Sunday's opponent is a fine North Carolina public university. They are coached by a former Tar Heel standout in his third year as a head coach. And the team comes into the game with just one win to their credit this season. No, this isn't a time warp and the next game isn't against the Tar Heels. Instead, the Devils will be facing off against the North Carolina A&T Aggies and their head coach Curtis Hunter.
Duke has faced off against the Aggies since the 1999 season, traditionally using the contest as a tune up either after the exam period or the Christmas break. In this case, it's the former as the Devils haven't played a game since dropping a Daisy Cutter on Michigan eight days ago. These types of games are very important to both teams. For Duke, it's an opportunity to regain some sharpness that may have been lost over the last few days as the player's off court schedules become more demanding. It's also an opportunity for the team to work on some things against outside competition. For the Aggies, it's a big paycheck and a chance to face better competition than they'll see in their league (MEAC).
Hunter faces a difficult year as this year's Aggie roster lacks any true star player. Gone is last year's leading scorer, James Miller, who put on a scoring show against Duke. In last year's game, the 5-11 point guard posted one of the highest point totals of any player facing Duke when he dropped 34 points on the Duke backcourt. Unfortunately for A&T, that kind of talent is missing from the Aggies this year and he's paying the price with a 1-7 record, thus giving Matt Doherty at least one member of the family that he can call up and taunt. Of course, Doh may want to show some restraint, as he still has to face Hunter's team on the floor in the Aggies' next game.
Stepping into Miller's point guard role is Marque Carrington, a 6-2 senior out of Cary, NC who has been in college nearly as long as Matt Christensen. Carrington has had an injury filled career at A&T, the most recent trouble being a herniated disk last season. Carrington was one of the team's leading scorers as a freshman, but the variety of injuries over the years has taken away some of his scoring punch. Carrington has been playing the point although he's more comfortable at the off guard spot.
This year, Carrington leads the team in assists at 4.3 per game. He also leads the team in turnovers at 3.625 per game, for an assist to turnover ratio of 1.18. Carrington's difficulties holding on to the basketball are reflective of the team as a whole. The Aggies have a woeful .5 assist to turnover ratio and the Duke ball pressure, which has been excellent in recent games, should give them trouble.
Carrington is not a bad shooter but he has been struggling from the field this season with a shot that has been as inaccurate as George O'Leary's resume. He's hitting on just 30% of his field goal attempts and 11% of his three-point shots.
Starting alongside Carrington is last year's 6th man, Landon Beckwith. At 5-10, Beckwith is better suited for the point spot and will in fact handle the ball a good deal of the time. Still, he's the team's most prolific deep threat and is more likely to shoot the ball than pass it. Like most of the team, Beckwith is not an especially strong ball handler.
Providing depth at the guard positions are a pair of freshman, Steven Koger and Rechodd Carter. Koger sees more minutes and provides a bit more offensive punch. He's a quick guard and good athlete and can take the ball to the basket.
At the start of the year, Hunter was likely depending on his forwards for most of his offense. So far, senior Bruce Jenkins has delivered, leading the team in both scoring and rebounding. At 6-6, Jenkins is a little undersized for the power forward role he's been asked to play, but he has been very effective as his 12.7 rebounds per game attest. Jenkins didn't play in last year's Duke game, but two years ago he scored 12 points as a sophomore. This year, he's been doing much of his damage inside and gets a number of conversions off the offensive boards. An All-MEAC first team selection last year, Jenkins has been named the conference's preseason Player of the Year.
At the other forward spot is 6-5 junior, Anthony Debro. Hunter needs Debro to step it up this year in MEAC play to take some of the heat off from Jenkins. Debro played much of last year at the guard spot and has not been able to improve upon last year's numbers after moving to the small forward slot.
Last year, when the Aggies came to Durham, they were playing Jafar Taalib at the center spot and backup Travis Totten was in street clothes with an injury. This year, it's Taalib who is unlikely to play (he's been out since playing 1 minute in the team's first game) and Totten who is manning the middle. Totten gives the team some reasonable size inside at 6-8, 235 lbs., but he's not much of an offensive threat. Backing him up is the even bigger and even less effective Abraham Traore. The 6-10, 240 lb. Traore is a point player ' all his averages begin with a ".".
Like many mid-major programs, Hunter has more than his share of 'tweeners who are good athletes. For the Aggies, that means two freshmen ? Adam Hefner and V. Carter. Hunter was probably a bit disappointed to learn that the "V." in V. Carter was for Victor, not Vince. They are both 6-7 guys named Carter who play both the guard and forward positions, but that's about where the similarity ends. Victor's about 20 ppg off from Vince's pace. Hefner comes in with a bit more of a reputation but has struggled thus far in making the transition to college ball.
I'm going out on a limb here and saying that the Devils are going to pull out a victory on Saturday. The key is for the team to use the time to sharpen their game from their recent layoff. After a slow start to the season the Blue Devils have begun to show signs of coming together as a team. Jason Williams has shot the ball much better in his last two outings, but that was almost inevitable. The team defense has developed an identity and, most importantly, the Devils showed a more customary intensity on both ends of the floor in the Michigan game.
The Devils will look to build on those things. Expect to see the ball to go inside a bunch early in the game as Boozer will have an enormous size and strength advantage over his defenders. Boozer actually struggled against A&T two years ago and missed last year's game with the flu. This year he should have a field day inside. Duke may also use this game to work on their press in preparation for Tuesday night's game against Kentucky. Watch for the subtle nuances in the variety of presses Krzyzewski will utilize ' not just in the alignments, but in the degree of ball pressure they look to employ.
Saturday is also about developing some more depth in the form of Ewing, Sanders, and Horvath. It should also mark the first season appearance for Reggie Love who has had some time to play himself into basketball shape in the last two weeks.
Don't be surprised if the Devils are a little sluggish out of the gate on Saturday. That's been the case many times in recent years in Duke games following the exam period. But even if they start slowly, Duke's superior talent will win out..