DURHAM – There are many things to worry about in a conference opener. But for Duke, it didn’t have to fret much that its horde of 3-pointers would be contested.
The No. 1 Blue Devils rained 3s on Wake Forest, easing to an 80-62 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday thanks in large part to nine first-half 3-pointers and a nearly 50 percent clip from behind the arc.
Duke forward Ryan Kelly was the biggest benefactor, shooting 5-for-6 on 3-pointers and scoring 22 points, while teammates Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon also capitalized on the wealth of open jumpers, scoring 22 and 12, respectively.
The Blue Devils didn’t earn all those open shots because Wake Forest decided defense was overrated. Rather, it was because the Demon Deacons had to prioritize.
Like most of Duke’s opponents so far this season, Wake Forest chose senior forward Mason Plumlee, often double-teaming and trapping him, and using half its resources to deny him the ball. To the Deacons’ credit, their efforts to slow Plumlee mostly worked.
Unfortunately for Wake Forest, the plan was an abject failure. It seemed as if the game could have gone on for days, and Duke still could obtain almost any shot it wanted.
That’s Plumlee’s doing.
“I think he passed out really well (Saturday),” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Plumlee. “We were 11-for-24 from 3, but it seemed like we could have hit about eight more. They were just wide open.”
Duke is 14-0 so far, and Plumlee, showing consistent excellency in his fourth season, is very much tied to the Blue Devils’ perfect record.
“He creates all the attention on the offensive end, so it’s easy for guys like Ryan, myself and Rasheed to get shots,” Duke point guard Quinn Cook said. “He’s probably the best passer on the team, so when he gets double-teamed, he gets it to the open guy.”
Plumlee had shown the ability to be an elite big man in his first three seasons, but the criticism of him was that he too often disappeared. He was dominated by Miami center Reggie Johnson in a game last February – also a rare home loss for Duke – and made a total of four field goals in a three-game stretch last season despite starting all three games.
As a result, Krzyzewski moved him to the bench for three games before Plumlee regained his starting spot.
There have been no disappearing acts for Plumlee this year, when he is as important to Duke’s success as ever. He has nine double-doubles so far this season and he has scored in double digits in all 14 games. Both are good signs for Duke, which is 41-5 when Plumlee scores in double digits and 24-2 when he earns a double-double.
When he’s scoring, he’s earning attention. When he’s earning attention, his teammates aren’t.
“It’ll make us more dangerous if I can get it back out to (shooters),” Plumlee said. “... Those guys are going to have open shots. We have a good dynamic going there where I’m inside and those guys are spacing the floor.”
Plumlee is also doing a better job of recognizing the respect he commands from opponents.
As he’s grown in his low-post game, so have the chances for his teammates.
With the wealth of shooting around him, his ability to pass makes Duke very difficult to guard one-on-one.
“It doesn’t really change the offense that much because we have so many different options on the offensive end,” guard Tyler Thornton said. “A lot of teams are going to key on Mason just because of his presence, what he brings to our team, but we have a lot of great guys around him that are able to step up and knock shots down when they try to cut him off.”
Four Blue Devils have hit 18 or more 3-pointers already this season.
Krzyzewski’s systems always have stressed spacing in the offense, and it’s made much easier by a player like Plumlee.
“Over the years, I think we space as well as anybody in the country,” Krzyzewski said. “... Having an outstanding player inside is always an advantage.”
As Krzyzewski noted Saturday, the Blue Devils ultimately will be judged by where they are in March, not where they are now.
But the spot they’re in now, with Plumlee as the center of Duke’s offense, offers quite a bit of promise.
Just follow Plumlee’s numbers.
“I’ve always said, if I’m playing how I should, I should have a double-double,” Plumlee said. “If I’m playing hungry and rebounding, that should just come. I don’t count while I’m out there, but that should come with how I play.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com.