February 7, 2006
DURHAM -- Although Duke continued to lead the ACC standings by a comfortable margin into mid-February, more than a few chinks had begun to appear in the Blue Devils' armor, especially on defense.
Duke held each of its first 17 opponents under 80 points, and 14 of those 17 under 70. But three of its next five foes topped 80, leading to a loss at Georgetown and dangerously close calls against Boston College and Florida State. If that wasn't enough of a concern, BC's Jared Dudley and FSU's Al Thornton continued a trend that has seen Indiana's Marco Killingsworth, Clemson's Vernon Hamilton, Virginia Tech's Coleman Collins and N.C. State's Cedric Simmons all record career-high scoring totals against Duke's vaunted man-to-man defense.
Or is it so vaunted any more?
Mike Krzyzewski believes that it is ... or, at least, that it will be soon enough.
"We are going to play man-to-man defense, and we are going to play it well," the Duke coach said. "Our season is not about the season, it is about the end of the season. You develop by playing well, by getting beat, by not looking good, by looking good, and if you continually camouflage a weakness, then you never correct that weakness. We are going to keep working on correcting that weakness."
Duke assistant coach Johnny Dawkins pointed out that, for all of the Blue Devils' experience (four seniors in the top seven of the rotation), the team still has two freshmen and a sophomore coming off an injury trying to find their places in the scheme.
"We've got some young players in the rotation," Dawkins said, "and as they learn their roles, we're going to continue to get better on defense."
Any improvement Duke may or may not make down the stretch will come from three young players: freshmen Josh McRoberts and Greg Paulus, plus injury-plagued sophomore DeMarcus Nelson. It's a pretty safe bet that in three-and-a-half seasons, seniors J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams, Sean Dockery and Lee Melchionni have shown what they've got. But there's plenty of room for improvement for the three youngsters.
KEY VARIABLES: FRESHMEN, NELSON
McRoberts, a 6-10 freshman, has struggled to find his role. He's shown flashes of the skill and the wonderful athleticism that made him one of the nation's most prized recruits, but he hasn't been able to put together a string of consistent performances.
The good news is that his play does appear to have bounced back from a brief slump in mid-January. During Duke's first 15 games, McRoberts averaged more than 23 minutes per game and contributed 8.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. That's not great, but it's better than what junior Shavlik Randolph managed in the same role a year ago.
In the next three games, though, McRoberts almost disappeared. His playing time dropped to barely 15 minutes per game, while his averages dropped to 4.3 points and 1.7 rebounds.
He came back to play 30 minutes in the win at Virginia Tech. Against BC, he turned in the most important play he's made this season. With Duke protecting a two-point lead in the final seconds, he rebounded a missed free throw by Paulus, got fouled and converted both free throws.
"That was a defining moment for him, because he's going to be a good player," Krzyzewski said. "But he's only 50 percent at the line, and that was big for him to make those shots."
Duke still needs for McRoberts to become a better defender and step it up on the boards. Until that happens, the Devils will continue to rely too much on Williams down low.
Paulus, a 6-2 point guard, has played 30-plus minutes in 14 straight games, since playing 29 against Penn. While he's scoring just seven points per game, he's battling UNC's Bobby Frasor and Virginia's Sean Singletary for the ACC lead in assists.
Beyond his individual stats, Paulus is a big reason Duke has improved its overall playmaking. A year ago, the Blue Devils received assists on 421 of their 853 field goals (49.4 percent). So far this year, Duke has earned assists on more than 57 percent of its field goals.
Still, Krzyzewski wants more from his young floor leader.
"We still would like somebody to take control of our team better," the Duke coach said. "It is hard for a freshman to tell people what to do, especially when they are seniors. That is the thing we need out on the court. Knowing time, score and what we are in right now, all those types of things. We are not as good as we need to be in that. That is the area to me that is the most important, because it sets up all the other areas."
Paulus also needs to become a better defender. Krzyzewski has taken some of the defensive burden off his young floor leader by asking Dockery to pressure the ball. But teams with more than one penetrating guard still are hurting the Devils. That won't stop until Paulus gets better on the ball, or until Coach K finds another perimeter defender, perhaps somebody like ...
Nelson, a 6-3 sophomore, recently reminded everyone of his value with a 15-point, six-rebound effort in Duke's overtime victory over FSU.
"Thank goodness he's back, or no way we win that game," Krzyzewski said.
Nelson, who broke a bone in his ankle against Drexel in Duke's fourth game, missed 10 contests before he returned to play a splendid half against Maryland. But just before halftime, he suffered a bone bruise on an injured ankle and missed another three games.
Although he managed to play 27 minutes against FSU, there was an obvious dropoff between Nelson's first-half and second-half performances. It's clear that he's not yet in game condition. But, barring another injury, it shouldn't be long. Nelson will play a larger and larger role for the Blue Devils down the stretch.
Nelson offers Krzyzewski his best hope for significant defensive improvement. The former California prep star combines long arms, quick feet and strength -- qualities that should make him a superior perimeter defender. He brings the top-notch athleticism to the position that Duke's other guards (with the possible exception of Dockery) lack.
But it's not as simple as merely plugging in another defender. Krzyzewski's system depends on an intricate series of rotations and switches. Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg brought that up recently, when a reporter asked him why so many opposing big men were having big games against Shelden Williams, the reigning national defensive player of the year.
"When you look at defense, I think you guys have a tendency to look at how many points someone scores against somebody else," Greenberg said. "If somebody is quick to help, he needs someone to help him. Maybe that's why his man is scoring some. You don't play against Shelden Williams. You play against the Duke defense. Coleman Collins (didn't score 25 points) against Shelden Williams. He was the recipient of some excellent playmaking, and he scored those points against the Duke defense."
Duke's young players can help the Blue Devils' defensive ace in two ways. First, Nelson and Paulus must do a better job of stopping penetration, so Williams won't have to leave his man as often to help. Second, if McRoberts can learn to rotate better, there will be fewer openings when he does.
If all of that starts happening, Duke will have a defense capable of producing a national championship. If it doesn't, it's hard to see the Blue Devils winning it all.