January 19, 2004
DURHAM One of the lamest questions posed to coaches is the one about whether they have too much talent. It's also one of the most infrequent. With the remarkable success he has had recruiting, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski probably has heard it more than most. The obvious answer is that a team can never have too much talent, but that doesn't mean that stocking the roster with blue-chippers can't have unintended consequences. Consider the cases of four big men Krzyzewski recruited over the last two years: Kris Humphries, Shavlik Randolph, Michael Thompson and Shelden Williams. All four were McDonald's All-Americans who committed to the Blue Devils. Only two are on the Duke campus today. Of those two, one is stifling some of the most exciting aspects of his game, and the other is spectacularly underrated. Start with Humphries, who signed a letter of intent to play for the Blue Devils. He would be a freshman at Duke if he were not tearing up the Big Ten for Minnesota. Humphries and his father decided before the season that because there were so many big men on the Blue Devils' roster, they would ask Krzyzewski to assure a certain amount of playing time. Because Krzyzewski is the master of such an embarrassment of riches in addition to possessing a quick temper, he refused and told Humphries to take a hike. The coach then annulled the Humphries marriage in such a manner that he helped the player avoid the NCAA's usual one-year sit-out penalty and play somewhere else immediately. It went something like this: You're not denied admission to our university (a development that automatically cancels a letter of intent under NCAA rules), but you're denied admission to our basketball program (a novel concept that necessitated an unprecedented NCAA ruling). Humphries obviously won his appeal, becoming eligible for the Gophers this season, which may end up being his only one at the college level. Ironically, one of the players Humphries feared getting stuck behind was Thompson, who is now enrolled at Northwestern. Thompson decided to transfer in the middle of his sophomore season because he was not getting enough playing time behind Randolph and Williams, becoming the rare McDonald's All-American to get buried on a college bench. Randolph's recruitment was such big news in North Carolina that the battle between Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State was compared to the recruitment of former N.C. State great David Thompson in the 1970s. It was for good reason. Randolph was seen as another Christian Laettner, a big man with post presence and a perimeter game. He chose Duke even though he almost certainly would have played more for the Tar Heels or the Wolfpack. After hip surgery this summer and the addition of significant bulk to his frame, Randolph was ready to rebound from a freshman year during which he endured a great deal of pain as well as being pushed around by bigger players. Former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell used to try to get under the skin of opposing players by mentioning to them how he thought their coaches were misusing their talents, an argument that might carry some weight in Randolph's case. On perhaps any other ACC team, Randolph would start and his all-around game would be something the coach would want to take advantage of on a regular basis. Krzyzewski has asked Randolph to be a role player and mainly bang underneath. In the Blue Devils' recent win against Wake Forest, Randolph came off the bench for only 13 minutes, putting up just one shot and grabbing six rebounds. He is devoted to Duke, however, and is not expected to take the same path as Thompson. I've tried to be a strength down low for the team, rebound, play defense, be an offensive threat down low, Randolph said. This team doesn't need me to step out (and) be an outside threat. Williams' accomplishments this season should be getting him a lot more publicity and strong consideration for the All-ACC team. He is on pace to shatter Duke's school record for blocked shots. Williams and Wake Forest point guard Chris Paul are probably the two most productive defensive players in the conference. But when you play for the Blue Devils, the spotlight is hard to come by. Because he likes to and perhaps partly because he has to in order to maintain the university's image, Krzyzewski brings in players who generally are well-spoken and pleasant to be around. Williams does not possess as much charisma as his teammates. He gives short and unexciting answers to questions. He is not at all surly but perhaps a little bit shy. The residual effects of the notoriety he gained for an unproven rape allegation against him two years ago also might be a contributing factor to his reticence. Because the media have so many other interesting Duke players to choose from Randolph, Chris Duhon, J.J. Redick, Daniel Ewing, Luol Deng and Sean Dockery all spring to mind as more desirable interviews Williams often is ignored. After his 16-point, 14-rebound, eight-block performance against the Demon Deacons, one reporter was overheard to say: The worst part about this is it means we've got to talk to Shelden. So where does this leave Duke? The Blue Devils have two of the four centers they originally wanted. One of them might be wasting some of his skills, and the other may not be getting the proper recognition. Then there is the matter of Duke's dominating 11-game winning streak and its No. 1 ranking. Can you have too much talent? Never. Leave Crazy Towel Guy Alone Whenever somebody comes up with an original idea, mimicry inevitably follows. Usually, the result is a much less appealing copy (witness virtually all reality television shows), and such is the case with some of the people who surround Herb Neubauer. Those who have been to a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the last 10 years or so know Neubauer, a 62-year-old Duke alumnus and season-ticket holder, as Crazy Towel Guy. He was given this nickname by the Cameron Crazies for his towel-waving antics from his seat in the upper level. The Duke student section acknowledges him at least once every game by chanting Crazy Towel Guy until Neubauer stands up and waves the towel to their delight. Recently, some other season-ticket holders who sit around or near Neubauer have tried to capitalize on his fame. Some have stood during what is supposed to be Neubauer's moment. Others have been more audacious and brought their own towels. One woman used as a prop a giant white hand, which looked a lot like the Hamburger Helper. Maybe it amounts to complaining about the valet parking at the country club, but we're not sure what these people are trying to accomplish. Apparently, it's not enough that they belong to the exclusive group of people with access to games at Cameron. They also want a place in the hearts of the Crazies. There's nothing wrong with that, but they should come up with something original and stop riding on the coattails of Crazy Towel Guy. After all, fresh material is supposed to be the lifeblood of the Cameron Crazies, isn't it? Youth Issue: Ploy Or Bad Memory? Nobody whined more about the fact that he had to coach in a new era of college basketball than Krzyzewski last year. Yes, everybody knew he had to play with six new players, thanks to the early departures of Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy. But it was the best recruiting class in the nation, and the Blue Devils were as talented as any team in the country. Throughout the season, while his team was winning 26 games and its fifth consecutive ACC championship, Krzyzewski complained that nobody noticed how young the Blue Devils were. Indeed, having so many freshmen did contribute to some of Duhon's woes last year, but it was Krzyzewski who benched Duhon for ineffective play midway through the conference schedule. So now, during Duhon's renaissance, Krzyzewski is telling his version of why the senior point guard is playing so well. He had a fair year last year, the coach said. Just because we are Duke, no one ever made mention that we had six freshmen last year. It tickles me when people talk about having young teams, and I never heard that said one time about our team last year. That was a team that Duhon led to 26 wins last year. Maybe this is just another one of the coach's many motivational ploys, and he's going to bat for his oft-criticized senior point guard in a public forum. But if Krzyzewski never heard the youth issue mentioned, maybe he needs new ears to go along with his new hips, because he harped on it every single time the topic came up last season.