ItÂs March Madness and Duke is
right back where you would expect to find them Â yet something seems slightly
different this year. For the first time in
the last six years, Duke finds itself as something other than a #1 seed. The end to that remarkable streak comes as the
Blue Devils enter the tournament with a #3 seed, meaning that the usual opening-round
fodder has been replaced with a little more serious competition. Instead of the facing teams like Winthrop, Lamar,
or Monmouth, Duke will square off against Colorado State, the improbable winners of the Mountain West conference
The Rams finished their regular
season with a 16-13 (5-9 in conference) before putting together a timely winning streak
over the three games of their conference tournament.
In winning the tournament, CSU had to beat the conference #3 seed (Wyoming), one of the
regular season co-champs (BYU), and, in the championship game, tournament host UNLV on
their own court. In that final, the RunninÂ RebelsÂ 10-point lead in the second half seemed so
insurmountable that the local mobsters were already cranking up their hot tubs in
anticipation of the after party. But
with their star player sidelined with a lacerated eye, Colorado State clawed back
into contention and with just less than 6 seconds left in the game, took the lead, sending
the Rebels packing for the NIT.
If Duke is back on familiar footing
in the NCAA Tournament the Rams most certainly are not.
The last time Colorado State made it into the tournament was in 1991, another year that
was very good for the Blue Devils and also not so good for UNLV. Taking the Rams back into the spotlight is head
coach Dale Layer, now in his third year at the helm.
Layer is familiar with the Blue Devils, having spent 10 seasons as the head coach
in Charlotte, NC before accepting a job as an assistant at CSU in 1999. After two years as an assistant, Layer took over
the top spot when former head coach Ritchie McKay left the program after the 2000 season. Despite being left with little to work with in
terms of personnel when he took over the team and two years of developing a solid program,
Layer faced some pressure this year when the team went through a 7-game losing streak. Things were also complicated when the team
lost a valuable reserve, who quit in the middle of the year because of personal reasons.
Despite those obstacles, the Rams
have put together their best year in several seasons.
They started strongly, winning 10 out of their first 12
games, including a home victory over South
Carolina before suffering that losing streak
during conference play. Colorado StateÂs quality
wins all came against conference opponents; BYU, UNLV, Wyoming, and Utah. It was in that last game against Utah that the RamsÂ
potential began to show. In a style that
foreshadowed their win against UNLV in the conference tournament, the Rams came from
behind to defeat the 23rd ranked Utes on their home
LayerÂs team plays a
disciplined game that focuses on getting the ball inside to their primary offensive
threats. TheyÂre not a particularly
adept shooting team, but they recognize their weaknesses in that area and play to avoid
them. The team attempts just 22% of their
field goals from beyond the three-point line (as opposed to Duke who attempts 34% of their
field goals on three-point shots). The result
is that despite the fact they arenÂt blessed with a wealth of great shooters, they
are still able to hit on 36% of their outside attempts as a team by limiting their
attempts. The goal for the Rams is to take
just enough long range shots to take the pressure off their primary scorers on the inside.
Colorado StateÂs offense is built around sophomore center Matt Nelson,
a 7-0, 245 pound scoring machine on the inside with a soft shooting touch. Nelson is averaging 17 points and 5.6 rebounds a
game, a fact made all the more remarkable by his physical condition. With a chronically injured knee and a sore ankle,
Nelson hasnÂt been practicing for the last 10 weeks.
To get through each game he takes a pain shot before warm-ups and heÂs the
first guy in the clubhouse to grab the ice packs after the final buzzer. The previous year he missed several games with a
dislocated right big toe. Nelson has returned
from each of those injuries showing a resolve that is becoming familiar to CSU fans. In the conference championship, Nelson was injured
in a scramble for a loose ball with 13 minutes left and went to the locker room with a
lacerated left eye. As the Rams fought back
late in the game, Nelson limped out of the tunnel with a bad knee, a bad ankle, and an ice
pack on his swollen and bloody left eye. The
only thing left for him to do was yell, ÂCome back and
fight. ItÂs only a flesh wound.Â
Nelson is the kind of player you
look at and wonder how the recruiting experts could have missed this guy and just how he
ended up not playing in one of the higher-profile conferences. But, somehow the 7-footer was able to sneak under
the radar and ended up at Colorado State where he red-shirted his first year. In his freshman year, Utah coach Rick Majerus called him the best young player in the league and this year
he can call him the Mountain West Tournament MVP. Offensively,
Nelson likes to work near the basket, preferring to face up and hit a fade-away jump shot
rather than use back to the basket moves. ItÂs
tempting for Duke fans Â or fans of any major team from
the power conferences Â to look at a guy like Nelson and assume heÂs just
another big man racking up numbers in a conference without any quality opposition. But consider this, against Colorado and David Harrison, a player highly coveted by UNC, Nelson scored 23 points on
11-18 shooting. That will play in any league.
Joining Nelson in the frontcourt is
the teamÂs most consistent player, 6-8 senior Brian Greene. At 225 pounds, Greene has the size to rebound
well, and pulls down a team-leading 6 boards a game.
Offensively he operates more on the outside, taking jump shots or driving the ball
to the basket. HeÂll rarely attempt a
three-point shot, although he does have the range. Greene
is one of the teamÂs better defenders, although heÂll have a hard time matching
up against the athleticism of Dahntay Jones if the Devils
start their small lineup as expected.
The one guy on the team who does
have the athleticism to compete with Jones is 6-5 junior, Ronnie Clark. However, if Clark has the
athleticism edge over his teammate Greene, he falls well short of his teammate in terms of
consistency. Clark has had several
games this year where heÂs scored more than 20 points.
He has also had more than several games this year where he has scored fewer than 5
points. When he is on his game, Clark will slash into
the lane for short jump shots or take the ball to the basket.
Rounding out the frontcourt are a trio of reserves, including Darien Burke, a sort of inverted
human victory cigar. Burke sees just over 4
minutes a game, but what makes that interesting is when he sees those minutes. Burke has been starting each game, playing a few
minutes, and then itÂs Âthanks for coming, hereÂs a lovely parting giftÂ
and heÂs off to the bench for the rest of the game while Nelson dominates the paint. In most cases, those opening minutes are all the
action Burke will see. Watching Layer start a
6-10, 250 pound guy, play him for 2 minutes, and then hide him on the bench for the rest
of the game is like watching a magician pull the old disappearing elephant trick.
The other two frontcourt reserves
are Matt Williams and swingman Shelton Johnson. Williams
is a 6-6 sophomore who gives the team toughness inside.
HeÂs active around the glass and will aggressively drive the ball to the
basket. The 6-3 Johnson is a freshman who may
be the teamÂs best perimeter defender. His
defense will be important against the Blue Devils smaller lineup.
Shooting guard Andy Birley isnÂt just the teamÂs best three-point shooter, heÂs
nearly their only three-point shooter. The
6-3 senior accounts for 65% of the teamÂs made three-point
lacks quickness so heÂs not going to create his own shot. But paired with Nelson, he makes a potent threat
in an inside-outside game. Birley struggled late in the season before putting together two
solid games in the finals and semi-finals of the conference tournament when he went 5-10
from beyond the three-point line.
Although Layer has used a number of
different lineups Â in fact, Birley is the only player to
start every game this year for the Rams Â Michael Morris has seen plenty of time at
the point guard spot. The 6-4 freshman is one
of the few point guards youÂll likely find that leads his team in blocked shots. That shouldnÂt be too surprising though, as
Morris is the son of former NBA veteran Chris Morris, a guy with exceptional leaping
ability before he joined the Harlem Globetrotters and started sharing pre-game meals with
The younger Morris is a decent
outside threat, but is more comfortable taking the ball to the basket. He struggled with turnovers earlier in the year
and spent a good portion of the UNLV game on the bench, perhaps in an effort by Layer to
limit the teamÂs turnovers against the Rebels aggressive defense. In that game, Layer used Derrick Stevens, a 5-11
junior at the point for extended minutes. Stevens
isnÂt a scoring threat but plays sound defense and distributes the ball well.
Despite a roster stocked with big
men, the Blue Devils will start three guards and a small forward after their successful
run through the ACC Tournament with a small lineup. The
reasons for that are obvious as it puts the teamÂs best 4 players on the floor at the
same time, but it also exposes the team to rebounding and defensive challenges that a big
team can exploit.
The key matchup
in the game will be Dahntay Jones against Brian Greene. If Jones is able to effectively defend Greene, the
Devils can play their smaller lineup and take advantage of the mismatches on the offensive
end of the floor. However, if the Rams are
able to pound the ball inside and play volleyball on the offensive glass, Duke will have
to counter with their larger lineup.
In that situation, Duke will be an
easier team to defend as their offensive options drop when Casey Sanders or Nick Horvath
take the floor. The one possible exception to
that is if Shavlik Randolph is able to play and, more importantly, can play on the
defensive end of the floor. Another thing to
watch is if Duke does go to the larger lineup, which player will come out of the game. After the ACC Tournament, in which Ewing, Jones, and Redick all played exceptionally, the choice may be Duhon. If Duke is fortunate enough to advance past CSU,
they will eventually face a situation that will demand playing two big men. How Krzyzewski
approaches that situation on Thursday night will give an indication to the overall mindset
for the tournament.
The other matchup
to watch when Duke is on defense is in the post, where Matt Nelson will face off against
Shelden Williams. Nelson will be the most
polished big center that Williams has faced this year.
Duke may be forced to double-team Nelson if Williams is unable to contain him
individually. The other option for Duke is
far more likely. Look for Duke to deny Nelson
touches by pressuring the RamsÂ backcourt. Colorado State is a very weak
ball handling team and has not faced the time of defensive pressure that Duke typically
applies. If the Rams can work the ball in
their half court offense and get the ball inside to Nelson, they stand a reasonable chance
at pulling off the upset. However, if Duke
can force turnovers against a team that coughs up the ball 17 times a game, then the game
could turn into the type opening round contest the Blue Devils are more familiar with.
On the offensive end of the floor,
if Duke can keep their smaller lineup on the floor, theyÂll create several
mismatches. CSU likes to play man-to-man
defense but against Duke, they run short of defenders athletic enough to stay with their
man. The biggest problem for the Rams is that
Brian Greene, usually one of the teamÂs top defenders, will have to matchup with Dahntay Jones. Just as on the other end of the court, this matchup could be critical to the outcome of the game. If Greene is unable to contain Jones, Layer will
have to shift defensive assignments, most likely using either Johnson or Clark on Jones. That still leaves the problem of finding a
defensive assignment for Greene, a guy who is used to defending forwards and now would be
matched up against guards.
The Rams have a very narrow margin
for success in this game. Their main hopes
ride on the shoulders of Matt Nelson. Should
Nelson experience foul trouble or not be able to play extended minutes due to the pace of
the game, the odds for Colorado State grow even longer. But,
if Nelson can stay in the game, and if the RamsÂ backcourt can withstand the
defensive pressure, and if CSU can get some offense from their perimeter players, if all
that happens then Colorado State can make a strong bid for an upset.
ThatÂs a lot to ask from a
team making their first tournament appearance in over a decade. But then, someone has to be the Cinderella this