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Carlos Previews The Pack!

Is it possible to be an NCAA bubble team before you’ve even played your second league game? Herb Sendek and his NC State Wolfpack are hoping the answer to that question is "no," but the rumblings are out there. The Wolfback are in a minor bind after an early season where they saw only one quality win – an 8 point home victory over Penn State. Other than that game, the Pack failed to win any games of significance on a schedule that had more than its share of lightweights. If NC State is going to make the tournament for the first time since 1991 they will have to make some noise in conference play. With 5 teams in the top 25 that may be a difficult task.

Much of the Pack’s early season troubles can be attributed to a series of injuries and off court problems that resulted in the team not playing at full strength until their last outing against Virginia. In that game NC State built a steady lead, eventually taking a 5 point advantage into the halftime locker room. They were unable to sustain that lead in the second half despite shooting over 60% for the game. The 10th ranked Cavaliers overcame an 11 point second half deficit to emerge with a 7 point victory as Pack’s chances for a win were severely hampered by the loss of 4 players who fouled out of the game. Virginia was able to capitalize on the foulfest by hitting 31-35 from the charity stripe.

In stories this week Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he prefers to characterize the Wolfpack as "determined" rather than "desperate." But if the Pack watched any Duke game footage from this year they could possibly become "discouraged." Sendek and his team have more fortitude than that of course but that doesn’t change the fact that, with the exception of 8 minutes in Oakland, Duke has been a pretty intimidating squad this year.

Duke is coming off a demolishing of Clemson in a game that was over long before the first half ended. The Devils are getting career years (thus far) out of everyone of their starters and have seen 4 out of 5 of that group named ACC Player of the Week thus far this year. Obviously when you are playing a lineup that starts 3 sophomores it is pretty easy to have a group posting career years but the real story there is that, at least for the moment, all of them have avoided the dreaded "sophomore slump." The other story there is the two starting seniors (Battier and James) have both risen to the challenge and responded by taking their games to new levels.

If Sendek wants to avoid discouraging his team he’ll avoid showing them the game tapes of Duke’s games against Temple (the second, not the first), Michigan and Clemson. Instead what he may wish to do is to show them the tapes of Duke’s games against NC State and, well, NC State. From last year that is, because while the Pack struggled through another losing ACC season they played Duke tougher than any team in the state. In their first meeting of the year, Duke needed overtime to pull out a 4 point victory. In the second game the Devils hung on for a 5 point win. The key to Duke’s success against State last year was the performance of Chris Carrawell who averaged 26 points in the two contests.


Usually when discussing the backcourt matchups the story is about a hot shooting guard who is deadly from behind the three point line. Only in this case the story isn’t Jason Williams, it’s NC State’s Archie Miller. Miller, who is the brother of NC State assistant coach and former University of Pittsburgh star Sean Miller, is hitting at an unbelievable 62% of his three point attempts. That’s not a misprint. He’s currently second in the NCAA in 3 point percentage but the guy ahead of him has only 12 attempts.

Miller starts most of the Wolfpack games when Sendek goes with a three guard look. If you look hard enough you may be able to find reason for hope when studying his shooting performance. For example, in their games against more significant competition (Virginia, Georgia, Penn State, and UNCC) Miller is merely shooting 46%. Or maybe that in those same games he’s only attempting about 3 shots a game. Or that in games played on days where the opponent is wearing yellow and the school mascot is a mammal…. never mind. The bottom line is that the guy is a flat out shooter and will demand attention.

Fortunately for Duke, State gives up quite a bit to put Miller in the game for while he’s a very good shooter he also has some shortcomings to his game. For one thing, Miller is not a particularly adept ball distributor. His assist to turnover ratio is just 1.5 to 1 and he can be a shaky ballhandler at times. Although he finished with only 2 turnovers against Virginia, he still had some difficulty with their press. More importantly though, at just 5-10 and 160 lbs., Miller can be a defensive liability.

Defense is not a problem for the other member of the Wolfpack backcourt. Although he’s just 6-3, junior Anthony Grundy has incredibly long arms that allow him to be an especially effective defender. He’s currently second in the league in steals at 2.9 per game which is exceptional given the fact that he doesn’t play for a team that utilizes a full court press too often. The long arms and quickness don’t just help him on defense. On the other end of the court he’s the team’s leading scorer at just over 17 points a game. On any other team his 42% shooting from beyond the three point line would be worthy of note but then there aren’t many teams out there with guys who are shooting 60% either. He can also do more than just shoot the long ball. He can slash or hit a pull up jumper as well as convert in the relatively few times the Pack gets transition baskets. Grundy also leads the team in assists and pulls down nearly 5 rebounds a game from the backcourt.

Sendek is also getting good minutes from Clifford Crawford who brings a little athleticism to the backcourt. Crawford came to State last year as a top 100 recruit with the reputation as being under-rated by the recruiting services. After an unremarkable year spent backing up senior Justin Gainey, Crawford is showing signs of the skills that earned his recruiting ranking. Sendek gives up quite a bit of offense when he brings in the 6-3 sophomore who is not nearly as good a shooter as Miller. However, what he does get is a guy who can press the tempo and distribute the ball. Crawford also gives the Wolfpack an increased defensive presence.

Filling out the backcourt is freshman Scooter Sherrill, a 6-3 McDonald’s All-American from North Carolina. He was also a teammate of Duke’s Chris Duhon on the NABA/Nike Hoops Summit team last year. Sherrill can play either backcourt position although he’s best suited for the two guard spot with his offensive mindset and the wealth of options for the Pack at point guard. He’s very good off the dribble although he can force things too much, often passing on open shots in favor of a drive to the hoop.

They’ll be facing off against a Duke backcourt that is, much like the rest of the team, very talented and very thin. Jason Williams continues to dominate opponents from his point guard position. Williams is coming off a sub-par performance against Clemson. Sub-par that is for a guy who had been peeling off a run of 20+ point performances. For the game he finished with a paltry 18 points and 6 assists. These are good problems to have.

If Williams does have one area of concern it may be a disturbing increase in his turnovers in the last few games. For the second game in a row Williams finished with 5 turnovers and despite the large margin of victory in both games he is not likely to be happy with those totals. That’s a minor problem for a guy who has been breaking down opposing defenses and setting up the Duke offense all season.

Coming into the season most people viewed Nate James as Duke’s fifth starter. There was debate in some circles whether James would actually be Duke’s sixth man. After topping the 20 point mark in his last three games and winning the ACC Player of the Week award there’s little debate about James’ role on the team. That award was based as much on his defensive effort as his fine offensive numbers after the blanket he through over Will Solomon last Sunday afternoon. Solomon entered the game as the ACC’s leading scorer and by the time the afternoon was over he had totaled just 13 points.

So commanding was the defensive effort by James that Solomon had just 3 points at the half and had only attempted 4 shots. It’s hard to believe some schmuck posted here last week that James may have trouble with Solomon’s quickness with the ball. James’ effort is even more impressive considering that he only committed two fouls for the game and Solomon only attempted two free throws. James achieved his success by relentless ball denial and patiently funneling Solomon into the heart of the defense when he tried to drive.

Like Williams, James is playing very well right now but he still has some areas of his game where he can improve. James started the year looking as if he would improve on last year’s solid 38% from the three point line. However his accuracy has suffered as of late and his percentage has slipped all the way to 33%. To his credit though, James has found other ways to score as indicated by his scoring average in recent games.

Another player whose long range shooting has been below expectations is reserve guard Chris Duhon. The 6-3 freshman came to Duke with a reputation as a deadly shooter but he too is shooting just 33% from the three point line. But that’s about the only area where Duhon has not lived up to expectations. The rest of his game has been refined beyond what you would expect for a freshman. On offense he is focused on setting up his teammates rather than scoring- perhaps more so than the coaching staff would want. Defensively he uses his blazing quickness to pressure the ball and deny the pass.


Most of the injuries and suspensions to the Wolfpack team have come from their frontcourt players. Center Ron Kelly and wing forward Damien Wilkins have both missed time due to injury while forward Damon Thornton sat out the first semester after a well-chronicled off court incident.

One guy who has been a fixture in the State frontcourt this season has been senior Kenny Inge (6-8/235). Inge is no stranger to the injuries that have plagued his teammates. In his junior year he suffered a knee injury that should have sidelined him for 6 weeks. Instead he was back on the court in 3 weeks. He’s also no stranger to controversy. In his sophomore year Sendek suspended him because of a bad attitude. He’s also the master of the in game scowl and ah, er, um, aggressive fouls. Against Virginia he picked up a technical foul early in the game, and a flagrant foul late. He was an intentional foul away from the hat trick but the flagrant foul (an elbow delivered to the face of Chris Willams) was his 5th of the game. The flagrant foul couldn’t have occurred at a worse time for the Pack as they were down four with less than two minutes to play. After forcing a Virginia miss Inge decided it was a good time to implode.

When he’s not losing control Inge gives the Wolfpack an aggressive rebounding force inside. In addition to being the team’s second leading scorer he is also the leading rebounder at 8.1 boards a game. He also leads the team in blocked shots with just over 1 a game. In his freshman year Inge showed signs of being able to shoot the ball from the outside and drive it aggressively to the basket. His game was similar to Battier’s in that regard but the knee injury seems to have robbed him of some of his versatility and now most of his offense comes from around the basket where he is a powerful finisher. He gets a fair number of baskets off from offensive putbacks.

The other given in the Wolfpack frontcourt is Damien Wilkins (6-6/220). After a freshman year where he had to carry the burden of being labeled "the most important NC State recruit since David Thompson," Wilkins has emerged as an upper tier ACC player. Wilkins is a versatile player who has the strength to power near the basket and the touch to hit from the outside. After spending the summer working on his jump shot and ballhandling with his father. When your father is former NBA player Gerald Wilkins that makes it a quality summer. Like many guys who come into college with a big reputation, Wilkins can sometimes be questioned for shot selection and can sometimes over-commit leading to turnovers. Like Inge, he is very strong on the offensive glass. Defensively he’s not exceptionally quick nor does he possess great jumping ability. What he does have though is a toughness that helps him play beyond his physical skills.

Typically when you are discussing the Pack frontcourt starters you would be talking about Damon Thornton. This year, as part of his team imposed discipline for the off-court trouble, Thornton is coming off the bench. It may not take long for Sendek to get Thornton in the game when the Pack squares off against Duke as the 6-8/240 lb. senior has been the team’s leading rebounder in each of his previous three seasons. When he first came into the league Thornton appeared to be destined for an eventual All-ACC first team selection at some point in his career. Unfortunately for Thornton injuries have dogged him for much of his time at State. The most significant of those was probably a hip injury that occurred near the end of his freshman season.

While Thornton is not the player he could possibly have been, he is still a very good one. He’s still in the process of integrating himself back into the team, having played three games since the end of his suspension. What he’s shown on the court so far is very familiar to Pack fans- tough low post defense and strong rebounding. He also chips in about 8 points a game mostly from point blank range. If he gets the ball down low he will finish as his 77% field goal shooting indicates. As is the case with Inge, Thronton is an emotional player who can sometimes lose his focus in the game. He’s also foul plagued- having fouled out of 6 ACC games last year.

If Inge or Thornton need rest or encounter foul difficulty, State can turn to senior Ron Kelly (6-9/245). At one point in his career Kelly was a starter for the team, but the arrival of Wilkins placed him in the role of a reserve. Seemingly like every other State frontcourt player, Kelly has suffered his share of injuries. In his case it was a knee injury last year that came as the Pack was trying to gel in ACC play. Although he possess good size, Kelly lacks the physical intensity that Inge and Thornton give the team. Consequently he’s nowhere near the rebounder they are but he does bring a different element to the team. Kelly is the team’s best post scorer with a series of back to the basket moves that Inge or Thornton don’t have. He was particularly effective against Duke last year in the first contest where he scored 17 points, most on soft turn-around jumpers close to the basket.

As if the State frontcourt weren’t deep enough, they’ve added yet another solid player in 6-8 freshman Marcus Melvin. He’s a versatile frontcourt player who can even spell Wilkins at the small forward spot if needed. He’s seeing about 17 minutes a game so far in his freshman season and contributes around 7 points. He is most comfortable facing the basket and is not afraid to shoot the three, although the rest of the team would probably prefer that he didn’t since he’s converting on just 11% of his attempts. The Fayetteville, NC native was one of the top recruits in the state last year and is a key part of the Pack’s long term plans.

But wait, there’s still more up front for State. The Pack also have two other big men on the bench, although neither is likely to see extensive minutes in the Duke game. At 6-11/260 lbs. and 7-1/215 lbs., Cornelius Williams and Kristian Jensen give the team some big bodies on the bench. In the case of Jensen, that’s just where he’ll stay- on the bench. Williams may see some spot duty if State gets into the type of foul trouble they encountered at Virginia.

Squaring off against those 25 guys from the State frontcourt will be a much thinner Duke rotation. What the Duke team lacks in depth they more than make up for in quality. Sophomore Carlos Boozer is coming off his best game of the season after he was perfect from the field and the line against Clemson. He finished with 25 points in just 21 minutes of play and also pulled down 6 rebounds, grabbed 3 steals, and dished out 2 assists. Duke has made a slight adjustment to their offense to take better advantages of the 6-9/270 lbs. post player’s strengths. They’ve gone to a modified high / low set that puts either Boozer or Battier at the foul line and the other player on the low blocks. When he’s on the foul line, Boozer is adept at either feeding Battier in the post or hitting the 15 foot jumper. As he shoots 76% from the free throw line he obviously has the tough to hit that shot consistently.

When Boozer is in the low post he’s more likely to step out to around 10 feet on the wing and face up against his defender. Boozer was able to hit a few jump shots out there against Adam Allenspach of Clemson. That opened things up for the Duke big man to put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket. (Hey, didn’t somebody say Boozer may have trouble against Allenspach because of the Clemson center’s size?) Like most Blue Devil centers, Boozer is more traditionally thought of as a power forward. By adjusting his role in the offense Duke has been able to maximize his skills. He should be able to continue driving the ball to the basket against most ACC post defenders.

Like Boozer, Battier has also enjoyed more success with the changes to the Duke offense. Krzyzewski has given Battier more room to operate by clearing Boozer out to the free throw line and spreading the floor. The result is that the 6-8 senior has been able to utilize his own strengths by quickly moving across the lane for shots rather than trying to power over his defender. The low post offense will never be the cornerstone of Battier’s game- not when he’s shooting 48% from the three point line. But it does give Duke a means of generating more of an inside game for situations where they need a high percentage shot.

On defense Battier continues to perform to the level that has won him two National Defensive Player of the Year awards. He leads the team in blocks and steals and has continually been able to avoid foul trouble while playing help defense all over the court.

Duke’s small forward is a guy who isn’t really all that small. At 6-9 (and growing) Michael Dunleavy generally enjoys a height advantage over most defenders. Unlike most 6-9 guys, Dunleavy doesn’t play a predominantly inside game. He’s still an effective rebounder where he averages 5 boards a game, but Dunleavy’s offense is built on great outside shooting and controlled drives to the basket. Although he’s not yet playing at their level, Dunleavy is part Larry Bird and part Magic Johnson. Bret Bearup has said it best when he noted that "watching Dunleavy’s game is good for the soul."

Duke doesn’t enjoy the wealth of frontcourt depth found on the Wolfpack, but the Devils frontcourt rotation has started to become more defined. Junior Matt Christensen has clearly emerged as the first frontcourt reserve for the team after starting out the year behind Casey Sanders. Christensen has increased his playing time by filling the role the team needs from him. At 6-10/250 lbs. he has the size and strength to give Duke a physical presence off the bench. Essentially the team looks for Christensen to come into the game and play defense without fouling too much (a problem that has been a challenge for him since he arrived at Duke). To his credit, Christensen brings his lunchbox and does exactly what the coaching staff asks. Christensen could actually be the key element on a team filled with McDonald’s All-Americans who are averaging double figures and getting all sorts of headlines. If he is able to come into the game and give Duke meaningful and productive minutes then his contribution means more than the sum of his numbers.

Duke’s other big man reserve is 6-11 sophomore Casey Sanders who continues to tempt and frustrate fans with his athletic potential that always seems just around the corner. In his defense, Sanders has not been playing ball for that long and his reactions on the court are not intuitive. His performance against Clemson was a perfect example of the qualities he brings to the game. In his first stint, a brief 30 second appearance, Sanders failed to rotate on defense and allowed an easy dunk for Clemson; got stripped of the ball at the foul line leading to a breakaway layup; and traveled while attempting an inside move on the ensuing possession. But after that disastrous appearance he played much better when he returned to the court and scored on a very confident move inside.

Duke has also been using 6-4 freshman, walk-on Reggie Love to rest Battier at times. After finishing the season with the Duke football team Love joined the hoops squad and has been trying to find his niche. When he’s on the court he’s a bit raw offensively but has strong defensive instincts and great leaping ability. Love has been seeing about 5 minutes a game against teams like Clemson and Florida State. It will be interesting to see if he continues to see that much time as the level of competition increases.


The easy analysis is that for State to win they will want to run and force the tempo to take greater advantage of their depth. While that’s a possibility it could also be a recipe for disaster. NC State may be playing a more uptempo offense this year but it's not uptempo to the 94 points a game that Duke is posting. The chances for a big loss for the Wolfpack could be greatly increased if they try to run at Duke’s pace.

More likely is that the Pack will adopt the Stanford template and try to keep the game close until the latter stages. The Pack has the strength and depth inside to continually attack the Duke defense and try to get Boozer and Battier in foul trouble. The Stanford loss for Duke was not as much about fatigue as it was foul trouble and if the Pack can expose that Duke weakness then they may be able to achieve a similar result as the Cardinal. That strategy may be especially sound given the recent foul difficulties of Carlos Boozer. The Duke big man leads the team in fouls and has had at least 4 fouls in 4 out of his last 5 games. With the new rules emphasis on post play Boozer must be careful to avoid fouls.

To minimize the chances of that happening, the Devils will once again rely on their relentless ball pressure to disrupt the Wolfpack offense before they can get the ball inside. This could be an especially potent weapon against the Pack who lead the ACC in turnovers per game. The Pack’s second half swoon against UVa was fueled as much by turnovers against the Cavalier press as it was from the foul trouble. For the game the Pack finished with 20 turnovers most of which were in the second half. Damien Wilkins led the team with 6 for the game but it was Archie Miller who had the most difficulty with the Cavalier press. When Miller received the inbounds pass in the backcourt he was repeatedly trapped against the baseline or sideling by the taller Virginia players. Duke should be able to duplicate the Cavalier success with Battier helping trap Miller or the other State guards.

Once again Nate James, coming off his great effort against Will Solomon, will draw a key defensive assignment. This time it’s Anthony Grundy who is more physically similar to James than Solomon was. Both player James and Grundy have exceptionally long arms and, while they can shoot the three, they can also score inside. Grundy is dangerous as a passer also as he leads the Pack in assists. The Duke defense will have to help and recover (emphasis on recover) more with Grundy than they did with Solomon.

Much like Clemson, the Wolfpack will have to choose between putting compromising their defense or limiting their offense when they decide what lineup to place on the floor. If the Pack try to play their three guard lineup with Crawford, Grundy, and Miller they will have serious matchup problems with Duke who would counter with Williams, James, and Dunleavy. In a man defense, Miller would most likely be forced to defend Jason Williams and while the diminutive State guard played good defense against Donald Hand, the smart money would be on Williams in that matchup. That would also leave the 6-3 Grundy and the 6-1 Crawford to defend the 6-6 James and 6-9 Dunleavy. James in particular would be happy to take his man inside much like he did with Solomon. The other option in a man defense would be to use Grundy on Jason Williams but that would create even more serious mismatches at the 2 and 3 spot.

State could possibly use a zone defense when they are going with their three guard look. That would give them the best chance of hiding Miller and offsetting their size disadvantage but it would also open them up to a Duke team that features 4 quality outside shooters on the floor at all times. The Pack used a zone against Virginia but quickly dropped out of it when the Cavaliers brought in sharpshooter Keith Friel. A zone defense may not be the best play against a Duke team that leads the conference in three pointers made each game.

A more likely scenario for the Wolfpack is to bring in either Thornton or Kelly and take out either Miller or Crawford. The choice there is take out Miller and lose your best three point shooter or take out Crawford and lose one of your better ballhandlers against the press. If that happens then Damien Wilkins will move to the three spot where he may present some problems for Dunleavy. Despite giving up several inches, Wilkins is a strong player who could be able to score inside.

When Duke is on offense they will, as always, look to their penetrating players to create for the team. That means Jason Williams of course but also means Dunleavy, Duhon, and to a lesser extent James and Battier. The good news for Duke fans though is that Boozer’s offense seems less reliant on Jason Williams breaking down his defender and dishing off for an easy basket. That element is still there but with the new offensive wrinkle Boozer has been given more freedom to create his own shot. If Boozer can continue his strong play he could have a very big game against some very aggressive State defenders who are also foul prone. Boozer is Duke’s second leading free throw shooter at 76% and the Blue Devils would like to see him aggressive enough on offense to get to the line for 10 attempts like he did in the Illinois game. The Pack could also have trouble with Battier’s quickness and outside shooting. In the past he and Inge have had some memorable battles but Battier, who has not faced the injuries that Inge has seen, has clearly emerged as the more consistent player.

The may end up much like the two contests last year with both teams battling down to the wire. If the game is called closely and the Duke inside starters run into foul trouble then the Wolfpack could pull off the upset. Matt Christensen can give the Devils some inside relief but the team will not want to be force to play him more than 12-15 minutes in this type of a game. Duke should be able carry a lead into the second half based on the strength of their top 6 players. Whether or not they can take that to the buzzer will be largely dependent upon how many of those top 6 are around at the end of the game. If Duke doesn’t lose anyone to fouls then it’s doubtful that Mean Gene and Slappy will be in a dancing mood after the game.