Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Duke article following VT loss

January 7th
Here's a little something I wrote the day after Duke's heart breaking loss.

This year’s Duke Blue Devils: What comes to your basketball oriented minds when you hear the preceding phrase? The words talent, youth, and Coach K may all be synonymous reactions to such an inquiry. But now- ask yourself if this squad should be ranked in the top 5… if your answer at this juncture in the season is “yes” I would assume one of three things: you either attend the University, write for the AP poll, have not watched the recent contest against Virginia Tech, or are a combination of the latter two. Question number two: do you believe Duke should be in the top 25 at all? If your answer is “no”, I ask you to rethink this. I would venture to say that this year’s Duke Program is the greatest enigma in college basketball today. Casual fans seem to be of two persuasions: either one feels that Duke deserves its ranking or one believes that Duke is the most overrated team in all the land. My objective in this article is to convince you of the middle ground. Duke’s Basketball Program, despite its deceiving non-conference schedule, is still a serious contender. Without further adieu, I will break out the Steckerbrett on my Enigma and begin deciphering.

Before one can fully understand the current state of Duke Basketball, one must take into account the personnel Duke lost from a year ago. JJ Redick and Shelden Williams were arguably the best inside-outside combination in all of college basketball. JJ’s unbelievable three point shooting ability coupled with Williams’s knack for the boards gave Duke probably the best one-two punch in college basketball. When those two graduated, they left a huge void. Then, factor in the loss of the team’s top perimeter defender in Dockery and you have a huge hole to fill. This year’s Duke team is a talented group who will only get better as the season progresses.

Duke’s squad is a team of contrasts. On one hand, Duke statistically has the least productive offense in all of the ACC. On the other, Duke is holding its opponents to conference leading scoring numbers. Clearly, these figures are a product of inexperience. But, these numbers are deceiving. In no way is Duke’s squad the least dynamic offense in the ACC. Moreover, Duke’s defense has some glaring holes which need to be mended before the tournament. The stats are not entirely reflective of Duke’s actual performances on both ends of the floor.

Duke’s young core is only beginning to mature offensively. When the aforementioned duo of Redick and Williams graduated, Duke lost the focal points of the frontcourt and backcourt. Disregarding the difficult situation Roy Williams faced when his top seven scorers left, Coach K’s project this year is arguably the most difficult ACC rebuilding project in recent memory.

Specifically, Duke’s team is beginning to develop chemistry. They have the top three point shooting percentage in the ACC- this shows that they can survive without JJ at the helm. Young teams such as this one are constantly in search of go-to-guys and role players in the frontcourt and backcourt. The good news is that Duke seems to have such solid role players who are capable scorers- David McClure, Brian Zoubek, Lance Thomas and Gerald Henderson seem to come to mind first. Although McClure and Henderson have bright futures ahead, they do not possess the same experience that countless Duke role players have had in the past. I cannot picture McClure hitting a clutch three at a critical juncture in the game as Lee Melchionni did so many times a year ago- in fact he missed an open attempt late yesterday that could have given Duke the win or at the very least provided momentum for his club. The same can be said for Henderson- whose long range shooting is still a work in progress. Despite his lack of three point shooting accuracy, Gerald can hit pull up shots at key points in the game. Regardless of whether or not they are adept outside shooters, both are still quality role players. Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas play alongside McRoberts in the frontcourt. Thomas is a tenacious rebounder whose aggressive nature provides him with plenty of opportunities at the free throw line. Zoubek can provide instant scoring in limited minutes.

The real problem with the Duke offense rests in the hands of the go-to guys. Some have questioned, “Who are Duke’s go-to-guys?” Two players have separated themselves from the rest- Josh McRoberts and DeMarcus Nelson. Nelson hit a clutch three towards the end of regulation to send last night’s Virginia Tech game to overtime. Duke looked for McRoberts down the stretch as well. But, poor decisions by both guys contributed to the Virginia Tech loss. Another key player is Greg Paulus, who needs to distribute the ball as a leader on this club. Thus far, he is doing his best Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde impression.

On the defensive end of the floor, there are some areas that this Duke team excels in and others that could use a great deal of improvement. Duke’s perimeter defense is stifling. These young players clog the passing lanes and play characteristic Coach K man-to-man defense. They work very hard on the defensive end and display a great deal of intensity; Coach K obviously cultivates this mentality in his practices. The glaring weakness that I have noted on several occasions is the lackadaisical defense against slashers. If this Duke squad can develop better help defense, they can be one of the most dangerous teams in the country. After watching both the Kent St. and Virginia Tech games, several common difficulties struck me. At times, Duke players fail to hedge when they are playing man-to-man defense. I am sure this gives Coach K a headache: he designates the matchups before the game for a reason. When players switch off, they become susceptible to mismatches. Also, whenever an athletic player capable of creating his own shot gets by a Duke player, team defense tends to break down. A prime example of this failure was the matchup between Greg Paulus and Dominic James. James, who is normally known for his scoring, tallied seven assists against the Duke defense and his team shot 46% from the field. Similar situations occurred against Kent St. and Virginia Tech and I feel that an analysis of these games would provide a great deal of insight into this team’s strengths and weaknesses. In the first contest, Duke played poorly, but came away with a win. Against Virginia Tech- however- they mounted a comeback, yet came up short in the end.

I’ll start with an analysis up until the half. Duke was leading 39-38. Omni Smith, who came into this game averaging just over 11 points per contest, was on fire from behind the three point line. Haminn Quaintance served as a point forward- dishing to his teammates virtually at will. For Duke, Scheyer was on fire from behind the three point arc. He had 15 points in the first half alone. McRoberts did not really demonstrate his leadership ability. He forced some passes and lacked confidence scoring the ball. On the defensive end, he battled and blocked three shots. But, his help defense left Kent St. players open inside. Paulus seemed lost on defense and did not put forth the necessary effort on either end.

The second half was more of the same. This time, Omni Smith seemed to be creating off the dribble and off of screens because Quaintance was sitting on the bench. His acrobatic moves single handedly kept Kent St. in the game. Duke could not stop him on the drive. With six minutes left to go in the game, something clicked for Duke’s stars on the offensive end. In a sequence of plays, McRoberts hit a jump hook, DeMarcus Nelson nailed a three, and McRoberts tipped a shot in to put Duke up by 6 with 3:52 left in the game. Smith hit a few mid range shots and got Kent St. back in the game. Finally, with 90 seconds left, Paulus stripped Smith on a key possession. He made both of his free throws and sealed the win. This clutch play down the stretch is what Duke expects from Greg Paulus. McRoberts had arguably the best game of his career in the second half. He dominated by scoring 11 of his 19 points and chipped in with six blocks, six rebounds, four assists, and four steals for the game. DeMarcus Nelson added 18 points.

The Virginia Tech game developed in a similar way. Paulus started the game with 4 turnovers in 6 minutes of play. He was promptly benched after that display. He passed behind cutting players and threw floating passes which were easily picked off. McRoberts also turned the ball over several times, just as he had in the Kent St. game. Nelson provided the needed leadership with 12 points on 5-7 shooting. Virginia Tech was up at the half however. Jamon Gordan played like a man on a mission. He scored in a variety of ways. Similarly, Coleman Collins was a serious threat early on.

In the second half, Gordan virtually took over. His penetration of the Duke defense left guys like Dowdell and Washington wide opened for shots. McRoberts came alive in the second half. He used his solid footwork and nice handles to draw fouls- he was just so explosive. At the 16:57 mark, DeMarcus Nelson nailed a three pointer. Jamon Gordan responded. But, a critical moment came with 14:05 left in the game. Nelson committed his fourth personal foul and was sent to the bench. The player who led this team throughout the game was now sitting on the bench. McRoberts came through with two defenders covering him. He nonchalantly drop stepped through the double team to score the bucket and draw the foul. With time running out, Gordan nailed a desperation three point shot. Paulus then made a nice pass to Henderson to tie the game. He could have passed to Scheyer in the corner for a wide open three point shot, but he chose the easy bucket- finally, a nice decision down the stretch. A nice pass to McRoberts gave Duke its first lead of the night. Dowdell then went on to hit a pair of shots off the dribble. McRoberts drew Deron Washington’s fourth foul and missed two critical free throws. Duke missed five straight free throw attempts. Finally, McClure broke that streak after drawing a foul on a box out. Two unbelievable plays helped Virginia Tech sustain its lead. First, Gordan slipped and made a shot virtually from the ground. Then Washington got the ball on the fast break and literally jumped over Greg Paulus, who was trying to draw the charge. After a Henderson pull up jumper late in the game, Duke was forced to foul. After Virginia Tech free throws, DeMarcus Nelson handled the ball and calmly hit the game tying three pointer with a roughly 20 seconds remaining. Tough Duke defense forced the game to overtime. In the extra period, Gordan broke the tie with a floater. On the next possession, McClure missed a wide open shot from the top of the key. Duke fouled Tech’s Vasallo, who hit one of two free throws. So Duke is down by two points and has a chance to tie or win the game. McRoberts grabbed the rebound and threw the ball to Paulus, who was idly staring in a different direction. He bobble it for a few seconds, dribbled the length of the court and took and ill-advised three point shot which was emphatically blocked by Deron Washington. Virginia Tech spoiled Duke’s ACC home opener streak and avenged Dockery’s miracle shot a year ago.

Why exactly did Duke lose this game and nearly fall to Kent St? Well, the key is bringing the intensity from the beginning of the game. McRoberts looked timid on the offensive end in both of these contests. He needs to assert himself early on as a leader on both ends of the floor. His defense was impeccable in both of these games- his length, mobility, and athleticism gives him a great advantage on that end of the floor. In order to hold a leadership position on this team, DeMarcus Nelson cannot afford to get in foul trouble early on. His experience and athleticism on both ends really help Duke’s perimeter defense. As for Greg Paulus, he needs to bring consistency and steady play night in and night out. Duke will not thrive with Scheyer at the point- he is most effective as a catch and shoot guy on the perimeter. Paulus has to focus and allow the game to come to him- he cannot make poor decisions down the stretch and cost his team the game as he did against Virginia Tech. The 22 turnovers and Virginia Tech’s 20 points off of those turnovers cost Duke the game. It seems that Duke’s players do not have the quickest foot speed on the defensive end. This explains why help defense has been a problem. I can recall countless instances where McRoberts had the rotate over to stop a guard who got past his man. Then, that same perimeter player passed to a wide open big man; it is a vicious cycle. The second reason for the loss was free throw shooting. This young squad failed to make its free throws down the stretch. McRoberts hit 50% from the line in both of these contests. This cannot happen if Duke wants to win. They shot 64% from the line as a team and missed some free ones late in the game, which could have given them the win. Several other key players will really decide the fate of Duke’s basketball program this year. Jon Scheyer has the potential to really carry his team, but he cannot force the issue. For example, he drew a foul early in the Virginia Tech game on a three point shot. It probably should not have been called because he leaned into the defender; regardless, he cannot take that kind of shot late in the game. Henderson rarely displays his athletic ability in a game time situation- he often settles for his midrange game. Gerald is a poor defender at this point, but he has the raw tools to excel in this aspect of the game. I love the intensity that Lance Thomas brings on a regular basis, but he needs to stay out of foul trouble. Because the turnovers and missed free throws are the main reasons Duke lost, I am optimistic about this club. Nelson and McRoberts are taking on leadership roles, Scheyer is providing outside shooting, Paulus has shown some flashes of brilliance, and Duke’s role players are playing within the system. The Virginia Tech defeat is only going to serve as a motivator for this club- they played poorly and lost. As a young team, there is always room for growth. I expect this Duke Blue Devils club to be one of the deadliest come tournament time because I know that the combination of Coach K’s discipline and competitive ACC play will have these players prepared for a serious run in March.

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