke’s other options – it’s a collection of moderately talented (in a big-time college hoops context) pedestrian athletes. They will meet a squad full of dynamos at some point in the NCAA tournament (not to mention, possibly Sunday against the Tar Heels) and then what? Maybe “Rivers going rogue” should really just be the Duke offensive game plan.
Fat chance, though, right? Picture Coach K calling a “Carmelo clearout” for Rivers, play after play after play. The Duke system has always been the star, not the actual Duke stars, and – this season, more than ever – it’s aided a young, flawed team to overachieve.
Rivers isn’t buying the “Rivers and the Riverettes” pipe-dream, either.
“I just have to play my game,” Rivers says. “Coach and them always want me to be aggressive. Tonight, as you see, when I get in the lane, I’d kick it and guys would hit shots. I know my teammates will keep coming to me and I’ll keep looking for them. That’s the way our offense goes, and coach has established that for me.”
Spoken like a good soldier. We’ll see where it gets them, though. This is a loaded year for college basketball. There are juggernauts out there armed with several lethal weapons. Duke has just one of them, and they better fire off that bad boy as much as possible.