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Unique Challenge, Familiar Results

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

  March 14, 2005

DURHAM — Duke was supposed to be loaded this season. Really.

According to a Mike Krzyzewski intimate, the coach was telling friends during the 2004 Final Four that he expected his 2004-05 Duke team to be the best he ever had.

Of course, that was when Krzyzewski thought both Luol Deng and Shaun Livingston would be in his starting lineup. His feedback from both youngsters was very positive. Deng definitely wanted to return for his sophomore year at Duke, and while Livingston was intrigued by his NBA prospects, his grandfather — the strongest influence in his life — was adamant that the talented point guard should attend college.

How could Krzyzewski have guessed that he'd be caught in a double whammy?

Deng's father, who saw Luol's brother's pro prospects fizzle at UConn, convinced his son to turn pro. When Livingston learned he was a sure lottery pick, he ignored his grandfather's advice and put his name in the draft. So Duke lost one key player who listened to his family's advice and one key player who didn't.

The departures of those two talents (picked fourth and seventh in the NBA draft) left a huge void in Duke's plans. Deng, the MVP of the East Regional as a freshman, would have been a frontrunner for national player of the year honors. Livingston, who dazzled NBA observers early this season before suffering a serious knee injury, was going to be the perfect replacement for departed playmaker Chris Duhon.

In hindsight, it's easy to see what Krzyzewski saw last spring in San Antonio. Plug Deng in alongside Shelden Williams down low, then envision Livingston dishing off to J.J. Redick and Daniel Ewing on the wings. Krzyzewski still would have Sean Dockery, Shavlik Randolph, Lee Melchionni and DeMarcus Nelson off the bench.

That's a pretty imposing team. Better than Brand-Avery-Langdon-Battier-Maggette-Carrawell? Maybe not, but close.

Instead, Krzyzewski had to go to war with three top-flight ACC players and a cast of one-dimensional support players. Adding to his problems was a succession of injuries and illnesses that disrupted the development of the team and forced him to enter the postseason without one key player. Dockery had emerged this season as a first-rate defender and ball-handler, and he even improved his three-point shooting percentage by more than 20 points.

Duke had impressive talent, yes, but clearly not as much as UNC or Wake Forest. So what were the Blue Devils doing, cutting down the nets in the MCI Center, after winning a sixth ACC title in the last seven years?

"That makes it all the more sweet, because people thought we'd be about the middle of the pack," Randolph said. "We had doubters all year, especially with all the things our team has gone through. We still came back on top. Nobody thought we could do that."

Krzyzewski was less impressed by preseason polls that projected Duke third, fourth or even fifth in the ACC this season.

"We don't pay attention to that," the Duke coach said. "To me, this doesn't validate us. We thought we would be good, and we were good enough to win the ACC championship."

Of course, a critic might point out that the Blue Devils didn't have to face top-seeded UNC or second-seeded Wake Forest en route to the title. Even Duke's quarterfinal opponent was 11th-seeded Virginia, instead of No. 6 Miami.

But unlike UNC and Wake, Duke took care of business in Washington. The Blue Devils might not have beaten the Tar Heels and Deacons — who knows? — but they beat the teams that beat the Tar Heels and Deacons.

They did it without Dockery, whose absence proved to be a problem in the championship game, when primary ball-handlers Ewing and Nelson fouled out down the stretch. That's why freshman forward David McClure, who recently had returned after missing a month after knee surgery, was in the game at the end to pull down a crucial defensive rebound.

"Sports is about life and what happens," Krzyzewski said. "This year, we've had a lot happen, but we've maintained a positive attitude and, as a result, we've looked for solutions instead of excuses. We've found a lot of solutions."

Role Players Helped When Needed

One of those solutions was Melchionni, who blossomed this season into one of the ACC's most dangerous three-point shooters.

Commentators keep calling him "a former walk-on," but that's a ridiculous distortion. The 6-6 junior, who played prep ball with Florida star Matt Walsh, received a variety of major scholarship offers, but he wanted to play at his father's alma mater, and luckily his father (former Duke point guard Gary Melchionni) had enough money to pay his son's way for a year. Thus, the Blue Devils were able to evade the NCAA's five-scholarship limit. Melchionni took a grant as a sophomore, as planned all along.

Another solution to Duke's problems has been Nelson, although not in the way many expected. The powerfully build 6-3 guard, whose commitment to Duke late in his sophomore year of high school is the earliest ever recorded, came to Durham heralded as the leading scorer in California prep history. But an injured thumb on his shooting hand has prevented Nelson from displaying the full range of his offensive skills. Instead, he's emerged as a rebounding machine, maybe the best 6-3 rebounder the ACC has seen since Georgia Tech's Bruce Dalrymple.

Then there's Reggie Love, who came to Duke in 2000 as a highly touted football recruit. He came out for basketball, and when Carlos Boozer was sidelined late in the 2001 season, Love played a major role in the early stages of Duke's national title run.

But Love ran afoul of Krzyzewski for some off-court transgressions; reportedly, he never told the coach of a drunk-driving arrest. Love was suspended as Duke started its 2002 NCAA run, then soon dropped off the team, claiming he wanted to concentrate on football. Who knows if an embarrassing and widely distributed e-mail picture of Love, taken when he had passed out at a UNC fraternity party, had anything to do with his estrangement?

Flash forward to the fall of 2004, when Duke was scrambling to deal with the unexpected losses of Deng and Livingston. Love, who graduated the previous spring, was a late cut by the NFL's Green Bay Packers. Suddenly, his old problems with Krzyzewski didn't seem so serious. Duke assistant Johnny Dawkins was the one who realized that Love was available and had another year of eligibility for basketball. He engineered the deal that brought the 6-4 wide receiver/power forward back to Durham.

Love, despite a month-long absence with a broken bone in his foot, has provided some strong work on the boards. More importantly, he's provided some strong senior leadership — so much so that Krzyzewski appointed him a co-captain in early February.

That leaves Randolph, derided by his hometown newspaper as a "flop" and clearly struggling this season, even after returning from his bout with mononucleosis. He played a major role in the ACC title game, playing 38 minutes and blocking three shots, while pulling down nine rebounds. When he and Williams are together in the post, Duke is a very hard team to score against down low.

"Defense is what makes Duke successful," Nelson said, after noticing that Duke held Georgia Tech to 29.6 percent shooting in the title game.

No one can deny that the Devils have been successful under Krzyzewski. The latest title was his ninth, second only to UNC's Dean Smith (13) among ACC coaches. But none of the previous Duke championships was as surprising as this one.

"I think this has been a very special team for us," Krzyzewski said. "We knew coming in that number-wise, we weren't going to have a lot, and we seem to have had a number of things happen to our team that you don't have control over. What they've done is shown up every game. Not that I'm saying we could have gone undefeated. We also could have lost four or five more games. But we were in every game so far this season. That's a credit to them as a unit."