College Basketball

Practice paying off for Duke’s Marshall Plumlee

jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

It’s only natural for defenses to relax a bit when Jahlil Okafor leaves the floor.

"Maybe they just subconsciously think, ‘whew, we can take a breather now,’” assistant coach Jeff Capel said.

Normally when Okafor leaves, Marshall Plumlee enters. And the Duke coaches noticed something on film.

"They're not guarding you," Capel told Plumlee. "And so when you roll off of a ball screen you set, roll hard. And, because of your athleticism, you'll get that. No one is going to block you out. So, go to the glass every time. Underneath, be sharp and be instinctive."

With the help of Duke assistant coach Nate James, Plumlee has taken that knowledge and used it to his advantage in Duke’s past three games. And with Okafor still dealing with the lingering effects of a sprained left ankle, Plumlee’s minutes have gone from a luxury to a necessity for the No. 1-seeded Blue Devils, who play No. 8 San Diego State at 2:40 p.m. Sunday for a spot in the Sweet 16.

Against N.C. State in the ACC tournament quarterfinals, Plumlee went 6-for-6 from the field — and all six baskets were dunks. Many came off lob passes from Duke’s guards, and that’s a trend that continued into the NCAA tournament. In the Blue Devils’ opening win over Robert Morris, Plumlee recorded his first double-double, with 10 points and 10 rebounds in 19 minutes.

"With the style of ball I play, I'm trying to do whatever helps the team," Plumlee said. "Finishes, rebounding, things of that nature. Some nights, the balls don't bounce your way — it's not like plays are being run for me — so I've just got to be ready to do my role to the best of my abilities."

Plumlee is the youngest of three brothers — Miles and Mason played at Duke before going to the NBA — and, in a way, the role of youngest brother prepared him well for his role at Duke. In his first two years, he often had to guard his older brothers in practice. Once they left, it was Jabari Parker. And now it’s the biggest and most talented of all: Okafor.

It’s not an assignment full of glory — as Capel pointed out, Plumlee can do well against Okafor, but Okafor can still end up scoring because he’s, well, Jah — but it’s one that Plumlee has embraced.

"I feel like I've gone up against some pretty stiff competition my whole life, but who wouldn't want that?" he said. "I don't feel like I would be as good of player as I am today if it weren't for that. Maybe it doesn't produce much on the court time, but I've gotten to be a part of some great seasons."

He is also playing the crucial role of video game point man this weekend, making sure that the Blue Devils have all they need to get their Fifa fix on the road (it’s a popular soccer video game). In addition to the electronic games, the board game Blokus is in demand on this trip, too (think Tetris-like pieces that must link together in a certain way on a playing surface).

"He’s one of the funniest guys on the team," road roommate Grayson Allen said.

On the court, though, Plumlee means business, and that’s evident on his face. He has spent four years at Duke largely working behind the scenes, in practices that only his coaches and teammates see. But they have seen this type of breakthrough coming.

"What he has been doing at practice is exactly what he has been doing on the floor. He is getting rebounds, he's dunking everything at the rim," Allen said. "It's nice to see that translate onto the floor."

Keeley: 919-829-4556;

Twitter: @laurakeeley

Duke vs. San Diego State

When: 2:40 p.m.

Where: Time Warner Cable Arena, Charlotte

TV/Radio: CBS, 620 AM/102.9 FM

Projected starting lineups:

Duke (30-4)

G Tyus Jones, 11.6 ppg, 5.8 apg

G Quinn Cook, 15.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg

G Matt Jones 6.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg

F Justise Winslow, 12.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg

C Jahlil Okafor, 17.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg

San Diego State (27-80

G Aqeel Quinn, 10.8 ppg, 1.6 apg

F JJ O’Brien, 10.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg

F Dwayne Polee II, 7.9, 2.5 rpg

F Winston Shepard, 11.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg

F Skylar Spencer, 3.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg

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