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As the 2007-08 season looms, Duke is perhaps the most misunderstood team in the ACC, not least of all by its own fans.
Mike Krzyzewski's career as a head coach started in 1975-76, a time of stunning change in college basketball. Think about it for a minute. He left Bob Knight's Indiana staff after a 35-1 season to take the Army job. In his rookie year, Knight's bunch was the last undefeated champion in college history, completing a two-year record of 63-1. In the ACC, Jim Spanarkel was a freshman, and Dean Smith, Lefty Driesell and Norm Sloan ruled the roost.
In 1978, Duke made their stirring run to the title game. Five years later, in 1983, Jim Valvano took his team there in one of the greatest title runs of all time. To get there, he had to beat Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma, a team which to a large extent previewed the future of a vastly more athletic approach to the game. And while Hakeem Olajuwon was an incredible talent at center, college basketball also boasted two other rare big man talents in Patrick Ewing and Ralph Sampson. All three stayed for four years, something which is nearly unthinkable today. Even Michael Jordan, perhaps the most sublime talent in the history of the game, stayed three and left somewhat reluctantly at that.
It was during this era that the three point shot and the shotclock came into the game as well, and ESPN began to exert a profound influence on the game. The tournament continued to expand as well.
Krzyzewski was hired at Duke in 1980, and by 1986, had Duke back in the title game, losing to Louisville. In 1991, having made the Final Four a habit, Duke knocked off previously unbeaten UNLV in Indianapolis. The next year, Duke defeated Michigan for the first back-to-back titles since UCLA had Bill Walton and John Wooden in 72-73.
Duke also had Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill, three guys who would stay for their entire four years. By contrast, Michigan's Fab Five made it clear that they saw college as a stepping stone, and the sooner the better.
The game had grown vastly more athletic and the players were ever younger, and the pressures kept growing. In 1995, of course, it all caught up to Krzyzewski, as his health forced him to the sidelines and Duke fell apart. By 1999, though, the Devils were again competing for the title, losing to UConn. Two years later, they won it again behind Shane Battier's brilliant senior leadership.
He was the only member of his class left. Elton Brand, William Avery, and Chris Burgess all left after their sophomore years in 1999, with Brand and Avery first round NBA picks and Burgess transferring to Utah. Freshman Corey Maggette departed too.
By the time Krzyzewski lost his next freshman, Luol Deng, to the draft, the college game had radically changed again and was in some ways unrecognizable from 1975. Big men had become a rarity in college, and a guy like Sean May, son of the star of Bob Knight's great Indiana teams mentioned earlier, became a huge force, pulling down 20/20 games in the post on several occasions. He would have been a fine player in his father's day, but he would have been a forward, not a center.
It had become a very, very different environment from 1975, John Wooden's last season, with a huge increase in athleticism, vast money and pressure generated by television, and talented players leaving for the NBA after only one or two years or, for a time, after their senior year in high school.
Yet in spite of the immense and ongoing changes, there has been a constant in college basketball since Mike Krzyzewski came to Duke: Duke wins, and wins a lot. A measure of the remarkable success is that Duke won 22 games last season and was broadly considered a disappointment.
Last season, Duke had a critical injury to point guard Greg Paulus and the offense never really came together. Big man Josh McRoberts was a unique talent, but at 6-11, a lot of his skills were sort of perimeter oriented. He had high level passing skills, but never developed a go-to move down low. Duke brought in a promising freshman class, but had to rely on the rookies more than anyone would have liked, and all of them struggled at times and in different ways.
But what Duke did do very well for much of the season was to defend, and the defense should improve markedly this season.
Between senior guard DeMarcus Nelson, sophomore Gerald Henderson, and rookie Nolan Smith, Duke is going to be able to put immense pressure on the perimeter. Inside, Lance Thomas is a versatile defender who can guard almost any position on the floor. 7-2 soph Brian Zoubek struggled last season, largely because he wasn't strong enough to hold his ground when he got leaned on. He should be stronger this year and capable of pushing back. If he can stay out of foul trouble, he'll be a huge (no pun intended) asset on the defensive end.
When he's healthy, Dave McClure has been a solid player all the way around, and one of the smarter players we've seen in a while. He just does the right thing on a regular basis, which sounds easy but it's not.
One of the things that's held Marty Pocius back is his defense. He's a nifty player, but he's had stretches where other players have eaten him alive. If he's improved his defense, he could earn some more minutes.
Greg Paulus and Jon Scheyer took a lot of criticism for their defense last year, but Paulus played the entire season on a bum foot. He made some major contributions nonetheless, but still, we didn't see him at his best. True to form, he never mentioned it, never whined or complained. He just kept coming. His biggest obvious contributions were offensive, but he also came up big as a leader, and never more so than when Duke played Gonzaga in the Garden, and Paulus did a pretty impressive impersonation of Bobby Hurley. If we see him play at that level all season, Duke fans (and coaches) will be thrilled.
Like most of the freshmen, Scheyer was not really as strong as he needed to be, and he took a beating at times, not least of all in the VCU game at the end of the season. He wore down as the season went on, but he's a heady player and can be an effective defender, particularly if he's gotten stronger.
Among the freshmen, Smith is widely regarded as a superb on-ball defender, but his classmates Taylor King and Kyle Singler are also reputed to be excellent defenders.
Both made their bones offensively, but King is a sturdy kid, however tall he actually is (he was listed at 6-8 in high school, then 6-7, and currently Duke lists him at 6-6. In a couple of years, at this rate, he'll be a 5-11 point guard), and has been a better defender than expected. Then there's Singler.
Singler and his father have consciously modeled his game on that of Larry Bird, which may or may not be a great idea defensively. Bird was an adequate defender, but his defense never came close to his offense. In Singler's case, though, it might.
We don't want to spend a whole lot of time hyping Singler. Let's just say that we're as excited about him as anyone who's come along lately. He's capable of doing almost anything on the court, and he has an unusual grasp of the game. We're hearing that he's also a lot stronger than anyone knew, and that'll come in handy on defense, too.
Duke's potential weakness is post play on both ends, and while Singler and King can help out down low, neither one is a center. Duke's only true center is Zoubek, and he has some room for improvement.
However, Coach K has never been hung up on labels, and in past years, lacking a Brand, Boozer or Williams, he's found other people who were willing to step up, and here we find one of the key aspects of the Duke system, one which many people, including a lot of Duke fans, never seem to understand, although it should be clear by now.
It's not about position, or size. It's about responsibility and adapting to what the team needs.
Someone needs to defend and rebound and preferably score down low. It doesn't even have to be the same person. But someone has to do those things, and whoever steps up to take responsibility will get those minutes.
But on this team, the defensive focus won't be as much on the inside as it will be on the perimeter, where Duke has the potential to be just superb. And then there's the offense.
Last season, Duke just didn't have the players to run, much less to improvise. That'll change this season, and with an open new offense, it could change a lot.
Krzyzewski has long since embraced the three point shot, and on this team, he'll have some guys who can just nail it, and the fact that the line was pushed back will affect Duke a lot less than most teams (actually we're not sure if it goes back this season or next, but either way, it won't affect Duke as much as some other teams).
Despite his various woes last season, Paulus emerged as an ace three point shooter. Scheyer also can heat up in a hurry, and Nelson is effective from outside as well. Henderson didn't shoot outside a whole lot, taking only 25 all year, but he hit a third of them. Smith matched that in his senior year at Oak Hill, but we're not sure what to expect from him as a shooter yet. But we have a pretty good idea what to expect from Singler, who should be excellent, and King is pretty much a freak.
Al Featherston told us a while back that King is the only guy he's ever seen who could hit a turnaround three point jumper. His range goes out to 30 or 35 feet, and that means that you can't zone Duke. And that's where the fun begins and why, at least on offense, not having a lot of depth at center isn't that big of a deal.
Duke should score treys by the bushel. But even if it's just a threat, the threat opens the court. And that means that Nelson, Henderson, Smith, McClure and Thomas will have a lot of opportunities to slash to the basket. McClure is a very underrated player, in our opinion, and one of his talents is making smart passes. This is a great situation for him, and probably for Smith as well. But they aren't the only ones.
In an open offense like this, Kyle Singler's desire to channel Larry Bird should be a lot of fun to watch. Bird had the capacity to make you jump out of your seat when he made a pass no one else even would have dared. Singler doesn't have to dazzle on that level; he just needs to be a step ahead. He'll be able to nail the pass or the jumper. Scheyer made some wonderful passes last year (think the perfect pass to McClure to beat Clemson at the buzzer). And then there's Paulus.
People have really ripped Paulus, and to us, it's largely been unfair. He showed a lot of guts last year, playing on basically one foot, and never complained or made excuses. The kid has the potential to be a nifty player and an incredible leader. We want to see what he can do when he's healthy. He's shown a sharp shooting eye, and at times has been an amazing passer. The Gonzaga game was a real eye-opener, as Paulus pumped his team up and forced them to play to his emotional level. It was a tremendous performance.
The other interesting thing in this offensive scheme is going to be the post play. Zoubek is the only guy who fits the classical definition of a post player, and in many respects, that's a good thing. The guy to watch is going to be Lance Thomas.
Thomas gets a lot of kudos from the staff for his energy, and if he can couple that with a reliable shot from 12 feet in, he forces other big men to chase him around, and then the whole question of post play gets turned upside down: instead of a Tyler Hansbrough or an Anthony King mugging you down low, they have to burn a lot of energy trying to keep up.
In this sort of a scheme, Singler offers a similar level of danger to a defense. His fundamentals are superb, and you can't leave him alone or he'll find multiple ways to hurt you.
On a tactical level, then, while you give up some of the classical understanding of what a big man is supposed to be, except for when Zoubek is in, you put a lot of pressure on guys who have spent their lives learning to bang and jostle. You force them to come out and play the whole court. And a lot of them aren't going to like it very much.
Finally, there is one element this team seems to have in abundance, and it hasn't been picked up on yet, at least not broadly. Coach K has a term for a certain kind of player, which we won't repeat other than to note that it's twelve letters long and is at the center of the woes of Oedipus.
This team has a lot of guys who ooze character. It's our favorite thing about Paulus, but it applies to Nelson, who has put in stunning off-season workouts, to Singler, who spent the last several years of his life studying guys who retired from the NBA years before he was born, to Zoubek, who just works his ass off, and to others as well, likely including Smith, who plays defense with an immense passion.
Having one guy like that makes a big difference; having several sets a tone that forces, shall we say, more casual players to step up to that level.
If things go well, the defense should scare people like an out of control car, and the offense should be open and exciting. This team should be as much fun as any we've seen in years.