NASSAU, The Bahamas -- On December 10, 2011, Duke's then-junior forward Mason Plumlee shot 2-for-11 from the foul line in a six-point win over Washington at Madison Square Garden. Foul shooting had always been Plumlee's bugaboo. He worked on it for hours -- "I'm at Duke. They're not just going to let you miss free throws" -- but no matter how hard he huffed, no matter how hard he puffed, he could not blow this problem down.
After returning to Durham, Plumlee had a one-on-one meeting with his coach, Mike Krzyzewski. Instead of giving Plumlee technical advice on his shooting form, Coach K suggested a revision to Plumlee's pre-shot routine. "Coach told me, 'When you get up there, don't dribble. Just take it," Plumlee said. "He told me not to think about a routine. So that became my routine."
Fast forward to Duke's semifinal game against VCU Friday night at the Battle 4 Atlantis. Twice in the final three-and-a-half minutes, Plumlee pulled down critical defensive rebounds. In the past, he would have passed to a teammate so he could avoid a trip to the free throw line, but on this night he held on tight. "Ryan [Kelly] tried to step up for me, but I said no, I got fouled, I want to shoot 'em," Plumlee said. "When I get to the foul line now, I'm surprised if I don't make it. It's the polar opposite of where I was."
Perhaps Plumlee should write a book called Zen and the Art of Foul Shooting. He's thinking better by thinking less. His routine is no routine. It worked again on Friday as he drained those late free throws to finish 7-for-8 from the line, lifting No. 5 Duke to a 67-58 win. The Blue Devils, who as a team converted 24-of-27 from the stripe, will play in Saturday's championship game against No. 2 Louisville, which beat No. 13 Missouri in the other semifinal.
Plumlee had 17 points (on 5-for-9 shooting) and ten rebounds against VCU for his third double-double of the season, but his greatest contribution came against the Rams' vaunted "havoc" fullcourt pressure defense. Not only did Plumlee provide an easy-to-spot target for outlet passes from the Blue Devils' guards, but on several occasions he brought the ball up the court by himself. That's quite a feat for a center who stands 6-foot-10, 235 pounds. "We usually don't play against big guys that are willing to handle the ball against the press. A lot of teams bring big guys back to catch it, but then they're scared to put it on the floor," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "Mason's terrific. I think he's a lottery pick. The Duke staff deserves a lot of credit because I saw him play in high school. He had all the talent, but he wasn't putting it together the way he is now."
Ironically, Plumlee's success would not be happening were it not for a bitter failure -- namely, Duke's shocking loss to Lehigh in the round of 64 in the 2012 NCAA touranment. Plumlee admits now that until that game, he had basically decided he was going to leave Duke a year early to enter the NBA draft. "Miles thought I was leaving with him. We thought we were going together," he said on Friday night in reference to his older brother, a senior who was selected with the 26th pick by the Indiana Pacers.
The loss to Lehigh forced Mason to reconsider. It wasn't just the specter of ending his college career on such a sour note that tugged at him, though that was clearly a factor. The game also brought him face-to-face with a cold reality. "If I was a good enough player to play in the NBA, I would have been able to carry our team out of the first round," he said. "I felt a little bit of ownership in that game. That was what led me to come back."
When he decided to return for his senior year, Plumlee said, "I think I even surprised some people in-house." Thus, instead of trying to make an NBA team, Plumlee spent the summer in Chicago interning at a wealth management firm. That gave him the chance to play pickup with some of the top college and pro players around the city. Plumlee also competed against some of the nation's top collegians at two Nike-sponsored showcases as well as the Adidas Nations camp in southern California. And of course, he spent hours and hours practicing those free throws. Plumlee always put in that kind of time in the off-season, but this time he was thinking better -- which is to say, not as much. He returned to campus an older, wiser, stronger, more polished and more confident player. In other words, he came back as a man.
From the moment his senior season tipped off, Plumlee has displayed All-American form. He had 18 points on 7-for-8 shooting against Kentucky despite being limited to 29 minutes because of foul trouble. He scored a career-high 28 points against Florida Gulf Coast, and he had 20 points and 17 rebounds in Duke's quarterfinal win over Minnesota Thursday night at the Battle 4 Atlantis. On the season he is shooting 68.6 percent from the field.
Plumlee's improvement at the foul line has been nothing short of remarkable. During his first three years at Duke, he shot 54, 44 and 53 percent from the line, respectively. Through his first five games as a senior, he is making 80 percent. It's highly unusual for a player to enjoy such a drastic improvement in this area, much less this late in his college career. "I know I'm most likely going to shoot more free throws than anyone on the team, so I want to make teams pay for fouling me," he said Friday night. "It's also good because you end up with 17 [points] instead of 12."
"And we win instead of lose," Krzyzewski added.
As long as Plumlee keeps playing like this, Duke will likely keep on winning. The Blue Devils' senior core of Plumlee, 6-11 forward Ryan Kelly and 6-2 guard Seth Curry looks an awful lot like the Nolan Smith-Jon Scheyer-Kyle Singler troika that propelled Duke to the 2010 NCAA title. (Scheyer and Singler were seniors that season; Smith was a junior.) Plumlee is an increasingly rare breed in college baskeball, the McDonald's high school All-American who stays four years in college, all the while improving bit by bit, game by game, season by season. The days of passing the buck -- and the ball -- are over. It's his time to hold on tight. "I'm excited about our team. I think we can do something big," Plumlee said. "There's no finger pointing anymore. Now it's all on me."