Duke has faced quite the early-season test thus far, with even bigger challenges looming in the horizon. Already having beaten Kentucky on a neutral floor (virtual road game) and Florida Gulf Coast (which had knocked off Miami the week before), Coach K’s squad got an up-close look at an athletic, experienced and nationally underrated Minnesota team—one that presented difficult matchup problems for the Blue Devils and could well work its way into the Top 25 by season’s end.
You wouldn’t have known, however, by Thursday’s opening round game in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Duke predictably handled its business, as it has done better than any college basketball program in the months of November and December over the years, trouncing Tubby Smith’s bunch in a game that was never in doubt. Thanks to the strong performance, the feedback is nothing but positive for the Blue Devils on their Thanksgiving break progress report.
Final Score: Duke over Minnesota, 89-71
Twitter-compatible recap: Duke overcomes 1st half turnovers, shaky refs. Hot shooting, steady Plumlee spark Devils offense as Gophers cold from outside. Starters lead way.
Thriving without the bench: Blue Devils reserves accounted for just two points in the offensive onslaught. Who needs a productive bench when your starters rattle off 87? Seth Curry scored 25 points (8-11 FG) and Mason Plumlee turned in another double-double (20 points, 17 rebounds) to lead the charge, while Quinn Cook (17 points, 5 steals, 4 assists) made the most of his second start of the year.
Cook the answer at point: Tyler Thornton got the nod at starting point guard in Duke’s first two games. And barring an injury to Cook, those will be his final two starts of the year. Cook, a playmaking point guard with ankle-turning quickness, stellar court vision and a deadly outside shot, is the floor general of the present and future for Mike Krzyzewski. Thornton is a representative backup.
Sulaimon a budding star: Don’t expect this kid to stick around in Durham for longer than two years. Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State) is the best freshman guard in America, but Sulaimon has a grasp of the No. 2 spot along with N.C. State frosh Rodney Purvis. Sulaimon is a scoring ace with underrated passing ability, allowing him to run point in a pinch. He’s Duke’s best perimeter defender already and his athleticism will be pivotal for a Blue Devils team otherwise slow-footed in the backcourt. Sulaimon is an NBA talent (down the line) with maturity beyond his years. While defenses are busy chasing Seth Curry around the perimeter this season, the prized freshman should be the first to capitalize.
Duke’s Fall reign lives on: With the win, the Blue Devils extend their streak of dominance in the months of November and December. Duke is 53-2 in November and 91-6 in November and December combined since 2004. Recommendation to other coaches: if you’re looking for a marquee win in the non-conference, stay away from this team if at all possible.
Don’t discount Minnesota: The Gophers didn’t have much to be thankful for today—few teams will when an opponent hits 8 of 10 3-pointers like Duke did—but don’t let that cloud your big-picture outlook of this team. Andre and Austin Hollins will not shoot this poorly (7-23 FG, 3-11 3FG) again. Trevor Mbakwe will get stronger and sharper over the course of the season, as he rebuilds his workload after missing most of last season due to a torn ACL. If Thursday’s quarterfinals were any indication, Minnesota can also expect increased production off the bench by way of reserve guard Maverick Ahanmisi. One requisite area of improvement that will dictate just how good the Gophers can be: Elliott Eliason. The sophomore pivot has got to be better in conference play than he has been to this point.