Every week, this recent Duke graduate will offer you a new reason not to hate the Duke Blue Devils, the bestest basketball team in the land. You are free to disagree.
THIS WEEK'S REASON WHY DUKE REALLY ISN'T SO LOATHSOME: It's the week of Thanksgiving, which means it's high time that Dick Vitale come out of hibernation and shout something we already know: This year's Duke team is once again good, really good, so good that it's supposedly better than a team that won a national championship. In its first three games, the Blue Devils looked like a group playing basketball on a Fisher-Price hoop. Last night against Marquette, a Duke big man poured in 25 points and 12 rebounds, and he's not even one of the team's three All-Americans. Because of this embarrassment of riches — and, I suppose, because of everything else about the school — this team will almost assuredly make you want to hurl something sharp and sturdy at the television. Don't do it. If there's a voodoo-doll-shaped dent in your screen, you will miss out on a Duke bunch that plays a brutish yet still beautiful brand of basketball, a team offers a little something for everyone.
About 13 minutes into its first game this year, Mason Plumlee grabbed a defensive rebound and snapped a 30-foot outlet to Kyrie Irving, who needed three dribbles to traverse half the court and who then dished to a streaking Nolan Smith, directly to his right, who laid it in. (Plumlee would flick a better, longer, more Unseldian pass to Smith for a dunk in Duke's third game of the season.) It was not a play anyone will remember come March, let alone next week. But in five seconds, tops, there it was: simple and artful, basketball that's worth watching.
It's hard not to sound silly when you're rhapsodizing about basketball elegance — try describing a slam dunk without sounding like a cross between a middle school literary magazine and Clyde Frazier — which is why I loved the quote from Miami of Ohio's coach, Charlie Coles, in the wake of his team's sacrificial trip to Durham. At one point in the first half of that game, Duke whipped three passes around the perimeter to Seth Curry, who could have taken about three shots before anyone came close to sticking a hand in his face. (He probably would have made all three, too.) There are times, when watching a team that's good, really good, that the end result of a smart sequence of play seems totally assured, the inevitable payoff to all that compounded good karma. A pass, an extra pass, another extra pass — I knew that Curry's shot was never not going to rattle home.
In other words: "Boom." That's Coles describing Duke's entire offensive strategy, and it is about as eloquent a summation as anyone could provide. "Boom," he continued. "Boom, boom, boom."
There is sense in this onomatopoeic nonsense, and it's rooted in the fact that Duke is simply a better team than, well, everyone. It's playing a style of basketball not many teams, if any, can really play. This isn't one of those stolid, plodding, NPR-in-shorts Duke teams. This one plays fast, especially in the open court, because it has the most talented backcourt and the best small forward in the country, not to mention a backup guard corps that would start for pretty much anyone else. Even in the halfcourt, these guards are just as likely to break down a defender off the dribble as they are to call for a backscreen that might lead to an alley-oop — or reverse alley-oop. This is not basketball that's merely efficient, though it is that, nor is it basketball as attrition, though it's that, too, in a way. This is basketball that the squarest quant and the slickest kid at Rucker could enjoy equally. This is basketball for everyone.
OPPOSING COACH'S DEFERENTIAL QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Are you afraid of a bear?" Charlie Coles asked a reporter from Duke's student newspaper last week. The reporter replied that he was, in fact, afraid of a bear, and Coles asked him why he was afraid of a bear. He said he was afraid of a bear because a bear would be bigger and stronger than he is. "Well, then, now you understand why they was fumbling the ball," Coles deadpanned. Coach!
YOU PEOPLE: Please consider this your open invitation to contribute your deep, incisive thoughts about Duke basketball or, if you're so inclined, about Duke in general. This will go so well, guys!
WHEN YOU CAN NEXT ROOT AGAINST DUKE: I've chosen a fortuitous day to kickstart this project. That's because tonight brings the finest matchup of this young basketball season, between No. 1 Duke and No. 3 Kansas State in Kansas City. It also provides the long-awaited, split-screened scowl-off between coaches. Everyone wins, or loses. Either way, I'll be tuning in, shuddering.
Photos via Duke Blue Planet