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Stars' Heavy Minutes Cause For Concern?

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  January 31, 2005 DURHAM — When Duke suffered its first loss of the season, to Maryland on Jan. 26, J.J. Redick played all 40 minutes for the Blue Devils. That's not all that unusual for the junior guard. Twice earlier this season, Redick played all 40 minutes without a break.

That's only unusual in the context of the ACC. Redick's three iron-man stints by the end of January were exactly half of the six 40-minute performances recorded in the ACC to that point. His average playing time of more than 36 minutes a game was tops in the league.

And it's not just Redick. Senior guard Daniel Ewing had one 40-minute game to his credit (giving Duke four of the six iron-man games played in the league this season), and his average of almost 35 minutes a game was the ACC's second-highest. Junior center Shelden Williams, who averaged just 26 minutes a game last season, averaged more than 33 minutes through the first 16 games this year, the sixth-highest total in the conference.

What's going on?

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, faced with a short roster made shorter by illness and injury, has responded by asking his key players to play longer — both longer than they've ever played before and longer than anybody else in the ACC is playing.

The question is whether those demands will wear out his Big Three over the course of a long season and leave Duke's stars drained heading into the regular-season stretch run in February and the postseason in March. The coach insists he's not worried.

"I'm not concerned that they're playing that much," Krzyzewski said recently. "That just means they're not in foul trouble."

It's not as if the Duke coach has dialed back the pace of the game to accommodate his short rotation. This isn't Frank McGuire's Iron Five at South Carolina, when John Roche and company walked the ball up on offense and played zone at the defensive end. Duke still runs when possible, and the Devils play as aggressively on defense as anybody in the league.

Krzyzewski's only concession to his lack of depth is in practice.

"Obviously, we adjust our practice schedule," he said. "With a limited group, we haven't practiced as long, because nobody rests. We adjust practice time for the guys who play a lot of minutes in games."

But it's important to understand that the Duke coach is not merely reacting to a temporary player shortage. What's happening in Durham is to a large degree the result of a conscious coaching
decision.

Postseason Explains Revised Logic

A few years ago, Krzyzewski decided to play his best players longer. He realized that in the postseason, stars often are asked — not just by him, but by almost everybody — to play 35-plus minutes a game. Shouldn't they get used to playing that long? He reasoned that a player who averages 28 or 30 minutes a game might struggle when suddenly asked to extend that by five or six or eight minutes a game.

Krzyzewski put his observation into practice in 2001, when he used stars Shane Battier and Jason Williams extensively, even in games that were not close at the end. Battier ended up averaging a fraction less than 35 minutes a game for the season. Williams averaged about 32 minutes a game.

Both were therefore ready to step up when Duke needed it most. Battier played back-to-back 40-minute games in the Final Four, while Williams averaged 36 minutes in the hard-fought wins over Maryland and Arizona.

That seemed to validate the Duke coach's theory that giving his top players more minutes during the regular season would prepare them for the postseason, not wear them out. In addition, his experience has taught him that older players are better able to handle extended playing time.

"Older players take better care of themselves," Krzyzewski said. "They don't use up so much emotional energy. That's something you can't put a gauge on. They also know how to play through being tired, while younger players have to learn how to do that."

Duke's Big Three players this season are veterans — two juniors and a senior who entered the season with a combined 171 games of starting experience. All have increased their minutes each season of their career, none more dramatically than Williams, who has gone from 19 minutes a game as a freshman to 26 as a sophomore to more than 33 as junior.

Part of that is a product of Williams' increasing ability to avoid foul trouble. But part of it is the unusual preseason conditioning program Duke's players undertook.

"I feel that our preseason workouts prepared us for the season," Williams said. "We knew that us three were going to have to play the majority of the minutes and stay in the game. We knew that if we wanted a good chance to win, a lot of our players were going to have to play a lot of minutes every night."

Much of Krzyzewski's focus was on Redick. The 6-4 sharpshooter averaged just under 31 minutes a game as a freshman and seemed to handle it well. Indeed, his finest moment that season came in the final 10 minutes of the ACC Tournament, when he scored 23 of his game-high 30 points in the title game against N.C. State. But last year was a different story. Redick lost his shooting touch late in the season. He missed 14 of 17 three-point tries in the ACC Tournament. And after a good start in NCAA play, he was eight-of-26 from the floor in the final two games of Duke's run to the Final Four.

"For about 20 games last year, I thought J.J. was the best player in our conference," Krzyzewski said. "You get worn down ... how do you (handle that)?"

Krzyzewski's answer was for Redick to get into better shape, which the junior guard clearly has done. He's noticeably slimmer this season, and he appears to be quicker.

But will Redick also prove to be more durable? And can Ewing and Williams also continue to be productive, despite the minutes they're being asked to play?

"We're all still in real good shape," Williams said. "If we think we're getting a little bit out of shape, we run after practice."

The biggest adjustment, he suggested, was to the mental approach to the game.

"Every time I go out there, I look at it like this: I'm playing for four minutes, then I have a rest," Williams said, referring to the four TV timeouts each half. "Then I play another four minutes, and then I have another rest. If I look at it like I've got to play 35 or 40 minutes, I'll beat myself up mentally and I won't last that long. But if I look at it like, play four minutes, rest ... play four minutes, rest ... then you've got halftime, you can get by without being tired much."

Still, it remains to be seen how the extra minutes will impact Duke's three best players as the season hits its stretch run. Keep in mind that while Krzyzewski traditionally has played his stars longer than any other coach in the ACC, even he has never asked his best players to play as many minutes as his Big Three are playing this season.