January 29, 2008
DURHAM Every basketball team in America has weaknesses. It's just that some of those flaws are fatal, and some can be overcome.
The question facing Duke as the victories pile up and the rankings climb is whether the Blue Devils' clear weakness in the post is one of those problems that can be overcome, or whether it'll be the team's fatal flaw.
Very simply, is Duke big enough in the post to compete for the national title?
Since the injury that sidelined sophomore Brian Zoubek at 7-1 and 260 pounds, the ACC's biggest player the Devils have been frighteningly tiny inside. Lance Thomas, a slender 6-8 sophomore who averages 2.7 rebounds per game, and Kyle Singler, a slightly more substantial 6-8 freshman, start in the post, but the only "big man" subs are 6-6 forwards Taylor King and David McClure.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski often is reduced to playing four guards with one of his two "big" men. That lineup has been abused on the boards several times in the last month, but so far the Devils have been able to overcome the flaw in their game.
Take the Clemson game, for example. The Tigers mauled Duke on the boards, finishing with a 42-26 rebounding edge that included 19 offensive rebounds.
"They just owned the boards," Krzyzewski said. "At halftime, I drew a circle under the basket and told our guys, We're dominating the other part of the court, and they're dominating that part. But they're dominating that so much, that if we continue this way, it won't make any difference what we do on the other part of the court.' It took us until about the middle of the second half to really start rebounding."
That's when Duke pulled away from the Tigers for a 93-80 victory. The Blue Devils were able to counter Clemson's huge edge on the boards by forcing 21 turnovers. And Duke's 21-11 edge in turnovers proved much more decisive than Clemson's 16-rebound edge. The Tigers led just 15-9 in second-chance points, while the Devils enjoined a 37-12 edge in points off turnovers.
"We feel that we can pressure every team that we play," freshman guard Nolan Smith said. "We just keep rotating at the perimeter positions and stay fresh on defense."
Indeed, Duke's renewed pressure defense is the flip side to Duke's rebounding woes.
Historically, Krzyzewski's teams even his best teams have been mediocre (even poor) rebounding teams. To a large degree, that's a function of his defensive philosophy.
Coach's K's man-to-man defensive scheme is predicated on playing the passing lanes. Instead of defenders staying between the man they are guarding and the basket, his defenders try to stay between the man they are guarding and the ball. That often leaves them out of position when the shot goes up.
In that context, this Duke team has rebounded very much like some very successful Krzyzewski teams. The current team enjoys a narrow 37.3-34.6 edge on its opponents, which is actually a better margin than the 1991 national champs and almost the same as the 1992 team that spent all season at No. 1 before winning a second championship. Duke's 2001 national champs out-rebounded opponents by less than a rebound per game.
So, clearly, deficiencies on the board can be overcome.
But it's not easy.
On a night when Duke is struggling on the boards, a lot of other things have to go right to overcome that. Usually, turnover margin cancels the rebounding deficit, as it did against Clemson. Duke generally adds to the margin with superior three-point shooting. The Devils are second in the ACC with an average of nine three-pointers per game and first by a wide margin in least three-pointers allowed per game (4.9).
But if one of those strengths happens to be off for a particular game, then the rebounding deficit can be fatal.
That's what happened against Pittsburgh on Dec. 20. It's easy to look at the rebounding numbers and say, "Aha, Duke lost because it was out-rebounded 53-39."
But that was a smaller rebounding deficit than the Devils overcame against Clemson. However, at Madison Square Garden, there was not such a difference in turnover margin (Duke was a mere plus-two), and while Pitt was a lousy 3-of-19 from three-point range, the Devils were nearly as bad (4-of-19).
In the end, Duke lost not so much because of the one thing it does badly rebound the ball but because it didn't do the things it usually does well.
SMALL DEFENDERS PLAYING BIG
Of course, the thing that Duke does best is defend all over the court.
Obviously, in view of Coach K's deep collection of gifted wing players, defense on the perimeter is no problem. What's surprising is how well Duke's smallish post players have defended.
Clemson's Trevor Booker went into Cameron averaging 24.7 points in his previous three games. But he managed just 15 points (on 6-of-11 shooting) against the Devils. His big-man sidekick James Mays had just eight points (on 3-of-7 shooting). Earlier in the season, Duke also defended Wisconsin's giant post tandem of Brian Butch and Greg Stiemsma effectively. The two 6-11 seniors combined for 12 points on 5-of-13 shooting.
Even against Pitt, when burly freshman DeJuan Blair was abusing the Devils on the boards, he struggled to convert his 14 offensive rebounds into just 15 points.
The real test comes on Feb. 6, when the Blue Devils face off against North Carolina and try to contain Tyler Hansbrough, the most effective inside scoring machine in college basketball. That's a tall order. Duke gave up 42 points to Hansbrough in two games against the Tar Heels last season, and that was with 6-11, 240-pound Josh McRoberts on hand to match up with the UNC big man.
Duke will try to do it with Thomas and Singler this season. There's also a chance that Zoubek will be back in uniform and able to provide a few minutes of "big" relief, although after a month of inactivity he's not likely to play a major role.
But even a small contribution would help. In fact, Zoubek's return could be a big factor in Duke's hope to make a run at the Final Four this year. It's not that the giant sophomore can come back and suddenly become a 25-minute force, but if he can recover enough to give Krzyzewski 10-15 minutes off the bench, it could make a big difference in games where Duke is getting pounded inside.
NELSON PROVIDES GIFT OF GRAB
Duke's struggles to hold its own on the boards should illuminate one very special quality DeMarcus Nelson has brought to the Blue Devils in his injury-plagued career.
The senior listed at 6-4, but in reality closer to 6-2 is one of the great rebounding guards in modern ACC history. He's currently battling Singler for the Duke team lead in rebounding at 6.0 per game. For his career, he's averaged just under five rebounds per game.
His numbers compare favorably with Georgia Tech's Bruce Dalrymple, who generally is acknowledged as the best rebounding guard in ACC history. The Yellow Jackets star had more rebounds for his career, but he averaged 5.9 per game as a senior, slightly below Nelson's total this season.
Of course, it's a little misleading to call Nelson and Dalrymple guards, since both played all over the court. There are times when Duke is in a four-guard alignment when Nelson is playing "the four," or power forward.
But it's his rebounding ability along with good rebounding performances by wings Gerald Henderson and Jon Scheyer that has allowed Duke to survive on the boards, despite its lack of size in the post.