Duke is used to playing with a target on its back. Now ranked No. 1 in the country, the Blue Devils just saw that target grow even larger.
After an 11-day hiatus for final exams, Duke will begin back-to-back games at Cameron Indoor Stadium Wednesday at 7 p.m. against Cornell.
“Being No. 1 now we know that if we didn’t get everybody’s best shot before, we definitely are now,” senior forward Mason Plumlee said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. That’s the mentality when we were playing Minnesota, VCU and Louisville. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we’re trying to be great every time we step on the floor.”
Marshall Plumlee’s return
Redshirt freshman Marshall Plumlee is expected to make his debut against the Big Red. After redshirting last season, Marshall missed the beginning of this season with a stress fracture in his foot.
He dressed for the first time all year in Duke’s 88-50 win against Temple, but is expected to receive his first minutes Wednesday.
“It gives us depth. Marshall is a high-energy guy,” Mason said. “He’s athletic, he’s 7-feet tall and he goes after the ball. He’s not afraid of contact.”
Teammates praised both Marshall’s size and his aggressiveness on the floor, saying he has the potential to give the team a burst of life off the bench.
“You can’t teach 7-feet,” sophomore point guard Quinn Cook said. “He’s that guy that you hate to play against but that you love to have on your team. He’s going to set the hardest screens and rebound.”
Cleaning up the glass
One area in which Marshall is expected to help is in the boards. The Blue Devils are being outrebounded on the season on average by 1.0 rebounds per game.
Marshall adds another post presence off the bench—joining junior Josh Hairston and freshman Amile Jefferson—though Marshall is the only player on the entire team officially listed as a center.
“He gives us a really good rebounder, which people have pointed to the boards as one of our weaknesses. I think right away he helps us on the boards,” Mason said. “Normally guys that big don’t move their feet as well as him and don’t play as hard for whatever reason. He’s aggressive in there.”
But the need to improve on the boards extends beyond the frontcourt. Mason leads the team with 11.3 rebounds per game, but players said that the coaches identified guard rebounding as something to focus on.
“We can definitely get better: cut down turnovers, help Mason on the defensive rebounding,” Cook said. “I sometimes get so caught up in his 17- and 20-rebound games. We think we can get rebounds, so we need to get better on defensive rebounding.”
After beginning the season 1-4, the Big Red have bounced back to win three of their last five games. Their downfall all season has been their poor shooting on the offensive end, where they are shooting just 39.4 percent from the field.
Head coach Bill Courtney’s squad possesses just one double-digit scorer, sophomore forward Shonn Miller, who tallies 10.3 points per game. A strong defensive threat with 2.0 steals and 1.9 blocks per contest, he will have his hands full standing at 6-foot-7, ceding a significant height advantage to Duke’s starting forwards Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly.
The Big Red’s scoring is spread out with nine players receiving significant minutes. Six of those nine players, however, are shooting less than 40 percent from the field.
Even though the Blue Devils are No. 1 now and have beaten three top five teams already this season—Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State—they are not intending to look past these next two games against seemingly easier opponents in Cornell and Elon.
“Nobody won a championship in December. It’s good to be ahead of the pack now, but we know that if we don’t improve going forward we won’t be there at the end,” Mason said.
But that early-season success has validated the team’s confidence in itself.
“If you ask me, we weren’t going to lose and we’re not going to lose for the rest of the year,” Kelly said.