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Depth Will Allow Krzyzewski To Pick Up Pace

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff



By Bryan Strickland
Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun

November 20, 2007

DURHAM – Less than a minute after he checked into Duke's exhibition game against Barton, Duke freshman point guard Nolan Smith found himself back on the bench.

After a 15-second pit stop, Smith sped back onto the floor. Soon after, the Blue Devils started running laps around the Bulldogs.

"Coach sat me down, and he said, ‘You're walking the ball,'" Smith said. "He wants us to run, no matter what. Then, if there's nothing there, we'll slow it down and run a play.

"As a team, I think we're now really grasping what he wants."

The Blue Devils were anything but up-tempo last season, when a team short of depth and experience averaged 70.4 points per game – the program's lowest output since Mike Krzyzewski's second Duke team went 10-17 a quarter-century earlier.

But this season, with nearly everyone back and three ready-to-run freshmen on board, the Devils plan to return to pushing the ball on offense and pressuring it on defense in hopes of quickly getting back into the running for championships.

Krzyzewski actually wanted to implement some system changes last season, with new looks on the fastbreak and a touch of zone mixed into the pressure defense that has served him so well. Those changes were culled from his on-going tenure as the USA Basketball coach.

But a team already lacking in desirable depth encountered injuries in the preseason to point guard Greg Paulus and athletic wing Gerald Henderson. That forced the Devils to wait a year, a painful year by the program's lofty standards.

After starting 18-3, Duke dropped eight of its last 12 games, losing in the first round of both the ACC and NCAA tournaments for the first time since 1996.

"All of a sudden we're horrible, but it's just horrible for Duke. A lot of people would love to be our horrible," said Krzyzewski, whose team's 11 losses were more than his previous two teams lost between them. "We started to put in this system last year, and then we weren't even sure if we were going to have a point guard. We didn't know if Greg was going to be out three months, or five weeks like he was. We just had to change.

"We just didn't have the depth to play like this, but now we have two point guards."

Smith and Paulus have yet to even so much as practice on the same side in intrasquad scrimmage situations, a testament to Krzyzewski's determination to have a fresh engine in the game as much as possible. Pressure defense at the point drives Duke's system as much as anything. It's an area in which Smith has shown signs of excelling but one that Paulus struggled with at times during his first two years.

Krzyzewski insists that Paulus will be much improved on the defensive end, something both he and the entire team must be this season. Defense carried Duke through its strong start to last season but wasn't as strong late in the year, and the offense – with the departed Josh McRoberts unable to consistently answer the call as the go-to guy – couldn't pick up the slack.

"We've got to play defense. That's what this place is built on," Paulus said. "We started off playing really well defensively the first half of the year, but we didn't do such a great job in the ACC. As a result, we finished off the year 4-8. That's not a contender."

Last season, following the departures of retired-jersey stars J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams, the Devils had to rely heavily on inexperienced players. But this season the youngsters should inject new life into a roster that's a year older across the board. McRoberts, who headed to the NBA after his sophomore year, is the only player gone among Duke's top nine scorers from a season ago.

DeMarcus Nelson is the lone senior and now the lone captain, after sharing those duties with Paulus and McRoberts. Paulus is the point man for a junior class that should get occasional contributions from oft-injured David McClure and Marty Pocius. From there, the team will rely on sophomores and freshmen, which is better than relying almost exclusively on sophomores and freshmen.

Sharpshooter Jon Scheyer started all but one game as a rookie but ran out of gas down the stretch, while Henderson showed flashes of his potential greatness a year ago but never could keep it going.

Both appear poised to be more consistent, while Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek will look to elevate their games after much quieter freshman campaigns. Thomas appears to be a more confident player, perhaps having found his niche as the athletic point man for Duke's full-court pressure. The 7-1 Zoubek looks capable of keeping up the breakneck pace but hasn't yet proven he can provide the power Duke will need at times in the post.

Then there are the freshmen. Smith has all the tools to push the pace on both ends of the floor, lefty Taylor King can provide instant offense from long range, and Kyle Singler could well be a bona fide star by season's end.

Singler can play inside and outside and seemingly does both effortlessly, though it's his all-out effort that has impressed Krzyzewski. Singler also impressed on the scoreboard right away, totaling 50 points in Duke's two exhibition wins in rather routine fashion.

"Singler is really our most well-rounded player, as a freshman," Krzyzewski said. "He's 6-9, 220, and he just knows how to play. He's a kid that if we had a game tonight, he would start for us, and everybody on the team would say, ‘Good.' He's going to be a special player.

"Nolan Smith comes from Oak Hill, so he has played at a high level of competition. He's more ready to play and can put the most pressure on the ball of any of our players. He's very athletic. How does that fit in? That fits in well. Taylor King isn't a big guy or a little guy, but he can shoot the ball. Now he's not going to get as many shots, so is he going to take good shots when he shoots? He has a weapon.

"And all these guys coming back should be better, so that's exciting to me, to see how much better they are going to be."

The freshmen all won championships last season – Singler and King earning state titles, Smith a mythical national title – something Duke was unable to do for one of the few times in Krzyzewski's Hall of Fame career.

But if this Duke team stays healthy – a problem in the offseason for about half the roster – the Blue Devils could get back quickly to imposing their will on the opposition.

"We've won a lot of ballgames here, and we've won a lot of championships. As long as I'm coaching here, that's what we're going to try to keep doing," Krzyzewski said. "I would not coach here if I didn't feel like we could do that, but we have to earn it every time.

"We're going to try to be a team that deserves to be a championship contender. We want to be a contender."

DUKE

Track Record

Year ACC Overall Postseason
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
2006 14-2 (1x) 32-4 NCAA Sweet 16
2007 8-8 (6) 22-11 NCAA 1st Round

x - won ACC title

2007-08 Roster

Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
DeMarcus Nelson* 6-4/200 WG Sr.
David McClure 6-6/200 BF Jr.
Greg Paulus* 6-1/185 PG Jr.
Martynas Pocius 6-5/190 WF Jr.
Gerald Henderson 6-4/210 WG So.
Jon Scheyer* 6-5/180 WG So.
Lance Thomas* 6-8/220 BF So.
Brian Zoubek 7-1/260 C So.
Taylor King 6-6/230 BF Fr.
Kyle Singler 6-8/220 WF Fr.
Nolan Smith 6-2/180 PG Fr.

* - returning starter

Building Blocks

DeMarcus Nelson is a key to the new running, pressing game Mike Krzyzewski hopes to play. The Duke coaches believe Nelson is the best wing defender in the ACC, and he's clearly the best rebounding guard in the league, which is vital for an undersized team. Point guard Greg Paulus is moving better after playing last season with an injured foot. He's still not a great defender or a blazer, but he is the same guy who led the ACC in assists two years ago, and last year he was the Blue Devils' best three-point shooter. Swingman Gerald Henderson also was limited by injuries a year ago, but he's healthy now and better able to show off the athleticism that makes him so dangerous.

Other Key Returnees

Wing Jon Scheyer doesn't do anything great, but he does everything well. His solid all-around game was enough to win all-freshman honors last season. Forward Lance Thomas was extremely inconsistent as a rookie, although he showed promise on the boards and as a defender. Now he's being asked to play a key role in Coach K's trapping defense, like James Mays does for Clemson. Duke's stifling team defense (first nationally in points allowed per possession) suffered a big dropoff after forward David McClure was hurt in February. He's still recovering from offseason surgery and might not be back at full speed until midseason. Brian Zoubek is the lone center on an otherwise undersized team. Foul trouble and an innate awkwardness likely will continue to limit his minutes. Injuries and poor defense have kept Marty Pocius on the bench for two seasons, but the Lithuanian swingman hopes to blossom in the new up-tempo style.

Some Introductions

Kyle Singler already is a building block. The forward from Oregon is the team's best offensive weapon in the post, rebounds well, handles well and is a surprisingly mature help defender. Plus, he's amazing at filling a lane on the break. Nolan Smith will push Paulus at the point. Smith is not as good a shooter, but he's much quicker, pushes it well on the break, and already is the team's best on-the-ball defender. Forward Taylor King is regarded as a premier long-range shooter. Indeed, he brings J.J. Redick-like firepower to the perimeter, while proving to be surprisingly effective near the basket.

Also Worth Noting

Krzyzewski is alternating Paulus and Smith in an effort to keep a fresh point guard in the game to push the tempo at all times, and the tactic worked early. After scoring a single-game high of 86 points last season (and topping 80 only three times in 33 games), the Devils opened with 121 against N.C. Central, after scoring 134 and 105 in their two exhibitions. ... After playing a very limited rotation for several years (basically every season since the 1999 team went nine deep), Coach K used 10 players for double-figure minutes in early games. Duke had a record 10 players in double figures in the exhibition with Shaw and seven double-figure scorers in the official debut against NCCU. ... Coach K experimented with a zone in November and hinted that he may use it more this season than at any time during his tenure in Durham.

Chart By: The Duke Insider