The Tobacconist, Vol. 5

I was at last night’s game in Cameron Indoor Stadium, in which Duke thrashed Louisville, 82-56. I covered the Blue Devils in 2011-2012 and so had seen numerous games in the justly legendary building, but there’s something very different about sitting in the stands. It’s not just that I was literally on the other side of the court from press row, nor that I was with some friends who had kindly invited me. The whole feel of the experience is different; the eyes see differently; one’s investment is different. The specifics of the action on the court yield to a broader absorption: swaths of play; looks on players’ faces and attitudes of body language; and those almost mysterious rises and falls in collective intensity level that are like weather systems passing in quick time lapse.

Because I’d always gone straight into the press room when I was covering Duke, I had never thought to take the time to visit Cameron Indoor Stadium’s museum/shrine to Duke basketball and varsity sports generally. We arrived rather early and had some time on our hands, so we wandered through it. The one exhibit I’ll never forget was what I took to be an artist’s heroic rendering of  basketball shoe at an approximately 2:1 scale, about the size of a small dachshund. As I moved closer and read the placard, I discovered that it was an Actual. Shoe. Worn. By. Jahlil. Okafor. You know what they say about men with big shoes

The game itself unfolded in three acts: an exploratory opening nine minutes that ended with Duke leading 16-15 at the 11:14 mark; a middle-twenty in which Duke quickly built a comfortable double-digit lead — they were up by seventeen points at halftime — and maintained it over an equal nine minutes of the second half; and then another scoring spurt that pushed the lead to nearly thirty points, turned an admirable win into a big-time blowout, and ended with Antonio Vrankovic getting a rebound: in other words, not where any ACC opponent of Duke’s wants to find itself at the conclusion of even the most dispiriting performance. When it was over, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski gave his young Louisville counterpart, David Padgett (who just turned thirty-three on the exact same day Krzyzewski turned seventy-one), the very barest and most perfunctory of acknowledgments in the good-game line. It was simply not a competitive game, and Krzyzewski dispensed with its aftermath with appropriate expediency.

Apparently a reporter in the Duke locker room had the boring temerity — boring because so painfully pro forma — to ask Gary Trent, Jr. whether Duke was a better team without Marvin Bagley III, who sat out with a knee sprain for the fourth straight game, all of which Duke has won. Trent rolled his eyes or issued a look/words to that effect. No, Duke is not better without the possible top pick in the NBA draft. I’m not going to belabor this because the world has employed sportswriters to do that and it’s frankly uninteresting (and stupid). I’ll say instead that I thought about Bagley last night in sun-and-moon terms. What I mean by that is that I got the distinct sense, watching the Blue Devils up close, that they’re almost two different teams sharing the same court. The sun side is Bagley, Wendell Carter, Jr., Trevon Duval, and Trent. The moon side is Grayson Allen, Javin DeLaurier, and Jack White. Other players don’t seem to have firm attachments yet. (And note that Alex O’Connell, who just a few games ago was in the starting lineup, has been surpassed on the bench depth chart by White, who played fifteen minutes to seven for O’Connell, who didn’t play at all in the first half.)

The sun side are lottery picks; they’re at Duke for a very specific purpose, and it has perhaps less to to do with Duke than with themselves. They’re “sun” because they’re so brightly talented that they rise in the morning and power the world without even trying to. The moon side shows how hard it’s working in the dark to control the tides, diffuse light, and so on. You can argue that the names should be reversed: the first group plays evening cool; the second group wears its emotions out in the daylight. But moon is emotion, id; sun is science, visible growth. You can also argue that there are racial overtones here, issues of culture and affect that are rather dangerous to prod. In either case, it’s a peculiar condition for a program that, under Krzyzewski, has always privileged team unity. The freshman-dominated 2015 national championship team had it, and the 2010 champs certainly did, as well.

The challenge is to get these two distinct corporations in 2018 to collaborate smoothly in the next few weeks; refitting Bagley into the flow will be an additional project, especially since Duke is undoubtedly a much better defensive team now than they were as recently as two weeks ago. The Blue Devils’ defensive efficiency metric has vastly improved; they now sport the twenty-seventh best defense in the country, by Ken Pomeroy’s measurements. (Team Rankings dot com, whatever exactly that is, takes a somewhat dimmer view: Duke is forty-fourth there.)

There are different ways to interpret Duke’s quick ascension to the upper defensive ranks. The lazy one is about Bagley, so let’s leave that one alone since it’s probably not true. What is true is that Duke has been defending not-great teams. Pomeroy likes Clemson and Louisville’s offenses, but Team Rankings doesn’t at all, and the Louisville team I saw wasn’t much of a scoring unit; Clemson played Duke without both Donte Grantham (ACL) and Shelton Mitchell (concussion). Still, the same eye test that failed Louisville recognizes that Duke’s 2-3 zone defense is undoubtedly better now, and the simplest explanation is probably correct: they’ve had more time to learn how to play it. Zones are hard, especially for freshmen who have perhaps never played one in their life (and who don’t tend to be especially interested in defense anyway). But give elite athletes time to commit certain patterns to muscle memory and results eventually follow.

Speaking of muscle memory, North Carolina is regaining its customary strength under Roy Williams: offense. While Duke’s defense has been improving, UNC’s has done the same: the Tar Heels’ scoring efficiency now ranks fourth in the nation by Pomeroy’s math. (Team Rankings has it just twentieth.) They ran all over Louisville last weekend and simply outscored Syracuse on Wednesday night. They needed to, because with the offensive resurgence has come a defensive plunge: UNC is now where Duke was just last week in Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency rankings, forty-third in the country; they’re far worse on Team Rankings, 106th. Williams likes to tell his team — or likes to tell reporters that he likes to tell his team, anyway — that no team wins championships without defending; but Carolina has won six straight games during their scoring revival, so it seems doubtful that Williams can be too much bothered, at least for now, that his team finds ways to let opponents score more or less at will for at least some portion of every game. And they are now third-worst in the entire country in percentage of opponents’ points scored via three pointers. That’s how you get bounced from the NCAA Tournament.

However, as it stands, in classic Roy Williams fashion Carolina is now pretty close to where one could reasonably expect them to be at this point in the season: the offense is firing, the defense is sometimes decent but needs work. The team doesn’t look anything like the usual Tar Heels: it’s a bunch of guards and small forwards, mainly. But the results they’re getting are typical Carolina results. The Tar Heels now get nearly a week off to keep oiling the offense and shore up the defense in practice. They then finish the regular season against Miami, a good team, and then of course at Duke. It’s not out of the question that the Tar Heels will enter the NCAA Tournament with ten losses, yet still get a decent seeding based on their strength of schedule, which has been more or less the hardest in the country, and on these so-called quadrant one wins, in which they lead the NCAA.

Stats, though, are just changing arrangements of thought, especially where college basketball players are concerned. The one most important around here is the number of games left to play. The season has seemed oddly short this year and the few times we get to watch these teams play are startlingly few at this point. Each game is precious, not for the win it promises but for the minutes themselves.

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