LAHAINA, Hawaii -- No team has traveled more miles or played more games together since the summer than Duke. The season might still be in its infancy, but that head start is beginning to show up already.
The Blue Devils won another quality game Tuesday in Maui, jumping out to a big early lead on old rival Michigan with an excellent game plan designed to limit Wolverines star Tim Hardaway Jr. The teams then traded punches on the way to an 82-75 Duke win. The Blue Devils will be playing in the tournament’s title game for the fifth time in the past 20 years Wednesday night.
It was Duke’s sixth game in the past 11 days, an NBA-like schedule with NBA-like travel from Durham to New York to the South Pacific. Combine that with a summer trip to China and Dubai for exhibition games, and the Blue Devils are quite the jet-setters. They also are, it is looking like, quite the team-builders.
This is most evident in the team’s bloodline backcourt of Austin Rivers and Seth Curry, who look like brothers and are starting to take on the look of old friends. There’s no questioning the talent there, but it wasn’t a lock that it was going to fit together. Neither would be defined as a true point guard, and both really need to control the ball to be effective. They also are probably Mike Krzyzewski’s two most talented players, and he was determined to play them together and figure out a way to make it work.
Curry is 21 years old and already in his fourth season of college basketball. He’s waited two years for his turn to run the team. He transferred from Liberty in 2009 after his freshman year and sat out the 2009-10 season. Last season, he got some minutes but played behind Kyrie Irving -- when he wasn’t hurt -- and Nolan Smith. Like his father, Dell, and his brother, Stephen, Curry is a polished shooter with range and the sort of effortless release that has to include some genetic assistance.
Now it's time to share with Rivers, a big-time recruit who plays with a steady swagger and at times like a freshman not used to playing with stars. Rivers’ talent is unmistakable. His interest in scoring and attacking is sometimes breathtaking and sometimes frustrating, as his eyes lock on the rim no matter the impediments before him. His shooting is unrefined, but that does not change his mindset -- he will fire away at will from any distance.
In short, it was not a guaranteed marriage. But with the advantage of some extra time and some willingness, it is working and it is impressive. Long way to go before March, but Rivers and Curry are blending their games and starting to look like they’re going to be a load for any defense to handle. They certainly were too much for Michigan’s zone, which simply couldn’t account for both of them all the time.
“They just need time together; practice only does so much,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s one of the reasons we went to China and Dubai, to give these guys a chance to get to know each other.”
On Tuesday, Curry always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, moving without the ball to set up for catch-and-shoot shots and getting the Blue Devils into their offense effectively. He hit six of his seven shots and had three assists on the way to 17 points. Rivers put up 20, perhaps his most effective game thus far, attacking from the wing.
Sometimes Curry would bring it up; sometimes Rivers would. They always seemed to know where the other was. When Rivers drove, which was often, Curry would move to give him a passing angle. It gave Michigan all sorts of issues as the Wolverines struggled to defend both.
Andre Dawkins, the third quality guard in the starting lineup, was equally effective, as he finished with 14 points. Center Ryan Kelly, who plays like a perimeter player, also had 17 points. But in watching the Blue Devils, there’s little doubt that everything runs through Curry and Rivers, and their cooperation is both vital and deadly.
Duke shot 57 percent on Michigan and is shooting 49 percent as a team for the season, nearly 43 percent on 3-pointers. Those numbers might not be sustainable for the whole season, but they are directly attributable to how Rivers and Curry are setting things up. Rivers has struggled with his shot, especially his jumper early, but his penetration stresses defense. Curry, meanwhile, is shooting like his father and brother, hitting 58 percent of his 3s and 57 percent overall. Duke is averaging 81 points a game, and Curry and Rivers are responsible for 32 points and six assists a game.
“Me and Seth are starting to get a real good relationship with each other on and off the court,” Rivers said. “Which is helping us trust each other on the court.”
The Blue Devils are in the midst of a demanding start to their season. Around their games in Maui, they beat Michigan State at Madison Square Garden last week and next week play Ohio State in Columbus as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. There also were games at home against Presbyterian, which just knocked off Cincinnati, and traditional mid-major power Belmont. Among other things, that string of games seems to be steeling the new backcourt and certainly impressing the country.
“[The schedule] I think is tougher than anybody in the country right now,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s how you develop it. I mean, they’re both natural scorers, they’re not point [guards]. But they’re very gifted. And if they learn how to use their gifts together, then we’re going to be better.”