By Al Featherston
November 22, 2006
DURHAM -- Mike Krzyzewski's back is feeling fine.
It's become a standard anti-Duke slur to bring up Coach K's back problems any time it looks as if the Blue Devils may face some obstacles on the court. It all stems from the 1994-95 season, when Krzyzewski's program collapsed after he took a leave of absence following back surgery. The Duke haters are certain that he left to avoid being saddled with a bad team. Duke fans are certain that it became a bad team only because his back problems forced him to step down.
Maybe this season's results will help resolve the differing views of Coach K's past. On the surface, the 2006-07 Blue Devils present Krzyzewski with many of the same problems that plagued the 1994-95 team. Graduation claimed four of the top seven players in last season's rotation, including consensus first-team All-Americans J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams. The only returnees with any significant experience are two sophomore role players and an oft-injured junior guard. The only senior is walk-on Joe Pagliuca.
"My staff looked it up and told me this is the youngest Duke team since World War II," Krzyzewski said.
On the other hand, Duke's roster includes six McDonald's All-Americans, plus a seventh player who was a Parade All-American. Only North Carolina -- which also boasts six McDonald's All-Americans and a seventh who was a Parade pick -- can match that collection of prep superstars. At both rivals, the great bulk of the talent is in the freshman and sophomore classes.
"I think youth has more of an opportunity to be successful now than 10 years ago or 20 years ago," Coach K said. "We're not going to let youth be an excuse for anything."
Duke's four-man freshman class is certainly a cause for long-term optimism. Jon Scheyer, a 6-5 combo guard from the same Glenbrook, Ill., high school that produced Duke assistant Chris Collins, was the team's leading scorer in the preseason, while filling in as the starting point guard. Gerald Henderson, the 6-5 son of the NBA standout of the same name, is an explosive wing athlete, while 6-8 Lance Thomas is a quick, athletic forward. Center Brian Zoubek, the least heralded of the newcomers, was a revelation in the preseason, displaying far more mobility and skill than advertised.
"All of them can play ... and will play," Krzyzewski said. "They may all start at times. They are really good players."
Duke is not going to avoid a major dip from its accustomed place among the elite by relying entirely on freshmen. The key to remaining a championship contender will be the play of the team's three veterans -- 6-3 junior guard DeMarcus Nelson, 6-10 sophomore forward Josh McRoberts and 6-1 sophomore point guard Greg Paulus. They've got to provide a foundation of consistency and leadership for the freshmen to build upon.
"We're going to need Greg to be a leader," Krzyzewski said. "We're going to need Josh to be an outstanding player, and we're going to need a healthy DeMarcus because he will be a really good player if he is just healthy. That's a given. You start out with those three guys, and you build from there."
Krzyzewski's construction timetable was upset in the preseason by injuries. McRoberts, who had back problems in high school, tweaked his back while playing pickup ball and had to undergo surgery. (More shades of 1994-95.) Krzyzewski said his talented frontcourt anchor was "at maybe 90 percent" when practice began in October. But McRoberts has shown no ill effects from his surgery and appears poised for a starring role.
"I think the biggest growth for Josh this year is him knowing that he has to be the guy for us," Collins said. "Last year, with J.J. and Shelden, there were a lot of nights when if Josh didn't play as well, it didn't matter as much. It's a great growing point for a player to be the best player and the guy that's counted on every night."
McRoberts, who averaged 8.7 points and 5.3 rebounds last season, has the physical tools to be a star, including amazing ball-handling skills for a player his size. He put that talent to use in the preseason, as Duke had to play its exhibition games without Paulus.
The combative playmaker, who last year became just the fourth freshman to lead the ACC in assists, suffered a foot injury on the second day of practice and missed the entire preseason. Again, that echoed 1994-95, when the Devils lost Collins with a broken foot on the first day of practice.
However, Paulus' foot wasn't broken, and he was back in uniform for the opener. If he's able to continue with no complications, his absence might turn out to be a break for Krzyzewski, since it provided an opportunity to develop Scheyer as a backup playmaker.
"It's really given me a confidence boost," Scheyer said. "I got some good experience playing the point in game situations."
One of the things Scheyer needs to do is find his role. He could be the team's key three-point threat this season, as Krzyzewski tries to replace Redick's outside production. Or that might come from 6-4 sophomore guard Martynas Pocius, a Lithuanian with a variety of offensive skills. Another wing option is 6-5 sophomore David McClure, who missed last season with a knee problem but looms as a potential defensive stopper on the perimeter.
Indeed, putting this team together is Krzyzewski's great challenge. He has more talented players to call upon than at any time in years, but most of them are very young and it's not yet clear what their roles should be. Who starts with Nelson, Paulus and McRoberts? Does Coach K go small and quick with Scheyer and Henderson? Or does he go big with Zoubek and Thomas?
"It's exciting," Krzyzewski said. "One of the great things about college basketball is that there is turnover. We are going to play more players. One thing with younger guys, there is more of a chance for inconsistency, and there is more of a chance of playing with emotional energy and getting tired."
The coach expects this group to look very different than the Duke teams ACC fans have seen in recent years.
"One of the things we've wanted to do is upgrade our size and our athleticism," Coach K said. "We feel that with this (freshman) class and with David McClure and a healthy DeMarcus coming back, we've done that in a big way. You look back at the Duke teams that have won championships, and they've had ... those versatile guys, guys who can be very effective in college because they play multiple positions, they're very athletic, they cover a lot of ground and give you the ability to play a more up-tempo style."
That's another reason nobody expects a repeat of the 1994-95 fiasco. While there likely will be some ups and downs with this young Duke team, it's also talented enough not to put any pressure on Coach K's surgically repaired back.
Year ACC Overall Postseason
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
2005 11-5 (3x) 27-6 NCAA Sweet 16
2006 14-2 (1x) 32-4 NCAA Sweet 16
x -- won ACC title
Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
DeMarcus Nelson 6-4/200 WG Jr.
Jamal Boykin 6-7/230 BF So.
David McClure 6-6/200 WF So.
Josh McRoberts* 6-10/240 BF So.
Greg Paulus* 6-1/180 PG So.
Martynas Pocius 6-5/190 WG So.
Gerald Henderson 6-4/215 WF Fr.
Jon Scheyer 6-5/180 WG Fr.
Lance Thomas 6-8/215 BF Fr.
Brian Zoubek 7-1/250 C Fr.
- -- returning starter
Josh McRoberts must become a star, after playing a supporting role as a freshman. Touted as a potential NBA lottery pick, he needs to show that kind of ability -- not necessarily by becoming a big scorer, but by displaying his all-around game on a consistent basis. Greg Paulus has to prove himself as the floor leader. He led the ACC in assists as a freshman point guard, but he'll have to demonstrate better defensive skills and carry a little more of the offensive load. DeMarcus Nelson must stay healthy (for the first time) and provide a consistent offensive punch. He's one of the few Duke players able to create his own shot. He'll also be called upon to apply ball pressure to opposing point guards with too much quickness for Paulus to handle.
Other Key Returnees
David McClure could find a role as a defensive stopper. He played on bad knees as a freshman two years ago and sat out last season after major surgery, but he now appears to possess excellent athleticism. Martynas Pocius will be asked to provide an offensive spark off the bench. He's a good shooter with an explosive move to the basket. Will his defense be good enough to allow him to play? Jamal Boykin is a fundamentally sound player who provides great enthusiasm but limited athleticism. It will be hard for him play much, as the fourth post player on a team that typically uses one big man at a time.
All four freshmen will play and even start at times. Jon Scheyer is the team's best perimeter shooter and did a credible job at the point when asked to fill in for Paulus. He's a mature player. Coach K calls Lance Thomas "a warrior." In style and attitude, the 6-8 forward resembles former UNC star George Lynch. Brian Zoubek, the first true big man (7-1, 250) to break into Krzyzewski's rotation, has great footwork, good hands and better mobility than advertised. He'll be in and out of the lineup, depending on matchups. Gerald Henderson, son of the former NBA standout of the same name, was the team's least impressive freshman in the opener, then in Coach K's words, "he saved us" with a brilliant performance in the team's second game. Henderson is Duke's most athletic wing since Dahntay Jones, or maybe even Corey Maggette.
ALSO Worth Noting
Although Krzyzewski has made less use of his bench than any ACC coach in recent years, he's vowed to go deeper this season. He used 10 players in the first half of the first three games but admitted he may trim that to an eight- or nine-man rotation by midseason. ... With Duke's fourth win, the school will become the fourth in NCAA history to accumulate 1,800 wins (behind Kentucky, UNC and Kansas). The same win will move Krzyzewski into a tie for 10th on the NCAA Division I victory ladder, tying Ed Diddle at 759.
Chart By: The Duke Insider