ATLANTA Seth Curry often chews on his mouthpiece, the transparent dental safeguard protruding at all angles during stoppages in play.
Some could call it a nervous habit, others a sign of unconscious relaxation.
Following the fifth-year senior guards dispensing of the defending national champions in Atlanta, the nervous theory might be tossed out the window. Curry looks right at home, confident in leading Duke in his final season. The ninth-ranked Blue Devils outlasted No. 3 Kentucky, 75-68, in the Georgia Dome Tuesday night the very site of this years Final Four, the planned finish line for Currys winding collegiate career.
First things first: Get off to a good start. Check.
Seth was terrific. I think he was the difference-maker in the game, so the fact that he is a fifth-year senior has to help, said coach Mike Krzyzewski, who is now 11-4 versus ranked opponents over the past three regular seasons. I thought he kinda took control of the game. We wanted the ball in his hands. He made veteran, tough plays down the stretch.
Curry led all Duke scorers with 23 points (7-of-14 shooting) against Kentucky, using a slew of crafty, elder-statesman moves to provide the young Wildcats with a few pointers. He hit floaters, runners and jumpers. He fooled center Nerlens Noel, the reining Gatorade High School Player of the Year, with an up-and-under move late in the game which should keep the frosh grounded a bit more from here on out.
When dealing with limited natural athletic ability, scoring can come in all shapes and sizes if you know where to look.
One thing hes added to his game: Hes not just a shooter, hes a scorer, Krzyzewski said. Hes got little herky-jerky moves where he keeps a good balance, and is able to not saying he has hang time, I wont go that far but hes got a way of making a guy commit. Really, not many people can do that.
Second things second: Stay healthy. Psuedo-check.
The strange thing concerning Curry, especially given the level of competition and athleticism displayed Tuesday, is that he played hurt. The 6-foot-2 guard has been hampered by an apparent leg injury that, to this day, has not been fully diagnosed. Curry has described it as a pain in his right leg, near the shin.
For precautionary measures, Duke took it slow with Currys on-court work, sending the Duke fan base into a minor frenzy: How could they get by without their senior scorer? For a team that was bounced in the first round of last seasons NCAA tourney, playing pivotal games without what could very well be its most valuable player was scary.
So Krzyzewski and Duke took it slow Curry practiced just four times leading up to the Kentucky game, and even those were half-practices.
I think I did a good job of trying to stay sharp with limited practice time, whether its working on ball-handling or something like that, Curry said. My teammates did a good job of finding me early in the game, because I havent really been around them as much as I usually am in practice.
Last seasons Blue Devils were caught between styles and concepts: dynamic, erratic freshman Austin Rivers capabilities demanded possessions but often produced spotty results; its defense was one of the worst units over the past two decades under Krzyzewski. But this unit will rely on the seniors, like Curry, and it paid off against the inexperienced group they faced in Atlanta.
Seniors Curry, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly combined for 51 of the teams 75 points, or 68 percent of Dukes scoring output. As younger players like Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Alex Murphy develop into their roles, the Blue Devils will choose to error on the side of experience.
It paid off against Kentucky, which, in such a high-profile early-season game, looked off-kilter on numerous offensive and defensive possessions. Just dont make that case to Krzyzewski.
Veterans and talent, he said. I wouldnt mind having some of their talent, some of their guys. Im sure they would like to have some of our guys.
The fact is that while this is a statement win for Duke a program which always seems to make such statement wins at this time of year neither team will look like this in March. Dukes young players are still finding their niche. Kentuckys guys are still learning how to get around campus, much less under Caliparis demanding system, not to mention waiting on point guard Ryan Harrow to return to full strength.
What they dont understand is how hard you have to play every possession, how you have to sustain it and how a minute and a half will cost you a game, Calipari said of his team. They dont know it yet. Its never been that important. So thats our job is to continue to teach them. Were a November team right now, and we have to get better. If this is what we look in December and January, were not gonna be the team everybody thinks.
Seth Curry is trying to reach a different level, too. He wasnt a part of Dukes last championship, in 2009, and he has one more season to get back to that level. The rest is unknown hes not considered a future NBA starter like his brother, Stephen.
Third things third: Make the most of what could be your last chance.
Curry certainly looks ready to lead Hes primed for, I think, an amazing year, Krzyzewski said. and his fellow seniors are following suit. Bad losses fade slowly, but Tuesdays win over the king of the college basketball world should speed the process.
Its the three of our seniors team. Thats what we worked on in the preseason, taking control of the team, having to be our team. Tonight I had it going a little bit so they came to me and I was able to come through.