Austin Rivers is finally playing like a lottery pick.
It certainly took longer than expected, but Austin Rivers has become the game-changer that Blue Devil fans expected. Since his dominating 29-point performance against the Tar Heels seven games ago, Rivers has scored in double digits every contest and averaged 16 points per game in the last six. More importantly, though, Rivers has shown improved decision making, especially recently—Rivers is shooting 43 percent from the floor in his last four games and has increased his production both distributing the ball and on the glass as well. As his chemistry with his teammates has grown, so has Rivers’ ability to make them better—instead of forcing ill-advised floaters in traffic like he did early in his freshman campaign, Rivers is using his ability to penetrate to draw the defense in and earn open shots for the likes of Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and Ryan Kelly. Against North Carolina last month Rivers showed he can take over a game, giving Duke a weapon that they sorely lacked the first half of the season. If he can do it again in Cameron, the Blue Devils will be hard to beat.
Duke’s balanced offense makes it impossible to shut down the Blue Devils.
Even if Rivers doesn’t explode for 29 points like he did in Chapel Hill, Duke has developed enough scoring options to overcome an off-night from its star. The Blue Devils have three other players that average double digits scoring—Curry, Kelly, and Mason Plumlee—while Andre Dawkins has shown the ability to explode in big games. The Tar Heels aren’t known for their defensive prowess, especially on the perimeter, where Kendall Marshall has been a huge liability as of late and Reggie Bullock is a huge step down from the injured Dexter Strickland. If the Tar Heels choose to key in on Curry and Dawkins on the perimeter, the lane will open up for Rivers. If they choose to shut down Kelly and Plumlee in the post, the Tar Heels yield those perimeter jumpers to a team that shoots 39 percent from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s biggest defensive weapon, John Henson’s shot blocking ability, can be nullified if he’s forced to guard the versatile Ryan Kelly on the perimeter. Indeed, while Duke can key on the Tar Heel frontcourt to limit their offensive production, North Carolina cannot focus too heavily on any one aspect of Duke’s offense without giving opportunities to another.
Tyler Thornton and Miles Plumlee’s emergence has changed Duke’s identity.
Lost in the Zoubekian rise of Miles Plumlee is Tyler Thornton claiming a vice-grip like hold on the point guard position. Since the North Carolina game Thornton has played more than 20 minutes in four of six contests, including more than 30 in his last two. And while Thornton hasn’t filled up the stat sheet, he has quietly become Duke’s best leader on the floor and gradually imprinted his identity as a defender and energetic player on the whole team. Plumlee, meanwhile, has motivated the team through his inspired play of late as the lone-senior on a relatively young squad. While neither Thornton nor Plumlee will dominate the scoreboard against the Tar Heels, both provide the intangibles and character that many thought were lacking in this team in January. Plumlee’s ability to limit Tyler Zeller and Henson on the offensive glass and Thornton’s task of pestering Marshall defensively will likely determine how successful the Blue Devils are in this rivalry showdown, regardless of how players like Curry and Rivers are doing offensively.