By Al Featherston
November 22, 2005
DURHAM -- Don't expect Mike Krzyzewski to get too excited about his team's preseason No. 1 national ranking. He's been there, done that.
"We expect to be good," Krzyzewski said. "Every year we expect to compete for the national title. So I don't see why this year should be any different."
This is actually the fifth time one of Coach K's Duke teams has been No. 1 in the AP's preseason poll. Three (1992, 1999, 2002) of the previous four ended up No. 1 in the final poll, although only the 1992 wire-to-wire champs came home with a national title.
Overall, 14 previous ACC teams have been No. 1 in the preseason rankings, and only North Carolina's 1982 and Duke's 1992 teams won national titles. Those aren't good odds. Still, all of the ACC's previous preseason No. 1 teams have been very successful. Six of the 14 have finished No. 1 in the AP poll, including the last four in a row. Four have reached the Final Four, and nine have made it to the Sweet 16.
So, while it's premature to hang any banners, don't be surprised to see Duke have a very good season.
"We have a chance to be very good," Krzyzewski said. "If we stay healthy, we should be competitive for (the national title)."
Coach K's confidence is based on the return of four seniors -- the four remaining members of his "Super Six" recruiting class of 2002. Center Michael Thompson left midway through his sophomore season to transfer to Northwestern, while oft-injured forward Shavlik Randolph stunned Krzyzewski and the ACC basketball world by turning pro after averaging about four points and four rebounds as a junior.
After careful consideration, center/forward Shelden Williams passed up the chance to jump to the NBA, and guard J.J. Redick never gave the pros a second thought. Even recruit Josh McRoberts was a potential first-round pick.
"What are the chances of us having two players like (Williams and Redick) stay around?" Krzyzewski asked. "Who knows how the culture might change, but I don't know when you might see that again. One of the main things I like is that I have seniors who can be real leaders and mentors. We haven't had this kind of group since (Shane) Battier and (Nate) James and J.D. Simpson. They can help the younger guys. I like that dynamic."
Opinion about Redick's pro potential is sharply divided, but there's no question that the 6-4 sharpshooter is one of the nation's top college players. As a junior, he was the ACC player of the year and earned consensus All-America honors, as he led the ACC in scoring (21.8 ppg), free throw shooting (93.8 percent) and three-pointers made (121).
Barring injury, Redick is going to break the NCAA career three-point record held by Virginia's Curtis Staples, and he is going to shatter Charlie Davis' 30-year-old ACC free throw record. Redick even could make a run at Dickie Hemric's 50-year-old ACC scoring record; if he scores the same 721 he got last season, the Duke senior would wind up just 61 points short.
Yet, for all of Redick's spectacular numbers, the return of Williams may be more important to Duke's title chances. The 6-9 Oklahoma native was the NCAA defensive player of the year in 2005, leading the ACC in rebounds (11.2) and blocked shots (3.7) per game, and this year he appears ready to add a medium-range jump shot to his improving offensive repertoire.
"He had a great summer," Krzyzewski said. "He led our University Games team to a championship in Turkey. He was the leading scorer, rebounder and shotblocker. He proved to be what he is, a winner. He has really emerged as a leader. The guys really look up to him."
The two preseason All-Americans will be joined in the starting lineup -- at least at first -- by senior Sean Dockery, who started 21 games at the point a year ago before being sidelined with a knee injury. The former Chicago prep star is a defensive demon and a good protector of the ball (just 40 turnovers in 720 minutes last season). He also has turned himself into a good spot-up shooter, raising his three-point average from 19 percent as a soph to a team-best 43 percent as a junior.
Dockery brings leadership and popularity to the playmaking role. What he doesn't bring is a great gift for creating at the offensive end. He had just 61 assists last season, barely two per game.
That's where freshman Greg Paulus excels, and that's why the two-sport star from Syracuse may push for a starting role this season. The 6-1 playmaker isn't in Dockery's class as a defender and hasn't demonstrated the same ability to knock down the open shots he'll get with defenses focusing on Redick and Williams. But Paulus has court vision that can't be taught -- the same magical ability to deliver the ball to the right place and the right time that made past ACC playmakers such as Chris Corchiani, Bobby Hurley, Steve Blake and Ed Cota so effective.
Sophomore DeMarcus Nelson, who is slated to inherit Daniel Ewing's spot, also has some unique gifts. A year ago, playing with an injured thumb on his shooting hand, the 6-3 guard failed to display the offensive game that made him the leading scorer in California prep history. But he did demonstrate an uncanny ability to rebound; his 4.5 average in just 19 minutes per game evoked memories of former Georgia Tech star Bruce Dalrymple. If a healthy Nelson can regain his shooting touch and cash in his immense potential as a defender, Duke might not miss Ewing too badly.
Meanwhile, Duke may miss Randolph more than outsiders expect. While McRoberts was expected to take his starting job anyway, the Blue Devils could have used Shav's defense and experience around the basket, even in a backup role. The 6-10 freshman is an excellent passer, but he will be forced to prove he has the shooting touch to generate more than SportsCenter-highlight dunks.
While McRoberts and Paulus likely will be the only first-year players who crack the starting lineup, the other newcomers will provide Krzyzewski with something he lacked last year -- depth.
"I think it lends itself to doing more things defensively," Krzyzewski said. "We were not a very complex defensive team last year. Whether we press or not, we can get after it and sub for J.J. and Shelden. They can be higher-performance with a little less time."
Lee Melchionni, the unheralded sixth member of the Super Six, provides a good deal of flexibility. He's a 6-6 sharpshooter who has played everything from power forward to wing guard in his career. Last year, he emerged as a dangerous spot-up shooter, hitting almost as many threes (and a much better percentage) than the departed Ewing.
There's plenty there, and in the rest of the freshman class, for Krzyzewski to work with. And who else has proven the ability to milk more out of his talent? The guy has the best NCAA Tournament winning percentage of any active coach, and his three NCAA titles are tied with his mentor Bobby Knight for the third-most all-time.
This is a team that could break that tie. Obviously, the odds are long to project any team -- no matter how talented -- as the national champion. But in this era of rapid player turnover, Duke may not get many more opportunities like this one.
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1996 8-8 (4) 18-13 NCAA 1st Round
1997 12-4 (1) 24-9 NCAA 2nd Round
1998 15-1 (1) 32-4 NCAA Elite Eight
1999 16-0 (1x) 37-2 NCAA Runner-up
2000 15-1 (1x) 29-5 NCAA Sweet 16
2001 13-3 (1x) 35-4 NCAA Champion
2002 13-3 (2x) 31-4 NCAA Sweet 16
2003 11-5 (2x) 26-7 NCAA Sweet 16
2004 13-3 (1) 31-6 NCAA Final Four
2005 11-5 (3x) 27-6 NCAA Sweet 16
x - won ACC title
Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Sean Dockery* 6-2/185 PG Sr.
Lee Melchionni 6-6/205 WF Sr.
J.J. Redick* 6-4/190 WG Sr.
Shelden Williams* 6-9/250 C Sr.
David McClure 6-6/205 WF So.
DeMarcus Nelson 6-3/195 WG So.
Eric Boateng 6-10/255 C Fr.
Jamal Boykin 6-7/230 WF Fr.
Josh McRoberts 6-10/230 BF Fr.
Greg Paulus 6-1/185 PG Fr.
Martynas Pocius 6-4/185 WG Fr.
* - returning starter
Seniors J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams give Duke perhaps the best inside-outside combo in the nation. Redick, a 2005 consensus All-American, is one of the deadliest long-range gunners in ACC history. On pace to claim the NCAA record for career three-pointers, he's worked hard to expand his game, turning himself into a dangerous driver and a credible defender. Williams, the 2005 national defensive player of the year, is the ACC's best shotblocker and rebounder. Also a solid inside scorer, he is hoping to display more of a mid-range game in his final season.
OTHER KEY RETURNEES
Sean Dockery emerged as a solid starter last year after two seasons as an erratic reserve. Before his late-season knee injury, the former prep All-American had proved himself an above-average defender, a dependable spot-up shooter and a capable (if uncreative) ball-handler. Lee Melchionni also stepped up as a junior, providing an offensive spark off the bench. Although he's limited physically, the son of a former Duke standout is a dangerous three-point shooter and a smart player. DeMarcus Nelson possesses more potential than either. Limited during his freshman season by a nagging thumb injury, he still demonstrated superb athleticism as the best 6-3 rebounder seen in the ACC in years. With his long arms and quickness, he has a chance to be a first-rate defender. If he can prove to be a dependable shooter, Nelson even could become Duke's next great player.
Two members of the nation's top-rated recruiting class will play major roles and may wind up as starters. Josh McRoberts offers far more athleticism than the departed Shavlik Randolph. McRoberts also has great hands and good passing skills. Greg Paulus is a brilliant distributor in the mold of Bobby Hurley. A far better creator than Dockery, Paulus has to improve defensively to claim the starting job. The other three freshmen will have to fight to carve roles for themselves. Martynas Pocius is an explosive offensive player. Eric Boateng is sometimes labeled a project, but while he does need to learn the nuances of the game, his physical skills are far ahead of Duke's last big man project, Casey Sanders. Jamal Boykin is almost the opposite of Boateng. He's an average athlete with a sound fundamental game.
ALSO WORTH NOTING
David McClure, who started three games as a freshman, will redshirt after undergoing offseason knee surgery. ... Mike Krzyzewski said Williams, who attempted just six three-pointers (hitting two) in his first three seasons, has worked on his outside shot and will step beyond the arc at times. ... Dockery, who improved his three-point percentage from 12 as a sophomore to a team-high 42.9 as a junior, might be on the verge of a similar improvement as a distributor. After averaging 1.4 assists in his first three seasons, he displayed much better playmaking in the preseason, as evidenced by his average of 5.4 assists (and just 1.3 turnovers) in Duke's first five public games (counting exhibitions). ... Former walk-on Patrick Johnson, bothered last season by a bad shoulder, is healthy. But it might be tough for him to improve on his 95 minutes (the most for a non-recruited Duke player since Stan Brunson in 1996) with Boateng available in the post.
Chart By: The Duke Insider