Mason Plumlee started this season as a serious national player of the years candidate but over the course of the last month he had fallen, at least in my opinion completely out of the running.
He was still lumped in there based on what he did earlier in the season; nearly averaging 20 points and over 10 rebounds a game and not against a cupcake schedule either. He had shown he was a different player from years past making more decisive moves in the post and finishing stronger than ever before He jump hook had become his go-to move and it was effective.
Plumlee had also become a slightly better than average free throw shooter, an area where he had been a liability over his first three years, especially in late game situations. All that seemed to change this year and then Ryan Kelly got hurt.
Most expected things to come a little tougher for Plumlee, but they also expected him to handle it better because he appeared to be just that much better than his old self. For a while that was exactly what happened.
But as teams adjusted to Duke’s style of play without Kelly, Plumlee struggled under increasing double and occasional triple teams. Duke became more reliant on the three-point shot again and in a few games over the last month, Plumlee was such a non factor that he wasn’t even on the floor at critical times. In fact in those games Duke played better without him on the floor.
When Kelly came back last weekend he looked as if he never left. His first two games he averaged over 20 points per game, but Plumlee was still not playing at the same level he was earlier in the season and, at least in my eyes Duke just wasn’t playing like a team that was capable of winning a championship. They simply looked to vulnerable away from home and I wondered if Ryan Kelly would be enough.
Heading into the North Carolina game I opined that in order to win the Blue Devil would have to get something more resembling Plumlee’s old self to be in a better position to win. Duke couldn’t just rely on Kelly or Seth Curry to carry the day. The Tar Heels had been playing too well, shooting too well and had the confidence to beat the Blue Devil especially at home.
Duke needed its inside presence to play a factor. It needed Mason Plumlee to post a dominant performance and that is what the Blue Devils got.
Seth Curry was his stellar sell scoring 20, Quinn Cook chipped in 12, but if not for the performance of Plumlee Duke doesn’t dominate and potentially doesn’t win. Kelly didn’t have a great game (8 points, 3 rebounds) so this team resembled the post-Kelly Blue Devils, except for the fact that there was Mason Plumlee.
He played with confidence and played strong. He finished with a dominant 23 points and 13 rebounds and looked like the player he was earlier in the season. The result was simple to see: The Blue Devils resembled the team they were at the beginning of the season and posted a dominant performance in the process.
As good as Kelly has been since his return he was bound to have an off game. No one could keep that pace up after missing two months of play, so Duke needed Plumlee to step up.
The Blue Devils head into the ACC Tournament confident and hot, but will they play with more consistency now that Kelly is back. They had some dominant performances without Kelly, but with him they are yet again a national champion contender, especially if Plumlee plays the way he did against North Carolina.
On any given night Duke can count on several people to have big games and when they are all hitting they are nearly impossible to beat. It is unrealistic to think that will happen every game but if Plumlee can come out of his month long slump and be the kind of player that landed him so much praise earlier this season, then you have to like Duke’s chances.
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