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Talent, Experience, Depth, Coach Evoke Final Four Visions

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

By Frank Dascenzo
Durham (N.C.) Herald-Sun

November 17, 2003 DURHAM — Naturally, Duke has become a monster program under 56-year-old Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski. Choosing the Blue Devils preseason No. 1 in the ACC is the opposite of risky business. Picking Duke, especially in 2003-04, to reach another Final Four — that would be the 10th for Krzyzewski, one fewer than Dean Smith, two fewer than John Wooden — wouldn't exactly be a stretch, either. In fact, Duke's season is all about getting to another Final Four and challenging for a national title.

Make no mistake, Krzyzewski's vigor is as rock-solid as when he showed up in Dallas for his first Final Four with guys named Dawkins, Amaker, Alarie, Ferry, Snyder, King and Bilas in uniform. Motion offense and man-for-man defense prevailed then, just as they do now in Durham.

The names on the backs of the Duke uniforms change. The results don't. For sure, Krzyzewski has spoiled — some might argue spoiled rotten — the Iron Dukes who cram into Cameron Indoor Stadium and expect blowouts year after year.

Fact is, Krzyzewski is riding a five-year ACC championship streak. Yes, that's impressive. But for those with short memories, his teams from 1988-92 reached five consecutive Final Fours. And guess who is the last program to repeat as national champs.

Right again: Duke.

“The thing about Coach K is he is tireless,” senior point guard Chris Duhon said, “and his adrenaline rubs off on all of us.”

Duhon might be the most difficult player in Krzyzewski's career to figure out. He won ACC rookie of the year in 2001, mostly because he didn't lose a game as a starter. Two of his teammates were Jason Williams and Shane Battier. Duhon shot 42.4 percent from the field as a rookie but has gradually slipped, to 41.0 as a sophomore and 38.6 as a junior. The Blue Devils have been beaten each of those years in the Sweet 16, upset by Indiana in 2002 and beaten by Kansas in 2003.

“(Duhon is) a key guy in our program,” Krzyzewski said. “He had a very good year for a regular player, but for what he's capable of, he had a fair year in 2003. The capability is there, and Chris just needs consistency. If he does that, he can be one of the best players in the country.”

While the arrival of 6-8 freshman Luol Deng already has drawn comparisons to Grant Hill, the ignition that ultimately fuels the Duke machine remains with Duhon. The better he performs, the better Duke will play on all cylinders, and it's so easy to see why.

With shooting star J.J. Redick, who had 23 double-digit scoring games and averaged 15 points as a freshman, Duke is deadly on the perimeter. Daniel Ewing is a silent warrior, the 2003 ACC Tournament MVP who doubled his scoring average (12.0 from 6.5) as a sophomore and shot 44.8 percent from three-point range. Off the bench, sophomore point guard Sean Dockery is a defensive pest.

“I think J.J. had the best year of any freshman in the country other than Carmelo Anthony,” Krzyzewski said. “He will be guarded by the best players, so he has to work hard to be in great shape, not just really good shape.”

Duke's big men — Shelden Williams, Shavlik Randolph, Nick Horvath and Michael Thompson — are all stronger. This Duke team shouldn't lack for size or strength inside.

Williams made the All-ACC freshman team, averaging 8.2 points, a team-high 5.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. He also had six double-doubles. In the final 13 games, he averaged 10.5 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and shot 54.1 percent from the floor.

“Shelden has really improved,” Krzyzewski said. “He played like a freshman at times last year, which is OK, but we wanted him to play up to his capability all the time. Now he knows more about what it takes. The more familiar he is with his environment, the better he'll be.”

After undergoing successful surgery on his left hip to correct a labrum tear and a bone spur in May, Randolph appears ready for a break-out season. He has added 30 pounds and looks more comfortable making quick movements.

“Our sophomores will be in better places than where they were at the end of the year, especially Shavlik,” Krzyzewski said. “He was hurt so much at the end of the year that he wasn't able to play. He's going to be a lot better.”

Preparing for Duke will be much more difficult than it was last season because Duke will be better inside, outside and off the bench. Then there is the coach, of course. Preseason ratings have never made Krzyzewski blush. His teams have been a preseason top-10 pick in 15 of the last 16 years, and the Devils have ended up ranked in the top 10 in 12 of those years.

Deng was brought in to replace the departed Dahntay Jones, who led the Blue Devils in scoring (17.7) last season. Deng brings a dimension the Devils didn't have a year ago — a guard/forward with explosive abilities at both ends of the floor. The comparison to Hill, like it or not, might seem like a small stretch, but it's not a wild guess, either.

Hill, like Deng, is 6-8 and extremely versatile. As a freshman in 1991, Hill helped Duke win its first of three NCAA championships. He averaged 11.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, shot 51.6 percent from the floor and converted an amazing — damn-near behind the backboard — catch of a Bobby Hurley pass in the title game with Kansas.

The challenge for Krzyzewski is to establish a collective heartbeat for his splendidly talented team. He has more inside power than in recent years, experienced backcourt performers and quality depth. He must push it to the limit — to San Antonio.

When you've watched three national championship banners get draped from the rafters at Cameron Indoor Stadium and seen the playing floor named after you, it's not always easy to get excited about reaching a Sweet 16. In the last two years, Krzyzewski was a spectator at the Final Four.

“We had a great year (in 2002-03) based on a team that was individually prone to inconsistency,” Krzyzewski said. “But as a group we were fairly consistent at a high level. We had a good year, going 26-7.”

This year ought to be better than that, and it's easy to see why: experience, size, depth, a rookie named Deng. Some things don't change, and high expectations for Duke basketball is one of them. Krzyzewski and the Devils have become synonymous with the Final Four. They've been there nine times in the last 18 years, and they've reached the championship game seven times.

It's been an amazing run, and it has a great chance to continue this season. If Duke falls short of the Final Four again this time, it will be viewed as a disappointment.