Three Thoughts on Washington and Duke from Madison Square GardenPosted by mpatton on December 12th, 2011
The Duke–Washington game on Saturday was an interesting look at both teams. Here are three thoughts, for each team, that I garnered from each team that will be interesting to follow going forward.
Duke was much better with Tyler Thornton on the floor. Thornton’s stat line at the end of the first half: 18 minutes, 0-0 from the field, two assists and two turnovers. But there’s a reason he played more minutes than any other player: He locked down Abdul Gaddy and the Husky offense. There’s no other reasonable explanation for why Washington’s offense looked so stagnant at that time. Thornton is a sparkplug for this Duke team. He may not fill up the stat sheet, but the team visibly has more energy when he’s on the floor. His on-ball defense also covers up Duke’s mediocrity at defending dribble penetration. The offense also played very well, despite his apparent lack of production. Don’t be surprised to see Thornton start for Duke going forward.
On a related note, Washington’s offense is almost entirely based on its backcourt’s ability to utilize dribble penetration. Tony Wroten was really the only effective offensive weapon the Huskies had in the first half; luckily, he was a one-man scoring machine then. Wroten is the real deal. He was by far the most talented player on the floor. It remains to be seen whether he just took advantage of a huge mismatch with Duke (he’s a 6’5″ wing with boatloads of athleticism; no one that gets playing time at Duke fits that description), or whether he can be the go-to guy for the Huskies this year. But one thing I do know is that he’s an NBA talent.
Duke’s problem with Tyler Thornton off the floor is that it lacks a leader. There’s no Nolan Smith on this team to set the tone on both ends of the floor (and even when he struggled offensively, Kyle Singler usually did a very good job on defense). The obvious answer on the offensive end is Austin Rivers. He’s got the swagger. He can get his own shot. Combine his offensive skills with Thornton’s defensive intensity, and you satisfy the requirements for a leader. Other than that fact that it’s two separate players. Duke will probably need to do a lot of things by committee this year.
Building on my initial point that Washington’s offense is predicated on dribble penetration, the Huskies were much more dangerous after Aziz N’Diaye went down with a sprained knee early in the first half. Despite pulling down several offensive rebounds, N’Diaye was irrelevant on offense. After the Huskies went small, Duke’s bigs really struggled to play defense. This may end up being more a blueprint for beating Duke’s defense than Washington’s success, but the Huskies looked significantly more active on offense with a smaller lineup on the floor.
Going back to Duke, Mason Plumlee is now effective everywhere but the free throw line (you absolutely cannot go 2-11 from the charity stripe). He’s got a limited but solid repertoire of post moves including a decent drop step, nice baby hook and very effective dunk (mainly on alley-hoops and putbacks). He also plays strong defense, rebounds well (he’s an elite defensive rebounder), and is a serviceable shotblocker. Unfortunately, his foul shooting is a legitimate concern. When the Huskies were making their comeback late, Washington would wrap him up as soon as he got the ball. If he can turn that around, he’ll be one of the top big men in the ACC and the country.
Finally, Washington has all of the pieces of an NCAA Tournament team. It has talent, athleticism and experience. But something is missing. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what. In watching the game against Duke, there was no intensity from Washington until Duke’s backcourt started getting in foul trouble in the second half. The Huskies got hit in the mouth early by the Blue Devils and didn’t respond well at all. Lorenzo Romar has a lot of work to do if he wants this group to contend for the Pac-12 title, although its late comeback against Duke and overall competitive game against Marquette certainly were promising.