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Carlos Previews Tech!

Normally when you look at an upcoming game, much of the mystery is about the opponent. Not to take anything away from Georgia Tech, but that's not the case this Thursday as the Blue Devils take the floor following a rare early season loss in ACC play. You have to go all the way back to 1997's disaster against NC State in the ACC tournament to find a Duke loss as unlikely as Sunday's upset at Florida State. The big question for Duke is how they handle this. Do the seeds of doubt or discontentment seep into the team? Or, do they take show up for their next game madder than a, er, Yellow Jacket?

For a team looking to rebound - both figuratively and literally - there are few ACC schools that would be a better opponent than Georgia Tech. In a literal sense, one of the major weaknesses of Duke this season has been rebounding. A look at the FSU box score shows solid contributions from both Boozer and Dunleavy (12 and 8 boards) as well as Duke's guards. But then you see the figures for Casey Sanders, Nick Horvath, and Dahntay Jones and between the three you get 2 rebounds in 35 minutes of play. Bear in mind that those are all frontcourt players. You could also throw Matt Christensen in there (5 minutes, 0 rebounds) except that he's been playing so hard lately he gets a hall pass on this one.

Enter Georgia Tech - a team with a roster that features no active players over 6-8. Tech's frontcourt was dealt a major blow this year when Michael Isenhour was diagnosed with leukemia and later when Australian import Luke Schenscher suffered a broken foot. Despite the injuries and the resultant lack of size, the Yellow Jackets are still a decent rebounding team - at least by Duke's recent standards. Still, the Devils should be able to control the boards and their efforts in that regard will be a good indicator of their mental approach to both the game and the season.

In the figurative sense, Georgia Tech is a good opponent for a team looking to rebound from a loss. The Jackets come into Cameron after losing 3 of their last 4, the lone win being over a Cornell team that isn't going to be seeing any postseason play for a few years. Last year, Tech coach Paul Hewitt was able to will his team to an 8-8 record, a feat impressive enough to merit ACC Coach of the Year honors. But that was a team with Alvin Jones anchoring a full court pressing defense that allowed Hewitt's team to force the tempo and control the pace of the game. Additionally, the Jackets also had Shaun Fein bombing away from the outside and contributing 13 points a game. The loss of Jones and Fein to graduation, combined with this season's frontcourt losses, has left the team with just 9 scholarship players, 8 of which are freshmen or sophomores.


The heart of the Ramblin' Wreck team is in their backcourt, particularly with point guard Tony Akins. That should come as no surprise when you look at roster that is filled with players in the 5-11 to 6-6 range. But in a league full of great guards, Akins sometimes slips by unnoticed. That's not too surprising for a guy that was often the focal point of criticism as a freshman when he was handed the ball and expected to be the reincarnation of Travis Best. Instead, Akins struggled, shooting the ball poorly and turning the ball over at critical times. But slowly, Akins has emerged as a very good point guard in Hewitt's system.

Akins is exactly the kind of guard that has been giving Duke trouble all year - and that's Duke as a team, not just Chris Duhon. Duhon is in the difficult position of continuing to pressure the opposing point guard all over the court. Last year's run to the title was characterized by the increased defensive pressure, due in large part to the inclusion of Duhon in the starting lineup. But playing a quick point guard in his face 30 feet from the basket requires a total team effort. In the FSU game, Kenny Smith prattled on about opposing point guards taking that type of defense as a challenge and stepping up their effort. That may be true, but the real challenge is not to the opposition, but to the Duke team. And it's the team that has yet to consistently step up to that challenge.

With that type of extreme ball pressure, the focus of the defense shifts from preventing penetration to forcing play at an intensity greater than the opponent's comfort. The goal becomes forcing a penetrating player into a area where you get defensive help and the offensive player must make a quick decision. This was one of the keys we mentioned at the start of the year - who would fill Shane's role as the guy to provide that defensive help and force the other team out of their comfort zone. So far, that question remains unanswered. Akins, with his ability to penetrate and shoot the long ball, could force Duke to find those answers.

At the other guard spot is 6-4 sophomore Marvin Lewis whose 13 ppg trails only Akins (15.2 ppg) on the Yellow Jacket team. Lewis is a rangy athlete who benefits from Hewitt's full court defensive pressure. He's also a very good outside shooter, converting on nearly 46% of his shots. Lewis works the baseline well and uses his outside shot to set up slashes to the basket. Despite playing in the backcourt, Lewis is one of the team's most prolific rebounders.

For backcourt depth Hewitt can turn to 6-4 freshman B.J. Elder who may specifically request to be introduced Thursday as just Barry Elder. While not nearly as good a shooter as Lewis or Akins, Elder can score. He handles the ball well, can penetrate off the dribble, and will hit the occasional mid-range jumper. Hewitt also has the exceptionally versatile Anthony McHenry, a 6-6 freshman who can play the 1-3 spots, although he's only going to see time at the point in the case of a true emergency. McHenry is supposedly still grown and gives the Jackets a Dunleavy type player in that he's a tall player with a solid handle.


GaTech has a number of good players in the frontcourt, although when you consider a 6-7, 215 lb. guy to be a center I suppose it's easy to have a lot of frontcourt players. That 6-7 center is Robert Brooks, a guy who would probably be more comfortable playing a forward position. Offensively, he has about as many post moves as Mel Brooks but will get some baskets on offensive rebounds. He's a decent shot blocker for a guy who is continually going up against bigger players.

At the other forward spot is Ed Nelson, another freshman. At 6-8 and 245 lbs., Nelson gives Hewitt some bulk up front. Nelson is deceptively skilled and has a nice set of low post moves. Despite being gravity challenged, Nelson leads the team in rebounds. Defensively he'll probably draw the assignment against Carlos Boozer.

The third starter in the frontcourt is 6-5 sophomore Clarence Moore who sat out most of last year after breaking a bone in his foot. Moore's a bulky player without much of a perimeter game. He's somewhat like Nate James in that he played inside in high school and is adjusting to the move to small forward.

Off the bench Hewitt is primarily using Halston Lane and "Call Me" Isma'il Muhammad as frontcourt reserves. Lane is a 6-4 sophomore who a good spot up shooter if he has adequate time to get off his shot. Down low, he has a number of decent post moves although he struggles against bigger or athletic players. I guess that means he can score well against slow short guys. Lane is a step or two slow and isn't much of a defender, especially when matched up against two-guards.

Muhammad was the highest rated of Tech's freshman class, generally regarded as a top 50 recruit. He's very much like Moore, a big player with a limited perimeter game. Where both players do well is taking smaller players down low and using their strength to overpower defenders.


Georgia Tech is a team that likes to take advantage of their overall team speed by pressuring the ball full court. That style of play works well against many teams, especially opponents who are either less talented or not very adept at ball handling. Unfortunately for Tech, Duke is not either of those as the Devils have historically played well against ball pressure teams. It took Maryland's Gary Williams around 15 losses to Duke to realize that applying full court pressure plays right into Krzyzewski's team's strengths. Since then, Williams made the decision that Hewitt now faces - play your own style or make changes for a single opponent.

Hewitt can take solace in the success that Maryland has had since Williams adjusted his approach to facing Duke. But that solace may not be worth much because Georgia Tech can't come anywhere close to approaching the level of talent and versatility of the Maryland roster. Hewitt may have little choice but to play an open, full court game against the Devils. If that's the case, Duke may get big games out of the guys who finish the break. In particular, this could be a good contest for Dahntay Jones to make an impact as his high-flying athleticism is well suited for that type of game.

Of course, there's also the chance that Jones may have actually slipped on the depth chart. Jones, who lost his starting role to Casey Sanders two games ago, found himself on the bench down the stretch against FSU as freshman Daniel Ewing finished the game. With Tech's lack of size, there's a possibility that Krzyzewski may look to shake up the Duke lineup and start Daniel Ewing. If that's the case, it will be interesting to watch when Jones gets into the game - does he remain behind Sanders in the rotation? Is he the first guy off the bench? Does he start?

Once Duke gets into a halfcourt set, it's critical for the development of the team that they work the ball inside. Boozer, who has been in foul trouble most of the last few games, has shown that he's willing to distribute the ball from the post. There's no mistaking the fact that Duke is a jump shooting team. But the Devils best shooting is usually the result of good ball movement and their best ball movement is usually the result of working the ball all over the court, especially through the post. That ball movement not only results in better perimeter looks, it also makes Boozer less predictable in the pivot and affords him better opportunities. With Boozer being defended by a smaller and less experienced opponent (look for Ed Nelson to defend Boozer when the Yellow Jackets are not in a zone) he should be the most dominant player in the paint.

Defensively, the Devils primary attention will be on stopping Akins and Lewis. To do that, they have to limit the penetration of Akins to stop him from drawing Lewis' defender. Or, they must improve their team defense and rotate more effectively. The style of defense that Duhon plays against Akins will be a good barometer of the coaching staff's thoughts on the team's progress since the FSU loss. If you see Duhon in Akins' face, it means that the team has practiced well and the staff feels the defensive rotation has improved. If Duhon backs off Akins and looks to simply prevent his penetration you can assume that the team has yet to achieve the necessary team defense.

That point may seem like a relatively simple one, but it's something that goes to the core of what is Duke basketball. There are many ways to play man defense and what the Devils have always looked to do when they have a great team is to be an attacking defense. Duke isn't looking to simply stop another team from scoring and then methodically plod down court like the Borg advancing. Duke's defense is all about explosion, forcing the other team away from its comfort zone and then capitalizing on that havoc to create instant offense. It may be because this team is so good offensively that it doesn't see the rewards of defensive pressure. But whatever the reason, this team has yet to embrace the defensive heritage that is typically found in a Duke uniform.

Tonight's game goes beyond a matchup against one of the lower tier teams in the league. It's about the character of the team. What you see on the court tonight, not what you see on the scoreboard, will tell you what to expect for the rest of the year.