December 7, 2005
DURHAM -- Injuries are a part of sports. So the broken ankle that will sideline Duke sophomore DeMarcus Nelson until mid-January (at least that's the official estimate) is something the Blue Devils will just have to deal with.
"It's a big loss," senior guard Sean Dockery said. "DeMarcus was a big part of our team. He was a great offensive scorer and he played great defense, so we're going to miss him."
Nelson, who was bothered throughout his freshman season by a thumb injury on his shooting hand, was impressive in Duke's early action this year. In his five full games (counting exhibitions), he averaged 12.2 points and 3.6 rebounds in about 24 minutes per game. More importantly, he improved his field goal percentage from 40 last season to 60.5, his three-point percentage from 31.9 to 41.7, and his free throw mark from 53.2 to 70.1.
Nelson went down in the opening minutes of Duke's preseason NIT semifinal game against Drexel with a "fractured medial malleolus of his right tibia." He underwent surgery Nov. 28 and was projected to make a 100 percent recovery, according to coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Duke already has had to win two tough games without Nelson: the NIT championship contest against Memphis and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup at Indiana. The Blue Devils will be without Nelson on Dec. 10, when they take on No. 2 Texas in the New Jersey Meadowlands. But according to the team's timetable, he should be back by the middle of January at the latest, in time to work back into the rotation long before the arrival of postseason play in March.
"We're just going to try and hold the fort," freshman guard Greg Paulus said, "until he gets back."
Paulus has inherited Nelson's starting role and most of his minutes. Paulus averaged exactly 22 minutes in Duke's first four games, then played 38 against Memphis and 39 at Indiana. His presence gives the Blue Devils a more effective playmaker and an equally effective three-point shooter, but he can't make up for Nelson's athleticism or his defensive presence on the perimeter.
Of course, Nelson's defensive abilities are a matter of some debate. Many writers have touted him as Duke's stopper on the perimeter. His seven steals against Seton Hall seemed to provide some evidence of that ability.
However, it should be noted that when first discussing Nelson's loss, Krzyzewski used the curious phrase, "he's supposedly our best perimeter defender." The word "supposedly" indicated a measure of skepticism from the Duke coach. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe Nelson as a budding defensive stopper. With his long arms, quickness and strength, he has all of the tools to become a great defender. His injury certainly will delay his growth into that role.
How it will impact the Duke team over the long run is harder to predict. ACC veterans might point to the broken foot that sidelined N.C. State guard Dereck Whittenburg midway through the 1982-83 season. That helped his team mature to the point that after he returned in late February, the Pack went on to capture the national title. Duke made a similar recovery from the broken foot that sidelined center Carlos Boozer late in the 2000-01 season, becoming a faster, more aggressive team that rolled to Coach K's third NCAA title.
But there also are examples of injuries that have derailed promising seasons. Anyone who saw North Carolina's 1984 team before Kenny Smith's injury would rate that group one of the greatest of all time. But somehow the loss -- and then return of Smith (wearing a cast to protect his broken wrist) -- destroyed that team's chemistry and led to a disappointing postseason fizzle. Krzyzewski's 1993 Blue Devils were rolling along at 19-3 with a No. 3 national ranking when Grant Hill was lost with an injured toe. Duke went 4-3 without its star, but more significantly, just 1-2 after his return.
Duke might suffer a loss or two in the next month or so because of Nelson's absence, but in the long run, what happens while he's out is not nearly as important as what happens when he returns. Will his absence make Duke better? Will his return disrupt the team's chemistry?
INJURY ESTIMATES OFTEN MISLEADING
Although the official prognosis is for Nelson to miss the next six-to-eight weeks, don't be surprised if he's back sooner -- perhaps even significantly sooner.
Anyone who has followed Duke during the Krzyzewski era knows that the Blue Devils have been remarkably conservative -- some would say purposely misleading -- when it comes to injury estimates.
For instance, Elton Brand was supposed to be out for the season after breaking his foot in 1997-98. Less than a week after that prognosis was confirmed in mid-February, he returned to play 16 minutes in a nationally televised game against UCLA. (A week later, he sparked Duke's comeback victory over UNC.) Both Bobby Hurley and Grant Hill missed significantly less time than was projected after suffering injuries in 1992, and Hill also returned ahead of schedule in 1993.
It's worth noting that on the same day that Duke gave the media that six- to eight-week prediction, Dockery told reporters he was informed that Nelson would be out for four-to-six weeks. The difference is interesting because after the Texas game (which Nelson clearly won't be ready for), Duke's next real test will come Jan. 8 at Wake Forest, almost exactly six weeks after Nelson's Nov. 28 surgery.
FACTS AMPLIFY CHALLENGE SUCCESS
After beating Indiana in Assembly Hall, Duke was a perfect 7-0 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. That's significant because critics kept noting that the Blue Devils had managed to avoid playing true road games during the Challenge.
In the early years, that was true. Duke beat No. 16 Illinois in the first Challenge, not in Urbana but in Chicago's United Center. Two years later, Duke beat No. 7 Iowa, also in the United Center. And while the Illini dominated the crowd against Duke in a 1999 game (early in the 1999-2000 season), the Hawkeyes didn't have much of a homecourt edge in 2001.
The counter-argument is that Duke didn't get to play at home, either. Its first two "home" assignments in the Challenge were in Greensboro, against No. 9 Illinois in 2000 and unranked Ohio State in 2002. And while both crowds were decidedly pro-Duke, neither was anything like a game in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
It should be noted that Duke's special "neutral" treatment ended two years ago. The 2003-04 Blue Devils traveled to East Lansing to take on No. 5 Michigan State in the Breslin Center. The No. 11 Spartans returned the trip to Cameron last season.
So in seven years of the Challenge, Duke has played one true home game, two true road games, two favorable neutral games, one unfavorable neutral game and one game (against Iowa in Chicago) that was close to truly neutral.
Duke's success has played a large part in the ACC's dominance of the series and has engendered a pro-conference attitude in many current Blue Devils.
"We sometimes see ourselves cheering for our rival teams, like North Carolina and Wake Forest," Dockery said before the Indiana game. "We kind of love it. ... We want to win it."