October 26, 2005
DURHAM - It doesn't bother Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski that almost everybody who will play for the Blue Devils this season is either a senior or a freshman. The only "middleman" likely to see significant action is sophomore DeMarcus Nelson.
"It's an unusual dynamic," Krzyzewski said. "It's a good situation. For me, having seniors is great. I rely more on them and try to teach them to teach."
That's very good in theory, but ACC history suggests that teams with a severe senior/freshman split often have chemistry problems. North Carolina's preseason No. 1 team in 1994 is perhaps the prime example.
Can Duke avoid the problems that haunted that talented UNC team? One place to watch for potential trouble is the preseason battle for the starting point guard job.
Back when freshman Greg Paulus was being pressured to renege on his basketball commitment to Duke and instead sign a football grant with Notre Dame, he answered every reporter's question with some version of the same mantra: "My goal is to go to Duke and be the starting point guard from day one."
Standing in his way is senior Sean Dockery, who started 21 games at the point last season and would have started more except for a knee injury that sidelined him for five games late in the regular season.
A 6-2 Chicago native, Dockery was overshadowed by the ACC's plethora of great point guards last season. While he certainly wasn't (and never will be) in a class with UNC's Raymond Felton, Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack or Wake Forest's Chris Paul as a scorer or a creator, Dockery was as good a defender as any ACC point guard. And after shooting a woeful 12 percent from three-point range as a sophomore, he upped his average to 43.6 (on 55 attempts) as a junior, the best rate on the team.
Maybe more important is Dockery's role in the locker room. Krzyzewski has told reporters on a number of occasions that the senior playmaker is the most popular player on the team. When asked in October what person in the program is doing the most to serve as a liaison between the veterans and the rookies, most Duke players mentioned Dockery first.
What is it going to do to the team's dynamic if the popular Dockery loses his starting job to the talented Paulus? Or how will Paulus handle it if he doesn't achieve his oft-stated goal to start right away?
Krzyzewski has tried to downplay the potential competition. When asked about Paulus before the first practice, he said, "We'll wait before we start putting up billboards to him." Duke star J.J. Redick later raised some eyebrows when he stated that Paulus, an extremely confident player who doesn't back down from anyone, was encountering the most difficulty of the newcomers in making the adjustment from high school to college.
Nevertheless, everyone seems to agree that - at some point - Paulus will bring a dimension to the point guard role that Duke needs. He's a natural playmaker, a Bobby Hurley-like creator in the open floor. That's one thing Dockery does not do well. A year ago, he averaged barely over two assists a game. The freshman also brings that cocky attitude his new teammates seem to admire.
"The first thought I had when I saw him was that he's a punk - and I love it," Redick said. "He's going to be the next hated Duke player. I think, like me, it's something he's going to relish."
Dockery said he looked forward to the on-going competition with Paulus. He also insisted that he enjoys interacting with the large crop of freshmen.
"I've got a younger brother the same age," Dockery said. "It's something I enjoy. Greg is hilarious. ... He's almost funnier than me."
That all sounds great. In terms of talent, the senior and the freshman could complement each other very well. Paulus is a creator who brings a new level of energy to the floor. Dockery is the better defender, a better spot-up shooter and has as much experience as any point guard in the ACC.
But watch closely as the season approaches to see whether or not that idyllic rotation evolves, or whether friction between Duke's young and old point guards evokes memories of Derrick Phelps versus Jeff McInnis in Chapel Hill.
The nature of the competition at the point could very well determine how well Duke's seniors and freshmen meld, and whether or not Duke lives up to its potential this season.
NELSON MATURING; MCCLURE HEALING
Injuries and illness bothered Duke all last season, starting with DeMarcus Nelson's preseason thumb problem and continuing through Dockery's late-season knee injury.
The 2005-06 season started in an eerily similar fashion, as Nelson suffered another thumb injury as practice opened. Fortunately, this one wasn't on his shooting hand.
"It's the left hand," Krzyzewski said, "and it wasn't as serious."
The Duke coach also said that Nelson, with a year of experience behind him, reacted to this injury with more maturity. Last year, as a freshman, Nelson often seemed distracted by his physical condition and other issues. He even contemplated a transfer after growing frustrated with his playing time and other matters.
"I like the way he handled it (this time)," Krzyzewski said. "Boom! He was back."
Duke will be without Nelson's classmate this season. Sophomore David McClure, who underwent offseason knee surgery, will be redshirted. Krzyzewski, who announced the news on his new weekly XM Radio show ("Basketball and Beyond with Coach K") rather than via the more traditional release from the school's media relations office, is hoping the 6-6 wingman can re-join the team in practice by midseason.
Walk-ons Patrick Davidson and his younger brother Jordan Davidson also were out with injuries as Duke opened preseason practice. That wasn't the problem it would have been a year ago, when the Blue Devils were shorthanded. Now, with 10 healthy scholarship players, Krzyzewski is better able to handle the absence of a couple of walk-ons.
BIG NAMES MISS FRESHMAN FLURRY
Duke football coach Ted Roof has played an ACC-high 15 true freshmen so far this season (10 have started at least one game), but at least one heralded recruit won't see the field in 2005.
Roof said last week that, barring an unforeseen run of injuries to other players, well-regarded quarterback Gene Delle Donne will redshirt this season.
Duke insiders said in August that Delle Donne looked the best of the team's three freshman signal-callers in the preseason, but in mid-September he was arrested on underage-drinking charges. That resulted in a suspension, just as the coaches were reconsidering their QB options for this season.
"At this point in the season, I wouldn't want to burn a year on Gene," Roof said, "because I really think he's got a bright future."
That makes sense. After losing to Florida State, Duke (1-7, 0-5 ACC) had just three games left and no chance to salvage a winning season with or without Delle Donne. Another true freshman, Zack Asack, has been getting most of the snaps in recent weeks, after very disappointing starts from a pair of fourth-year juniors, incumbent Mike Schneider and backup Curt Dukes.
Roof wouldn't make the same redshirt declaration when asked about another heralded freshman. Texas defensive tackle Vincent Oghobaase has been sidelined all year with a nagging knee injury he originally suffered last spring. He recently returned to practice but hasn't played in a game yet.
When Roof was asked in late October if he was planning to redshirt the prep All-American, the Duke coach evaded the question.
What's the difference between Delle Donne and Oghobaase?
There's no clear answer, but it's very possible that Roof sees Oghobaase as one of those rare Duke players who will be in position to turn pro after three seasons. Projecting Oghobaase into the NFL at this point is a highly speculative venture, but the 6-6, 325-pounder, who picked Duke over Miami and Oklahoma, is the highest-rated prospect the Blue Devils have signed in more than a decade.
Of course, the whole issue may be moot. It's still not clear that Oghobaase will be physically able to play before this season is over.