Ever since the Florida State game, Duke has approached each opponent with a pregame cocktail of equal parts determination and anger. The Devils come out for warmups just looking for something to fuel their anger. Stomp on the Duke logo - grrrr, we're mad. Run through our layup line - you'll pay for that. Stretch on our end of the court - okay, now you've done it. Whether or not the Devils actually believe everything they've used for motivation is not relevant. What is relevant is that it has worked.
Lately, teams have been taking that one step further and purposely going out of their way to offend the newly sensitive Devils and send the message they won't be intimidated. NC State's Julius Hodge decided to not only disrupt the Duke shoot around, but to also throw his 125 lbs. around before the opening tip. Not to outdone, Wake came out for warm ups and went for the twofer - they disrupted the Duke layup line by gathering for a pregame meeting on the sacred Duke "D". But Thursday night, Duke won't need to contrive any slights and however rudely their hosts treat them, you can bet it's sincere.
Duke would probably find a rather unwelcome reception at BC's Conte Forum based solely on last year's 22-point spanking of the Eagles in Cameron. But then there was that little tiff at the end of the game where Jason Williams uncharacteristically launched into a series of mock ball fakes in the face of BC's Kenny Walls. Walls reacted like a sleep deprived Mike Tyson getting cut off in traffic and the folks in Boston have had the 24th of January circled on their calendars ever since.
All of that threatened to overshadow the battle for the title of "Best Backcourt in America" which in turn threatened to overshadow a matchup of two top 10 ranked teams. Ever accommodating, the Eagles decided to not overtax the graphics and marketing folks at ESPN and gracefully drop from their preseason 8 ranking to the generic purgatory of "Others Receiving Votes." The Eagles have gone 2-3 over their last 5 games, with the most recent of those wins being a hard-fought victory over a really bad Virginia Tech team.
What BC has discovered on that road is that team chemistry means a great deal and good seniors are a lot better than freshman with potential. Coach Al Skinner has struggled to replace three complimentary players that gave a lot of character. Xavier Singletary and Kenny Harley combined for 22 points per game last year and Jonathan Beerbohm (pronounced beer-bomb) gave the Eagles one of the coolest names in college basketball.
That battle for "Best Backcourt in America" pairs Duke's Williams and Chris Duhon against the Eagles' Troy Bell and Ryan Sidney. Bell, a 6-1 junior, was a second-team All-American last year and started the year looking like he was ready to shed the "second-team" part of that. He's posted over 30 points on 4 different occasions this year, including a 42-point outburst against Iowa State. But over the last three games, Bell has been struggling and has shot just 25% from the field and gone 0 for 15 from beyond the three-point line. I'm working on the numbers for that shooting percentage.
Part of Bell's struggles may be attributable to a knee surgery at the end of last season and another surgery knee surgery just before the season started. But without Singletary and Harley, Bell has tried to carry more of the load this season and had mixed results. He's had those big games, but he's also become more predictable on the drive, rarely penetrating and dishing the ball. Instead, he's tried to finish at the basket and draw fouls. At 171 lbs., he doesn't have the strength of Jason Williams and he can sometimes struggle near the hoop. He will though, get to the free throw line often as a result of his drives.
The other half of BC's backcourt, Sidney, has also faced some adversity this year. After a sizzling start to the season, including a 29-point homecoming at Michigan, Sidney suffered a broken jaw in practice on December 6. His jaw was set and wired shut and although he continued to play throughout that time, he lost considerable weight and conditioning. Reached for comment, Sidney said, "Mmmumph fumafph mumpff," which I'm believe means, "Please bring me a milkshake."
When he was healthy, Sidney was a powerful 2-guard who could take it to the basket. He's an active player, always hustling and willing to work the boards. Post injury, Sidney has been more reluctant to penetrate and has shied away from contact. He's slowly rounding back into shape, but is not back to his early season form. Duke will have to defend him closely beyond the arc there he's hitting on nearly 43% of his attempts.
Freshman Jermaine Watson has seen plenty of minutes in the Eagle backcourt. Like both Bell and Sidney, the 6-3 Watson is very quick and likes to drive to the basket. He is a good ball handler, although he can be occasionally careless with the ball. He'll rarely shoot from beyond the three-point line, although he was a credible threat from there as a high school player.
Swingman Kenny Walls spots up for open shots, runs the point on the Eagle press, and takes cheap shots at players that are infinitely better than he'll ever be. Walls has earned his starting position through hard work, dedication, and being the only small forward on the team. Offensively he's a very good three-point shooter. He's the kind of guy that does all the little things for the team - a garbage man. That experience will serve him well later in life. (Have I done a good job of suppressing my bitterness over that cheap shot on Williams last year?)
Last year, Uka Agbai manned the center position for BC. At 6-8, 245 lbs., Agbai made up for his lack of height with power on the inside. Despite that, he's not a particularly effective rebounder, averaging just over 5 boards a game. In last year's game in Cameron, he proved to have a surprising soft touch around the basket. This year he's moved to the power forward spot and has had some trouble finishing. Defensively, he's the best shot blocker on the team.
Rounding out the starting frontcourt is Canadian freshman Nate Doornekamp whose decision to play basketball deprived the world of the first 7-foot hockey player. Like the National Cathedral was for many years, Doornekamp is a work in progress. He's also about as quick as the National Cathedral. At some point down the road, Doornekamp should be a good contributor for the team. However, right now, on a team whose strength is quickness, Doornekamp is out of place.
When Skinner is looking for a little more quickness in the lineup, they'll move Agbai back to the pivot and bring in either Andrew Bryant or Brian Ross. Bryant is a 6-7 redshirt freshman who is a bit more enamoured with the three-point shot than Skinner would like. Over half of his shots come from beyond the line, which wouldn't be a bad thing were he shooting more than 31% from there. Even more troubling for the team is Bryant's aversion to physical play inside. He averages just 2.9 rebounds per game and has trouble boxing out. Despite all that, Bryant is still a talent player - he just doesn't apply that talent in the most effective way for the team.
Ross is a similar, but lesser talented, version of Bryant. At 6-8, 245 lbs. he has the size to bang down low but ends up taking most of his shots from deep.
Obviously much of the focus of this game will be on the backcourt matchup. But don't be surprised to see Duke rotate Dahntay Jones on to either Sidney or Bell if either of those players start to get hot. That would shift Williams over to defend Walls. That's a matchup that, despite concerns for Williams' physical safety, works well for Duke due to Walls' propensity to shoot jump shots.
It's also a matchup that may allow Duke to harass Bell into another poor shooting performance. At 171 lbs., Bell doesn't respond well to physical defense. Duke may ask Jones to reprise his effort from the Maryland game where he limited Juan Dixon to 2 field goals.
While Duke has a number of options for defending BC, the Eagles have some tougher decisions. Much of the BC success has come as a result of an aggressive, pressing defense. They're much like Duke in that they use pressure defense to compliment their rebounding. But the Devils are a difficult team to press and Skinner will probably not elect to risk too much ball pressure.
But the biggest decision for BC is how they will defend Dunleavy. Their power forward, Agbai is a good interior defender, but he lacks the ability to chase a player like Dunleavy around the perimeter. If Dunleavy forces a switch, Skinner options are limited because of the dearth of small forwards on the Eagle team.
He can stick with his starting lineup and switch the defensive assignments for his forwards, attempting to defend Dunleavy with Walls. That would leave Agbai on Jones and until the Wake game that seemed like a reasonably sound approach. However, Jones is clearly adapting to his role within the Duke offense and if other teams aren't going to defend him on the perimeter it gives him free run to the offensive glass.
The other options are for Skinner to go to his bench, where he can either go for a bigger lineup with Bryant or a smaller lineup with Watson. In either case, he loses some rebounding power that he can't afford to spare. The Eagles are not a good rebounding team (BC outrebounds opponents by just .8 boards a game)
Look for the Devils to continue to exploit the high pick and roll with Boozer and Williams at the top of the key. Credit the Duke coaching staff for making a subtle adjustment to the way Duke runs that play. Last year, and for much of this year, Duke would set the pick at the top of the key with a shooter - Battier last year and Dunleavy this year. The goal of the play was to get an open look for either Williams or Battier/Dunleavy. This year, the Devils have run the play out of their 2-3 motion set, with two players in the deep backcourt and three players set across the foul line extended. Using Boozer to set the pick draws the opposing center away from the basket and with nobody behind the pick Williams is able to turn the corner and get to the hoop.
The other options off that set are to roll Boozer to the basket or to use Dunleavy together with Boozer at the pick and split Dunleavy off for the three at the top of the key. Duke also takes the other players on the court and places a three-point shooter in the deep corner. If that defender collapses on the driving Williams he can relocate the ball to the shooter for the open look. With the best of defenders it's a difficult play to defend. For the Eagles, it will be especially tough with Doornekamp who has a tendency to jump out too far when hedging on a pick.
Despite their recent struggles and the injuries they've undergone, the Eagles are a very dangerous opponent. A win over a hot Duke team would go a long way towards getting back to the form that earned them a #3 seed in the East Regional last year. If Duke is able to start strong and knock BC back early in the game, they could overwhelm the Eagles. But that will be a tall order against a BC team playing at home and looking to regain lost respect.