Tournament is Plumlee’s last go-around

GREENSBORO, N.C. — This is it for Miles Plumlee.

This NCAA Tournament is his last go-around. And who better to get the vibe about Duke entering Friday’s game versus Lehigh than the 6-foot-10 senior?

“I feel good about us right now,” he said Thursday afternoon at the Greensboro Coliseum.

It’s up to Plumlee to exude confidence. As the team’s lone senior, he’s the gate-keeper of the Blue Devils’ locker room. Inside, Plumlee doesn’t have to be a rah rah guy, but he can’t be a sourpuss, either. He can add balance to the climate of a Duke team that hasn’t played well of late.

Forget about statistics, this is Plumlee’s team, and with his college career nearing, his grip on that role is tightening.

“This is the one where I feel most like it’s my team,” he said. “I’m the senior and have had a big role this year and this is the last Duke team I will play on.”

Since a convincing win at Florida State on Feb. 23, Duke has struggled to beat Virginia Tech at home, played poorly in a win at hapless Wake Forest, got trounced at home by North Carolina, and split a pair of games in the ACC Tournament, averaging 20 fewer points a game than during the regular season.

The No. 2 seed in the South Region, Duke isn’t exactly charging into the NCAA Tournament. With mobile forward Ryan Kelly out indefinitely trying to heal a bum ankle, one might say the Devils are limping into the big dance.

That’s why Plumlee executing the role of leader and even cheerleader has never been in greater demand. Just absorb his response to a question about Duke’s psychologically after three poor weeks of hoops.

“I don’t think we’ve played as great on the court, but this last week of practice has been great for us,” replied Plumlee, who averages 6.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per contest. “We’ve really learned a lot, especially with Ryan being out. We’re going to be fine.”

Acknowledgement of not playing well is key because it lends more credibility to his positive remarks about this week’s practices. He gets it, and he knows he must impart on his mates it’s now or never, and the past, even the recent past, doesn’t matter.

“We’ve talked to them,” he said, also noting the leadership of his brother, Mason, and Andre Dawkins, both of whom are juniors. “They know it’s the end of the season if you don’t bring it one game. So, that’s the easiest way to understand: It’s the end of the year if you don’t win.”

And it’s the end of a college career. Plumlee’s jersey won’t hang in the rafters and he won’t ever make any all-time Duke teams, but he was an integral part of the 2010 national championship team. He’s part of the Duke legacy.

At the time, Plumlee thought the rest of his career would go that way, but it hasn’t. Duke was trounced by Arizona in the Sweet 16 a year ago, and who knows what will happen this weekend and into next week. Hence, the sense of urgency.
“It doesn’t hit you until your last year, and it’s hard to get that through to the other guys on the team,” he said. “My sophomore year I thought that since I had two more times (for the NCAA Tournament) it was not going to end. But all of a sudden it’s here, this is it.”

His teammates have noticed something a little different in their elder statesman.

“I can see his focus intensify these last few days,” freshman Austin Rivers said. “He knows what it like to win it all, to know what a Duke team is supposed to be like, and he’s doing his best to help encourage us to become that.”

Duke has some issues that won’t go away. No Kelly, inconsistent perimeter shooting in recent weeks, perimeter defense that comes and goes, and few creators outside of Rivers. So it must rely on that old Duke intensity, focus and smarts to advance, and Plumlee is more than happy to lead the way.

Blue Devils’ lone senior, Miles Plumlee, know this is his last chance to make a run at an NCAA.