January 6, 2003 DURHAM Duke coasted into conference play with an unbeaten record and the inside track at becoming the country's No. 1-ranked team, and for those who weren't paying very close attention, the Blue Devils must have looked like the latest in the series of luxury mobiles coming off the Coach K assembly line. They hadn't lost a game, and they had beaten everyone by at least 11 points. Five players were scoring in double figures. Another Lexus for Mike Krzyzewski.
Duke fans, pay attention. Like one of those disclaimers before a movie reviewer gives away the ending, you are hereby warned not to read the next few paragraphs if you wish to stay blissfully unaware of the oil leaks underneath that Duke luxury car.
Even before the Blue Devils traveled to Clemson for their ACC opener, signs were obvious, and ominous, that something wasn't right with this team. This observation was relatively speaking, of course. And, relatively speaking, Duke's bigger problems are better to have than most schools' little problems.
Nevertheless, the first sign was the attitude of Krzyzewski. Even with a perfect record entering conference play only four Division I teams, including Clemson and Wake Forest, managed that feat this year Krzyzewski has seemed uptight this season, more uptight than usual.
There was his irrational irritation at the ringing of a cell phone after his team had to hang on to beat Davidson in the second game of the season. The phone interrupted a press conference, and Krzyzewski snapped. A month later, the coach's post-game press conference often starts with one of his minions announcing to the crowd, Please turn off your cell phones, as the emperor takes his seat behind the microphones. After Duke withstood another late rally to beat an overmatched team at home, this time Dayton, Krzyzewski bristled when asked the obvious question about his ever-changing starting lineups.
How do you feel about that? Krzyzewski asked the inquisitor, leaving it obvious that he doesn't really care how anyone outside the program feels about it. You can write me and tell me who to start and how many minutes (for them) to play.
Even with eight games under its belt, plus a half-dozen exhibitions and more than three months of practice thanks to that mid-October trip to England, Duke still was a team in search of itself as it entered ACC play. That's typical of many college programs, but not Duke, where Krzyzewski is so smart, so skilled, that he usually is one of the first coaches in the country to figure out his team. That's part of his genius.
But Duke went into January without clueing its coach in on just what kind of team it would become. And that seemed to have Coach K a bit uneasy.
I'm still trying to figure out my team, he said. If it were a veteran team, I'd have a much different answer. (From one game to the next) I don't know how they'll play.
Veterans Battling Inconsistency
It's true. Duke is an exceptionally young team, and freshmen can be inconsistent. But the Blue Devils have seen one of their most experienced players their captain, their point guard play as shakily as a freshman at times.
If junior Chris Duhon is inconsistent, the team will follow, and in the last two non-conference games, Duhon was consistently awful. He missed 17 of his 20 field goal attempts against Dayton and Fairfield, including all eight of his three-point attempts, putting to rest the ridiculous insistence by some Duke fans that Duhon is one of the best pure shooters in the country.
Duhon's backcourt mate, sophomore Daniel Ewing, also was slumping as the new year rolled around. In those two games, he also was frigid, converting only two of 10 attempts from the floor and averaging five points.
The perimeter was supposed to be Duke's strength, but if it weren't for J.J. Redick, it would be a liability. And that's ominous news for a team whose best inside scorer is a 6-6 wing, Dahntay Jones, who can't shoot beyond 12 feet but who can get into the lane and jump over small buildings for acrobatic baskets. Redick was averaging 15.8 points going into ACC play, and he was demonstrating the ability that had Krzyzewski predicting in October that the 6-4 freshman already was as good a shooter as he had ever coached.
Interestingly, Redick replaced Jones in the starting lineup, a move that seemed to fire up both players. Redick reached the 20-point mark three times after becoming a starter, while Jones averaged 18.3 points off the bench after scoring at a 13-point clip as a starter. Krzyzewski used Jones to illustrate his point that more than five players on the team are starter-quality.
Dahntay could start the next game, Krzyzewski said. I don't consider him a ësub.' I consider Dahntay a really good player. I want Nick (Horvath) to think of himself as a starter. I want Sean Dockery (to do the same). I want the top seven or eight to think of themselves as starters.
It would be an added bonus if they could start thinking of themselves as seniors, but as Krzyzewski knows, that's not possible. Jones is the most prominent senior on the team, and while he is a fifth-year guy after sitting a year as a transfer from Rutgers, he has shown the immaturity of a freshman not only in his on-court tantrums, which he admits he needs to tone down, but also in his penchant to pick up fouls that sometimes leave Krzyzewski stupefied on the sideline.
Duke saw how an experienced team conducts itself when Dayton came to town in late December. None of the Flyers' top seven players is a freshman, and six of those seven are juniors or seniors. As a result, Dayton didn't crumble when Duke started to make one of its signature runs in the first half. As the minutes ticked on, even in the Duke-crazy environment of Cameron Indoor Stadium, it was the Blue Devils who started to wilt and the Flyers who started to get stronger. Had there been 10 more minutes to play, Duke's 85-74 victory might have turned into something far different.
Veteran players know how to play tired. They know how to get second and third winds, Krzyzewski said. As fast as we were playing, that's faster than Dayton usually plays. I was really impressed with Dayton's ability to play tired. That's the kind of team we can't be right now. You just can't inject them with experience. You've got to go through it. This game was a great experience for our basketball team.
Shav-O-Meter Tilting Upward
A quick look at the Coach K-Inspired Shav-O-Meter (see last issue) shows encouraging signs for the 6-9 freshman.
Since those two abominable games against UCLA and Ohio State (two points and two rebounds, total), Randolph has settled into a nice groove, averaging 9.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in 18 minutes per game. Double those numbers to give him a 36-minute game, and Randolph seemingly would produce 19 points and 11 or 12 rebounds.
Krzyzewski doesn't seem inclined to double those minutes, though, and that's perfectly understandable. He's trying to slowly rebuild Randolph's confidence, while also not putting too much of the team's fate on the shoulders of a player whose amazing gifts on offense don't equal his ability to play defense or to play well against most physically mature defenders.