Last game, Mike Krzyzewski made a coaching decision he hopes will reap dividends come NCAA tournament time. One of those potential opponents in March awaits Saturday when Duke plays Xavier in a clash of top 7 teams at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J.
Krzyzewski opted to start his bench players for the sixth-ranked Blue Devils (9-1) on Wednesday in a 99-56 rout of North Carolina-Asheville. Duke had not played since a surprising 81-73 loss at Michigan on Dec. 6, and the strategy paid off as Miles Plumlee, David McClure, Elliot Williams, Martynas Pocius and Greg Paulus helped stake the Blue Devils to a 17-point halftime lead.
“There’s never a thing you do where a message is not intended,” Krzyzewski said. “The message is that we have confidence in our bench. Is the glass, so-called, half-full or half-empty? What would be the reason to do that doesn’t mean that something wrong happened. It’s to show confidence in the kids that we need.”
The biggest beneficiary may have been Paulus, as the senior point guard hit four of Duke’s season-high 11 3-pointers and added three assists and a steal. Williams, a freshman, added six points and eight rebounds in his first start as the Blue Devils hit 52.2 percent of their shots and scored 36 points off 24 turnovers.
“A lot of guys got minutes, and that’s good for us, because it’s definitely a long season,” said usual starter Kyle Singler, who is averaging a team-high 16.6 points and had 14 on Wednesday. “Everyone was playing well and everyone deserved the minutes that they played. That’s what counts.”
Duke is averaging 83.4 points, but still trying to improve on the perimeter. The Blue Devils have made just 32.0 percent (66-for-206) of their 3-point shots, well off last season’s 37.7 percent when they made 308 in 34 games.
While Krzyzewski had the luxury of tinkering with his team against a lesser opponent, Xavier counterpart Sean Miller had to navigate a 76-66 victory at intracity rival Cincinnati in its annual Crosstown Shootout last Saturday.
The No. 7 Musketeers (9-0) shot only 36.4 percent from the field but outscored the Bearcats 29-16 at the foul line in a game that featured six technicals, including the late ejection of forward Derrick Brown for taunting after he had 20 points and 10 rebounds.
“I felt a little embarrassed because I represent Xavier,” Brown said of his two technicals. “At the same time, I knew whatever we needed to do, my teammates were going to do. I was trying to hold in my emotions, but it was a big game.”
C.J. Anderson added 17 points and 11 rebounds for the Musketeers, who are trying to match the best start in school history, set in 1996-97. Miller knows this game is a chance to further establish a national identity for Xavier, which reached the NCAA tournament regional final last year, but he is also wary of his players trying to do too much individually.
“There’s no doubt that a game like this can bring out the best in a team like ours, and we’re like everybody else where if we do make the game bigger than it needs to be, and do things that are uncharacteristic of us, it will backfire in a big way,” he said. “That’s the greatness of playing a game like this against Duke and also of it possibly not going our way.”
Xavier has limited opponents to 35.7 percent shooting, good for 12th in the nation, and 60.9 points per game. Brown (14.0), B.J. Raymond (12.2) and Anderson (11.8) are all scoring in double figures, and six players are pulling down at least 4.3 rebounds per game.
Duke has won all three games between the teams, including 66-63 in a regional final of the 2004 NCAA tournament in the most recent meeting.