Seth Curry is a 6-foot-2 senior. He wasn't recruited by any major D-I programs; he transferred to Duke after playing his freshman season with the Liberty Flames. He watched Duke's 2010 national title run in street clothes, and last year he averaged 13.2 points a game in the shadow of Austin Rivers. This summer, he developed a chronic shin injury that kept him out nearly two months before he hobbled onto the court and shot 1-for-9 in a November 1 exhibition against Winston-Salem State. Coaches and doctors say they aren't exactly sure what's happening, but it could stay with him all season, and it might get so bad that he can't play.
Nerlens Noel is a 6-foot-10 freshman. He was the no. 1 recruit in his class, who in April announced he was bringing his length and talent and athleticism to the defending national champions with great fanfare. He's a physical specimen, and not just because of that trademark high-top fade. Like many recent Kentucky stars, he'll almost certainly leave after a year for the NBA draft.
In theory, any meeting between Seth Curry and Nerlens Noel inside the paint should end with (1) a Noel dunk, or (2) a Curry shot being swatted so far and so hard that the ball takes on the ominous gravity of a rogue tire bouncing over the barrier at a NASCAR race. Somehow, though, that's not how it went Tuesday. I documented three meetings between Curry and Noel in the second half of no. 9 Duke's 75-68 win over no. 3 Kentucky at the Champions Classic in Atlanta, and I'd like to revisit them here, because I still can't quite explain what happened.
Meeting 1: Eight minutes remaining. Duke leads Kentucky, 60-50, and the UK fans have finally found an excuse to explode — Archie Goodwin just threw a perfect lob to Noel off the pick-and-roll for a big ol' dunk, and after a second half full of struggle, the Cats are within 10. They need a stop. Curry darts from the corner to the wing, taking a handoff from Ryan Kelly. He's one-on-one with Julius Mays, and he races to the baseline, barely acknowledging Mays's presence. It's been like that all night for poor Mays, and it's not going to get better. As Curry nears the basket, the looming form of Noel imposes itself on his path. With Mays on his hip and Noel protecting the hoop, Curry tightens the three-man triangle until it's practically touching. At the point of contact, he gives the subtlest suggestion of a shot — so slight an offering, just a hint of orange, that you can hardly even call it a pump fake — and sends the two defenders flying through the air. They almost, almost collide like bad guys in a cartoon, and while they float the wrong way Curry is fading backward, burying a baseline jumper. The crowd, for a moment, goes silent.
Meeting 2: With 6:30 left, it's now 62-52, and Goodwin's jumper has just brought back the crowd. Curry comes off a post screen set by Mason Plumlee, receives a pass on the wing from Quinn Cook, and feeds it right back to Plumlee. But Noel has quick hands, and he pokes the ball back to the perimeter. Goodwin has his back turned, so he's not ready when Curry snags the potential steal and blows by him to the right. Now it's Curry vs. Noel, and this time Noel hesitates, like he's waiting for the herky-jerky stuff again, the half-pump fake half-hesitation nonsense. But this time, Curry twists, pushing his left hip toward the basket, and lets the ball float upward on the run. By the time Noel leaps well, he still almost blocks the shot. He's that good. But Curry has delivered just enough arc to defy the 7-foot-4 wingspan, and the shot rattles home. The crowd, again, goes silent.
Meeting 3: There's just 1:20 left, and now it's 66-63. Kentucky freshman Alex Poythress, who has spent the past week with Wildcats coach John Calipari in his ear telling him to become a "beast," just skied over everyone, Plumlee and all, for one of the most spectacular offensive rebounds anyone in the Georgia Dome will see all season. He hits the follow-up jumper and the place is almost shaking from the noise. If you're a Duke fan, you're panicking. You and Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski both know that Curry needs the ball, so he comes off another inside screen and catches the pass from Kelly on the left wing. Mays, again, is unable to stay in front. Curry darts by to the right, into the middle of the lane, and when Mays tries and fails to sell out and poke the ball away from behind, it's Curry and Noel again.
Curry stops, leans forward, and tempts him with the ball. Maybe young Nerlens is just a kid who loves to block shots and is really, really prone to pump fakes by guys who are 6-foot-2. But I prefer to believe that Curry has just psychologically double-crossed him, like an aging chessmaster playing an old, forgotten trick on a child prodigy. The first pump fake on the sideline created a space of disquiet in the defender's brain that allowed Curry his floater in the lane, and that teardrop erased the former memory and set Noel up for this, the second pump fake. In either case, the center launches into orbit, majestically high and irreconcilably misplaced, while Curry simply leans away, spins some English onto the ball for an extra foot of clearance, and banks home the layup.
The crowd is silent for good this time, and Curry is laughing and shaking his head as he runs down the court. When he jogs to the bench after a timeout, you can't read a single thought on his face. There's just that perpetual mouthguard hanging out of his mouth so casually, and a lot of people cheering.
Lil Wayne wasn't cheering. He sat two rows in front of me, courtside, decked out in a black-and-yellow outfit highlighted by long shorts that felt very Zubaz-inspired. Wayne, who is apparently a Wildcats fan, spent most of the game looking angry, and a bearded bodyguard stood a few seats down, glaring in his direction and taking a few threatening steps whenever someone appeared as if they might approach. Most often, the person was a middle-aged woman wearing a Kentucky sweatshirt who probably wouldn't recognize Lil Wayne if he showed up at her doorstep with a giant sign that said "I'm Lil Wayne, the famous rapper!" But you can't take chances, and Wayne was clearly uninterested in talking to fans. The most amusing moment for those of us on press row was when the bodyguard took his little four-step waltz toward Dick fucking Vitale, of all people. As if he could stop the man of unlimited energy, or plug the wellspring of charisma! But Vitale wasn't about to disturb Lil Wayne (and we can only speculate on his familiarity with Weezy's work), and the bodyguard retreated. Lucky him.
Anyway, Lil Wayne left in disappointment shortly after Curry's last shot, but I'm here to tell you that before long, Weezy and the Cats will both be redeemed. It's true that they looked young against Duke in a way you never quite saw last year, when Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist patrolled the Lexington hardwood, but the athleticism and skill on display still dropped some jaws.
For one thing, Alex Poythress went ahead and became Calipari's beast. The 6-foot-7 freshman has been on the receiving end of some negativity from UK fans after a couple tough performances, but finished with 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting and eight boards Tuesday night. Quoth Calipari:
He's a beast, that's what he needed to look like. That's who he is. He's not a 2-guard. He. Is. A. Beast. So be a beast. I don't want to see any of the cute stuff. Get the ball by a guy and dunk on somebody. And he did it. Tip, dunk, and shoot a couple threes when you can.
The newfound aggression was on display all night, and the tip dunk Calipari referred to was his definitive "holy shit" moment. I didn't think I'd see a dunk as good as Jamari Traylor's follow-up thunder from the Kansas–Michigan State game earlier in the night, but when Poythress slammed home a Mays miss late in the game, fans from all four teams were on their feet. He's the perfect interior complement to Noel, who looked better offensively against Duke than he did in the season opener against Maryland. While Noel operates in the post, attracting double teams and leaving a vacancy on the weak side, Poythress will make a killing on offensive boards, unguarded basket streaks, and corner 3s.
The third prominent freshman is Goodwin, who did his best while rotating in at point guard to fill in for regular starter Ryan Harrow, who is experiencing fatigue that may be as mild as a flu or as serious as mononucleosis, blood tests pending. But Goodwin's real flashes of brilliance came on the dribble drive, when he broke down slower defenders and displayed the kind of unfair athleticism that lets him jam over giants like Mason Plumlee.
So why did Kentucky lose? First, there was Seth Curry. Second, as Calipari pointed out, the Wildcats are too young to realize that a few 90-second letdowns can sabotage the whole affair. Third, they really, really missed Ryan Harrow. Fourth, Duke's team defense, led by Ryan Kelly, shut down Kyle Wiltjer. Fifth, and not least, they can blame the uneven but ultimately effective performance by the rest of the Duke team. March could find both teams in very different places, but for now, the Blue Devils had just enough to survive.
Let's start with Tyler Thornton. As a Duke fan, I have to admit that my unchecked reaction upon seeing the diminutive junior on the court is the same sort of stomach-based sinking sensation you get when you're on the downswing of the pirate ship ride at an amusement park. It can be depressing to realize that he's your point guard, because his typical output will always resemble his final line from last night: two points, 0-for-1 from the floor, two assists, one turnover, one steal. He's competent on defense, but there's no flair.
But unspectacular as he might appear, I have to hand it to him: Tyler Thornton is a gnat. He played only 20 minutes Tuesday night, but in that time he managed to take two questionable charges that sent the Kentucky fans into hysterics, bump Noel for no apparent reason as he entered the game, almost sparking a mini-conflict, and incite Calipari, who later told a sideline reporter: "They're flopping all over the place. In the NBA, they'd all be suspended." Thornton pisses people off, and I think that counts for something.
(By the way, Calipari's dis became the dominant story line on Twitter. A local reporter told Coach K about the quote in the postgame presser, and he laughed it off initially, but later scored a point when someone asked him how Kentucky would change when Harrow returned: "John wants to talk about our defense. I'll let him talk about his team and not me." For his part, Calipari pretended to forget what he'd said, and then asked why Duke people couldn't take a joke.)
The other Duke player I can't quite wrap my mind around is Mason Plumlee. He's a senior now, and he has all the raw athletic tools you could ever want in a 6-foot-10 center. But he still lacks a sense of grace and rhythm, and it renders him awkward and ungainly in key moments.
Tangent: There's an Xbox Kinect game called Dance Central (great for parties) in which you mimic the moves of the dancers and a camera captures your errors. I am the world's worst dancer, but I can succeed at this game because I can train myself to move certain body parts into the proper position at the proper moment. I imagine it's ugly and uncomfortable to watch, but the final score looks good. Still, guess what? Drop me in a nightclub, and I promise you, I will be laughed out the door within minutes. And that's essentially how I feel about watching Mason Plumlee. He has some pre-programmed post moves that make sense, in theory, but he lacks the natural fluidity that allows the truly great big men (many of whom, at least in the college game, are less athletically gifted than Plumlee) to improvise and adapt.
And while I have no opinion on Plumlee's relative intelligence, Tuesday night's performance convinced me, finally and forever, that he will never be a smart basketball player. After Plumlee picked up two early fouls (one of them unnecessary) and headed to the bench, Coach K was forced by circumstance to put him back in action early. It was a calculated risk, and Plumlee responded by body-slamming Noel, flying recklessly at a 3-point shooter in transition, pushing a Kentucky player off a screen, and attempting to block a dunk by mauling the opponent. This staccato massacre took place within two minutes of his return. As it happened, none of the potential fouls were called (and believe me, you don't know anger until you've felt the vocal wrath of Kentucky fans denied their rightful whistle). He survived until halftime, then ruined his lucky streak by picking up two quick ones to start the second half — the second of which happened 30 feet from the basket — and taking himself out of the game.
The sad part is, that paragraph has been written over and over again for the past four years. Plumlee will never change.
Those negatives aside, I have to admit that Plumlee actually held his own against Noel. He even demanded the ball from Curry on one second-half possession — "come on!" — before scoring a critical basket. He was rarely in a position to get a rebound, finishing with only three on the night, but he did go 7-for-8 from the floor and, most astonishingly, 4-for-4 from the line. Even his awkwardness turned out OK — after bungling two post moves against Noel, he found Duke shooters for consecutive 3s in the run that put the Devils ahead for good.
Atlanta is just six hours from Durham, North Carolina, and my guess is that the city boasts the second-largest Duke alumni population after New York (maybe third after D.C. — maybe). Lexington, Kentucky, is approximately equidistant, and while I have no idea where UK grads go, I can say that the Big Blue Nation completely took over the building on Tuesday. It wasn't even close. They were loud, they were supportive, and they were unafraid to dance in bizarre and unsettling ways.
Wildcats fans also have a reputation for actually being nice. After a cursory investigation, it's my unfortunate duty to report to Kentucky haters that this last fact seems legit. They may have swarmed my hotel and lifted the roof off the Georgia Dome and overwhelmed the other four fan bases, but they did so with a strange politeness. Their best moment came when the JumboTron showed a young Duke fan with a sign saying that not only was this his first game, it was also his birthday. He was so small and innocent and excited to be on camera that I actually winced. No other reaction occurred to me other than to brace myself for another of life's many displays of human cruelty. Instead, I heard nothing. Not a single boo. I'm not saying the Kentucky fans cheered for the kid, but they were politely silent in a way that made me want to reach out and hug them all.
Forget decorum, though — when UK made its run and pulled within three, the fans got loud and aggressive, but that's when Curry, limping around and occasionally wincing, scored 10 of Duke's last 15 points to send them home quietly with a loss. The mystery of how he duped Noel three times during that stretch can best be explained by his native court sense — an intuitive quality that allows him to transcend his physical limitations. His brother Stephen was the master of extrasensory court perception, but Seth is getting close. He finished with 23, leading all scorers, and was at Krzyzewski's side for the postgame press conference. He sat down and flashed a grin at the reporters, but all I could think about was the uncertainty of the season ahead, and how he doesn't know if his legs will hold up until March.
Krzyzewski expressed amazement at Curry's conditioning — with just four practices under his belt since returning, he has no business laying such a high level so soon — and praised him in a way that coaches normally reserve for a private moment. "I'm proud of you," he said, turning to his senior. "I'm glad you came to Duke."
The reporters laughed, there in the media room, and they did, too, because it felt easier than lingering in the emotional glare of all that true sentiment. But we knew what he meant, and we felt it anyway.