February 26, 2008
DURHAM Duke's annual February foray outside the ACC couldn't have come at a better time for the Blue Devils than it did this season.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski always schedules a late non-conference game in order to get a fresh look at how his team might be defended by the kind of unfamiliar opponent the Devils might face in the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament. But this season's matchup with St. John's provided an extra benefit the chance for a staggering team to right itself against an easy foe.
While the Johnnies boast a proud basketball heritage and they are, indeed, the last non-ACC team to win in Cameron Indoor Stadium the New York City program has fallen on hard times. Coach Norm Roberts is starting three freshmen and using six first-year players extensively for a 10-15 team that is near the bottom of the Big East standings. St. John's is significantly weaker than the worst team in the ACC.
That could be one reason why Krzyzewski warned that Duke's lopsided 86-56 victory over the Red Storm shouldn't be seen as a return to prosperity after his team's two-game mini-slump.
"The roots of confidence, individually and collectively, on our team are not deep yet," he said. "So when you get knocked back, you have to re-establish those roots, and it's not going to come in one game. Hopefully, it will come, because they've been a beautiful, beautiful group."
Indeed, Duke won 22 of 23 games to open the season, climbing all the way to No. 2 in the nation and opening a two-game lead in the ACC regular-season race. But four days after an impressive homecourt victory over streaking Maryland, Krzyzewski's Blue Devils lost a Sunday night game at Wake Forest and then followed that with a one-point loss at Miami.
Suddenly, Duke's two-game lead in the ACC was gone. More significantly, the back-to-back defeats evoked visions of last season's collapse, when a team that was 18-3 and ranked sixth in the nation lost eight of its final 12 games.
"We're going to turn this thing back around," team captain DeMarcus Nelson said. "We've been too good all year to have whatever it is holding us back as a team. We're definitely going to find out what it is and address it. Our season is not going on a downward spiral."
Upon the team's return from Miami a game that was not really as close as the 95-95 score would indicate (Duke trailed the entire game and only got close at the end, and even then the Devils never had a shot to tie or take the lead) Krzyzewski scheduled a series of one-on-one meetings with his players. He said it was something he does about this time of season every year.
"It wasn't like there was something wrong with attitude," Krzyzewski said. "The basis was to find out where each kid was, (hear) their outlook, then we give them feedback. They were great, and we found how they look at things. It all comes from a good place."
Still, he sounded concerned about his team's direction. Speaking before the St. John's game, Krzyzewski said:
"Our team, there is something missing this week. We are not the same team these past two ballgames. It is almost like someone came in and invaded their bodies or something. We have given up 91 points a game these last two games. It's not what we do at Duke, but also it's not what these kids have done. I don't know if it's the time of the year, or if they took a deep breath, or whatever. We were not very good. That's all of our responsibility, mine specifically. I am very, very disappointed with our performance."
He was feeling better after watching his team pound hapless St. John's.
"We're 23-3. Jiminy Christmas," he said. "We weren't ready to jump off any bridges with two losses."
Whatever the value of the non-conference win, the St. John's game did contain two tangible signs that Duke might be strengthening itself for the stretch run strong performances from sophomore swingman Gerald Henderson and sophomore center Brian Zoubek.
Henderson's recent play has been a major concern at Duke. The 6-4 wing averaged 13.4 points in Duke's first 21 games and was an important offensive weapon as a driver and especially as a player capable of providing a deadly mid-range jumper.
But he was injured in the victory over North Carolina and saw his production drop dramatically to just six points per game for one short stretch.
"(Henderson) sprained his wrist badly in the North Carolina game," Krzyzewski said. "He's got like a Grade 3 sprain. He'll get it operated on as soon as the season is over. He's trying to adapt and play with that."
Henderson, who is easily the team's most explosive athlete, came off the bench for the first time this season in the St. John's game. The move apparently worked to jump-start his game. He got the slow-starting Devils going early with a pair of tough pull-up jumpers and finished things off with a pair of signature dunks off lob passes. He hit five of nine shots from the floor and finished with 13 points.
"I thought today, it looked like he wasn't bothered. That doesn't mean he wasn't, but he's adjusted," Krzyzewski said. "That was probably the thing I was most pleased with."
But the Duke coach also was pleased with Zoubek the only true big man on Duke's undersized roster who turned in his first career double-double, with 11 points and 13 rebounds in 20 minutes against the Red Storm. The 7-1, 260-pounder missed nine games at midseason with a foot injury, but he is starting to play a more significant role off the bench.
"Brian's been out most of the season, and (it's important) to get him integrated back in our team and see how does he fit in," Krzyzewski said. "To have him play the minutes he did and get a double-double was big. Brian is an asset, and we know he's going to be with us."
KRZYZEWSKI, WILLIAMS BATTLE
The strong contributions by two players dealing with injuries provided an interesting counterpoint to the midweek exchange between Krzyzewski and UNC coach Roy Williams, a pair of dueling comments that earned the rivals national attention for their dustup.
It started with Krzyzewski's comments about Nolan Smith after the freshman guard scored 21 points in the loss at Wake Forest:
"Nolan hyper-extended his knee at Maryland and has been dealing with that since and unlike other schools we don't release our injuries so I thought he played a strong game tonight."
Although Krzyzewski never mentioned Williams or Carolina, the UNC coach, who had been dealing with a lengthy and well-publicized injury list, took Krzyzewski's words as a deliberate affront.
"I felt like that comment was aimed toward us," Williams said. "Regardless of what somebody else says about they have injuries, too, which is a bunch of bunk, so I don't give a crap what somebody else says, but coach their own damn team, I'll coach my team in case anybody has heard some statements about that."
The exchange evoked memories of the angry, nose-to-nose exchange between Krzyzewski and Williams in Winston-Salem during the 2000 NCAA Tournament and should provide a lively buildup to the March 8 rematch between Duke and UNC that very well could decide the ACC regular-season title.