Plumlee returns to lead the way for Duke

Published Apr. 11, 2012 8:48 a.m. EDT

With respect to Josh Hairston, the fears that recently chilled the spines of Duke fans wondering what the Blue Devils might look like inside the paint next basketball season were alleviated when Mason Plumlee announced Tuesday he will return for his senior season.

The early word a couple of weeks ago was that the 6-foot-11 Plumlee was taking his game to the next level. To some, the notion seemed a bit odd, given that Plumlee still has plenty to prove on offense, and hasn’t been a consistent defender.

But those who bleed all things Duke cared more about the cavern it would put in the middle of the Blue Devils, and that simply wasn’t what they’re used to or care to even consider.

Hairston, a 6-8 rising junior, has played sparingly and produced little, and Ryan Kelly, a 6-10 stretch four – a power forward who plays usually on the perimeter facing the basket – would have been Duke’s only bigs with any experience. Marshall Plumlee, who redshirted as a freshman this past season, would have been forced into heavy minutes right away.

With Mason Plumlee back, Duke will have a solid scorer it can run its offense through, a proven rebounder, a gritty player happy to ruffle opponents’ feathers, and someone Mike Krzyzewski can count on. The legendary coach knows that with better balance on offense, Plumlee should deliver almost every night as a senior

“He is a terrific talent that has improved every year,” Krzyzewski said in a release Tuesday. “We look forward to watching him continue to grow and develop as a player and as a leader. Mason has the ability to contend for ACC Player of the Year and All-America honors next season.”

The Hall of Fame coach is right, Plumlee does.

In fact, he was on his way to All-ACC status through January, but struggled quite a bit over the final five weeks of the season, Much of that, however, wasn’t entirely his doing. He stopped getting as many touched and Duke didn’t run as much stuff through him.

Plumlee averaged 11.1 points and 9.2 rebounds per contest figures that should grow by four and two, respectively. If so, Duke will once again be a major factor in the ACC race. Without Plumlee, the Blue Devils still would have won more than 20 games and reached the NCAA Tournament, but with him back, they should be much better than that.

And it appears Plumlee knows this.

“I feel like this is the best place for me to improve and that is one of the most important things to me,” he said. “Also, the way we ended last year is not the way I want to end my career at Duke.”

Plumlee scored 19 points after converting all nine of his field goal attempts and grabbed 12 rebounds in Duke’s final game, but it came as a No. 2 seed losing to No. 15 seed Lehigh, 75-70.

That game has to fuel the Devils all summer. It should drive them every day, because they must know the better team won the game that night. Duke had fallen that fan that quickly. And a key reason for its demise was that it didn’t best utilize Plumlee down the stretch. And by the time the NCAA Tournament came, even a terrific performance couldn’t pull the Devils out of their funk.

Next season, that shouldn’t be such a problem, especially since Plumlee will lead the way.