Night Line: Mason Plumlee’s Post Dominance Keying Duke’s Phenomenal StartPosted by EJacoby on November 29th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @EJacobyRTC on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
Plenty of elite teams have impressed in the opening month of this season, but Duke is in a tier by itself when it comes to a complete resume. After exacting revenge on Ohio State from last season’s drubbing with a 73-68 victory over the Buckeyes on Wednesday night, Mike Krzyzewski’s team has now defeated three top-five teams in November. That doesn’t even include victories over Minnesota and VCU, as well, two other likely NCAA Tournament squads. In Wednesday’s win, Duke trailed by eight points at halftime to a tougher-looking Buckeyes squad while itself looking fatigued, and it needed a significant second half spark to change the tone of the game. That’s where it turned to Mason Plumlee, who turned momentum back on Duke’s side with two monster alley-oops from point guard Quinn Cook. Blue Devil fans have waited three long years for Plumlee to become a dominant post force who successfully harnessed all of his athletic potential, and tonight’s 21-point, 17-rebound effort in a comeback win over an elite opponent shows just how far the big man has come.
We knew Duke had the depth, shooting, and coaching to remain an ACC contender this season, but Plumlee’s transformation into a dominant, All America-caliber forward gives the team a chance to reach greater heights than almost anyone imagined. Through seven games, the 6’10” senior is now averaging 19.9 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game on 65% shooting from the field; all good for top-five rankings in the ACC. But what’s most astonishing about Plumlee’s stats is his free throw percentage, which at 79% is an exponential improvement over his career 50% shooting coming into this season. Never mind the massive 8.8 PPG jump; an increase of 30 points on a go-to player’s free throw percentage is enough to change the entire dynamic of an offense. As Jay Bilas consistently pointed out during Wednesday’s ESPN broadcast, Plumlee plays with improved aggressiveness near the basket this season now that he’s not afraid to get fouled. The senior converted 9-12 freebies tonight while also producing a game-high in scoring and rebounding.
Perhaps what’s elevated Plumlee so much this season is the play of his teammates, particularly that of young breakout players Rasheed Sulaimon and Cook. Last season, Duke ran its offense through Austin Rivers, an electric one-on-one scorer but limited passer and often poor decision-maker. The lack of a true point guard killed Duke in its halfcourt sets and made it difficult to create opportunistic scoring touches in the post for players like Plumlee, who underachieved to an 11.1 PPG scoring average. But running the point this season is Cook, a sophomore former high school All-American who brings a play-making element to the team that requires attention from help defenders but also a pass-first mentality that lends to crisper execution in the offense. Joining him on the perimeter is the highly-touted freshman Sulaimon, who’s proven fearless in the early season as a strong scoring option through a diverse offensive arsenal centered around a slashing game. Sulaimon dropped 17 points on Wednesday night while Cook played a terrific floor game to the tune of 12 points, eight assists, and six rebounds. He also knocked down six consecutive free throws with under 1:00 to play to seal the Duke victory.
Contests against Kentucky, Louisville, and Ohio State – all legitimate national title contenders – have given Coach K an opportunity to measure his new-look Dookies against top competition, and he probably didn’t foresee victories coming in each one. The Blue Devils still have plenty of things to work on, and Krzyzewski can just throw on Wednesday night’s first half tape to teach lessons about defensive rebounding and toughness, two areas where Duke suffered against the athletic Buckeyes in building an early deficit. But teaching is always easier after a win, which is what Duke earned behind an aggressive second half game plan that all came together when Plumlee was able to execute so well on his post touches. Throw in the contributions of veteran stars Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly, plus value from talented reserves Alex Murphy, Amile Jefferson, Tyler Thornton, Josh Hairston, and Marshall Plumlee (when he gets healthy), and the Blue Devils are as complete a team as there is in Division I basketball. If the senior leader and elder Plumlee keeps playing at this high level, Duke’s early 2012-13 start shows it has all the pieces of a national championship favorite, plus an iconic coach who knows how to put them together.