Court Vision: No. 4 Duke finishes strong in win over Ga. Tech
DURHAM, N.C. -- Don't look now, but No. 4 Duke is quietly surging in ACC play, winning four of its last five games (three on the road and two against top-10 clubs).
After an emotional and exhausting week last week, the Blue Devils got back home to Cameron Indoor Stadium, but learned there was nothing easy against conference foes, pulling out a 72-66 victory over Georgia Tech (10-12, 1-9 ACC).
1. The Blue Devils are finishing strong -- at the right time
With the ouster of Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke (19-3, 6-3) is essentially playing six guys -- the five starters and Matt Jones off the bench.
Marshall Plumlee and Grayson Allen will see some time, but Allen saw just three minutes and Plumlee just eight -- and everyone else played at least 22.
At previously unbeaten Virginia on Saturday, Duke closed on an 11-0 run to stun the No. 2-ranked Cavaliers. This was just a few days removed from the double setback of losing to Notre Dame (on the road) and Sulaimon getting dismissed from the team.
Oh, and by the way, it was less than a week removed from head coach Mike Krzyzewski's 1,000th vicitory, which was celebrated for the first time with the home fans after this win. The historic triumph (at St. John's) was earned similarly, as Duke had to erase a double-digit second-half deficit.
A lot has happened in a short period of time, and yet, the young Blue Devils are just finding ways to power through it.
"They're human beings. These guys play in so many big games. We're one of those teams that we're a big game for everybody. To try to do that 30-something times, that's what we've tried to do for 25 years. You're not always successful in doing it," Krzyzewski said.
Duke couldn't quite shake the Yellow Jackets either, and it was a three-point game with 6:52 to go.
Georgia Tech would get no closer after that, trimming the deficit to five or less just once.
It wasn't quite like the Virginia game when Duke rained 3-pointers; but in the final minutes, the Blue Devils made plays. They got stops. They made Georgia Tech pay for every mistake and that included two turnovers in the final five minutes, after the Yellow Jackets had surrendered the ball just three times in the first 15 minutes of the second half.
"What they do is, especially down the stretch, every single little mistake you make, they seem to take advantage of," said Georgia Tech head coach Brian Gregory.
But the first half was a bit of a mess for Duke, which allowed Georgia Tech to shoot over 50 percent in the opening frame and close it out on a quick 4-0 run that had Krzyzewski stomping his feet.
Coach K was as flabbergasted with that as he was proud of the ending.
"I didn't think we were emotionally at the level that we needed to be, no matter what we did. Again, not that our kids weren't ready to play but they could not get that level of emotion," Krzyzewski said.
"In the second half, for them to respond in the second half after not having that, that's something some of our teams have not been able to do. You make the adjustments emotionally during the game."
2. Justise Winslow got back on track for Duke
All of Duke's freshmen have hit something resembling a wall at various points this season, and Winslow's was the one that seemingly lasted the longest.
He was banged up with a shoulder and a rib issue, but he didn't play well in about five-game stretch for Duke that included its first two losses, averaging 4.4 points on 7-of-30 shooting (23.3 percent).
In the last three games now, though (all in the span of a week), Winslow is back to where he was, averaging 14.3 points on 16-of-29 shooting (55.1 percent). And he's averaging 10.5 rebounds in the last two games, something the wing had been struggling with through his injuries.
"He's still hurt, but Justise is playing very well," Krzyzewski said. "He's had a heck of a year, but he wasn't playing to the level for awhile."
Gregory was certainly impressed with the 6-6, 225-pounder who looks every bit the part.
"I think Winslow, he's a hell of a player. The one thing he does, he defensive rebounds the ball," Gregory said.
"He's good enough with the ball, he's like a mini-(James) Harden without the beard. He's crafty. He puts the ball on the floor, finishes strong around the basket. But he does some other things that maybe go unnoticed a little bit. That's why he's a hell of a player."
3. The ACC has been absolutely brutal to all the teams
It's easy to see why the ACC has the the perception of being a top-heavy league. Right now, there are five teams in the top 12 nationally and four in the top 10.
According to statistician Ken Pomeroy, nearly 30 percernt of the league's games have been close (four points or less or overtime) -- third-most of any conference nationwide. And just 9.9 percent of the games have been blowouts.
But those are just numbers, and ultimately they don't mean anything. If Virginia, Duke, Louisville, Notre Dame or North Carolina lose to each other, no one bats an eye. But if any of them lose to or struggle with another ACC team and it's somehow not a credit to the ACC.
"The problem that we have is when those teams don't win, it's 'what's the matter with those teams?', not 'man, that league must be a monster'. We've got to get to that point," Gregory said.
Gregory understands the grind of this league better than anyone. His Yellow Jackets came into ACC play at 9-3 overall with wins over three teams in Pomeroy's current top 100 teams.
Now, they're 1-9 in ACC play. Six of those losses have been by one possession or in overtime. And eight of the losses have been by seven points or fewer.
"We're pretty good," Gregory said, "and we're 1-9 in the league right now."
Krzyzewski expected to see a team with defeated body language -- it's only natural, particularly after coming off of a heartbreaking overtime loss at home to NC State where the Yellow Jackets collapsed late.
But that's not what he saw.
"I'm watching them come out there with three minutes to go on the clock and you watch them warm up and you look, and they have such good body language," Krzyzewski said. "(Gregory is) so upbeat. You can tell -- you'd think they're a 7-3 team, and they could be with about seven more possessions."
And while Georgia Tech is the type of team easy to focus on when looking at the sneaky brutality of the ACC, where 11 teams have a .500 or better record overall, look no further than the fact that Duke is currently sitting in sixth place in the league halfway through the ACC schedule.
"I don't think Duke will finish sixth in this league, but it does speak volumes. I think everybody has this presumption that just the top teams in this league are really good, and that's not the case," Gregory said.
"I think we have 4-5 teams that could make a run all the way to the Final Four. I don't think there's any question about that. Then you've got some other teams that are talented enough, maybe young in an area or inexperienced in an area, but if they get into an NCAA Tournament, they could make a run too. So I don't think the depth of this league gets the credit that it deserves."
Gregory is probably right in that this league might only get six bids. But teams like NC State -- young and inconsistent -- and even Clemson, a team that was not good at the beginning of the year but playing much better now, won't get their due because they're not thought of as coming from a tough league.
But the players and coaches in this league know better.
STATS THAT MATTER
423: Krzyzewski now has a record 423 wins in the ACC, passing former North Carolina coach Dean Smith..
20: Without Sulaimon, sophomore Matt Jones has seen an uptick in minutes -- and he's responded with increased productivity, scoring 20 in the last two games after having scored 18 in the last six games combined.
"Only if we were playing at Duke." -- Gregory on if he expected to look down and see his team shoot nearly 73 percent from 3 (8-of-11) and lose.
"I'm proud of our guys in terms of our fight and the intensity that they played with. I remember four years ago when we came here -- actually it was three years ago, my second year here -- we had a bunch of guys taking pictures of the arena. Our guys today came in here and fought. There's a big difference there, and I think it bodes well for what we're doing." -- Gregory
"That shocks me. ... I feel bad that that's happened. I love Syracuse. I love Jim. You don't want anything bad to happen to any conference member -- anything." -- Krzyzewski on Syracuse's self-imposed postseason ban