DURHAM – The frightening question for Duke at the season’s midpoint has nothing to do with North Carolina, the Atlantic Coast Conference or any opponent, really.
What happens if (and when) Mason Plumlee finds himself in foul trouble?
Without starter Ryan Kelly, who is out indefinitely after injuring his right foot for the third time in 11 months, the Blue Devils have had to retool their frontcourt and relearn a new offense. Without Kelly, a 6-foot-11 forward who is hitting 52 percent of his 3-point attempts, Duke’s offense has changed from the well-spaced, high-scoring attack into an offense that relies more on post baskets, which means more Plumlee.
So what happens if he’s forced to spend long periods of time on the bench?
“We’ve got to be careful – I mean, Mason is the primary guy,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s got to stay out of foul trouble, but he’s still got to play defense. He is in a highly physical area there where you can get a lot of fouls, and you can’t.”
Without Kelly, the game has changed for Plumlee. He has to avoid any potential trouble while still anchoring Duke’s defense. If he finds himself with a few cheap fouls, Duke’s likelihood to win plummets; Missing both starting forwards isn’t a good look for any team, especially the No. 3 Blue Devils (16-1, 3-1).
Plumlee has only fouled out once – in a Nov. 13 win against Kentucky, but after scoring 18 points and playing 29 minutes – but bad fouls come at a steeper price.
“Like (Thursday, against Georgia Tech), he got a foul on a dribble hand-off,” Krzyzewski said, shaking his head. “You can’t do that, those type of things. He has been pretty good, but he has got to be very disciplined.”
The Blue Devils’ three seniors, Plumlee, Kelly and guard Seth Curry, carried an offense that pushed the team to 15-0 and the No. 1 ranking in the country. Duke lost its first game without Kelly, and Curry continues to fight a nagging leg injury, meaning that Duke has to go about finding a new way to win basketball games.
“The biggest thing is we have to find a new identity because we’re a different team,” Plumlee said. “So whatever that is, we have to find it. We have to play to our strengths. We’re not the same team that was 14-0 or 15-0, whatever we were.”
The switch has meant more of freshman Amile Jefferson, who played an excellent 28 minutes against Georgia Tech, and a heavier reliance on freshman guard Rasheed Sulaimon, who had struggled for a month until Thursday’s game.
Jefferson notched 10 rebounds and gave a noticeable boost to the Blue Devils, and particularly to Plumlee.
Sulaimon scored 15 points and added five rebounds in a productive 27 minutes, his best game since being pulled from the starting lineup.
“Anytime you get pulled out of the lineup, it’s not easy, but it’s all about how you come back,” Plumlee said of Sulaimon. “I don’t know of any player who’s started every game ever at Duke.”
Plumlee smiled talking about Krzyzewski’s tweaks to the lineup.
“I mean, (Krzyzewski) sat Elton Brand and all those guys,” he said. “We just told him it’s part of the process. Coach knew (Sulaimon) could play better and he responded how he can.”
Jefferson might just break into the lineup himself. After starting forward Josh Hairston was ineffective against the Yellow Jackets, not scoring and grabbing one rebound in 11 minutes, Jefferson looks to be the Blue Devils’ best option at forward without Kelly.
At first, the freshman looked lost, but Jefferson said he has played his way into understanding the Blue Devils’ offense.
“The more I’ve been out there, the more comfortable I’ve become,” Jefferson said. “At first I was feeling, ‘Where do I need to be? Are guys still talking to me? How much do I talk to other guys?’ But I’ve just been out there playing, to be honest. I’m starting to get a better feel for how we move as a team, and how the game’s switching and those things.”
Point guard Quinn Cook called Plumlee “one of the best players in the country” and said the Blue Devils will make a point to utilize him more often.
But Duke had the luxury of three elite seniors, a rarity in today’s game, and with them had the luxury of trust. Krzyzewski could let the offense flow without much intervention, though that is changing without Kelly.
“We added some sets that fit the guys out there now,” Cook said. “The space on the floor isn’t where it normally is because Ryan spaces the floor. Coach is doing more things, so we just have to adjust.”
Keeping the Blue Devils afloat atop the conference without Kelly and a hampered Curry will be a juggling act even for Krzyzewski, who is now in his fourth decade at Duke.
Using two true freshmen and a sophomore point guard in his first season starting makes the task that much more difficult.
“We have to run more offense, not just play offense,” Krzyzewski said. “When you have these weapons, you kind of play offense, and you can read a little bit easier. When you are with our (current) group, scoring becomes a lot more difficult, and Quinn has got to do a different job as a point guard with this group, and that is part of what we have to learn.
“... We’ve got to find out a little bit more about our group and how to get them open.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com.