January 24, 2007
DURHAM On the surface, Duke appears to have recovered nicely from its 0-2 stumble at the start of ACC play.
The Blue Devils bounced back to win three straight league games, each by a margin of 20 points or more. That's something Duke's 14-2 ACC regular-season champs never did last season. In fact, the last time the Devils beat three straight ACC opponents by 20-plus points was back in February 2002, when Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy and company routed Florida State, Georgia Tech and N.C. State in successive games.
But while Duke's recovery is notable, it would be a mistake to read too much into it. The spurt could be at least partially an illusion created by the schedule. This year's three lopsided victories came over Miami, Wake Forest and N.C. State, the three ACC teams ranked outside the top 100 in the RPI.
That's not to totally dismiss those wins. Miami did win at Maryland, after all, and two of the three routs were on the road. There's no question that Duke played better against the ACC bottom-feeders than it did in losses to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, and even in pre-conference wins over the likes of Holy Cross and San Jose State.
"We are becoming better as a team," coach Mike Krzyzewski said after beating State. "We prepared with passion and played with passion. We may not win them all, but we have to keep growing, and we will keep getting better."
The Duke coach was most encouraged by progress at the offensive end. His team has played good defense all season. Even in the loss to Georgia Tech, Duke forced 28 turnovers. But offense has been a nightmare for Coach K for most of the year, especially his team's propensity for turning the ball over.
Duke's offense showed serious signs of life against Miami and N.C. State. The Blue Devils shot a school-record 81 percent from the field in the first half against the Hurricanes, then executed well in the win at Raleigh.
"We spread the ball on the offensive end, and we forced turnovers on defense," Krzyzewski said. "We got a high percentage of good shots. The last 11 days were tough, good days. Hopefully, we grew up some as a team."
Two factors helped kick-start the Duke offense.
One was the improved play of sophomore point guard Greg Paulus. In the team's two losses to open ACC play, he averaged 3.0 points and 4.5 turnovers. He missed 6 of 7 three-pointers and created just three assists. In the team's three ACC wins, Paulus averaged 15.0 points and 1.7 turnovers. He hit 10 of 23 three-pointers and passed out 11 assists.
"We want him to shoot the ball," Krzyzewski said of Paulus. "In order to shoot it, though, you have to play with your confidence in other areas. I think he was forgetting that he was a good shooter and was concentrating on other things."
The second factor that appeared to help Duke's offense was the fact that the Devils played with a faster tempo, at least in the victories over Miami and N.C. State. The determination to force the pace produced Duke's second 80-point game of the season at Miami and a 79-point effort tied for Duke's third-highest output of the season at N.C. State.
It will be interesting to see if Duke continues to force the tempo. It would seem that a number of its players Paulus, Josh McRoberts, DeMarcus Nelson and Gerald Henderson are more suited to a full-court than a half-court game.
The schedule continues in Duke's favor for another couple of weeks. Again, that's not to say it's easy, but home games with Clemson and Boston College finish out the month. After a trip to Virginia dangerous at home, but the ACC's fourth-worst team according to the RPI the Devils will get Florida State in Cameron.
None of those games is a guaranteed win, but if Duke hopes to remain in the upper echelon of the ACC, the Devils must either sweep or come close to sweeping those games. The reason? Just look at what's coming up in February.
It starts with a visit from powerful North Carolina on Feb. 7, followed by road games at Maryland and Boston College. Road games at Clemson and UNC also loom on the horizon. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, they get no more games against the ACC's bottom three. The closest thing to a guaranteed win in February is a game with downtrodden St. John's, but even that's on the road.
Has Duke come far enough in the last two weeks to handle that killer February schedule?
"It is going to continue to get better," Nelson said after the N.C. State win. "I'd say the biggest change in our team lately is our mentality. We're just trying to bury each team we play."
ROOF PROMISES BOWL BY 2008
More than 200 former Duke football players attended an unusual "Football Summit" on campus earlier this month to discuss the sad state of the school's once-proud program.
The summit was closed to the press, but players in attendance described the affair as almost like a revival meeting. Athletic director Joe Alleva and football coach Ted Roof tried to address the former players' frustrations with the program's lack of success in the last decade, and to explain the decision to keep a coach coming off an 0-12 season, with that following a 1-10 year.
Roof tried, with at least some success, to convince the concerned alums that his program is making progress.
But the most startling information to leak from the meeting was Roof's promise that Duke would be bowl-eligible within two seasons.
"He made the commitment that we would be bowl-eligible in 2008," Darryl Brunson, who played at Duke under Red Wilson in the early 1980s, told the Durham Herald-Sun. "That's quite a plank to walk, but when you look at the whole presentation, that really is the logical conclusion to draw. It was amazing the confidence that Ted put forth after an 0-12 season. I can see why his players follow him. He won the whole room over."
Well, not the whole room. While only a few former players (e.g., Brian Baldinger, who was unable to attend the summit because of his obligations with Fox Sports and the NFL Network) have been willing to go on the record with biting criticisms, others spouted off anonymously to Mark Watson, who runs the website "Blue Devil Nation." Some of the comments were extremely harsh:
"This meeting should have been held before the hiring of Roof. Alleva proved incompetent in his hiring of (Carl) Franks, and the team is still on the same road."
"I think Alleva and Roof will be gone before the 2008 season. Sure they are talking bowl. They are trying to extend their job security."
"Improvements were talked about, but the implementation of said plan was a bit comical. There was nothing etched in stone no certainties just talk."
While there was no vote taken and no polling done at the summit, it does appear that a majority of the players involved were willing to give Roof and Alleva a little more time.
But the problems the summit was called to address can be solved only with at least a modicum of success on the field.