DURHAM, NC -- Mason Plumlee is having fun these days.
The 6-foot-10 Duke center has always enjoyed playing basketball, but his final season in college recently began, and the Blue Devils have easily collected the most impressive victories of the young season to date. And Plumlee is ecstatic.
In the last two weeks, Duke has beaten two No. 2 teams in Kentucky and Louisville on neutral floors, and Wednesday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the Devils knocked off No. 4 Ohio State, 73-68, in the ACCBig Ten Challenge. If this was college football, a heated argument over whos No. 1 would have already commenced, and the second-ranked Devils would get most of the love.
We love it, Plumlee said when asked about Dukes early success against such a daunting slate that also includes neutral site wins over VCU and unbeaten Minnesota. The schedule at Duke is part of the reason you come to Duke, and I think this team embraced the schedule and the challenges weve had.
But this is college basketball where rankings dont mean much and development is at a premium. November success has little connection to winning in March, as there will be bumps in the road for pretty much every team to navigate, even this Duke squad. After all, progress remains the key, and the Blue Devils know it.
Youve got to keep getting better, acknowledged Plumlee, who finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds vs. the Buckeyes. The best thing is that were getting better while winning. You dont want to get better through losing. This has been good.
Wednesdays game was Dukes most physically challenging thus far. Ohio State built two 10-point leads, the latest with 18:27 left in the game at 33-23 following a tip in by Lenzelle Smith. Duke followed with quick basket by freshman Rasheed Sulaimon and a dunk by Plumlee.
Duke had its spark. It was rather unsettled for much of the first half, but its intent in the final 20 minutes was to out-tough the physical Buckeyes. And really, while Duke is certainly talented, its lack of polish and depth means toughness and grit are going to remain necessary ingredients to the Blue Devils success.
Shooting can have an off night, but a team should never waver in its fight. Thats what made the second half against Ohio State such a positive development.
We understand there are a lot of ways to get the job done, but if you back off and dont play with the right intensity you are going to struggle, said senior forward Ryan Kelly. Weve learned that the hard way in the past.
The past was just last season when Duke went through perhaps its most stressful season since legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski returned from missing most of the 1994-95 campaign with a back issue. Duke went 12-19 that season and finished dead last in the ACC.
The team wasnt cohesive because the locker room was a bit disjointed.
Since, however, playing with the right verve has been a mandated attribute that has permeated the Devils success. Collectively, it was missing last season, which is why those who closely follow the team werent surprised when 15-seeded Lehigh beat them in the NCAA Tournament.
But that no longer is a problem and look no further than Sulaimons second-half performance for evidence. Sulaimon didnt score before halftime and at times appeared as if the fight was a bit overwhelming. But he didnt relent, and the 6-4 athlete was sensational after the intermission.
He had 17 points in the second half, and gave us a verve, gave us a real verve, Krzyzewski said about Sulaimon
When considering Dukes immediate future, one must first glance back at Wednesday night. It took Sulaimon a half to get going, so once he becomes more consistent Duke will move a notch higher. Senior guard Seth Curry had just four points on a night his shin splint issues appeared to flare up over and over.
Sophomore point guard Quinn Cook was rattled in the first half, and even a bit mouthy though thats part of his game and an element the Devils need and 6-11 Marshall Plumlee is still wearing a boot and wont be available for another few weeks.
Then consider freshmen Amile Jefferson and or Alex Murphy will find a home in the rotation at some point, giving Duke needed length and athleticism, and it isnt a stretch to suggest the Blue Devils can get a whole lot better by March.
After all, that is the mantra, no matter the value of these early-season wins.