EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In the winter of 2014, neutral-site college basketball games have been played at a U.S. Coast Guard Air Station in Puerto Rico, in ballrooms at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas and the Hard Rock Hotel in Cancun, in a fieldhouse on the grounds of Walt Disney World in Florida, in a small civic center on the west coast of Maui, in active NBA arenas in Manhattan and Brooklyn and Indianapolis. The basketball has been slow, but the settings have been eclectic -- and mostly appealing.
On Thursday night, two college teams met in a New Jersey swamp, in a 33-year-old arena, the Izod Center, that was abandoned by a 12-70 Nets team in 2010 and has since lacked a marquee tenant. Its most recent Yelp reviews contain the phrases "in serious need of a facelift," "sad and depressing," "sense of soullessness pervading its interior," and "worst arena in the metropolitan area". The hope was that the basketball might transcend the location. Duke, the nation's No. 2-ranked team, and UConn, the defending national champ, were certainly capable.
The frontrunner to win the Wooden Award and be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Blue Devils freshman Jahlil Okafor, would be going up against perhaps the longest and most effective shot-blocker he'd face all season, Huskies 7-foot sophomore Amida Brimah. Okafor had gone for 25 and 20 in his previous game, against Elon, and Brimah had gone for 40 and 12 in his previous game, against Coppin State. Tyus Jones, Duke's freshman point guard, would be facing off against an explosive, attacking floor general, Ryan Boatright, who'd been a key part of UConn's title run in March and April.
These duels -- and not a Groupon offer the arena used to fill other seats -- drew NBA scouts out in big numbers, filling rows in a section behind the Duke bench. The larger attraction was a Duke offense that ranked No. 1 nationally in efficiency, scoring around 1.2 points per trip with a blend of selfless guardplay, sharp long-range shooting and heavy does of Okafor in the post. They're the most entertaining Blue Devils team in recent memory, and given that all three of their freshman starters are likely to be in the NBA next season, they're a draw anywhere -- even in a swamp.
But even the presence of Okafor and Brimah, Jones and Boatright, championship-winning coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Kevin Ollie, and name brands like Duke and UConn, could not lift this one, a 66-56 Blue Devils win, out of the muck.
Brimah drew his first foul 12 seconds into the game and was benched; he returned at 14:36, played 38 more seconds until committing his second foul, and was benched again for the rest of the half. He took one measly field goal attempt and finished with zero points, a long fall from 40. Ollie is fast becoming the king of mucking up great offenses; he devised game plans that stalled Villanova, Michigan State, No. 1 Florida and Kentucky in the 2014 NCAA tournament, and he did it again here, sending near-constant double-teams at Okafor and rattling the Blue Devils into committing 12 first-half turnovers, more than they'd committed in seven of their first nine whole games.
But while the Huskies were taking the shine off of Duke's offense, they couldn't get any help for Boatright, who had 22 points while his teammates went 0-of-7 from deep and 16-of-41 on their twos. They fell to 4-4 and if they proved anything, it's that they're in danger of missing the NCAA tournament. They have zero wins over tourney-lock teams, and as Ollie, who's well aware of the weakness of their upcoming AAC schedule, told them in the locker room, "we're running out of opportunities."
And what of the Blue Devils? What did their fans who bought the game's odd commemorative t-shirts actually commemorate? Perhaps it's that they're capable of winning tough games when their offense does not operate at a peak level. Witnessing their scrappiness on the offensive glass and more-than-adequate defense makes me feel better about their national-title prospects going forward.. If you can still win by double-digits when an Ollie Plan jams up your main offensive options and causes you to score less than one point per possession (0.975, here) for the first time all season, you have a better chance of surviving the fluctuations of the six-game grinder that is the NCAA tournament.
"This was a real test for us," senior guard Quinn Cook said. "Our other close game, at Wisconsin, we were hitting shots, but today we couldn't buy one [shooting 5-of-19 from deep]. We could have folded. But we're not going to shoot the ball well everything ... the basketball Gods are going to challenge you like that, and we had to make stops today."
Ollie's plan was not only to aggressively double Okafor by running (mostly) Amile Jefferson's man, Kentan Facey, at the 6-11 freshman after he caught the ball on the blocks, but also to apply more heat on Duke's guards.
"I was watching tape and nobody was really putting ball pressure on them," said Ollie, "so we wanted to be up in the passing lanes and firing out at three-point shooters."
They forced Duke into its highest turnover percentage of the year -- 28.1 percent of its possessions were give-aways -- but also limited Okafor's low-block touches better than any Duke opponent.
Even with Brimah sidelined, Okafor's only first-half field goal came on a dish in transition from Jones. It wasn't until the 13:33 mark of the second half that Okafor got a low-block post touch in single coverage. He promptly feigned a left-shoulder move to the middle, then spun baseline on UConn's Phil Nolan and dunked, providing the game's best highlight. Still, the doubling limited Okafor to just five field-goal attempts, and he had to make his mark in other ways.
"I knew the double-team was coming after the first couple of possessions," he said, "and [the plan] was just me being patient, not rushing, and making the easy pass." He hit a diving Amile Jefferson, he flung the ball to shooters in opposite corners, had a turnover-free second half, and helped foul Brimah out of the game in just 13 minutes of playing time.
And more than what Okafor did, or didn't force, it was the work of his less-famous frontcourt mates that kept Duke undefeated. With the Huskies collapsing on Okafor, Jefferson grabbed four offensive rebounds and finished with a 11-point, 13-board double-double.
And freshman Justise Winslow, who had a miserable first half, came alive early in the second. After Boatright tied it from the foul line at 30-30, the left-handed Winslow grabbed Boatright's second missed free throw and started a one-man fastbreak that culminated in a gorgeous, stepping-through-traffic, right-handed layup at the 17:42 mark. He hit another layup a minute later, had a steal that led to a Tyus Jones layup two minutes after that, a three that broke the game open at the 3:15 mark, and a demoralizing tip-in at that put Duke up 64-56 on its third-to-last possession of the game.
Krzyzewski called Winslow "huge for us," but the coach lamented that his Blue Devils were still suffering from a post-finals-week malaise.
They will have better performances, but they have now won with Okafor starring and with Okafor being taken away, and they've won with their offense thriving and with its gears grinding. They've won in Durham, Indy, Brooklyn, Madison and the Meadowlands. It's nice to win at home, but winning an ugly game in a charmless place has more meaning: it suggests that Duke can win anywhere.