Marshall Plumlee finding his niche for Duke

— Marshall Plumlee went up for an offensive rebound midway through the second half against Florida State, attempting to tip the miss from Rodney Hood in the basket. When the tip wouldn’t go, Plumlee corralled the rebound just before being grabbed from behind by Jarquez Smith with both hands.

The referee whistled for a foul, Plumlee attempted to shake Smith off, but he held on, so Plumlee forcefully ripped his shoulders, attempting again to get him off. In a game featuring three Seminoles flagrant fouls, it was a little rougher play than Hood wanted to see – so he gave Plumlee a calm-down sign, gesturing with both hands.

“I would rather calm him down than wake him up,” Hood said. “He did an amazing job on the boards of being physical.”

Plumlee settled down enough to make two free throws – the second and third made free throws of his career (he started 0-for-16 and made his first earlier in the game). Those two points gave Duke a 19-point lead, part of a dominant, 78-56 win against the taller and bigger Seminoles.

The physical challenge doesn’t get any easier Monday night, Duke’s second game in three days. The No. 18 Blue Devils (16-4, 5-2 ACC) will travel to face No. 20 Pittsburgh (18-2, 6-1) at 7 p.m. The Panthers don’t have the height of FSU, but they have been known for years for their physical, tough brand of basketball.

“We have to get some fluids in us,” Hood said in the locker room, minutes after Saturday’s game ended. “They’re at the top of the conference, and that’s where we want to be.”

To counter size and strength deficits, coach Mike Krzyzewski lengthened his bench, playing more guys in attempts to keep everyone fresher, allowing them to play at maximum effort longer.

Plumlee, a redshirt sophomore, has benefited from this expanded rotation. Before Krzyzewski changed his strategy ahead of the Virginia game, Plumlee was playing an average of 5.8 minutes per game. He didn’t play at all against East Carolina, Vermont, Alabama or Clemson.

Since the Virginia game, the beginning of Duke’s four-game win streak, Plumlee has averaged 11 minutes.

After the 67-46 win at Miami, Krzyzewski, without prompting, singled out two defensive plays by Plumlee – a block and a rebound – as key moments in the second half. Against the Seminoles, Plumlee pulled down seven rebounds (all on the offensive glass) and scored seven points. Both were career highs.

When Krzyzewski would comment on Duke’s lack of size early in ACC play, particularly after the loss at Clemson, a vocal portion of the Internet was quick to point out the 7-footer on Duke’s bench. Plumlee is not going to play 30 minutes a game, but he has, in recent games, carved out a niche.

“I’m a guy that can bring us some physicality and energy off the bench,” Plumlee said when asked to describe his role. “And obviously my size. If I do my part and work hard, I feel like I can compliment a lot of the really talented players we have.”

It’s taken Plumlee longer than he anticipated to find his role, mainly because it’s taken him time to get fully healthy. The stress fracture he suffered in his left foot a few days before the beginning of practice completely derailed his redshirt freshman season – he played just 50 minutes, total, last season, scoring two points and grabbing 11 rebounds. He had surgery on his foot after the season, which kept him in rehab mode all summer.

“It’s still a transition form getting back to playing healthy and getting back to the level of athleticism you had before the injury,” Plumlee said. “It’s been a longer process than I anticipated. I just make sure I’m taking a step forward every day and I’m not taking any steps back. Our training staff is doing a great job of helping me with that.

“There are a couple of things you have to think about with coming back. There’s me trying to be my best and then trying to be the best Marshall they need for the team, whatever role that might be. There is a long grocery list of things I needed to do, and I feel like it’s all starting to come together a little better now.”

Plumlee has been working after practice with assistant coach Nate James – Friday, the day before the Florida State game, he had to be forced out of the gym, as he was getting up extra shots and working on his post moves.

Plumlee’s apparent blooming is right on time – Duke will need him Monday night.

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley