Parrish: How Mason Plumlee went from good pro prospect to great college player

Coach K on Mason Plumlee's drastic improvement: 'It's called maturity and learning the game.' (US Presswire)

DURHAM, N.C. -- Quinn Cook threw the lob from a spot almost exactly between midcourt and the 3-point line, and the trajectory seemed a little off. Honestly, I thought the ball was unreachable, probably headed for the seventh row. And Mason Plumlee did, too.

"Yeah, I did," Plumlee acknowledged. "I barely got up there."

But he did get up there.

Boy, did Plumlee get up there.

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And that'll forever be the lasting image from Duke's 73-68 victory against Ohio State here at Cameron Indoor Stadium late Wednesday that ensured Mike Krzyzewski's team will enter December with college basketball's best resume. The second-ranked Blue Devils now own wins over No. 4 Ohio State, No. 5 Louisville, No. 8 Kentucky, No. 21 Minnesota and the best damn three-loss team in the nation (VCU). They've recorded four quality wins over the past seven days, and though Plumlee isn't the only reason he is the most obvious.

"Mason has been our leader," Krzyzewski said. "He got 21 [points] and 17 [rebounds] tonight, and he hardly came out. I think I took him out for 10 seconds."

Mason Plumlee has long been described as a "good pro prospect."

I said those words to Coach K early Thursday.

"Who said that?" Krzyzewski asked me.

"The people who describe such people," I responded, and a few folks laughed. But it's true. Go look at some old mock NBA Drafts. Go glance at some old scouting reports. The middle Plumlee brother -- the one in between former Blue Devil Miles Plumlee and current Blue Devil Marshall Plumlee -- has since high school been a projected first-round pick based merely on potential. He could've jumped to the NBA two years ago, if he wanted, thanks to little more than what analysts call upside.

But, still, Plumlee has never really been a star college player.

Has he been good?

Yes, Plumlee has been good. And he's gotten better every season. The 6-foot-11 forward went from averaging 3.7 points and 3.1 rebounds as a freshmen to 7.2 points and 8.4 rebounds as a sophomore to 11.1 points and 9.2 rebounds as a junior, and that's a nice three-year career. But nobody has ever thought of Plumlee as the type of college player who could carry a college team to a national collegiate championship. And a National Player of the Year candidate? Get out of here. Again, Plumlee has been good at this level, but he's never shown that at this level.

Until now.

The 21 and 17 Plumlee got in this ACC/Big Ten Challenge showdown raised this season's averages to 19.9 points and 11.0 rebounds per game. He's the best piece on a team that looks like a real threat to make the Final Four and the clear favorite to win the ever-expanding Atlantic Coast Conference.

So how'd this happen, Coach K?

"It's called maturity and learning the game," Krzyzewski said. "LeBron James is a better player now than he was seven years ago. If players wanna get better they can get better, and it's all on him. He's wanted to get better, and he's paid the price to get better. Where he's at is primarily on him. He  took responsibility for who he was as a player and for who he was going to become as a player. And now he's one of the best players in the country. His performance tonight was magnificent. Just magnificent."

So magnificent that the Blue Devils were able to overcome a double-digit deficit and first 20 minutes in which they shot 30.0 percent from the field, including 14.3 percent from 3-point range. Almost nothing fell in that opening half. But Duke guarded well enough to stay close enough. Then Ryan Kelly sank a 3-pointer to tie the score 53-53 with 6:15 remaining. He sank another to give Duke a 56-53 advantage with 5:42 left, and that was that.

Plumlee added a stickback-dunk with 4:02 remaining.

Duke never trailed again.

So the Blue Devils got their seventh win and the Buckeyes took their first loss, and Mason Plumlee exited the court into a sea of Cameron Crazies who were chanting his name, taking his picture, pushing and shoving and doing anything they could to get close to this good pro prospect turned great college player whose career has been on a nice trajectory, steadily going up, just like that lob-pass Cook threw his way in the first half.

"I barely got up there," Plumlee said afterward.

But he did get up there.

Boy, did Plumlee get up there.

And now it looks like he's up there to stay.

CBS Sports Insider

Gary Parrish is an award-winning college basketball columnist and television analyst for CBS Sports who also hosts the highest-rated afternoon drive radio show in Memphis, where he lives with his wife... Full Bio

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