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Devils Survive Illini, ACC Up 3-1 In Challenge (224 PM)

Devil's Den
Devil's Den

In a taut game between two very different opponents, Duke's defense,
characterized by forcing turnovers, outlasted Illinois' powerful offense,
characterized by a phenomenal rebounding advantage.  It's a
simplification, but it's not entirely simple.

Illinois took down 30 defensive rebounds.  Duke forced 26
turnovers.  That's very close to the same number of attempts
denied.  Duke hit 7 three pointers; so did Illinois. Duke hit 19 free
throws; Illinois hit 20.  Duke hit one more basket than Illinois and won
by one point.

Perhaps a more useful simplification is this: Duke played a second game in
November which had a Final Four feel to it, and may have another one on
Saturday.  Or this: this game was in many ways a contest of wills between
an established master in Krzyzewski and a rising star in Self.  The
established master won, but just barely.

Any way you look at it it was a thriller, and also scary.  Illinois,
who we said played a lot like Oklahoma State with a touch of Kansas, can add
one more element to the mix: they pound the offensive boards like a vintage
Lefty Driesell team. Many of you won't remember, but despite the Terps bad
habit of making critical mistakes at key times, Lefty's teams were among the
best offensive rebounding teams in ACC history.  We're not even sure they
were as solid as this team is on the boards. 

More impressively, Illinois plays together as a team and has totally taken
to Bill Self's system.  He's had them in practice for six weeks and has
installed a new system with players he didn't recruit and has them playing at
this level? Unreal.  We're not sure we can think of anyone who has done a
transition as smoothly.

In spite of the very impressive boardwork, and the immense will shown by
the Illini, Duke prevailed, largely because they kept taking the ball away
from Illinois and, in the last 4 minutes or so, Duke rose to a level of
championship ball which Illinois could almost but not quite match.  Jason
Williams in particular was superb. We haven't seen everyone play yet, but if
you list the top point guards in the country and mention Williams, the phenom
Omar Cook, Jason Gardner,  Frank Williams, Temple's Lynn Greer and for
our money, Andre Barrett, it's hard to imagine anyone playing better overall,
or anyone showing more desire at the end of a game.  Worth mentioning: by
the end of the season, he will have had at least 4 games against these point
guards and likely a couple in the tournament as well.

Mike Dunleavy also played a brilliant game, justifying what Seth Davis said
about the comparison Grant Wahl drew between Dunleavy and Casey Jacobsen the
other day (by the way, the NBA guy who called Jacobsen a smaller Jud Buechler
made a really thought-provoking comparison), that Wahl was wrong. 
Dunleavy can affect the game by shooting, but also by passing, redounding,
defense, even shotblocking. Dunleavy is as well rounded a player as has come
along in awhile. 

Boozer played reasonably well in spots tonight, but disappeared for
stretches, too. Duke survived it, but since he is the main inside player on
this team, they really need him to be there in games like this.  It's
hard to stay competitive against a team like Illinois if you don't really hit
the boards. Duke managed, but it's the rare feat this season.  A side
prediction: the games between Illinois and Michigan State are going to be
incredible this year. Make your TV plans.  Boozer did, however, come up
big at the end of the game, making several key plays.

The enigma in this game wasn't the sophomores; it was the seniors. 
Though both Battier and James made some key plays, we didn't think either
played as well as he was capable of. 

Duhon was in some ways  erratic tonight, but his six steals were
better than half of the Duke record for steals, set by Kenny Dennard with
11.  However, his shot was off, and he made a few offensive forays which
were ill-advised.  Not a big deal - he's a freshman, and he made up for
it on defense.  But it could have hurt.

From the rest of the bench, Sanders played 5 minutes, Horvath got 3, and
Christensen got 2.  With Duhon's 27 that's 37, meaning the starters got
163 minutes.  Both Sanders and Horvath are recovering from injuries, but
Sanders' intentional foul at the end of the first half was not a wise play
(though we suspect seeing a nascent mean streak pleased the coaching staff
somewhat) and Horvath shot an airball and wasn't particularly effective.

You could argue - in fact, we would do so - that against Temple and now
Illinois, Duke played in stretches at far less than their potential, and
that's a concern.  However, it seems to us that there is a championship
fiber in this team, exemplified by Jason Williams among others, and if Duke is
winning incredibly intense games in November with this level of late-game
greatness,  the potential is there for a truly remarkable season. 
Would that suggest not losing and a national championship?  Probably not
for the former and the odds are against everyone for the latter, as we have
said previously.  But if this team stays healthy and Sanders and Horvath
and Duhon come along, the potential is there to play in the last game. 
What more could you possibly ask of a team than that?

Notes - congratulations to Carlos Boozer, whose fiancee was featured on TV
tonight...while Jason Williams was superb tonight, he did seem to wear down at
the end, but that doesn't detract from the hard brilliance of much of his
game...our pal Bethany suggested a great nickname for Chris Duhon - the Cajun'll fit better once he starts hitting his 3's but everyone knows
he has it...we hope Shavlik Randolph and Ousmane Cisse were watching
tonight...this game showed, more than almost anything could, how they could
fit in on this team....Dickie V as usual ranged far and wide but his riff on
Roy Williams and Frank Beamer were pretty interesting....