By Dave Glenn and staff
ACC Sports Journal
March 24, 2003
Imperfect Team Came Together
DURHAM When preseason prognostications were being made about Duke, the most common reference was to 2000, when the Blue Devils were incorporating a large freshman class after the NBA defections of Elton Brand, William Avery and Corey Maggette. That team finished 15-1 in the ACC, won the tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16 after being ranked No. 1 in the nation.
This season, Mike Krzyzewski insisted, was far different. Although his program had lost Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer and unexpectedly Mike Dunleavy, there wasn't the same comfort zone. That was why Coach K was so eager to go to England in October, after finding a loophole in the NCAA rules.
We needed to play some games, he said. The other time we lost three guys to the pros, we still had Chris Carrawell, Nate James and Shane Battier. This team had no reference point.
The only veterans who had played much in 2001-02 were point guard Chris Duhon, who had played in Williams' significant shadow, and Dahntay Jones, a fifth-year senior but only in his second season of action with the Devils. Casey Sanders and Nick Horvath were veterans, but they had never seen much playing time.
Game after game, Krzyzewski experimented. The six freshmen included four McDonald's All-Americans and a fifth, power forward Shelden Williams, would have been on the list if he had not been suspended from his high school team after a highly publicized rape accusation that never made it to court.
Duke was selected to win the ACC again and was ranked sixth in the nation despite all the losses. But Coach K wasn't fooled.
We're being picked high because of what we've done in the past, he said. We simply don't know what will happen with all these new guys, and with Duhon, Jones and Sanders all having different roles.''
The consensus was that the hyped rookie from Raleigh, forward Shavlik Randolph, would be the most important freshman. He scored 24 points in his first game, against Army. But by the time ACC play began, Randolph had been relegated to the bench. He had numerous physical problems, mostly with his ankles, and even when he played, he had defensive deficiencies. He did not play in the ACC Tournament or in the first two NCAA games.
The top freshman turned out to be sharpshooter J.J. Redick, a 6-4 guard from Roanoke. In his first showing against his in-state school, Virginia, he scored a Duke freshman record 34 points. But Redick soon became a marked man, drawing the attention of opposing defenses. After he scored 20 points in the first half against N.C. State, he was shut down with four in the second half, as the Devils lost their second straight ACC road game. Once the team's leading scorer, he saw his average fall below 15 points by the end of the regular season.
Eventually, an improving Williams made his way into the lineup and did well. At 6-9, he has the potential to be the best rebounder Coach K has ever had.
Even though the team lost four consecutive ACC road games, Duke finally was playing its best basketball when it went to New York to play a mediocre St. John's team the Devils had beaten by 42 points in consecutive years. Despite playing poorly, Duke was still ahead by 11 points, 71-60, with 4:05 left, then allowed the Red Storm to score the final 12 points for a stunning 72-71 upset.
Instead of being 21-4, Duke was 20-5. After his team won its final home game in unimpressive fashion against Florida State, Krzyzewski lashed out at the fans in Cameron, including the Crazies, who filled all of their student seats only for the big games against Maryland and UNC.
This team never got the respect it deserved, he said. We've won too much. I'm right about this, and that's sad.
The Blue Devils finished on the road at UNC, and they lost 82-79 as the Tar Heels shot brilliantly. Duke had won six straight in the series and 11 of 12, but Carolina deserved the victory.
Duke finished the regular season 21-6, not bad for a team so young, but it was 3-5 in the ACC on the road. The Devils only tied for second place with Maryland, two games behind Wake Forest, because the Terps lost twice to Virginia, including in their finale. When the Devils lost in double overtime at Wake Forest, it ended a streak of 13 straight wins against the Deacons.
On Monday of ACC Tournament week, Krzyzewski made the sort of coaching move that has made him one of just four active coaches in the Hall of Fame. He benched Sanders, moved sophomore Daniel Ewing into the lineup, and went with a perimeter-oriented team with the 6-6 Jones as the second tallest starter.
It was reminiscent of 2001, after Boozer broke his foot against Maryland in the penultimate game of the regular season. Sanders replaced Boozer out of necessity, but the more important switch moved fifth-year senior James, a Coach K favorite, to the bench and freshman Duhon into the starting lineup. It worked perfectly. Duke won at Carolina and never lost again, winning Krzyzewski's third NCAA championship.
This latest strategy led to Duke's fifth consecutive ACC Tournament title, something that never had happened before. Ewing, who was a double-figure scorer who had played well in the NCAA Tournament as a rookie, scored a career-high 32 points against Virginia in the tournament opener. He then got 19 as Duke toyed with Carolina in the semifinals after taking a 54-33 halftime lead, and his shooting opened more space for Redick.
I'm getting a lot more open looks, Redick said. Teams have to pick their poison. If they double on me, Daniel makes them pay.
But it was 23 points in the final 10:07 of the championship game by Redick against N.C. State that enabled Duke to erase a 15-point deficit and win another championship. He scored 30 points, although he still didn't make all-tournament in another of the bizarre situations that occurred all season. Ewing was named the MVP.
In the NCAA Tournament, Duke was placed in, by far, the most difficult region, in the West with Arizona, Kansas, Illinois and Notre Dame. Unlike the past five years, when they had been a No. 1 seed, the Devils were seeded third. It was the program's lowest seed since 1996, the year Coach K returned after missing the second half of the previous campaign with numerous ailments.
Heading into this season, in a case of unusual scheduling, Duke had lined up mid-major powers Dayton and Butler to play in Cameron.
Those are the kind of teams you might play, Coach K said, in the first couple of NCAA games.
Duke chose two good foes. Dayton won the Atlantic-10 and received a No. 4 seed. Butler, of the Horizon League, sneaked in as a No. 12 after being snubbed last year, then promptly bounced heavyweights Mississippi State and Louisville to reach the Sweet 16.
Meanwhile, Duke played two comparable mid-majors in Salt Lake City, sneaking past Colorado State in an opener that had all the feel of a road game, then belting Central Michigan 86-60 in one of its best games of the year to reach the Sweet 16 for the sixth straight year.
Krzyzewski always said he coaches by feel. He felt Williams and Sanders were being chewed up by seven-footer Chris Kaman, so he inserted 6-11 freshman Michael Thompson, who had barely gotten off the bench in recent games.
Thompson even had missed a game while deciding whether he was planning to transfer. He decided to stay. He rewarded his coach with 11 minutes of strong play against Kaman, including two blocks. He may well get Sanders' minutes next year.
Duke will be an underdog the rest of the way. In 32 games, the Blue Devils had been favored in every one except at Maryland. Nobody will expect the miracles to continue, but this is the sort of challenge that keeps Krzyzewski enthused. Even at this stage of the season, he's still tinkering with the lineup and rotation.
Veterans Bounced Back Strong
COLLEGE PARK There's a fine line between success and failure in the NCAA Tournament.
If Drew Nicholas had missed his miraculous shot at the buzzer against UNC Wilmington, Maryland would have become the first defending national champion to lose in the first round since UCLA in 1996. The Terrapins would have been ousted by a mid-major school from the relatively weak Colonial Athletic Association, an embarrassing circumstance that would have made for a lot of angry fans.
Instead, Nicholas hit one of the more remarkable last-second shots in tournament history and pumped new life into a struggling team. Sixth-seeded Maryland survived a valiant upset bid by UNCW, then went on to surprise third-seeded Xavier to reach the Sweet 16 for seventh time in the past 10 seasons.
Now most of the faithful are thrilled, because the Terps made it farther into March Madness than most expected. A team that overachieved all season did so once again on college basketball's greatest stage, and suddenly the atmosphere surrounding the program was a whole lot different than it would have been had Nicholas' gutsy heave not fallen.
Maryland moved into a third-round matchup with Michigan State needing just two more wins to accomplish the rare feat of reaching a third straight Final Four. Coach Gary Williams has long decried the fact that a team's season is judged by how well it does in the NCAA Tournament, but by that measuring stick the Terrapins are looking awfully good.
Advancing to the Sweet 16 added another interesting chapter to an up and down season. Maryland looked like a potential bubble team after suffering three losses to out-of-conference opponents in December. The Terps resurrected their season and clinched a tournament berth by going 11-5 and finishing tied for second in the ACC. However, back-to-back upsets at the hands of NIT-bound Virginia and North Carolina dropped the defending champs' stock in the eyes of many.
Maryland played perhaps its worst game of the season in falling to Carolina in the ACC Tournament, dropping from a possible No. 4 seed to a No. 6. Moreover, the Terps' overall performance down the stretch gave little suggestion that they were ready to make an NCAA run. But the selection committee gave Maryland by far the most favorable draw of any No. 6 seed, as there was no team on its half of the South Region bracket that looked unbeatable.
Going into the Big Dance, Williams needed to correct several problems that contributed to the two-game losing streak. He held some intense practices, because he felt playing only two games in the span of two weeks hurt the team.
We lost our edge a little bit, Williams said of the layoff, which was the result of a rare bye week at the tail end of the ACC schedule.
Of greatest concern was a lack of inside production, particularly on the part of center Ryan Randle. After playing well enough during the season to make third-team All-ACC, the 6-9 senior seemingly hit a wall and came into the NCAA Tournament having managed just 20 points and nine rebounds (total) in the previous three games.
A few days prior to the UNC Wilmington game, Randle alluded to an off-the-court personal problem that had been a distraction. Fans and media wondered if a family member was ill or whether the junior college transfer was struggling in the classroom. It turned out Randle was down as a result of a spat with his girlfriend.
Ryan has come under some harsh criticism. We deal with some tough media back home in the D.C. area, Williams said. You can't have a fight with your girlfriend if you're a college basketball player now. Every little thing becomes a big thing this time of the year.
Truth be told, Williams was finding it hard to believe that relationship issues were the reason behind Randle's inability to score, rebound or defend.
Whatever the reason for the late-season slump, Randle emerged from it with 15 points and a game-high 16 rebounds versus UNCW. While that was a welcome development, it still was not enough for the Terps to shake the pesky Seahawks, a dangerous No. 11 seed that had upset Southern California in the first round of last year's tournament.
Point guard Steve Blake went to the bench with four fouls about two minutes into the second half, and shortly thereafter a 10-point lead began to disappear. Unheralded guard John Goldsberry caught fire from three-point range and teamed with three-time CAA player of the year Brett Blizzard to rally UNCW to a 71-67 lead with 1:41 remaining.
When Tahj Holden missed an off-balance jumper on the ensuing possession, it looked like Maryland would be one-and-done. But Blake returned to hit a clutch three-pointer from the corner, and Nicholas then stunned everyone at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville with his heart-stopping shot. Nicholas rose up off his left foot with two defenders in his face and launched a one-handed, off-balance attempt that rose high in the air and swished through the basket. Nicholas raced off the court and was mobbed by teammates while UNCW coach Brad Brownell collapsed to the floor in stunned disbelief.
The play we drew up, we were trying to get the ball in Steve's hands. But they doubled him, so I just ran and got the ball and took it as far as I could, Nicholas said. I really couldn't believe it went through. It still hasn't set in yet. I just hope it makes ëOne Shining Moment.'
Williams agreed that it was one of the most memorable and historic shots in Maryland history.
I don't know if there's been a bigger shot, because it's an NCAA Tournament game, Williams said. It was a one-hander, a throwback shot like Drew said. But he was square to the basket, got good elevation and followed through on the release.
Nicholas' shot obviously changed Maryland's feelings about this NCAA Tournament and even the long-term future. In an instant, the Terps went from a possible first-round disappointment to a possible team of destiny. There was renewed focus and energy on the practice floor the following day, as the entire team got its swagger back.
It's funny how a win can re-energize you and make you forget about those games you lost, Nicholas said. To pull out a game like that, it gives you confidence that maybe this team can make another run.
Indeed, Williams felt all along that Maryland had a couple of ingredients that could spell success in the NCAA Tournament. First and foremost was the fact that the Terps had five seniors with Final Four experience under their belts.
We have some great seniors who have been through most of the tough situations you get into in the tournament, Williams said. We called on that senior leadership (against UNCW) and it came through.
Second, the Terps have an outstanding backcourt, which is usually a key to winning during March Madness. In close games, it helps to have a duo such as Blake and Nicholas to control the ball and take the tough shots.
Maryland also has depth, which proved crucial to knocking off favored Xavier. Williams went to his bench early in that game and got strong play from the likes of Jamar Smith, Travis Garrison, Andre Collins, Calvin McCall and John Gilchrist.
Collins, a benchwarmer for much of the season, was the first guard off the bench and provided steady play at the point. Smith, the athletic but enigmatic junior college transfer, made his biggest impact of the season by scoring 12 points on six-for-six field goal shooting, which included some spectacular dunks. Garrison, in Williams' doghouse in recent months, finally played like a McDonald's All-American should, with a solid effort on both ends of the floor.
Using all of the reserves so extensively proved a wise coaching strategy, as Williams was able to save his starters' legs and spread the fouls around. With everyone contributing and playing with a high energy level, Maryland put together perhaps its finest half of basketball this season. The Terps' flex offense was clicking on all cylinders, as Xavier defenders repeatedly were rubbed off screens and gave up a host of easy inside baskets or open jumpers.
Maryland was equally tough on the other end, playing rugged defense and controlling the defensive backboards en route to taking an 18-point lead. Xavier rallied to within four points with about six minutes remaining, but Maryland regained the aggressiveness it showed throughout the first half and steadily pulled away.
Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, this NCAA Tournament has been a surprising success for Maryland. It continued the program's recent trend of performing well under the bright lights and television cameras that come with March Madness.
Making the NCAA Tournament for 10 straight seasons is a tremendous accomplishment. Reaching the Sweet 16 in seven of those 10 years is the mark of an elite program, along with a veteran coach and experienced players who know how to find a way to win under the pressure of one-and-done.
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