Mason Plumlee picked a fine time for a breakout game

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The talent on Duke’s roster has never been questioned.

Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler are both all-americans. Kyrie Irving may just end up being one as well. Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins could start for just about any team in the country, and they come off of Mike Krzyzewski’s bench.

Yeah.

Loaded.

That perimeter attack has never been questioned. In fact, its the reason that Duke’s being all but handed the national title in November.

The question mark — if there is one — for the Duke basketball team had always been in the paint. Brian Zoubek was such an important part of Duke’s run to a title last year. His physical presence in the paint, his ability to clean the offensive glass (he led the country with an offensive rebounding percentage of over 20%, which is unreal), his mean-son-of-a-bitch demeanor. The guy that everyone had written off as a stiff for three and a half years ended up being arguably the Blue Devil’s most important piece come March.

But as seniors are wont to do, Zoubek graduated, leaving behind the Brothers Plumlee to man the interior.

Now, the Plumlees — both of them — are supremely talented young men. They are big, they are strong, and they are athletic. But up until Monday night, neither of them had proven anything at the college level. Miles had become a borderline disappoint, as he has looked like the same that struggled to earn consistent minutes as a freshman and sophomore.

Mason, on the other hand, has all this NBA Draft buzz, but he hadn’t done anything buzzworthy at the college. I mean nothing. As a freshman, he averaged 3.7 ppg and 3.1 rpg. Prior to Monday night against Marquette, he had reached double figures in scoring four times in two seasons. Four! His 14 rebound effort against Miami OH was the first time he cracked double figures on the glass.

That is precisely why people were questioning whether Duke had enough inside to actually win a national title. Could the Plumlees really be counted on to bring that physicality and interior presence on a nightly basis?

I think Mason Plumlee may have silenced some of those doubters on Monday night.

Duke beat Marquette 82-77 last night in the opener of the CBE Classic in Kansas City. And while the Golden Eagles came into the game unranked, they had once again flown in under the national radar. This is a team with a deep roster, a talented back court, two matchup nightmares in the front court, and a couple of adequate big men. They play a tough, gritty style of basketball, forcing their opponents out of what they want to do offensively. They spread the floor when they have the ball, find the mismatch, and allow that player to go one-on-one.

They are a talented and confident team that is every bit as feisty as their head coach, Buzz Williams. There is a reason this team did not lose by double figures last season until the semifinals of the Big East Tournament. They play hard, they compete.

And last night, it threw Duke off. After a hot shooting start in which Duke opened up a 23-9 lead, Marquette changed the pace and the style of the game. They got Duke out of rhythm, and as a result the Blue Devils played about as sloppy of a game as you will see out of this group. They turned the ball over 19 times. Nolan Smith and Kyrie Irving were responsible for 11 of those turnovers, which was more than the 10 assists they combined for. Kyle Singler was just 5-13 from the floor.

In other words, Duke’s stars played far from their best game.

And Marquette took advantage, making an impressive second half comeback to tie the game.

Which is when Mason Plumlee took over.

Plumlee scored 10 points and had an assist in a game-decided, 17-6 run that pushed Duke’s lead to 72-61 with just under seven minutes left. Marquette made a push, but they were never able to get back within striking distance.

Plumlee gave hope to Duke fans everywhere, and likely threw a scare into coaching staffs from Chapel Hill to Columbus, OH, to the group from Manhattan, KS, currently preparing to play the Blue Devils in tonight’s CBE final.

He finished the night with 25 points, 12 rebounds (6 offensive), 5 blocks, and 3 assists. He carried a team whose stars had an off-night. He scored on post moves. He scored in transition. He was getting offensive rebounds and scoring on put backs. He was hitting short jumpers. He was swatting shots.

He thoroughly dominated an undermanned Marquette front line last night.

Performances like that prove why people believe Plumlee can be a lottery pick.

If he can follow that up with another similar performance against a much bigger and more physical Kansas State front line, and you can start counting the folks that will hand Duke the national title tonight.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.