Duke needs Austin Rivers to be ‘the man’

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Before we get into the meat of this post, before we spend anytime analyzing what happened in Duke’s 85-84 win over UNC in the Dean Dome or how the Blue Devils were able to erase a 10-point deficit in the final two minutes, let’s all sit back and admire how the game ended:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3X1ewxVwhug%5D

That is what college basketball is all about.

Austin Rivers, a cocky freshman playing in his first installment of the best rivalry our sport has to offer, buried a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to cap a miraculous comeback on the road on national television.

It doesn’t get any better than that.

“This is the best feeling I’ve ever had on the basketball court,” Rivers said after the game. “This is the best feeling I’ve ever had.”

source: Getty Images

And for Duke, it doesn’t get any better than Rivers at this point in the season. He is, quite clearly, the only player on the Blue Devils’ roster that is capable of creating for himself. When he gets it going like he did tonight — scoring a career-high 29 points on 9-16 shooting from the floor, including 6-10 from three — he’s as dangerous as anyone in the country with the ball in his hands.

Duke would be best served to run their offense through Rivers from here on out. Two months ago, that would have been a risky proposition. Rivers was, more or less, still playing AAU ball. Forced drives, ill-advised threes, turnovers. He was scoring at a decent rate, but the inefficient manner in which he was getting those points was doing more harm than good for the Blue Devils. Not anymore more. Not only are those shots going down at a higher rate, but he’s learning how to better play with teammates, as opposed to starring in the Austin Rivers Show.

There are still a handful of times every game where he makes a head-scratching decision, but eliminating his aggressiveness and his freedom offensively would only hinder him; the reason that he has taken so many tough shots is that he believes he can make those tough shots. You don’t want to take away that confidence as much as you want to teach him how to channel it.

Perhaps the most important thing to note about this game is that the play that is going to be dominating the highlight shows Thursday morning — the game-winner — was far from the only important shot that he made. Rivers started out the game on fire, scoring 10 of the first 12 Duke points to spark an early surge. Then in the second half, when the Tar Heels made their run to take control of the game and push their lead to as much as 13 points, Rivers hit two big threes to keep Duke within reach.

But there was more to Duke’s comeback than an impressive performance from an NBA coach’s son.

As good as Rivers was, the key to Duke’s push down the stretch was that the Devils were finally able to turn this into a half-court game. It took 38 minutes to do so, but they finally got a couple of stops and slowed down UNC’s transition attack. Of course, it helped that they were able to knock down jumpers on their final five possessions, but they were afforded the opportunity to make those jumpers count because they corralled control of the tempo.

Much of that credit should be given to Mason Plumlee, who really played well in the second half. He finished with eight points and 14 rebounds on the game, but he helped hold Tyler Zeller — who had 23 points and 11 boards on the night — to just four points and three boards in the second half.

As telling as this comeback was for the Blue Devils, the inability of UNC to put Duke away when they had them on the ropes was just as important. Every time it looked like the Heels were primed to putting a finishing move on the Blue Devils, UNC would turn the ball over or commit a silly foul (Seth Curry’s four-point play?) or simply miss a shot you wouldn’t expect UNC to miss.

With the win, Duke pulls into a three-way tie with the Heels for first place in the ACC thanks to Florida State’s inexplainable loss at Boston College. In a conference that has made little sense this season, its only fitting that the standing got even more jumbled thanks to the unlikeliest of outcomes on Wednesday night.

But analyzing the standings — hell, analyzing why Wednesday happened the way it happened — is a disservice.

This was just another improbable outcome in the storied rivalry between two of college basketball’s preeminent basketball programs. Instead of worrying about explanations and the ins-and-outs of Duke’s comeback, we all need to kick back and savor this moment.

Because this is as good as it gets.