By Bill Brill, USBWA Hall Of Fame
November 11, 2002 DURHAM Duke basketball just completed a five-year stretch that was unprecedented in ACC history. During that period, the Blue Devils won a record 164 games and lost 19. They won the last four ACC championships, a feat never before accomplished. They finished No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the past four campaigns. That never had been done before, either.
In three of the past four years, a Duke performer was the consensus national player of the year Elton Brand (1999), Shane Battier (2001) and Jason Williams (2002). Brand and Williams were unanimous. Battier won every award except the one presented by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. That was won by Williams.
After the 1999 season, in which Duke finished 37-2 and posted a school-record 32-game winning streak, the Blue Devils also absorbed a body punch that never had occurred before to anybody. They had three players, sophomores Brand and William Avery and freshman Corey Maggette, defect for the NBA.
That left Duke with four veterans, and a six-man freshman class that was rated the best in the nation. Although some experts felt the Devils would fall from their lofty perch, they went 15-1 in the ACC, won the tournament and wound up with a 29-5 record. Still, after losing to Florida in the Sweet 16, they failed to win 30 games for the only time in that five-year period.
Duke faces the same challenge this time. Three more underclassmen, juniors Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer, departed for the pro ranks. Williams and Boozer announced their intentions before the year began. Dunleavy, who wound up being picked third, elected to leave after continually moving up the draft list. And, once again, Mike Krzyzewski has brought in another six-man recruiting class that is rated the best in the nation.
That is where the similarities end between 1999 and this season. The 2000 team benefited from the experience and leadership of senior Chris Carrawell, redshirt junior Nate James and junior Battier. The 2003 team has no such proven leadership.
It will have to come from co-captains Chris Duhon, a junior point guard who allowed Williams to do his thing the past two seasons, and senior swingman Dahntay Jones, whose only Duke experience came last year after he had spent two seasons playing for Rutgers.
Krzyzewski, beginning his 23rd season at Duke, believes leadership is not an inherited trait. It can be developed, and he's counting on Duhon and Jones to do just that. How successful they are at that task will determine just how far the Blue Devils go.
The 1999 team wound up with a six-man rotation that included freshmen Williams, Boozer and Dunleavy. When Dunleavy developed mononucleosis in late February, Duke's thin bench had all but evaporated. That should not be the case this time.
The incoming class includes four McDonald's All-Americans. It almost surely would have been five if 6-9 Shelden Williams had not been suspended from his high school team for much of the season after a highly publicized incident with a woman during a holiday tournament in Ohio. Charges never were filed, but Williams was permanently benched for a violation of school rules.
The rookies include three big guys Williams, 6-10 Michael Thompson and 6-10 Shavlik Randolph. Combined with veterans Casey Sanders and Nick Horvath, Duke has more inside people than ever before.
Whereas Boozer had to play serious minutes last year, this time Coach K will rely on a rotation that should keep everybody fresh. The aim will be to wear down the opposition, and eventually to beat them regularly down the floor.
Despite its traditional status as a national power, Duke rarely has been a great rebounding team. That could change. Williams is a beast inside. Randolph, compared to Dunleavy in many respects because he is so fundamentally sound, is much more comfortable inside than Dunleavy ever was. In the Blue-White game, Randolph had five blocks to go along with his 16 points and eight rebounds.
Sanders is hoping for a break-out season as a senior. He can run, dunk and block shots. He never has been consistent. But his role with this team will be far different, and he should be a valuable contributor. The 6-10 Horvath has been injured much of the past two years, but he's bulked up and is shooting the way he did in his freshman year.
Duke will offer a perimeter that includes Duhon, sophomore Daniel Ewing and freshmen Sean Dockery and J.J. Redick.
Duhon will be the floor general, but he should score more than nine points per game now that Williams is gone. He was a great three-point shooter in high school and has had moments during his college career, but he's never been given a green light at all times.
Ewing gained more playing time in his rookie year as the season progressed and was at his best in the postseason. Like Duhon, he's a long-range bomber.
Neither of the veterans can shoot like Redick, who has astonishing range. Although he missed all seven attempts from behind the stripe in the Blue-White game, when he was overwhelmed by Jones' defense, Redick figures to be a zone buster if the opposition uses that ploy. He also isn't going to be guarded by anybody tougher than Jones.
Dockery has been a sparkplug during practice, which began when Duke took a first-ever foreign trip during the school year. The coaching staff determined that a journey to London to play four games in two days against pro teams was legal, so the Blue Devils began practice on Sept. 28, two weeks ahead of everybody else. While Dockery is a true point guard, he showed on the London trip that he also could play with Duhon in a combination that could put significant pressure on opposing backcourts.
Jones, who averaged more than 11 points last year, is a fifth-year senior with the body of a linebacker. He's improved his jump shot, but he's most dangerous driving toward the basket.
Experience and leadership will have to be gained, but Duke has the potential to play in many different ways.
Coach K can use a big lineup with Duhon, Jones, Randolph, Williams and Sanders or Horvath. Or he can go with a smaller unit featuring Duhon, Dockery, Ewing or Redick, Jones and one of the big guys.
How fast this team develops will determine the overall record. But, as Krzyzewski said, The goal is always the same. We want to become an outstanding team.
This group will have every opportunity to do just that.
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