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More Learning Curve: Rotation Tinkering

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

January 27, 2003 DURHAM — With his team still searching for its identity, everything is fair game for tinkering as far as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is concerned — and that includes Krzyzewski himself. While Krzyzewski experimented in December and January with different lineups and personnel groups, he also experimented with how he uses those different lineups and personnel groups. For example, Duke went into halftime against Maryland and N.C. State with a small lead, and Krzyzewski trotted out the same second-half lineup that began each of those games.

That was an especially unfortunate decision at Maryland, where Krzyzewski, for reasons not shared with the general public, chose to start three freshmen for the first time all season — in the Blue Devils' first severe road test of the season. Up six at the half, Duke surrendered six quick points to the Terps to start the second half and never recovered, losing 87-72. Duke suffered a similar lapse to start the second half against N.C. State, after taking a 39-34 lead into the break. The Wolfpack bolted out of halftime with a 16-3 run, and again Duke never recovered, losing this time 80-71. It was the first time since 1999 that the Devils had lost two games in a row.

“We've got to learn to put teams away,” freshman forward Shavlik Randolph said.

Fast forward to the Georgia Tech game. For the third consecutive contest, Duke had a small lead at halftime — this time, 42-37. Instead of being comfortable with his starting five, Krzyzewski made two changes to start the second half, replacing J.J. Redick with Daniel Ewing and Nick Horvath with Shelden Williams. The result? Ewing scored the first basket of the second half, Williams scored on a put-back a few minutes later, and the Duke lead quickly became 49-39. Game over. Duke won 91-71.

“It's been a long week, a tough week,” Krzyzewski said after the Georgia Tech game. “(Our players) stood in there, worked hard. They're still trying to find out who the heck they are in a lot of cases, but today they found out they can handle that type of adversity and play well. I'm proud of them.”

And maybe a little proud of himself, with reason.

Duhon Far Short Of Expectations

Another change Krzyzewski has made to Krzyzewski is how he publicly handles junior captain Chris Duhon. In the preseason, the coach conceded that Duhon could have played better than he did as a sophomore. Then Coach K backed off when he was asked why he had singled out Duhon for criticism.

“That's not criticism,” Krzyzewski said in October. “That's a compliment, because it means I think he can play better.”

Until the Blue Devils' two-game losing streak, Krzyzewski had uttered nothing but compliments about Duhon, even though most of the guard's numbers were below his sophomore statistics. His shooting from the floor fell from 41 percent in 2001-02 to 35.3 percent this season, and his three-point percentage dropped from 34 to 24.6. He certainly didn't look anything like the ACC player of the year, as conference media members surprisingly predicted in the preseason.

After the loss to N.C. State, in which Duhon provided little assertiveness, leadership or production (four points, one of nine field goals, six assists, five turnovers), Krzyzewski took the kid gloves off for a moment and spoke the honest truth, as opposed to that other truth he had been speaking about Duhon.

“We need him playing at a higher level,” Krzyzewski said.

That's exactly what Duhon did against Georgia Tech. He scored only eight points, near his season average of 9.2, but he was awfully efficient running the offense, with nine assists and just one turnover. His only three-pointer came early in the second half, as Duke was pulling away, but several of his pin-point passes led to easy buckets.

Tech coach Paul Hewitt called timeout after Duhon's basket, and Krzyzewski bounded onto the court to congratulate his point guard, screaming at him, “That's what I'm talking about!”

Key Ingredients Becoming Obvious

With Duke almost halfway through its ACC schedule, the recipe for the team's success finally was becoming clear. In past years, that recipe was pretty simple: Show up on time, and your preparation, talent and intensity will take care of everything.

This season's team doesn't have the experience or the talent to simply walk onto the court and know it will win. In games against comparable teams — that would be most games this season in ACC play — the Blue Devils have to get efficient play from Duhon, consistent offense from at least one perimeter source and solid play in the paint.

Anything less, and Duke gets something like its 87-72 loss to Maryland, in which the Blue Devils' front line was beaten back by the Terps' Ryan Randle and Tahj Holden. Or Duke will get something like its 80-71 loss to N.C. State, in which the front line held its own and Redick scored 24 points but Duhon was missing in action.

Against Georgia Tech, the emerging Williams led strong frontcourt play by Horvath and Casey Sanders, while Dahntay Jones scored 21 points and Duhon was solid.

“We've got to get contributions from everyone,” Duhon said. “That's how this team is going to win games. We can't have one guy taking over every game, because we're not that kind of team anymore.”

Shav-O-Meter Pointing Downward

After working its way to an almost vertical position, the Coach K-Inspired Shav-O-Meter appeared on the way down again.

In the losses to Maryland and N.C. State, Randolph made just two of 11 attempts from the floor. (He also was bombarded with boos every time he touched the ball against NCSU, where his grandfather, All-American Ronnie Shavlik, played collegiately.) In the victory against Georgia Tech, Randolph got the least playing time of the Duke big men, scoring six points in nine minutes. Defense was a problem against the Yellow Jackets, with Randolph struggling to guard 6-7 swingman Anthony McHenry as well as post players Ed Nelson and Chris Bosh.

For those three games, Randolph averaged 4.3 points on 28.6-percent shooting. That followed his best two-game stretch since November, games of 15 points against Wake Forest and 17 against Virginia.

“He wants the ball. He's not afraid,” Krzyzewski said after the Blue Devils' 74-55 victory against Wake Forest. “These last two games he's taken a giant step forward.”

Followed by a few steps back.

Focus Upon Redick Intensifying

Duke's season must have passed before Krzyzewski's eyes when Redick limped to the bench late in the loss to N.C. State and uttered the words, “I felt it pop.” Those words were obvious to anyone watching the game on television, since a camera was trained on Redick when he said them. The effect of losing Redick would have been equally obvious.

Redick has been by far the team's most consistent threat from the perimeter this season, the player Krzyzewski said everyone else on the team looks to for offense. (A source close to the team said Ewing is frustrated with his role and has contemplated transfer possibilities, but that's another story.) Had Redick re-injured the plantar fascia in his right foot — an injury that sidelined him for several weeks as a high school senior — the Duke offense would have been a mess, and its season could have been in danger.

Imagine Duke at 8-8 in league play. That might have been its fate without Redick, but the Blue Devils will never know because Redick returned for the Georgia Tech game after missing one practice. This group clearly needs his offense to be an elite team.

Even with Redick, the Devils are not outstanding offensively. They still run very well, but they often stall when forced to execute the halfcourt offense. (Losing Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer can do that.) In January, as opponents became even more attuned to Redick's spectacular shooting — “I don't care if he's in the stands selling popcorn,” NCSU coach Herb Sendek told his team, “stay with him”— the offensive development of Duhon, Ewing, Jones, Randolph and Williams became even more important.