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The Big Three

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

March 14, 2005 Top ACC writers probe UNC, Wake Forest and Duke during March Madness, while other veteran journalists discuss those schools' top five teams of all time ...

North Carolina 2005

By Neil Amato
Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun
“I think (mental toughness) is the difference in our team right now from last year,” coach Roy Williams said. “The chemistry is better and all that kind of stuff. Toughness is something I preach from day one. They have to be tough enough to put up with me sometimes, which is not easy in itself. Toughness and trust — you need to trust your teammates to do the right thing for you.”

The lofty expectations for the North Carolina basketball season initially crashed like the Titanic, as also-ran Santa Clara punctured the supposedly impenetrable Tar Heel ship on its opening voyage.

UNC was, of course, rudderless in that game, trying to run its speedboat offense without point guard Raymond Felton, who served a one-game suspension for playing in an unsanctioned summer league.

But UNC also lacked in that game, a 77-66 loss, the fire it displayed much of the rest of the year, the same fire that carried it to the ACC regular-season title, even while playing the last four games of the conference slate (all wins) minus gifted junior swingman Rashad McCants.

UNC pulled together during McCants' absence, disproving or at least casting doubt on the Dean Smith premise that a team could make up for an injured regular for one game but have trouble doing so after. UNC coach Roy Williams thought Felton's one-game absence would similarly bond the Tar Heels, who had trouble a year ago with togetherness.

Hawaii Trip Sent Early Message

After Santa Clara came a trip to Maui, which was paradise for everyone but the North Carolina players. The other favorites in the eight-team event — Texas, Louisville, Iowa — had enjoyed easy wins to open the season, and they enjoyed themselves on the island before the games began.

Texas took a cruise — and look where the Longhorns are now, foundering in uncertain NCAA waters without Raleigh's P.J. Tucker. Iowa made a surprise run to the Maui final, riding the shooting of Pierre Pierce, whose subsequent run-ins with Iowa law enforcement kicked him off the team and booted Iowa to the brink of an NIT bid.

North Carolina's players got their butts kicked by Williams in Maui, who still seethed over the Santa Clara loss a full two days later, looking out of place simply because everyone else on the island seemed so carefree that Sunday morning. Sure, Williams had the Maui gear — a light-blue Hawaiian print shirt that matched those who traveled in the Rams Club package — but he didn't have the Maui smile.

He put his team through a two-hours-plus film session, then a tedious practice. Instead of the water slide at the posh team hotel, it was defensive slides for the Tar Heels.

"Coach was so frustrated, so upset," senior Jackie Manuel said. "He just felt like we didn't play hard. We didn't listen to detail. We watched (the tape) in Hawaii. Then we practiced. If we would have been in the pool at the Westin, we wouldn't be in the position that we're in. It was good that he took us through that film session and that practice."

Felton was back for the next game, and so was a previously unseen level of play. North Carolina rolled past its three Maui opponents, then blew out Southern California back in Chapel Hill.

Diverse, Unselfish Offense Soars

UNC didn't like the taste of losing, but its improved play went beyond any lingering anger over Santa Clara. The Tar Heels' idea of competitiveness in Williams' first season was if the other team scored, try to score at the other end. This season, the attitude was to keep the other team from scoring and still try to score 120 every game. And not with one player scoring 50.

"Offensively, we have a tremendous willingness to share the ball," Williams said recently. "Even when we don't execute well, we have so few instances of guys taking bad shots."

The Tar Heels also spread the shots around. Five players average in double figures, and eight play 16 minutes a game. McCants, who seemed to be about only scoring as a freshman, continued to expand his game, confident he could score when he needed to but also confident enough in his teammates that he didn't need to.

Felton displayed better shooting mechanics and a higher success rate on outside shots, proficiency that if exhibited earlier in his career might have already put him in the NBA draft. Though his mishandling of UNC's final possession in a loss at Duke will be remembered, Felton did his best to erase that memory with monstrous games at Connecticut, N.C. State and Maryland, among others.

Inside, Sean May looked like an elasticized version of his former self, darting up the court for fastbreak dunks, rebounding like no Tar Heel has in 30 seasons and making critical defensive plays. He has said more than once this season that the old, heftier Sean wouldn't have contributed — at times, dominated — the way he has.

May is fresher for UNC's NCAA Tournament run because the Tar Heels put so many teams away early that his minutes rarely crept above 30. But UNC put teams away in part because May could come out, freshman Marvin Williams could come in, and UNC wouldn't lose anything. Williams, a likely top-five draft pick if he decides to leave after one year, is strong enough to finish inside, tenacious on the boards (6.5 average in 22 minutes a game) and skilled enough to make 12 of 22 three-pointers in conference play and shoot 83.5 percent from the free throw line.

Marvin Williams has flourished playing behind senior Jawad Williams, who quietly scored 14.4 points a game. It was the elder Williams who was plugged into the starting lineup by coach Matt Doherty in 2001-02, and his confidence was shot when UNC started 0-3. Marvin Williams doesn't need to be the savior on this team, one reason he seems to play so loose.

Defense, Toughness, Rebounding

UNC did not arrive at a No. 1 seed with offensive talent alone. Since Santa Clara shot 50 percent against the Tar Heels, UNC has hovered around Roy Williams' magic number for field goal percentage defense: under 40. Only in the last two games of the regular season did the opponent nudge that number back above 40, something Williams pays far more attention to than the Tar Heels' RPI.

More than once, he has challenged his team and the media to name him a team that recently won the NCAA title without exceptional defense. He's still waiting for an answer. He likes to score as much as anyone, but UNC has feasted on turnovers caused by such players as Felton, Manuel and David Noel. Their quickness and commitment to defense have rubbed off on the other Tar Heels, and the team's mental toughness is leaps and bounds better than what it was even a year ago.

"I think (mental toughness) is the difference in our team right now from last year," Williams said. "The chemistry is better and all that kind of stuff. Toughness is something I preach from day one. They have to be tough enough to put up with me sometimes, which is not easy in itself. Toughness and trust — you need to trust your teammates to do the right thing for you."

Noel was never the player he expected to be a season ago, when a torn ligament in his hand set him back before the year began. His confidence dipped when he didn't play well, and it showed in missed layups or fumbled passes. This season, Noel better understands his role, which doesn't always include scoring. For example, against Florida State in early March, he had eight assists, a number no UNC player other than Felton has reached in the past two seasons.

Other than ball-sharing and shared defensive intensity, another reason for North Carolina's improvement — from 8-8 in the ACC to
14-2 — has been rebounding. A season ago, UNC had half the rebound margin it has now. Those extra boards have given the Tar Heels extra possessions on offense and a half-second head start on the fastbreak.

Though the pace will slow in the NCAA Tournament, that rebounding edge will come in handy. Never was that more evident than in the March 6 win over Duke, when UNC was thoroughly outplayed in the second half — it scored 17 points in the first 17 minutes — before scoring 10 of the points in its 11-0 run on second chances.

Juniors Meshing With Williams

As good as North Carolina has been, it missed McCants, a clear and present danger on the perimeter and a developing defensive star. His absence because of an unspecified intestinal disorder moved one-dimensional senior Melvin Scott into the starting lineup and gave UNC few long-range threats if Scott wasn't on target.

Even upon his return, which came in the ACC Tournament, McCants appeared to be something less than his old self. Though the Tar Heels no doubt wanted McCants back, they seemed to have adjusted to his absence well enough, and even Williams admitted the team would have an adjustment when McCants returned at full speed.

"I'm hoping if he is able to come back (full-speed), it will be a positive," Williams said. "I think it will be a positive. He has tremendous ability to score. And he's a really well-respected player and (the opponents aren't) going to give him any room. That opens things up for the other guys. His reputation is well-deserved. I think the chemistry is always a little hurt when you lose a guy, and it's always a little hurt when you get him back."

The Tar Heels are regarded as a favorite for the NCAA Tournament, based on their firepower and their head coach, who took four Kansas teams to the Final Four in 15 seasons in Lawrence. May, a basketball history buff who picked North Carolina in large part for its tradition, likes the team's position, even if he seems somewhat surprised, considering where the program was three seasons ago.

"When Raymond, Rashad and I decided to come here, we said we wanted to help bring this program back to where it's always been, what we grew up watching," May said. "We knew it was going to be difficult. I don't think anyone thought North Carolina would be rock bottom and be at the top within three years."

The rebirth is a credit to Doherty, even though his style grated on the players and led to his forced resignation after just three seasons at his alma mater. Doherty recruited every scholarship player on this team but Marvin Williams and reserve point guard Quentin Thomas. Yes, that includes little-used scholarship big men Byron Sanders and Damion Grant, but it also includes nine of the top 10 players on a team that went 26-3 in the regular season.

But look at it another way, and Roy Williams deserves the overwhelming majority of the credit. Some of those same players lost 36 games in Doherty's last two seasons. UNC might go the next six years under Williams and not lose as much.

"We know that if we listen to every word (Williams) says, great things are going to happen," May said. "It sounds simple, but that makes all the difference."

Small Window Of Opportunity?

UNC's long-term success, of course, is tied to the early entry possibilities. Marvin Williams would be the highest pick among the Tar Heels, but he seems the most content to be a teenager, which he will be until June 2006. Roy Williams has entered into evidence multiple times Marvin's statement that he would rather "watch grass grow" than think about the NBA.

Felton seems all but gone, especially with his shooting and on-the-ball defense improved. Also, it probably wasn't mere coincidence that his high school coach showed up for the March 6 home finale, dressed as if it was Felton's Senior Day.

McCants, because of his illness, is a wild card. He certainly has NBA talent but has said he would like to be on campus for his sister, a standout player who will join coach Sylvia Hatchell's program in Chapel Hill next season.

Then there's May, who guaranteed in the past that he would stay four seasons but whose play of late has guaranteed more attention from NBA scouts. May also seems to relish college and college basketball, and he'll always have that challenge out there: to win an NCAA title within 30 years of his father's Indiana team winning the 1976 crown.

North Carolina has deficiencies, especially when it can't crank up the transition game, but it also has the ingredients for a Final Four run. And if UNC brings home the trophy, any conversation about who goes and who stays will have to start all over again.

Talk of a Final Four, so rampant in Chapel Hill in the fall, was instantly erased in November in Maui, at least on the first two days of UNC's trip. Roy Williams didn't like the taste of losing, but he still followed through on the promise he made to his wife to spend an hour a day with her at the Westin's out-of-this-world pool.

Now he's injected the Tar Heels with Law-rence-like fire and guided them back to college basketball's sunny side.

A season ago, UNC's players were content to reach the NCAA Tournament, playing so-so basketball for much of the season. They had t-shirts made before the season that read: "Play hard, play smart, play in March."

This season, they seem intent on surpassing that goal.

"We know we have a team that's capable of going all the way and winning it all," Noel said. "It's definitely something where we want to play in April in that championship game. That's been our goal all year, and we have a team that's capable of getting there. We don't see why we shouldn't be there."

Wake Forest 2005

By Tom Berry
High Point (N.C.) Enterprise
“I think we've done a relatively good job with that,” coach Skip Prosser said. “You don't want to get to the point where a win is not a joyous occasion but just a relief. It shouldn't be like that. It's been a long, tough (road), and it's not without its challenges, mentally and physically. But I think the kids have enjoyed it.”

WINSTON-SALEM — In an attempt to inspire and enlighten his players, Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser offers a Quote of the Day.

The sources range from authors to literary and historic characters to politicians and more. From Shakespeare to Elmer Gantry, Genghis Khan to Dalai Lama, Euclid to Davy Crockett.

One daily saying should be Quote of the Year. As the Demon Deacons carried a No. 1 seed and a school record for victories into the NCAA Tournament, the coach never let his team forget perhaps the most important of his many borrowed quotes.

"I don't want to wax too historic, but one of my favorite quotes was from John F. Kennedy when they tried to get him to accept the vice presidential nomination in 1960," Prosser explained after the Deacons' late-season win over Georgia Tech.

Kennedy was presented with numerous reasons to disband his presidential aspirations and serve on the other half of the ticket: too young, too far from the mainstream as a Catholic and New Englander, etc. Kennedy's response?

"If you settle for second place once, you'll settle for second place your whole life," Prosser said, quoting the man who became the nation's 35th president on Jan. 20, 1961. "We've referenced that with our kids."

And how.

Second Place Offers Motivation

"That's what coach always tells us," senior guard Taron Downey said. "We're going to play like we're playing for a championship every night."

Added junior guard Justin Gray: "Coach always wants us to be the best we can be."

The best refuse to settle for second place.

All four of Prosser's seasons at Wake have improved to the point where the Deacons now rank among the nation's elite programs, but they still finished behind North Carolina in the ACC regular-season race this spring.

No longer an afterthought in the ACC's Big Four, which also includes UNC, Duke and N.C. State, the Deacons own favorable recent records against their in-state rivals. But the Tar Heels, who lost 95-82 to Wake on Jan. 15 in the only game between the two this season, still squeaked out the ACC Tournament's No. 1 seed.

One game out for Wake. One game too many.

"There's some disappointment there," junior center Eric Williams said.

"We much rather would have won the league," added Prosser.

"We came up short," said sophomore guard Chris Paul.

Still, the Deacons have a chance to go from second in the ACC to first in the country. Their productive regular season, which included the school's first No. 1 Associated Press ranking and loads of positive national publicity until Paul's fist to the groin of N.C. State's Julius Hodge, means Wake stands with a group behind only Illinois and North Carolina as the teams considered most likely to win the NCAA title.

"This has been a special season for us," Williams said. "There's something different this year that we haven't had before. I believe in my heart of hearts that we can get (to the Final Four). We know we can do it. It's right there. All we have to do is grab it."

Key Element: In-State Success

Reaching the Final Four and winning a national title have been elusive goals for the Wake Forest program. While UNC, Duke and N.C. State have combined for eight NCAA titles, Wake has none. The Tar Heels, Blue Devils and Wolfpack have combined for 29 trips to the Final Four since the Deacons' only appearance, in 1962.

On the other hand, if the Deacs' success in college basketball is measured by their Big Four brethren, the glory years have arrived. Entering the ACC Tournament, Wake had defeated UNC in six of the last seven games, stopped Duke in two of the last three contests and toppled N.C. State 10 of the last 13 times.

Prosser is winning by identifying the state's best high school players and offering them the chance to make early commitments. Nine North Carolinians dot the current roster, including two former McDonald's All-Americans (Paul, Williams) who grew up UNC fans but made early choices for the Deacons.

"Probably everybody in our locker room from North Carolina grew up a North Carolina fan," said Gray, a Charlotte native whose basketball mentor was Jeff McInnis, a former neighbor and UNC point guard. "We were Carolina fans because of Vince Carter and Jerry Stackhouse and those guys. And then there was (Michael) Jordan. If you didn't like watching Jordan, you're not a basketball fan."

The Deacons' incoming freshman class includes Greensboro's Kevin Swinton and Black Mountain's David Weaver. The top-ranked high school junior in the state, Charlotte's Jamie Skeen, already has committed to Wake.

Why do so many of North Carolina's best seem to be going to Wake Forest now?

"We're changing it," Gray said. "The younger kids are seeing the way we play and want to be like us. When (Prosser) brings in players, we do a good job recruiting and showing that we're a family."

Already A Landmark Campaign

With better players, the Wake family under Prosser keeps producing better results. The Deacons held their first-ever No. 1 ranking for two weeks in November, before Illinois' 91-73 rout, and have not dropped below No. 7 nationally all season. Wake became the smallest school (6,405 total students) in 50 years to reach the top spot.

The Deacons currently own a string of 50 consecutive weeks in the AP Top 25, with 17 straight appearances in the top 10. Over the last three seasons, Wake and Duke are tied for the most ACC wins.

When Paul (first), Williams (second) and Gray (second) were named All-ACC in early March, they enabled the Deacons to have three all-conference players for the first time since 1964. The senior class of Downey, Vytas Danelius and Jamaal Levy probably will break the school record of 97 wins over four years, set by Tim Duncan's class of 1997.

Dave Odom recruited the three current Wake Forest seniors, then departed for South Carolina without coaching them. Odom left Wake with 12 straight postseason berths, but the Deacons have reached even greater heights under Prosser.

Only Duke's Vic Bubas from 1960-63 has a higher ACC winning percentage (.750) after his first four seasons than Prosser (.683).

"We've accomplished so many things," Williams said.

"The discussion since I've been at Wake has been Duke and Carolina and Carolina and Duke," Prosser said. "And now it's nice that the discussion is Duke and Carolina and Wake Forest."

Coach, Seniors Grew Together

Four years ago, the incoming freshmen had no sense of future accomplishments. Levy, Downey and Danelius had just lost their coach and weren't sure about Prosser, a Pittsburgh native who brought a strange accent and a different way of doing things.

"I thought the guy was crazy when I first met him," Downey said. "He brought so much intensity all the time. He was so hyper, like he was on something. We just weren't used to that every day."

The Deacons got used to it.

"(Prosser) instills that in you, and you play that way," Downey said. "You play real hyped and geeked for every game. It's a great feeling."

Like Downey, Danelius initially wasn't sure about Prosser. He seemed the most likely recruit to go elsewhere once Odom departed.

"I had to make sure about coach Prosser and his staff," said Danelius, a native of Lithuania who attended high school in Indiana. "I wanted to play for good people."

Prosser earned Danelius' trust quicker than Paul feeding Levy for a dunk.

"In five minutes," Danelius said. "He was straight up. He didn't tell me what I wanted to hear; he told me I'd have to work hard to earn my time and I'd have to follow the rules."

Paul Provides Punch, Spotlight

Prosser is a stickler for rules. He has disciplined at least six players this season for a series of mostly minor offenses. Paul's recent one-game suspension for his cheap shot on Hodge was by far the most attention-grabbing transgression.

Together with Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, Prosser did not waste time in sitting Paul for Wake's first game of the ACC Tournament. The suspension was announced less than 24 hours after Paul sucker-punched Hodge in the first half and then drilled a runner at the buzzer to beat the Wolfpack to close the regular season. Prosser said he didn't want to wait for the ACC to get involved.

"There's no excuse for the inexcusable and no defense for the indefensible," Prosser said. "It's meant to sting and hurt him."

Paul, the preseason coverboy of college basketball, was stung and hurt like his many fans. Despite his reputation for doing good deeds off the court and his popularity as one of the game's good guys, the All-American had been involved in a number of on-court incidents throughout the season.

Paul drew a technical foul at Duke for shoving the basketball into Lee Melchionni's midsection. He often hurled himself at opponents in an attempt to create jump balls, creating more hot tempers.

"I feel like I've hurt my teammates," said Paul, talking to reporters the day after his suspension. "But that's in the past now. We've just got to move on."

With two more seasons at Wake unless he leaves early for the NBA, Paul should keep the Deacons moving in the right direction, even with a few well-publicized bumps in the road.

"This program is growing," Levy said.

Program's Image Gets Facelift

The growth includes more than records and rankings. Joel Coliseum has become one of the ACC's best home-court advantages, with the once-stuffy off-campus arena becoming the place to be in the Triad.

Most of the games are sellouts, and most of the 2,100 students at each contest wear familiar black-and-gold tie-dyed t-shirts. The average attendance at The Joel more than doubles the school's total enrollment, and the ratio of attendance to enrollment (2.04 to 1) is the best in NCAA Division I.

Don't forget the many staples of every Wake game: the Demon Deacon mascot riding a motorcycle on the court, the blaring rock music and the dancing fan. Added fan support has helped Wake finish with unbeaten home records in two of the last three seasons, including 16-0 this year.

"The metamorphosis of the crowd in four years," Prosser said, "has certainly been one of the most gratifying things about being the head coach at Wake Forest."

Added Gray: "One of the biggest things is the atmosphere, not only at the games but around Winston-Salem and beyond. People recognize us now, and they like the way we play. They like the up-tempo game, the dunks, the threes, the way Chris makes those spin moves."

Paul's accomplishments, which include 2004 ACC rookie of the year, leading vote-getter for the Associated Press' 2004-05 preseason All-American team and 2005 first-team All-ACC selection, mean he will be the face of Wake Forest basketball for as long as he stays in school. His face will be everywhere during NCAA Tournament play, much the way Prosser said the sophomore was "on more (magazine) covers than Jessica Simpson" during the preseason.

Because of his suspension, Paul likely will continue to become a popular target of enemy crowds. Yet for someone who once scored 61 points in a high school game to honor his grandfather, who was murdered at age 61 a few days earlier, Paul knows how to work through tough times.

"He is older than his (19) years," Prosser said.

Finally: Enjoy Ride, Aim High

Will the pressure of the NCAA Tournament become overwhelming for the Deacons, whose trip to the Sweet 16 last year marked the program's first since 1996?

Prosser doesn't think so. He hoped before the season that the team didn't have a "joyless" year because of such high expectations, and there's been plenty of joy around despite a few negative incidents.

"I think we've done a relatively good job with that," Prosser said when asked whether his team had enjoyed the season or endured it. "You don't want to get to the point where a win is not a joyous occasion but just a relief. It shouldn't be like that. It's been a long, tough 16 (ACC) games, and it's not without its challenges, mentally and physically. But I think the kids have enjoyed it."

Gray thinks more good times are about to start for the Demon Deacons.

"Teams that go far in the (NCAA Tournament) always seem to have the most fun," he said. "Look at Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse a couple of years ago, and Ben Gordon and UConn last season. They always had smiles on their faces."

The Deacons hope to keep smiling through the Final Four in Saint Louis in early April. They plan to embrace one of Prosser's favorite quotes and do something special.

They won't settle for second place.

Duke 2005

By Bill Brill
“You'd feel like an idiot if you would ever complain about somebody having mono or a sprained ankle or anything like that. Sport is about life and what happens,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “This year we've had a lot happen. But we have maintained a real positive attitude. As a result, we have looked for solutions instead of excuses.”

Basketball being the year-round sport it has become, planning for the 2004-05 season began shortly after Duke lost in the Final Four to eventual champion Connecticut. The Blue Devils had gone down in a bitter manner, short-circuited by aggressive whistle-blowing that cost them their two big men in the closing minutes when they had an eight-point lead.

Mike Krzyzewski couldn't have known it at the time, but the pattern established in San Antonio carried over to this season.

When the Duke staff met to plan ahead, they were aware that star freshman Luol Deng was leaning toward leaving for the NBA. They also knew that 6-7 point guard recruit Shaun Livingston wasn't listening to his grandfather, with whom he lived, or his father, and was becoming infatuated with the pros.

Shortly, Deng and Livingston were both gone. The latter was picked fourth in the draft, winding up with the Los Angeles Clippers. Deng went seventh to Chicago, where this season he's playing with former teammate and fellow rookie Chris Duhon on one of the NBA's surprise teams.

Krzyzewski, who never had lost a player early to the NBA until 1999, when Elton Brand, William Avery and Corey Maggette all left, was surprised about Deng, a native of Sudan whose family supports higher education.

"I never would have believed Deng would leave after one year," Krzyzewski said. "He likes college. But you just never know what will happen these days. You just have to adjust and not make excuses."

Turnover Shortened Roster Early

As late as the end of the 2004-05 regular season, Krzyzewski still was adjusting after one of the most tumultuous of his 25 years in Durham. This has been an almost non-stop period of one crisis after another, some of them major.

First, when the staff met to discuss the season, it was apparent that (lack of) depth could be a concern. Deng was gone; Livingston was not coming. Center Michael Thompson had transferred at mid-semester last winter to Northwestern. Forward Kris Humphries reneged on his agreement to play at Duke in 2004, went to Minnesota, and turned pro at the end of his lone year in college.

Duke had weapons, but not many of them.

There were only two incoming freshmen, and DeMarcus Nelson was the only one expected to get much playing time. A 6-3 guard who was the all-time California scoring leader, he was unusual in that he also had outstanding rebounding ability. Nobody expected a major immediate contribution from 6-6 David McClure.

Deng had been the only scholarship freshman, so Duke would have just two rookies and no sophomores on an eight-man scholarship roster that also would include only one senior, Daniel Ewing. The bulk of the squad would be juniors, including projected starters J.J. Redick, Shavlik Randolph, Shelden Williams and Sean Dockery.

Redick Prepared For Marathon

Redick was the presumed star. He had averaged better than 15 points in each of his first two years, when he started in 65 of 70 games. The best foul shooter in college basketball history — he is almost a lock to wind up with that honor — he was a long-range bomber with no fear.

He also wasn't in very good shape. By the end of the 2004 season, Redick weighed 215 pounds on a 6-3 frame. He was spectacular for the Blue Devils from day one until late February, when his conditioning cost him the spring in his legs. The results were dramatic.

Redick had just one good shooting game from then on, and that came in an NCAA rout of Seton Hall. He missed a shot that would have beaten Maryland in the ACC Tournament final. Instead, Duke lost in overtime, ending a championship streak that had reached a record five years. In the Final Four, Redick shot poorly against UConn (three-of-nine on threes) and the Blue Devils lost 79-78.

There were discussions with J.J., a noted party boy. He turned the page on his career and jump-started a season that has seen him become the runaway ACC scoring champion.

He mostly worked with associate head coach Johnny Dawkins, the rail-thin all-time Duke scoring leader. Redick watched his diet; he bypassed Bojangles. And he ran, and ran some more.

"He knew what he had to do," Dawkins said. "He was absolutely dedicated. It was our goal to get him prepared to play 40 minutes."

Redick, without question the most hated player in the ACC by opposing fans (although Wake Forest's Chris Paul is closing fast), played all 45 minutes in an overtime game at Maryland, the full 40 in six other ACC games, and 39 minutes in four others.

Constantly in motion as he weaves in and out of screens, "he's just so dadgum hard to guard," said UNC coach Roy Williams. "We're in the 336 area code, and he shoots from 919," said Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser. Against the powerful Demon Deacons, a projected No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Redick scored 71 points in two games, including a career-high 38 in the 102-92 win in Durham.

So that much planning worked. Redick did admit to being tired at Georgia Tech, and he played tired against St. John's in New York. But, after two days off and a five-day break between games, he dropped 29 points on Miami. He followed that with 17 points in the first half at UNC, before going scoreless in the second period as Duke dropped a bitter 75-73 decision. He did not blame that on fatigue, however.

When the All-ACC team was announced, Redick was the lone unanimous choice, getting all 121 first-team votes. Paul was second with 113.

Injuries, Illness Slowed Progress

Elsewhere, a black cloud loomed above the Blue Devils, and it never went away. There were fluke injuries and illnesses. Duke survived them all, until the latest, a torn MCL in Dockery's right knee at Georgia Tech that cost the team the services of its point guard and best on-ball defender.

Dockery missed the last three games of the regular-season and the victorious ACC Tournament. He has returned to light practice wearing a knee brace, and he may play briefly in the opening week of the NCAA Tournament and almost certainly the next week, if Duke gets that far.

The litany of ailments began with a torn ligament in Nelson's thumb, suffered in the preseason Blue-White scrimmage. Then Randolph, whose anticipated break-out season never happened, came down with mononucleosis during the Christmas break. He missed four games and just recently re-gained his physical strength, and he continues to be the poster boy for officials in the block-charge rule.

In a video distributed to the zebras, Randolph is the focus of a play in which his torso allegedly is moving as he tries to take a charge. He almost always is called for a block. (Do the refs remember the tape?) Randolph has fouled out in as little as five minutes. He played 15 at Chapel Hill before drawing No. 5, another of the ticky-tack variety that plague him.

While Randolph was out, Reggie Love broke his foot on the night of his first start. Love was an intriguing story. Once a two-year member of the squad while he played wide receiver for the football team, he had a well-deserved reputation as one who lived in the fast lane. He was not invited back to be a walk-on for the basketball squad during his final two years.

But when Duke lost Deng and Livingston, Dawkins noticed that Love had been cut by the NFL's Green Bay Packers in preseason camp. The Devils were short on bodies. They knew Reggie, who had another year of basketball eligibility, was in shape.

Dawkins made the call. Would Reggie like to return to school? Reggie would indeed. School already had begun. He enrolled on the last possible day and joined the team as a scholarship basketball player. Love also had matured.

"From day one," Coach K said, "he's been great in practice."

The oldest player on the team, Love has proved to be a great leader and was made a tri-captain, joining Ewing and Redick late in the season. Only 6-4, Love nevertheless is a post defender who can body up another team's second big man.

But Love missed 10 games. Then McClure needed surgery in his knee to remove lose cartilage. He's back playing but is not in prime condition yet and is strictly a spot player.

By far the most serious injury was to Dockery, whose knee collided with Love's at Georgia Tech. There was no surgery. The MCL will just have to heal itself.

Krzyzewski refuses to offer an alibi for all the problems.

"You'd feel like an idiot if you would ever complain about somebody having mono or a sprained ankle or anything like that. Sport is about life and what happens," Coach K said. "This year we've had a lot happen. But we have maintained a real positive attitude. As a result, we have looked for solutions instead of excuses."

Ewing, Williams Carrying Loads

The solutions have varied, although nothing can take care of the change in Ewing's duties as the result of Dockery's injury. Not a legitimate point guard, Ewing nevertheless had been the primary ball-handler.

Dockery also brought the ball up, and he usually defended the opposing point guard, which includes the likes of Paul, Raymond Felton, Jarrett Jack and John Gilchrist.

"Ewing has to do that now, and he gets tired," Krzyzewski said. "It impacts him more than anybody. It takes away from his offense."

Ewing was 12-for-38 in the three games that closed out the regular season, after Dockery got hurt. He had 10 assists against Miami and nine against Carolina, although two late turnovers in the closing minutes against the Tar Heels proved fatal.

Practices have changed.

"While you are making these moves, you have to re-invent your team," said Krzyzewski, who took 719 career wins into the NCAA Tournament. "We've had to keep doing that, so you have to practice enough. If we were stable, I would give my kids much more time off. What we have to do then is not have as much physical contact, but then you are not as fluid.

"You hear somebody say, 'we practice that every day.' Well, we don't. When it gets to the last second at Carolina, you could then improvise. You have to take more of the matter-of-fact things, just to hope you get to the last second. That's a big difference."

Krzyzewski made that statement just prior to the game in Chapel Hill. With seconds left and Duke trailing UNC by two, the Blue Devils improvised. Redick circled the screeners, got a momentary open look between two defenders, and fired what would have been the game-winner. It rattled in and out.

Dockery's loss notwithstanding, and despite the bitter defeat at Carolina, Duke forged ahead. The Devils won the ACC title and looked good for another run in the NCAA Tournament.

Besides Redick's scoring and Ewing's all-around play, the anchor of the team has been Williams. He averages 16 points, leads the ACC in rebounding with a norm of 11, and is the league's leading shotblocker by a wide margin. He made All-ACC and was named the league's defensive player of the year.

He has played without complaint, although he averages better than 36 minutes in ACC play and is repeatedly double- and triple-teamed. Often in foul trouble last year, he has done a superb job this season. When he fouled out at Maryland, one of five players to exit for Duke, the Blue Devils fell apart.

In the loss at UNC, Williams was victimized as Sean May hit the boards for 24 rebounds, 12 offensive, and 26 points. Williams had a mere four rebounds, in part because he repeatedly, as the last line of defense, had to guard against penetrating Tar Heels.

"I had to go out and defend," Williams said, "and that left the weak side open for May."

Of course, Shelden had 22 points, six blocks and four steals. If he returns for his senior year, he can break the all-time Duke record for blocks, currently held by TV analyst Mike Gminski.

Defense, Schedule Helped Cause

This Duke team was selected to finish fourth by the ACC media, behind Wake Forest, North Carolina and Georgia Tech. The Blue Devils wound up third, their lowest finish in the conference since 1995-96, the year Krzyzewski returned after missing the final half of the previous campaign because of back surgery and exhaustion.

Still, Duke's 25-5 record entering the NCAA Tournament was good enough to keep the Blue Devils in the Top 10 all season and a legitimate contender at the NCAA level. They actually moved up to No. 5 after the UNC defeat.

"Even though we lost," Coach K said after the Carolina game, "we've gotten better."

That means the adjustments since the Dockery injury have kicked in, and the team is ready to play on.

Krzyzewski loves the NCAA Tournament. He schedules for it. His team played in venues such as Madison Square Garden (twice), Chicago and Charlotte, sites typical of postseason action. In fact, Charlotte (Duke's site) is in the NCAA rotation this time and so is Chicago, although the games will be played at the old Rosemont Horizon.

The coach prefers non-conference games against strong mid-majors who emulate the type of opponent you might meet in the first, or even the second, round of the NCAA event. While some have suggested that Duke's schedule wasn't that difficult, the Blue Devils have more wins against Top 10 teams than anybody in the nation.

In the ACC schedule, which was unbalanced because of expansion, Duke unquestionably played the most difficult slate. The Blue Devils had two games each against the teams that finished in the upper half of the conference, plus two with No. 6 Miami. UNC won the regular season after going 10-0 against the five bottom-feeders, finishing three games ahead of the Devils.

This has been an atypical season, with Duke having to adjust constantly on the go. Deng and Livingston aren't in Durham; Randolph hasn't developed. But Redick and Williams have been terrific, Ewing has been versatile and steady, and junior forward Lee Melchionni has been a pleasant surprise.

Defense has been the staple. In particular, opponents have been stifled at the three-point line.

"I hate an open shot," Coach K said. "That's why we don't trap."

Other teams not only made just 30.4 percent on threes during the regular season, lowest in the ACC, but they tried a mere 316. The next fewest were 456 against Clemson. UNC allowed a whopping 655 treys to be tried.

Out-rebounded 48-30 at Chapel Hill, Duke had a chance to win because it made 13 of 29 threes, while the Heels converted only one of 11. The
Devils held Georgia Tech, Clemson and St. John's to zero three-pointers, while Princeton, which uses the trey as its main weapon, made one of 17.

Duke lost five games in the regular season and had a chance to win them all.

"We haven't always played well, but we were always ready to play," Coach K said. "I love the way these kids have worked."

You can question Duke's ability this season, but not its heart. This imperfect team has had an imperfect year, but one that constantly has rewarded its veteran coach.

"I have the passion," he said constantly.

So do his players.