As I have previously noted , the Duke Blue Devils have a mix of talent and depth on the interior that Coach Mike Krzyzewski has not had during his 30-year tenure at the helm in Durham, and these players will be a key to Duke achieving better results in March.
Among them are two seniors who have previously struggled to find their place in Duke’s traditionally perimeter-oriented style of play and two young brothers who bring fresh legs and athleticism to the Devils’ front line.
As a unit, they have contributed to a rebounding margin of +6.9 RPG, blocked 40 shots, and scored 22.1 PPG.
They have collectively shut down the imposing front line of UConn, Iowa State star Craig Brackins, and ACC nemesis Trevor Booker, who had previously put up spectacular number against the Devils.
Prevailing wisdom would dictate that if Duke were to make it to Indianapolis, it would be on the backs of preseason ACC Player of the Year Kyle Singler, emerging All-America candidate Jon Scheyer, and a resurgent Nolan Smith. While they will be at the forefront, Duke will go nowhere without solid play from their front line.
Each of Duke’s big men has begun to fill individual roles and will need to achieve different accomplishments in order to help Duke reach its final goal.
The younger of the Plumlee brothers came into the season as Duke’s top recruit, but a wrist fracture proved to be a major setback in his development. After missing the team's first six games, he returned only to see minor playing time with little chance to showcase his talent.
In the last two weeks, however, he has begun to show flashes of his potential. After an 18-point performance against an overmatched Penn team, he produced perhaps his most impressive performance to date in a loss at Georgia Tech, scoring 10 points to go along with six rebounds and two blocked shots.
Much of Duke’s inside scoring this year has come off of second-chance points. Plumlee looks like the only one of the floor who can face up to the basket and score against a defender.
With unmatched offensive skill on the inside, he may become a consistent fourth option for Duke, behind only the big three on the perimeter.
If he can continue to learn to play within Duke’s defensive scheme, look for Plumlee to play the majority of meaningful minutes at the end of the year.
Despite being the smallest of Duke’s big men, standing only 6’8” and weighing 225 lbs, Lance Thomas has brought more energy and enthusiasm to the front line than any of the others.
This has helped Thomas become Duke’s top front line defender, showing versatility by guarding players both bigger and smaller, on either the perimeter or in the paint.
In perhaps his most impressive performance, Thomas shut down Iowa State star Craig Brackins, forcing bad shots and turnovers from the future NBA draft pick.
Brackins was only able to manage 12 points on the night, well below his average, and much of his damage was done well after the outcome had been decided.
Thomas has also improved his offense, showing that he can hit mid-range jump shots and finish at the basket.
Most importantly, he has gone from a liability to an asset at the foul line. Coming into the season, he was a career 55.2 percent free throw shooter but has shot 82.1 percent from the line this season.
As maybe the hardest worker on the team, look for Thomas to grab a rebound or recover a loose ball in crunch time of a big game.
Duke’s 7’1” behemoth is looking to avoid a similar conference season to last year. In ’08-’09, he was averaging 7.7 PPG before the conference season began. By the end of the year, however, his average had dipped to just 4.1 PPG, thanks in large part to diminished scoring opportunities against bigger and tougher competition.
Before the first conference game this year, Zoubek was averaging 7.0 PPG, but that has dipped to 5.9 PPG in just three games. He will hope to buck that trend for the rest of the year.
Zoubek’s scoring output this season has been a result of having the second best offensive rebounding percentage in the NCAA through Jan. 3 according to kenpom.com .
Only DeMarcus Cousins of Kentucky has been better. Unlike Cousins, who uses his athleticism to get after rebounds, Zoubek relies on his experience and positioning.
The biggest key to Zoubek’s success for the rest of this year will be his ability to stay on the floor. Zoubek leads the team with 49 fouls and has fouled out four times, twice as much as any of his teammates.
The older of the Plumlee brothers, Miles has established himself on both ends of the floor this year. He leads the team in blocks, with 16, and has been the most consistent scorer on the front line, averaging 7.1 PPG, including 15 points in Duke’s two conference games.
Playing only sparse minutes last year, Plumlee has quickly adapted to being on the floor for meaningful minutes and has asserted himself whenever possible, leading to exciting blocks, and alley-oop dunks.
This aggressiveness has also led to some rookie mistakes, however.
At times, he has overplayed his position on defense, leading to some open layups and 44 fouls. On the offensive end, this has led to missed opportunities and a .43 assist-to-turnover ratio, the worst on the team.
If Plumee can improve his discipline on the court, which has started to happen in recent games, he can become a dynamic scoring partner for his brother and a more athletic alternative to Zoubek in the middle.
If the interior can produce, there is no reason that Duke can’t return to the Final Four. But Duke cannot rely on just a few perimeter scorers as it has for the past few years if they want to have any success come March.