DURHAM -- Every other year, Senior Day coincides with the second Duke-North Carolina game.
And when that happens, it’s easy for the seniors being honored at their last home game to be overlooked, especially when they are not superstars.
Miles Plumlee is not a superstar, but he’ll wrap up four seasons of impressive work Saturday night when Duke and UNC meet in Cameron in the 2012 home finale. His farewell appearance shouldn’t be overshadowed by the importance of the game to decide the ACC regular season championship.
The 6-10, 245-pound senior has been a major contributor to four Duke teams that have had (to this point) a combined 123-21 record. He’s started 53 of those games, scoring over 600 points and pulling down more than 600 rebounds. He’s played on three ACC championship teams and one that won the national title.
Pretty good career, right?
“I’m ecstatic,” Plumluee said. “I’ve had an unbelievable run. I’ve been part of some great teams. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in one national championship. Not many people are blessed to be part of a team where winning is a habit.”
Indeed, that winning habit has given Plumlee to do something that no other player in NCAA history has ever accomplished – to be a part of four 30-win teams. His first three Duke teams won 30-35-32 games. His current team is 26-4 going into the game with UNC.
“I’m really proud of the team this year, because I’ve had a major role,” he said. “We had a lot of new guys and a lot of young guys. We did it again when no one thought we could. But it’s not over by any stretch of the imagination. The most exciting part is ahead. I’m looking forward to it.”
But Senior Day is a time for reflection, so look back for a moment and consider how lucky Plumlee is to be at Duke … and how lucky Duke is to have him.
Plumlee almost played his college basketball at Stanford. He’s the oldest of three basketball playing brothers from Warsaw, Ind. All three Plumlee brothers prepped at Christ School in Arden, N.C.
There, he was somewhat overshadowed by his younger brother Mason, who was touted as a top 25 recruit and who became a McDonald’s All-American. Miles was rated a top 100 recruit when he signed with Stanford in the fall of 2007 – not long before Mason made a verbal commitment to play at Duke.
Trent Johnson was the coach at Stanford when Miles Plumlee signed with the Cardinal. Plumlee’s future changed when Johnson left Palo Alto to coach at LSU. Uncomfortable with the new situation at Stanford, Plumlee sought and obtained his release from his letter-of-intent. Given a second chance to choose a college, he elected to precede his brother to Duke.
He became part of a three-man class that included guard Elliott Williams of Memphis and Polish forward Olek Czyz from Reno, Nv.
He started slowly. Even though he started his first game at Duke – opening at center against Presbyterian in Cameron – Plumlee soon returned to the bench and played little as the season progressed.
“Freshman year was a wakeup call,” Plumlee said. “I really had a lot to work on. It wasn’t at all what I thought it would be.”
The youngest Plumlee brother – Marshall – is currently redshirting during his first season at Duke. In hindsight, that might have been a good option for the oldest Plumlee brother, who played just 165 minutes as a freshman, averaging 1.8 points and 1.4 rebounds.
“Everybody’s situation is different,” he said when asked about any regrets as to not redshirting. “Seeing how much it’s helped Marshall already, but the team definitely needed a big [in 2009]. I thought I‘d come in and play, right off the bat. I started my first game. I could have benefited from a year. I was still developing, physically and maturity wise.”
That development began to show up the next season when his brother Mason arrived to play alongside him in the post.
“I loved it,” Miles said of playing with Mason. “I don’t think I would have handled things as well as I have without him being here. He’s been a huge support system for me and I think I’ve done the same for him. Who wouldn’t want to play with their brother? We’ve grown up playing together our whole lives. We’ve been on an amazing ride.”
As a sophomore, Miles Plumlee started 24 games and averaged 16.2 minutes a game for a 35-win team that won the ACC and national championships. He came off the bench down the stretch, but played substantial minutes during Duke’s postseason run. He had seven rebounds in 20 minutes of action in the tough Regional final victory over Baylor. He had three rebounds, a steal and a blocked shot in the narrow title game victory over Butler.
Plumlee was a very valuable player as a sophomore. He built on that as a junior in 2010-11, when he started 15 games and averaged almost 19 minutes a game.
“Each year I came back and I thought I did a better job,” he said. “Each year I had things to work on. That’s why I was in and out of the starting lineup. It’s a journey and everybody’s journey is different. I’m here as a senior now. I feel more comfortable and confident than I’ve ever been.”
And as this season winds down, Plumlee has taken another leap.
“He’s playing the best basketball of his career right now,” Blue Devil coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “His rebounding and just his athleticism and strength have really shown up. I thought he was so important for us against Florida State down in Tallahassee. It’s good to see. It’s not like he hasn’t helped us throughout his career, but I think he’s playing really well right now. I mean, very, very well.”
Plumlee’s surge started at home against Maryland, when he ripped down 22 rebounds – the most for a Duke player in the Coach K era. He’s continued to pound the boards, averaging 12.0 rebounds in his last six games.
“I definitely think I made a jump,” he said. “I thought I was playing well in the middle of the season, then things fell off a little bit. It was just kind of a wakeup call. I realized I have so many games here and each game is one less. All of a sudden, you don’t want to play with any hesitation. You don’t hold anything back. You just go out there and play as hard as you can.”
Plumlee suggested that he might have been over-thinking things on the court.
“Throughout the course of the season, you’re always trying to improve and figure out what you’re doing wrong,” he said. “Sometimes you can get in your head so much that you’re holding yourself back. As a senior, it’s kind of like a wakeup call. You don’t have very much time left. It’s almost like, ‘Alright, now I just need to go out there and play my game and play as hard as I can for my teammates.’”
Plumlee’s surge is eerily similar to similar late-season push made by senior Brian Zoubek in 2010. Coincidentally, Zoubek’s surge also started with a big game at home against Maryland.
Zoubek’s strong finish is an inspiration for Plumlee, who battled the bearded big-man in practice for two seasons.
“I looked up to him a lot when he played here,” Plumlee said. “He’s helped me a lot in my development. I just watched how he didn’t give up. He may not have had the season he envisioned, but when it came down to it, he rose to the challenge and we won a national title. It can’t get better than that.”
Well, for the oldest of the Plumlee brothers, it could get a bit better, if he could lead the Devils to a national title this season. As the team’s only senior, Plumlee said that he feels a certain ownership of this team.
“Since the beginning of the season, I knew that how this team developed was on my shoulders as a leader,” he said. “I had to instill the things that have made our program great over the years. Just pull us all together. I’ve tried to do that. I’ve never felt more a part of a team than this year. It’s really special to me and I want it to end accordingly. I want it to be a special year.”
And it wouldn’t hurt to end it with a special night in Cameron.