January 15, 2008
DURHAM Duke and Virginia were the last two ACC teams to begin conference play. The Blue Devils beat the Cavaliers on Jan. 13 in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
That was the latest ACC start in Duke history and just one of the many weird aspects of the team's schedule this season.
"It's an unusual year," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It would be interesting to compare and see when we started on (Nov. 9), played three (regular-season) ACC games in March, and played our first ACC game on Jan. 13. You'd have to throw the break in. ... It's really unusual."
Well, to do the comparisons Coach K suggested:
The Nov. 9 start was the earliest (by two days) in Duke history.
Duke has never before played three ACC regular-season games in March.
The March 8 regular-season finale is the second-latest regular-season finish in school history. The 2003 team finished March 9.
As mentioned, the Jan. 13 ACC opener was the latest in Duke history.
Duke's 16-day break between the Dec. 20 loss to Pitt and the Jan. 6 victory over Cornell was the longest midseason break for the Blue Devils since the 1945-46 team had a 17-day holiday break.
Overall, the 121-day span between the Nov. 9 opener and the March 8 regular-season finale is the longest in school history.
"It stretches out the season," Krzyzewski said. "You have to be careful. It's still a long race."
Duke almost reached the one-third point the long holiday break exactly where Coach K wanted to be. Only a second-half collapse that led to an overtime loss against Pitt marred a strong opening sprint by the Blue Devils. However, the team started the post-holiday segment of the season with a couple of lackluster victories over Cornell at home and at Temple.
Duke appeared to have lost something during the long layoff.
"The way things kind of got disrupted with the finals week and then with the Christmas holiday, we had some long breaks in between games," senior guard DeMarcus Nelson said. "You can practice all you want, but the things you practice, you've got to put together in games. You can't simulate a game better than playing a game. We might have gotten a little bit out of game rhythm."
Nelson, the team's captain, isn't overly concerned about the team's level of play.
"Now, going into our league, I think we're in great shape," he said. "There's a different (vibe) in the locker room this season compared to going into the league last year. Everyone's very confident, and I think our team's going to do a great job in this league."
Duke opened (and closed) the ACC season 0-2 last year. That had a lot to do with the team's mediocre 8-8 finish. Nelson likes the way the schedule sets up this season, even with the early start, the long break and the late ACC opener.
"(The early start) was an opportunity to get together earlier and work on what we're going to become," he said. "With these breaks, it's just a time we can reflect and have an opportunity to get a lot of practice time in and get better.
"Last year, we might have gotten a little worn down toward the end. That might have been a part of the scheduling this year, to make sure we go into this part of the season refreshed and make sure we don't wear ourselves down."
Duke entered ACC play with two health issues. Center Brian Zoubek, the team's only player taller than 6-8, was sidelined with a broken bone in his foot. Lance Thomas, a 6-8 forward who started 11 games in the post, was battling a respiratory ailment.
Thomas played against UVa, but Zoubek's foot injury similar to the one he suffered in July could sideline him much longer. The first injury required surgery. This one won't, but it could keep him out for an indefinite period.
CUTCLIFFE BUILT FAMILIAR STAFF
New Duke football coach David Cutcliffe introduced eight of his new assistants to the regional media on Jan. 4. A week later, he added his ninth and final aide when he lured Marion Hobby, the defensive line coach of the New Orleans Saints, to Durham.
"This sounds arrogant, but we have been 100 percent with what we tried to do," Cutcliffe said. "We bring NFL experience. We bring years of college experience. We bring people that I have great confidence in because I've worked with them before. They're proven winners. They're motivators, they're recruiters, they're teachers of fundamentals."
The newcomers share two main characteristics.
First, seven of the nine worked with Cutcliffe at Mississippi and/or Tennessee. In six seasons under Cutcliffe, the Rebels went 44-29, played in five bowl games, and won the 2003 SEC West championship.
"I thought we were an outstanding staff at Ole Miss," Ron Middleton, Duke's new associate head coach, said. "The results they say you're measured by wins and losses. I do know this: This is a great group of guys to work with, hard-working. I know that every one of those guys has got my back and I'm going to have their backs. The chemistry is definitely there."
Second, seven of the nine men left secure, good-paying positions to join Cutcliffe's staff. That's a major change at Duke. In recent years, staff positions usually were filled by out-of-work coaches looking for jobs.
Cutcliffe lured two active NFL coaches (Hobby and New York Jets secondary coach Mike MacIntyre, who will serve as Duke's defensive coordinator), two coaches from Tennessee (Kurt Roper, who will become Duke's offensive coordinator, and new offensive line coach Matt Luke) and Middleton, who served three seasons on John Gruden's staff at Tampa Bay and spent last year as a very well-paid special teams coordinator at Alabama.
Duke's new secondary coach, Derek Jones, left a similar job at Memphis. Recruiting coordinator/running backs coach Zac Roper, Kurt's younger brother, came from Cornell.
All of the coaches said they joined Duke because of Cutcliffe, who was fired at Ole Miss mainly because he refused to make suggested staff changes.
"Obviously, we're loyal to him," Zac Roper said. "He's a very loyal man. I think what you'll see from the players is that they're going to be loyal to this program and loyal to coaches. That's not an easy word to throw around. This is going to be a family."
The two new coaches without Cutcliffe connections both had ties to Duke. Jim Collins, who will handle the linebackers, spent almost 20 years with Steve Spurrier at Duke, Florida and the Washington Redskins. Wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery is a former Duke standout who held the same position on Ted Roof's staff.