February 12, 2008
DURHAM Almost half of the ACC games played this year have been decided by three points or fewer or in overtime.
Yet Duke managed to get off to a 9-0 start in the league without playing a single game decided by fewer than nine points. In fact, the Devils' 93-84 victory at Maryland was the only Duke win that wasn't in double digits.
That doesn't mean that coach Mike Krzyzewski's team hasn't played close games. Three times in nine ACC games the Devils were down at the half, twice by nine points. Road games at FSU and Virginia Tech were dead even at the five-minute mark. At College Park, Maryland was within three with two minutes to play. And North Carolina made a late run in Chapel Hill and closed to within five with about a minute left before Duke pulled away to win by 11.
Not surprisingly, Duke led the ACC with a 14.5 average margin of victory, but here was the surprise: In the first half of those nine ACC games, the Blue Devils outscored their opponents by an average of only 2.6 points; in the second half, the margin was 11.9.
Part of that discrepancy can be attributed to depth. Duke is getting more bench scoring than anybody else in the league. But Krzyzewski believes that his team's ability to finish games is based on its ability to execute its spread offense.
"In the last five minutes of games, we've been so efficient in our open set and using our assets," he said. "People have to come at us because we've had a lead. It hasn't necessarily been a huge lead, but we've been able to dictate how the last few minutes of games have been played.
"If we do that, it lends itself to us winning. We've got to hit some shots and be tough. We've been tough in those last four minutes of ballgames."
Duke's spread emphasizes the ball-handling and driving skills that the Devils have in abundance. Krzyzewski usually plays four of his wing players with freshman forward Kyle Singler, giving him five players on the floor capable of executing one-on-one.
That almost always creates a mismatch in Duke's favor. For instance, in the Feb. 9 victory over stubborn Boston College, it was painful to watch BC's John Oates try to cover Singler in the spread.
"When we (go to the spread), we're still trying to score," Krzyzewski said. "But it's like a fighter. We're not going to get into the clinches and get knocked out. We're going to dance a little bit and try to go to our strengths."
JUST HOW GREAT ARE DEVILS?
Duke's victory at UNC that closed out the first half of the ACC for both teams left the Blue Devils with a surprising, even shocking two-game lead over the Tar Heels the nation's preseason No. 1 team in the conference race.
The win left national pundits debating just how good this Blue Devil team really is. ESPN commentator (and former Duke standout) Jay Bilas declared in the wake of the UNC win that the Tar Heels are still the better team with injured point guard Ty Lawson in the lineup. A number of other commentators voiced similar sentiments, even as Duke climbed to No. 2 in the two major opinion polls and earned top-three status in three major computer polls.
But is Duke, a team without a reliable inside presence, really that good?
"We know who we are; we are a very unconventional team," Krzyzewski said. "We are not a very strong physical team, but I think we are strong emotion-wise and toughness. We are really a together group.
"You just have to hope that you don't get killed at some point in the game by somebody's strength. It is a tough team to impose your will (against). Like a counter-puncher, you might win a round dancing around a little bit. You just find different ways to win, and because we have versatile players they are able to do that thus far."
This Duke team echoes some of Krzyzewski's past teams.
His 1988 Final Four team was similarly small. It had 6-10 Danny Ferry, but he usually played on the perimeter, while 6-7 John Smith and 6-5 Robert Brickey played down low. His 1997 ACC regular-season champs took off when he benched 6-11 center Greg Newton and started 6-6 freshman Chris Carrawell in the post.
His 2001 national title team made its run to the Final Four after center Carlos Boozer was hurt. Krzyzewski did have 6-11 Casey Sanders to start in Boozer's place, but he wasn't as good an inside threat as Lance Thomas of the 2008 Devils. The 2001 team functioned much as this one does, by pressuring the passing lanes and relying on the three-point shot.
Of course, that 2001 Duke team had such stars as Jason Williams, Mike Dunleavy and national player of the year Shane Battier.
As well as senior DeMarcus Nelson is playing, there's nobody of that caliber on this Duke team. Or is there?
Krzyzewski, asked about the play of Singler, recently invoked some familiar names when asked about his precocious freshman.
"I think he's a lot like Battier, but not Battier as a freshman or sophomore," Krzyzewski said. "I really think of him as being a combination of Shane and Mike Dunleavy. He has better ball skills (than Shane at this point of his career), more like Mike's. I don't know if there is a freshman in the country who has played better than Singler. He's there every night defense, offense, tough plays. The kid's had a phenomenal year."
So has Duke, at least through the midpoint of the ACC regular season. The Blue Devils matched the best start in school history with a 21-1 record through 22 games, and every previous 21-1 Duke team ended up with 30-plus wins. Four of the five previous 21-1 teams won ACC titles, while the fifth won a regular-season title. Three of the five reached the Final Four.
Krzyzewski isn't making any projections about this team, but he isn't putting any limitations on it, either.
"I think we can play better, because I think each one of our players can be better," he said. "DeMarcus is approaching what he can do, but the other guys all have upsides. As we keep rolling through this conference, we've got to keep getting them better."
CUTCLIFFE HAS SWEET SCHEDULE
New Duke football coach David Cutcliffe had to be delighted when the team's 2008 schedule was released by the ACC office. It's hard to imagine a more favorable schedule for his first year.
A year after being forced to play four straight road games in September, the Blue Devils will open with four straight home games and all of them are winnable, even for a team with just 10 wins in this century.
It starts with Division I-AA James Madison, followed by visits by Northwestern, the one team Duke beat a year ago, and Navy, a team that edged the Devils on a last-second field goal last fall and lost its coach after the season. Then Cutcliffe will get two weeks to prepare for his ACC opener, against Virginia in Wallace Wade Stadium.
Overall, Duke will play a school-record seven home games, giving the new coach a reasonable chance to start his tenure on a successful note.