I'm not going to patronize you with all the "this is what Duke means" banter. You know the opportunity and the reward, briefly stated as a win over the fifth-ranked team in the country and a potential Saturday date with the second-ranked team in the country.
That's what it is…nothing more, nothing less. The side stories are nice, though.
The world became familiar with the name Eric Maynor the last time these two teams matched up, and the VCU Ramnation became familiar with the name Kevin Harlan. Jeff Capel is an assistant at Duke, and we all know what Capel means to this program. But my goodness I want Capel to lose tonight.
Still, let's be sure we live in the moment. Today. Memphis is done and forgotten, and Louisville/Missouri doesn't matter. Right now, today, we get the nation's fifth-ranked basketball team.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five Things I'm Watching
1. Second Wind. In many respects, this is going to be about "what happens next." Nobody expects a 13-22 performance behind the arc. Mason Plumlee is going to be a load. Seth Curry can knock down threes with anyone in the country. So, what happens next after VCU heaves a few bricks, Plumlee scores on three straight trips, or Curry bombs in two threes? There will be adversity this evening–how do we handle that?
2. DJ Haley. The big man is going to be more critical than you think. Duke has a couple players who break down in ballscreen sets and a couple more that have a passing interest in defense. The effectiveness of Haley brickwall screens can free shooters. To a lesser extent, I'm watching Jarrod Guest. This is his role, too, and I think Guest may be leading the country in moving screen fouls committed.
3. Hands tugging on shorts and mouth-breathing. Memphis went eight-deep, and by the middle of the second half the Tigers could barely stand up. It was visible fatigue. At one point Chris Crawford cramped up. I have no idea how conditioned this Duke team is, but they also basically go eight-deep. The other side–Krzyzewski may be compelled to go deeper into his bench. I have no idea what that would bring.
4. The crowd. You should be proud of the RamNation that traveled to Atlantis. They are bringing noise and enthusiasm. Louisville played after VCU last night, and the Cardinals fans were very impressive. I wonder if that contingent will arrive early and join the VCU fans in rooting against Duke. You know how these Rams love to play in the rabid environment. With apologies to Shaka Smart, I may come out of my seat if Troy Daniels hits a spine-jellying three late in the second half and salutes a Louisville crowd going nuts.
5. Pure, Unwavering Execution. The Rams put on a clinic last night. You know all those things Smart harps on, those little things? They will be very important tonight against a physical Duke team. We need proper spacing, hard cuts, and crisp passes to free shooters. Traps must overwhelm Duke players and force passes with air underneath them so the free safety can pick the pass. I think that frequently gets lost in all of this excitement: this team is executing at a high level.
The scouting report starts with Mason Plumlee (21.7ppg, 8.7rpg), a 6-10 warrior who has made 24-31 field goals (77.4%) on the season and had a double-double by halftime yesterday. Plumlee can do everything around the rim and prefers to duck in underneath the defense from the baseline below the blocks.
The goal for the Rams–push Plumlee out to unusual spots on the floor. Generally I like to say uncomfortable here, but Plumlee is comfortable everywhere. So the goal is to push Plumlee to play from unfamilar spots to reduce his immediate effectiveness. The VCU halfcourt defense needs to be on high alert to keep him out of the offense.
Seth Curry (16.0ppg) is the other name you know, and I'm not buying the whole "leg cramps reduces his effectiveness" meme. Curry is a bomber who reads screens very well for catch-and-shoot threes, so the impetus is a simple plan: eat up any free space for Curry and not give him any freedom to move.
Of note: Curry isn't very interested in defense, so wing threes may be open for VCU.
Rasheed Sulaimon (11.7ppg, 4.3rpg) is a big 6-4 guard who will play the 2/3 spots and see spot time at the point. Sulaimon has hit 8-18 from three this year but isn't an overly-physical guard. He does not block out well so that becomes key in offensive rebounding situations for the Rams.
The point guard is 6-1 sophomore Quinn Cook (7.7ppg, 4.7apg). Cook can play fast and his biggest weapon is getting into the lane for easy floaters, or dump-downs to Plumlee (who ducks under a defense from the weak side baseline…see how that works?). Cook is a bit of a gambler on defense, so look for Darius Theus getting into the lane as well.
The fifth starter is 6-11 Ryan Kelly (10.7ppg, 5.0rpg), a pick-and-pop four man who prefers roam the perimeter like a Euro player, spotting up for threes. Kelly can zip into the key area for jumpers, much like we see Juvonte Reddic and Jarrod Guest. Simply put, Kelly just needs to be punished.
Krzyzewski, like Pastner, will only go about eight-deep. Tyler Thornton is the first player off the bench. Thornton started the first two games of the season and is Duke's best on-ball defender. He has taken 13 shots this season, and 12 have been threes. Josh Hairston is a big, strong 6-7 swingman and an energy guy, and Amile Jefferson is a freshman big (6-8). Both Hairston and Jefferson are very talented offensive players but can be taken advantage of when VCU has the ball.
We spoke on air during the Memphis game that VCU didn't need to earn the respect of the Tigers player, they needed to take respect. Job well done, as the Rams punched Memphis right in the teeth early, and kept punching to the final buzzer.
You can bet Duke is not going to take VCU lightly. Krzyzewski has won about 400 million games and you know he gets that a lack of respect quickly becomes a 14-point halftime deficit.
Havoc aside, it's obvious the Rams are going to have to crowd the three-point line and run Duke's shooters off the line and into the paint. What's more, those technically-sound box outs are very important. The Blue Devils have size and can reach over the top of VCU without over-the-back fouling.
On offense, it's going to be about setting punishing ballscreens and reading opportunities. That's the summary of the "execution we spoke of earlier.
Duke prefers to play a pretty game, so we will have to junkyard this one up, making things look all Fred Sanford-like. And that's a secret viewpoint of havoc. It's fast, but it isn't a pretty-looking, racehorse fast. Havoc is more tornadic, leaving devastazione in its wake.