Saturday November 28th, 2009

NEW YORK -- The most undeniable evidence of the athleticism gap between UConn and Duke came seven minutes and 11 seconds into Friday's NIT Season Tip-Off final at Madison Square Garden. Huskies point guard Kemba Walker -- the quickest player on either roster, by far -- stripped the ball from the Blue Devils' plodding center, Brian Zoubek, in the post, turned and whipped it upcourt to Stanley Robinson. The UConn forward known as "Sticks" proceeded to finish a one-on-none fast break with no mere dunk, but rather a windmilled, exclamatory statement that put his team up 16-14.

No Duke player is capable of such a slam; by Robinson's assessment, "They're not very athletic." The best highlight authored by the Blue Devils guard who was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, Jon Scheyer, was a double-pumping layup in the second half. If asked to pair up the two teams' starting lineups and choose the more athletic player at each position, you'd take Walker over Scheyer, Jerome Dyson over Nolan Smith, Robinson over Kyle Singler, Alex Oriakhi over Lance Thomas ... and then Miles Plumlee over Charles Okwandu. UConn wins 4-1.

Highlights do not decide everything, though, and the 13th-ranked Huskies were beaten 68-59 by the seventh-ranked Blue Devils in the first meeting of the two teams since the 2004 national semifinals. Robinson called Duke "smarter," and Scheyer, who had 19 points and five assists in the final, upping his assist-to-turnover ratio to 31-to-3 on the season, was the smartest player on the floor. UConn coach Jim Calhoun said Duke "played with a great deal of heart and toughness," something that was most seen on the offensive glass, where the Blue Devils held a 25-14 advantage, making up for the fact that they shot 28.4 percent from the field compared to UConn's 37.3.

Afterwards the debate was about what else -- athleticism. It was an issue that Robinson was not responsible for raising. The first question in Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's news conference was about ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb's comment, from Wednesday, that the Blue Devils were "alarmingly unathletic." Krzyzewski took the opportunity to call Gottlieb -- an unathletic point guard in his days at Oklahoma State and Notre Dame -- an "expert on alarmingly non-athletic," but then only offered a half-defense of Duke.

"We're pretty athletic," said Coach K. "We're just not as athletic as Connecticut. Singler is a really good athlete. Lance, Miles [are athletic]. Jon is not leaping tall buildings with a single bound but he's a real good athlete. I wouldn't call us this athletic team, but we're not amazingly unathletic."

Krzyzewski seemed to find the right tone. The game hadn't exactly been vindication of the Blue Devils' highlight-reel potential, but this team certainly has more explosiveness on the front line than the last few Duke clubs. "Whoever says our big guys aren't athletic is crazy," Scheyer said, pointing to Miles Plumlee, who had an excellent late block of Walker, and Miles' brother, Mason, who'll inject further athleticism into Duke's front line when he recovers from the broken wrist he suffered earlier this month. Nolan Smith said that with Mason in the rotation, Duke will be "even more athletic than people don't think we are."

This is going to continue to be a hot-button topic for Duke, in part because "unathletic" is too often used as a euphemism for "white" -- and the Blue Devils happen to be the only top-25 team in the country with three white starters. The truth about this Duke team is that they're moderately athletic, dangerous in the open floor, and aware that they'll need to defend like crazy and crash the offensive glass in order to beat elite opponents. At this juncture of the season those qualities were enough to gut open a UConn team that's still working through many early flaws -- including lack of a three-point gunner to erase late deficits, lack of aggressiveness on the boards, and Walker's inability to create scoring opportunities in down-tempo situations.

The Blue Devils came away from Madison Square Garden looking like by far the best team in the ACC, especially after their archrival, North Carolina flopped against Syracuse in New York the previous week. But for Duke, erasing the "unathletic" label may be more difficult than winning the ACC. The memory of last year's 23-point Sweet 16 rout at the hands of Villanova -- and its ultra-quick crew of lockdown defenders -- is still fresh in the minds of hoopheads, most of whom haven't forgotten the Blue Devils' first-weekend NCAA tournament losses to West Virginia (in '08) and VCU (in '07), either. So as dominating as Friday's performance was, the question still lingers: Will the Blue Devils be able to dismantle a team like UConn as well in March as they just did in November?

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