PREVIEW: Duke (2-1) v. VCU (2-0)

Duke will look to avoid a two game slide against VCU on Friday night in Madison Square Garden. Here's an early look at the Rams and the challenges they will present.

VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH RAMS
2-0 Overall, 0-0 Conference 

PROJECTED STARTERS

F- 04 Justin Tillman (6.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg)
C- 12 Mo Alie-Cox (7.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.5 bpg)
G- 20 Jordan Burgess (8.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
G- 32 Melvin Johnson (18.5 ppg, 50% 3pt)
G- 01 JeQuan Lewis (10.5 ppg, 7.5 apg)

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STAR WATCH

Duke got its first look at elite guards in the the Champions Classic against Kentucky and the results weren’t overly positive.  And though the VCU guards don’t have the high school pedigree of the Wildcats, Duke will have its collective hand full with the starting backcourt of JeQuan Lewis and Melvin Johnson.

Lewis leads the team with 7.5 assists per game and is a first year starter.  He started the second half of his sophomore season and averaged 8.5 points in 35 appearances.  This year he’s upped his scoring to 10.5 points per game and is shooting 50 percent from the field, but only 20 percent from the perimeter.   As with Tyler Ulis at UK, Lewis has taken care of the ball and sports a 4.0-to-1 assist to turnover ratio.

Off the ball, Johnson is a 6-foot-4 scorer with a good range and explosive scoring ability.  He scored over 20 points four times last season and was the Atlantic-10 six man of the year as a sophomore.  He’s not afraid to let the shots fly from behind the arc and has attempted 18 three-pointers in two games, making nine of them.  He’s coming off a 24 points outburst against Radford in the last game.  

Inside the Rams are led by 6-foot-7, 250 pound junior big man Mo Alie-Cox.  In addition to a strong frame, Alie-Cox has a 7-foot-1 wingspan and mixes that length with his physical presence inside to present a very good rim protecting presence much like former Pitt big man DeJuan Blair.   Leads the team with 8.5 rebounds per game and 2.5 blocks per game. 

THE STORYLINES

VALUE THE BASKETBALL

While the Blue Devils played better than expected on the interior against Kentucky, the Wildcats used 16 Duke turnovers to score 17 points.   Some of those turnovers were due in part to UK’s defense, but several were simply a case of Duke being careless with the ball.  If Duke repeats those sins against Virginia Commonwealth, it’ll be another long night for Coach K’s squad.  

VCU prefers to jump on teams early with full court man-to-man pressure via their trademarked HAVOC defensive attack.  Beating the pressure will be key, but Duke will also need to avoid making careless passes that invite the Rams to jump into the passing lanes.  In their previous game VCU recorded 25 points off 20 forced turnovers.  

The downside of the high pressure defense for VCU has been continued foul trouble (at least through two games).  The Rams’ pressure and pace has resulted in a +11 margin in offensive rebound and a +13 margin in turnovers.  However, VCU has committed one more foul than their opponents, particularly with their bigs which has resulted in opponents having opportunities to make a number of runs.

The last time Duke faced VCU the Blue Devil big men continually brought the ball up the court, which negated some of the pressure and resulted in just eight turnovers for the game as Duke won by 9.   Look for Coach K to ask for 6’9 Brandon Ingram to do a lot of the same.   

WHO IS THAT?  IS HE STAYING?

If you were just tuning in on Tuesday night for your first college basketball game and had no idea of context or history, you’d have thought No. 40 for Duke was one of the top big men in college basketball.  And for much of the game against Kentucky Marhsall Plumlee sure looked the part.

The fifth year senior was dominant inside against the Wildcats, pulling in offensive board after board and playing with a level of maturity that hand’t been previously displayed.  The end results was career best performance that kept Duke respectable in an otherwise overwhelming situation.  

But can he continue?  

There weren’t many plays called for Plumlee, and yet he factored into the offense by cleaning up the boards, scoring on put backs and generally playing the kind of blue collar game that made Brian Zoubek such a fan favorite over the last half of his senior season (along with propelling Duke to the 2010 title).  

Duke doesn’t need Plumlee to be a first option big man as they did Jahlil Okafor last year.  They just need him to stay out of foul trouble, rebound in his area, and to play tough defense.  Against Kentucky he did it as well as he ever has, and now he needs to maintain his level.

NOT READY FOR PRIMETIME PLAYERS?

We’re not talking about Saturday Night Live here, just a group of Blue Devils who got their first taste of a big time game only to fall flat on their faces.   A season ago Duke never had to worry about a talent gap, only one of experience.  But Okafor, Tyus Jones, and Justise Winslow are gone and the core of this team begins with former role players being asked to do more.  Those returnees are being flanked by a freshman class that is talented, but not in the same league as last year’s group.  At least not right now.  It’s something Coach Krzyzewski mentioned in the post-game.

“In some respects, the game was a little bit bigger for our guys than they anticipated,” said Krzyzewski.  

Those feelings were echoed when the media caught up with Matt Jones who was very direct in his comments toward his team.

“Forget the X’s and O’s, it’s a mentality that we have to have, a competitive nature that we need for games like this,”said the Duke captain. “It starts with toughness.”

In all the Duke freshman class combined to shoot 4-of-21 from the field while committing a combined eight turnovers.

Notebook:

- Duke won the 2008 2K Classic with a 71-56 win over Michigan in the championship game. Kyle Singler was named tournament MVP. 

- Duke has the second-best winning percentage (.835) and second-most wins (187) in the NCAA since the start of the 2009-10 season. 

- Behind a combined 10.7 offensive rebounds per game from Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee, Duke is rebounding 43.1 percent of its own misses and averaging 20.7 second-chance points per game. 

- Mike Krzyzewski owns a 1,020-311 record over 40-plus seasons as a head coach, including a 947-252 mark at Duke (35-plus seasons).

- As a team, Duke returned just 24.0 percent of its scoring (19.0 ppg), 32.3 percent of its rebounding (11.9 rpg) and 16.6 percent of its assists (2.5 apg) from last season’s national championship run.  As a group, the returning Blue Devils combined to start only 77 games heading into the season (Jefferson - 59; Jones - 18). That figure was the third-fewest in the ACC heading into 2015-16.

They Said It:

“A lot of our guys are unknowns…What better way to break out on a national scale than on national TV against Duke?” - VCU Coach Will Wade

"We can be a really good team. We have a lot of improvement ahead of us. We just have to accept that and go on and do it." - Mike Krzyzewski

"We've got to be twice as good as we were on Friday to give ourselves a chance. If we don't prepare we're going to get embarrassed on Friday night." - Coach Wade

The Prediction

This team has been humbled a lot earlier than last year’s group which didn’t come crashing down to earth until the games against Miami and NC State in January.  And so now there are questions that must be asked.  Questions such as “How good is this Duke perimeter group?” and “Who is going to score for this group when times get tough?” and “What happens when this team gets knocked back”.  Those answers may take some time to form over the course of the season, but after the team spent a lot of time talking about toughness and heart after losing to Kentucky, you have to wonder about the team’s ability to bounce back in such short order and against two teams (VCU and then either Wisconsin or Georgetown) who aren’t going to play hard to beat the name on the front of the jersey if nothing else.   Over the next few days Coach K is right, we’ll find out a lot about his team.  On this night, however, we like Duke to come away with a tough win.

The pick…

Duke - 72
VCU - 66


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