DURHAM – The kids led the charge Saturday against Boston College.
The ever-consistent veteran gave them the chance.
Even missing starter Ryan Kelly for nearly the entire Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, Duke is a few wins away from locking up the Atlantic Coast Conference’s No. 2 seed, a remarkable finish to a regular season that even had Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wondering what would become of the Blue Devils.
In Kelly’s absence, Mason Plumlee has become the focal point of nearly every opponent’s gameplan. Opponents have tried doubling him on the catch. They’ve tried attacking him on defense and hoping he finds his way into foul trouble. Teams with the luxury have rotated several big men on him and tried to wear him out.
The fortunate part for Duke (24-3, 11-3 ACC) is that almost none of it has worked.
The senior scored 19 points and grabbed 15 rebounds against Boston College, his 16th double-double of the season for the squad that has desperately needed him to be good every night.
“Mason’s been the most important player for any team in our league this year,” Krzyzewski said. “I think he’s been the best player in our conference. Without him – when we walked off the court at Miami (in a blowout loss) with Ryan not playing – for us to be 11-3 right now is sensational.”
The Blue Devils have rallied around Plumlee knowing that the senior forward would be the target of most scouting reports.
Boston College often doubled Plumlee on the catch – nothing new for Plumlee at this stage of the season – but the strategy backfired. Plumlee had a game-high four assists in addition to his double-double.
Duke point guard Quinn Cook repeatedly has said that Plumlee is the best passer on the team.
“He makes kind of unconventional passes,” Duke guard Seth Curry said. “He jumps in the air, finds guards on the perimeter. Usually when a big guy gets the ball, everybody has to turn around, so if we move without the basketball, he’s going to find us.”
On the other end, the Eagles bludgeoned the Blue Devils with ball screen in the high post, using Plumlee’s man to set the pick. In other sets, the Eagles had Plumlee’s man wander from the key, but the intention of both strategies was the same: To move Plumlee away from the basket.
That didn’t work either. Plumlee still anchored the defense from the post with the help of his teammates.
“When somebody had a wing on him that was two passes away, we got in the lane and really helped him out until he could get back,” forward Amile Jefferson said. “I think that was really great. It was an overall team effort.”
Krzyzewski never wavered from the Blue Devils’ man-to-man defense. He didn’t have to. Plumlee can handle the movement.
“You just kind of play the median,” Plumlee said. “You don’t want the guy to just raise up and shoot, but you can’t hedge so hard that he just drives by you. It’s kind of a feel thing.”
Further, Krzyzewski said that Plumlee can move the whole defense without necessarily moving himself.
“He’s going to be doing that for the next 15 years of his life, is defending the ball screen, so hopefully he has learned how to do that here,” Krzyzewski said. “One of the main things for him is when he’s talking, not just his physical movement, but his talk. His talk makes us a better basketball team on the defensive end.”
Other teams have tried to bring Plumlee away from the basket, but none more than Boston College.
While the strategy varies on Plumlee, he thinks he might have to become used to the Eagles’ tactics being used more frequently.
But, then again, he has to be ready for just about anything.
“I’m not like this great shot blocker, so it’s not like teams are just always going to run me out and try to get me away from the basket,” Plumlee said. “It may be a strategy going forward.”
Plumlee played poorly in Duke’s Feb. 6 loss at Maryland, scoring four points and managing only three rebounds.
In the two games since, he notched two double-doubles as Duke completed two blowouts.
“He’s had a great, great week,” Krzyzewski said. “I love his response to the performance at Maryland. What a great, mature player’s response to a poor game. I’m proud of him.”
Krzyzewski lauded Plumlee for being patient – as Duke’s perimeter players controlled the game in the first half, he calmly deferred – until his time came in the second half, when he controlled the post through traditional means.
Having that many responsibilities, and needing to perform them well for the sake of winning, is yet another sign of maturity, Krzyzewski said.
Krzyzewski has praised Plumlee all season, but until now, the coach was loath to say what he really thought and what most already knew about this season.
He said it Sunday. It’s hard to say where Duke would be without Plumlee, but this much is certain: It wouldn’t be anywhere close to where it is now.
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz@ rmtelegram.com