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VCU 79, Duke 77

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The loss to VCU ends the season for Duke. What Marquette outlined early on was the template for beating Duke the entire season: pressure the ball, force them into errors, expose the shaky ballhandling of a young team which had significant holes. Duke had real problems scoring the entire year, with lengthy droughts. In the VCU game, they put together a nice stretch in the second half and built a nine point lead, but another long drought doomed them (that and poor free throw shooting).

Duke was in many ways up against it this season. Though, as we're regularly reminded, Duke has a number of McDonald's All-Americans, that's a pretty meaningless honor, since it's pretty easy to put up big numbers in high school, even if you lack fundamentals and in many cases, even if you lack significant talent.

What matters is how the pieces of a team come together, and for this team, there were some pieces which were either significantly set back by injury (Greg Paulus, Gerald Henderson, and Marty Pocius), and not having a reliable go-to scorer really hurt. It also hurt to have such shaky ballhandling: you can go back through the season and see many passes which were tossed across the court and over someone's head.

And as nice a player as Josh McRoberts is, like most of his teammates, he doesn't have a complete game. In his case, his offense is significantly underdeveloped, at least as a post player.

As talented as Pocius is, his defense took awhile to catch up (aggravated by his ankle injuries). Lance Thomas has shown real flashes, but is really skinny for an inside player, where he was forced to play a lot this year, and was foul-prone, perhaps as a result of having to master a different sort of game. Brian Zoubek has flashed potential, but he's 17 and 7-2, and it takes anyone that size time to catch up physically.

You could make a case like this about almost any player on the roster. For whatever reason, this collection of players never seemed to completely come together. A big part of this is surely youth; another part is surely that almost everyone had to play out of position to some extent in order to mask other problems.

Take Greg Paulus for example. He injured his foot at the beginning of practice (which forced Jon Scheyer to play out of position for the first part of the season). At the end of the year, in addition to being the point guard, he became the team's most reliable scorer. While it's good that he did - Duke needed someone to step up - and his desire to raise his game to help his team speaks volumes about his character - the reality is that he did it because no one else did.

And we're not saying that to indict anyone. Dave McClure had a brilliant stretch of the season, but disappeared late, we're convinced, because of injuries. Jon Scheyer faded late as freshmen often do. Gerald Henderson came on strong, but he's still dealing with asthma. DeMarcus Nelson had his moments on offense, but in our judgment proved to be a more critical defensive player.

The point? To us, this team struggled hard (and honorably) to overcome its limitations. It found a true leader in Paulus, who, while pounded by VCU, refused to back down or to quit. But the limitations exposed early by Marquette were still there late. And it's not that Coach K made "recruiting mistakes" or however you might wish to put it. If things had gone according to plan, Luol Deng would have stuck around, and Greg Paulus would be coming off the bench for Sean Livingston, who would be getting ready to go pro about now.

Those plans didn't pan out the way anyone expected, and there's nothing to be done about that. But what you can take some comfort from is what we saw from individual players, and what's on the way.

Among the freshmen, Scheyer, Thomas, and Zoubek will all come back bigger, stronger, and better in the fall. Gerald Henderson, presumably, will make strides to overcome exercise-induced asthma. Nelson will continue to be a tremendous defender and improve offensively. McClure faded sharply at the end of the season, but showed some really impressive game earlier. McRoberts will have to decide whether being rich or being accomplished is his immediate goal, but if he comes back, he'll improve much faster at Duke than he would in the NBA. Paulus has played for weeks on a bad wheel, and by the end of the season became a very dangerous player. Pocius showed some of his immense potential at season's end. And the new kids won't be bad, either.

Taylor King will give Duke something it lacked this year: a promiscuous scorer. The guy has, we understand, some things to work on, but being able to shoot is not one of them. Nolan Smith will give Duke's perimeter a huge boost on both ends of the court. And then there's Kyle Singler.

We've seen Singler compared to both Larry Bird and Dirk Nowitzki. That's some heavy praise for any player. What that suggests to us is a guy who understands the game and who can shoot, pass, and move within it.

And while there's no word on what Patrick Paterson may do, this game showed him where his role would be, regardless of what McRoberts decides.

Finally, we'd like to urge everyone to have a sense of perspective. Is 22-12 what we've grown used to? Clearly, no. Is it a disgrace? Absolutely not.

Like you, we've been frustrated at times this season. But we believe this team tried hard, tried to overcome its flaws, and failed. There's no shame in any of that as long as they played hard and didn't give up. They have a bright future, and our guess is they'll get started on it by the weekend, and one of the primary leaders in that move will be Paulus. Things went poorly at the end of the season, but Paulus showed a lot of heart and soul. That'll carery over and, one hopes, influence his team for the better.