March 1, 2005
DURHAM - An important ingredient in coach Mike Krzyzewski's 20-plus-year run of postseason success has been the good health of his teams.
Oh, the Blue Devils have suffered a handful of late-season injuries, and those usually have led to tournament disappointments. David Henderson's sprained ankle led to a second-round NCAA loss to Boston College in 1984. Then there's Robert Brickey's sprained ankle in the Final Four loss to Seton Hall in 1989, or Cherokee Parks' broken leg that had so much to do with the 1993 second-round NCAA loss to California. And there's no telling how much the bruised hip that senior point guard Chris Duhon suffered late in last year's ACC Tournament championship game had to do with Duke's collapse against Maryland.
Still, the great majority of Coach K's successful teams have managed to reach March not only playing well, but relatively healthy.
That won't be the case this year. Point guard Sean Dockey, one of the secondary reasons (behind superstars J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams) Duke has spent nearly all of 2004-05 ranked in the top 10, may miss the rest of the season. Dockery was chasing Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack late in the first half of a late February game in Atlanta when he tripped over teammate Reggie Love and tore ligaments in his left knee.
"We're not sure that Sean can be back," Krzyzewski said. "The injury is such that you don't operate on it, but to have it grow back to repair itself. That usually takes almost six weeks - four to six, sometimes eight weeks. Each kid is a little bit different."
If Krzyzewski's initial estimate proves accurate, that would mean a best-case scenario of Dockery returning for the Final Four, should Duke get that far without him. That doesn't appear likely.
Dockery usually is overshadowed by Duke's Big Three of Redick, Williams and Daniel Ewing, but his absence created a huge void for the Blue Devils. He's not in a class with the ACC's elite point guards (Jack, Chris Paul, Raymond Felton, John Gilchrist, etc.) as an all-around playmaker, but defensively he was as good as any point guard in the league. Offensively, Dockery didn't carry much of a scoring load - just 6.5 points a game, although he was shooting a team-high 42.9 percent from three-point range - and he didn't generate a lot of assists. But he was strong with the ball, committing just 34 turnovers in 24 games.
The biggest problem stemming from his absence was the way it changed Ewing's role. The senior guard, one of Duke's big three offensive threats, had to assume more of the ball-handling chores and a heavier defensive load. And that's likely to take away from his offensive performance.
"It's tough for him to score because he's defending their best player and he's bringing the ball up," Krzyzewski said. "When you do that kind of stuff, you get tired. And by the time you get to your shot, it's not easy."
Go back to the St. John's game, Duke's first without Dockery. Normally, the junior from Chicago would have been assigned to the Red Storm's Darryll Hill, a gifted guard who averaged more than 25 points a game in his five previous outings. Without Dockery to do the dirty work, Ewing was forced to chase Hill for 40 minutes. He did an excellent defensive job, as the St. John's star managed just 10 points on four-of-19 shooting.
But Ewing also struggled at the offensive end, missing 10 of 13 shots and finishing with just nine points (six below his average). And was it just a coincidence that Duke committed a season-high 23 turnovers in the first game after losing Dockery?
"The other guys who got hurt - whether it was (forward Shavlik Randolph) having mono or (forward Reggie Love's) foot or (forward) Dave McClure's knee - it was almost like a one-for-one, whoever you put in there," Krzyzewski said. "But with Sean, it changes everything. So we have to figure out in the last week of the regular season what we're going to do in that regard."
Some Similarities To 2001 Season
There is one glaring exception to the general rule that postseason injuries lead to problems for the Blue Devils. In 2001, a Duke team generally considered to be too small up front and too thin on the bench to compete for the national title lost starting center Carlos Boozer with a broken foot in the next-to-last regular-season game.
But Krzyzewski shook up his lineup, and Duke proceeded to win 10 straight games to close out the season, winning the ACC championship in Atlanta and then Coach K's third NCAA title with a pair of wins in Minneapolis.
That's not likely to happen again, but there are some eerie similarities between 2001 and 2005. The first move K made after Boozer's injury was to insert freshman guard Chris Duhon into the starting lineup. One of the first moves the coach made after losing Dockery was to insert freshman guard DeMarcus Nelson into the starting lineup.
To replace Boozer, Krzyzewski called on Casey Sanders, a former prep All-American big man whose career had been a disappointment to that point, and football player-turned-basketball-player Reggie Love. In this case, Coach K is looking for more playing time from Randolph, a prep All-American big man whose career has been a disappointment to this point, and football-player-turned-basketball-player Reggie Love.
Of course, projecting a 2001-like postseason run might be stretching things a bit. First, Duke was better four years ago, with a No. 2 national ranking when Boozer went down. Also, the 2001 Big Three of Shane Battier, Jason Williams and Mike Dunleavy included two players who would be consensus national players of the year and a guy who would go No. 3 in the NBA draft.
Redick, Williams and Ewing are very good, but they aren't at that level. It's not likely that they can carry Duke to ACC and national titles without a lot of help from a supporting cast that remains far from proven. In the wake of Dockery's injury, Krzyzewski was reduced to using walk-on Patrick "The Mauler" Davidson (just kidding) in the backcourt rotation.
Melchionni, Nelson Must Deliver
Ewing just laughed recently when a reporter asked him if Duke had enough bodies left to survive in the postseason.
"I hope so," Ewing said. "If we don't, we have to find a way to double up - maybe take half of Shelden's body and add an extra player. But we've been in this situation before. We've had guys go down, and guys have stepped up real big for us. Hopefully, this will be just another case of guys stepping up big."
Junior forward Lee Melchionni certainly appeared to be stepping up big for Duke in the last days of February. He scored 15 points in a victory over Wake Forest, then hit two late three-pointers to clinch the Georgia Tech game after Dockery went down. He carried the Duke offense early at St. John's, scoring 14 first-half points in a period when the Big Three was a combined zero-for-12 from the floor.
"I kind of expect that from him now," Krzyzewski said. "I know we have confidence in him."
One of the other supporting players to watch in the postseason will be Nelson, who has struggled to find his role this season. It didn't help that he suffered a broken finger on his shooting hand in preseason practice, an injury that made it tough for him to show the offensive skills that made him the leading scorer in California prep history. It also hurt that the extended absences of Randolph and Love often forced Nelson to fill in up front.
"You'll see a lot more perimeter play from him now," Ewing said. "That's why we recruited him, to be a perimeter player, not to be a 6-3 post man."
Nelson is potentially a strong defender, with his strength, quickness and long arms. If he can step in and become a defensive stopper, that could take some of the pressure off Ewing. Krzyzewski also has Randolph, Love and McClure back after extended absences. That gives him more bodies up front and more overall flexibility.
Will it be enough to survive the rigors of March? The Duke coach had a philosophical answer.
"It's been a season of constant adjustment," he said. "We've made them well so far. Now we have to make another."