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Top-heavy Team In Shape To Enjoy Rare Underdog Role

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

  By Tom Berry, High Point (N.C.) Enterprise
November 15, 2004 DURHAM — J.J. Redick sounded like a mother reassuring a worried child.

"We're going to be fine," promised Duke's junior guard.

In coach Mike Krzyzewski's traditionally strong basketball program, "fine" means much more than good and acceptable. It means maintaining the excellence that has included three NCAA titles and 10 Final Four berths in Krzyzewski's 24 seasons in Durham. It means challenging for Duke's seventh ACC regular-season championship over the last nine seasons and sixth ACC Tournament crown over the last seven years. It means that Redick, along with his teammates, believes the Blue Devils will remain among college basketball's elite despite just eight recruited scholarship players and realistic concerns about depth and playing style.

Duke will not accept predictions of fourth in the league, the lowest preseason pick for the Blue Devils since 1996-97. Duke will not accept its preseason national ranking outside the top 10 in the Associated Press poll, only the second time since 1988-89 that has happened. The Devils have finished in the top 10 in the final AP poll for eight consecutive seasons, the only current streak of more than four years.

Krzyzewski did not endure an emotional spring and summer to stay at Duke and just be good. After freshman star Luol Deng and prized recruit Shaun Livingston decided to jump to the NBA, the coach considered a reported five-year, $40 million contract offer from the Los Angeles Lakers.

Other considerations prompted Krzyzewski to remain in Durham, and he's not worried that expectations from those around the ACC and the nation are generally lower than usual for 2004-05. Don't forget that after the Blue Devils were picked to finish fourth in the ACC in 1997, they won the ACC regular-season title by one game over Wake Forest and North Carolina.

"I don't know how good other teams are, but there never will be low expectations for a Duke team because we've accomplished too much," Krzyzewski said. "Just because someone else will be good, that doesn't mean people aren't going to show up to play us. If there's a radar screen out there, you'll always see the Duke plane on it. That's what we have to be prepared for."

To prepare for this season, Krzyzewski already had specific instructions for his team shortly after last season, when it became obvious that Deng and Livingston would not be around. In short, Coach K insisted that his team be in shape and be prepared to play different positions.

"We do some different things every year," Krzyzewski said about preseason conditioning. "But this year we did even more things differently. And we geared them to be more specific for basketball."

When practice started in mid-October, the coach found a squad in "real good shape." A typical routine during the summer meant working out Monday through Friday, two or three times a day. "Our days were jam-packed full of stuff," Redick said. The question remains whether the team, with a limited number of players, can stay in real good shape.

The Blue Devils probably won't press as much this season or play as fast a tempo in other areas. That should allow Duke's only proven inside players, juniors Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph, to stay in the game longer. Last season, Duke blew late leads and lost the ACC final and NCAA semifinal after Williams and Randolph fouled out.

"Those guys obviously have to be on the floor for us," Redick said.

Depth will be helped by players seeing action at different positions, with junior Lee Melchionni likely to see time in the post along with his more natural place on the wing. Ewing can play all three perimeter positions. DeMarcus Nelson, a 6-3 freshman who missed most of preseason practice with a thumb injury, is strong enough to play inside should the Blue Devils go small. The other freshman, 6-6 David McClure, has the potential to play all over the court.

"Guys have to be able to do multiple things," Krzyzewski said.

Daniel Ewing is the most versatile of all. Normally a role player during his first three seasons, he appears primed for a break-out senior year similar to Chris Carrawell's ACC player of the year gem in 2000. Ewing usually steps up in big games, as witnessed by his first-team All-ACC Tournament honors over the last two seasons and his 2003 ACC Tournament MVP award. But the Blue Devils now need him to step up in every game.

"How am I going to use Daniel Ewing?" Krzyzewski asked. "Every way possible. … If he didn't earn his scholarship in his first three years — which I think he did — he'll earn graduate credits this year."

Don't expect Redick to be playing different positions, however. After two seasons, he has established himself as one of the best shooters in ACC history. He already holds the conference's single-season and career free throw percentage record, while making 40 percent of his almost 500 three-point attempts.

"He's the focus of everyone's defense," Krzyzewski said.

Yet Redick failed to finish last year at his best, thanks to a lack of conditioning and more defensive focus from opponents. Chronic hamstring problems slowed his preseason work in the summer of 2003 and he slumped after a "fantastic, unbelievable" first two months of the season, according to Krzyzewski. During a stretch of six late-season games ending with the ACC Tournament final, Redick made more than one three-pointer just twice.

"Against Florida State, I felt like my legs really weren't there, and my conditioning wasn't great the rest of the season," Redick said. "I wasn't in the best shape I could've been in."

Redick changed his body over the summer, going from more than 210 pounds in May to closer to 190 and reducing his body fat from 12 percent to five percent. He lifted weights with a passion, attacked conditioning drills and worked on his mid-range game.

"I really challenged myself all through preseason to win every race and win every drill," Redick said. "The conditioning stuff was pretty demanding, and I took it really seriously."

Added Ewing: "Now J.J. can run off screens all day and not get tired."

Junior Sean Dockery is another important player for the Blue Devils. Despite seeing more than 15 minutes of action per game last season as Duke's first guard off the bench, Dockery ranked only fifth on the team in assists while making just three of his 25 three-pointers. He's been known mainly as a defensive specialist, with great quickness and a knack for steals.

"Sean is a real important guy for us," Krzyzewski said. "He's a good player who could have a little bit of a break-out year, but he needs to realize his importance. … We have guys that can score, but he's got to be able to hit an open shot for a pretty good percentage."

What will we remember about the 2004-05 Blue Devils? Duke's players, most of whom already have won ACC regular-season and tournament championships and played in the Final Four, expect nothing to change. For the Devils, a conference that may be deeper and stronger than ever doesn't necessarily mean a lower finish.

"We're not too worried about preseason rankings," Redick said. "Lots of teams look good on paper."

Track Record

Year ACC Overall Postseason
1995 2-14 (9) 13-18 None
1996 8-8 (4) 18-13 NCAA 1st Round
1997 12-4 (1) 24-9 NCAA 2nd Round
1998 15-1 (1) 32-4 NCAA Elite Eight
1999 16-0 (1x) 37-2 NCAA Runner-up
2000 15-1 (1x) 29-5 NCAA Sweet 16
2001 13-3 (1x) 35-4 NCAA Champion
2002 13-3 (2x) 31-4 NCAA Sweet 16
2003 11-5 (2x) 26-7 NCAA Sweet 16
2004 13-3 (1) 31-6 NCAA Final Four

x – won ACC title

2004-05 Roster

Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Daniel Ewing* 6-3/185 WG Sr.
Reggie Love 6-4/240 BF Sr.
Sean Dockery 6-2/185 PG Jr.
Lee Melchionni 6-6/205 WF Jr.
Shavlik Randolph 6-10/240 BF Jr.
J.J. Redick* 6-4/190 WG Jr.
Shelden Williams* 6-9/250 C Jr.
David McClure 6-6/205 WF Fr.
DeMarcus Nelson 6-3/195 PG Fr.

* – returning starter

Building Blocks

Shelden Williams has a chance to become the ACC's premier big man. In what could be his last year (if that occurs and he heads to the NBA), the 6-9 junior will have to increase decent numbers (12.6 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and lower his personal foul figures (120). More experience and better footwork make that a likelihood. J.J. Redick led the team in scoring at 15.9, but he had two different seasons. In the first 26 games, he shot 45.6 percent on threes; in the last 11 he made less than 29 percent and had only one game in which he made more than one-third. Rededicated after a summer in Durham, he's lost 23 pounds. Daniel Ewing is the lone senior starter and probably will lead the team in minutes. He'll be asked to play a good deal at point guard. He's not a traditional playmaker, but he does value the ball.

Other Key Returnees

This will be the time for Shavlik Randolph to live up to all of his recruiting hype. Healthy for the first time, the 6-10 junior has demonstrated his variety of inside moves, and Coach K thinks he also can shoot the three. Because of the absence of post men other than Williams, Randolph will have to limit his fouling. In just over 19 minutes per game, he had 109 personals and fouled out three times, including against UConn in the Final Four. Sean Dockery will get his shot at the point. He's no Chris Duhon, except as a defender. He worked hard on his shooting this summer, but he'll never be a primary scoring option. Lee Melchionni has scarcely played in two years, but he'll see action against teams that try to collapse their defense inside.

Some Introductions

Reggie Love is back. He played a useful role on the national championship team in 2001, but the past two seasons he played only football. Just 6-4, he's nevertheless a powerful 240 pounds, a good defender and rebounder. He may never shoot, and nobody will care. DeMarcus Nelson, the all-time California scoring leader, suffered a torn thumb ligament in the Blue-White game. He's not deadly from outside, but he knows how to score. The surprise may be 6-6 David McClure. He rebounds, plays defense and hustles, which will get him some minutes.

Also Worth Noting

Duke was picked fourth in the ACC and out of the top 10 nationally. The last time either of those things occurred was in 1996, Mike Krzyzewski's first year back after his health-induced sabbatical. While there are concerns about a short bench, the Devils went 29-5 in 2000, including 15-1 in the ACC, with a six-man rotation. Barring injury, Coach K said Williams, Randolph, Redick and Ewing all will average more than 30 minutes in close games. With five juniors and two seniors, this is the most experienced team in years. "I'm happy with that," Krzyzewski said. Meanwhile, more help is on the way. The 2004-05 recruiting class has been ranked No. 1 by some gurus.

CHART BY: THE DUKE INSIDER