Sorry its been a long time between posts. Sadly, this blog isn’t a career, but we’re back – we’ll make up for lost time – no sweat.
#1 in the AP, #1 in the Coaches Poll. What’s it all mean? Absolutely nothing. This is the price of being a Blue Devil fan these days. We’ve been here, we’ve done that all before. Just last year we were 22-1, heading up to Wake to face a young Deacon’s team and you remember what happened, don’t you? We got our ass handed to us. After that 22-1 start, we finished the season 6-5, falling short of the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row.
Now don’t get me wrong, I know this isn’t the same team. In fact, I can guarantee you this team won’t finish 6-5 down the stretch. Their D is too good to let that happen. In fact, I’ll give you five reasons (besides the suffocating defense) why this season’s Blue Devils will not collapse.
#1 DEEPER – Coach K has not shorten the bench. The Devils continue a solid 8-man rotation, occasionally rotating up to 10 or 11 players. Only the freshman have lost significant playing time. In fact, Singler and Scheyer are the only two averaging 30 minutes per game.
#2 THE BIG’S - Zoubek, Thomas and Plumlee are the three-headed monster (sorry, McClure is Singler’s backup). The trio have averaged 13.1ppg, 9.9 rebounds and two blocks. I had hoped for a little better numbers 17/10/4, but defensively they’ve done a great job, particularity Zoubek. Time will tell if they can handle the ‘true’ ACC though. It’s one thing to face the NC State’s and Maryland’s of the league, but it’s a whole new world when they do battle with the front lines of Wake and Carolina.
#3 DYNAMIC DUO – One could argue that with Henderson now playing at the level he is, Duke (with Gerald and Singler) might have two of the top five players in the league (I’m including Hansborough, Rice and Teague as well). Both have demonstrated the ability to score inside if they get cold on the outside.
#4 OLDER, WISER – The extra year helps. Trust me. The Devils are starting to master both the spread offense and rotating on defense. Duke has four players that you can trust to bring up the ball and run the offense, or stick on an opponent’s best player and lock ‘em down.
#5 FREE THROWS – Remember how Memphis basically lost the championship because they couldn’t hit their free throws? Can’t we assume that making one’s free throws has the opposite effect? Crazy theory, huh? The Devils are hitting a solid .720 from behind the stripe (seven players are hitting over 70%). It wouldn’t shock you to know Smith leads the team (90%) and Scheyer is second (84%), but can you guess who’s third on the team in free throws? Nope, not Gerald, not Singler, not even Paulus. It’s 7-1 Brian Zoubek, hitting 82% of his free throws.
Now having said ALL that, Duke’s going to lose some games before this season is over and everyone will come out of the woodwork with the “here we go again.” You know what, let ‘em. The true test has only been about the six-game tournament in March.
MY THOUGHTS ON THE ROSTER (Ranked in order of importance):
#1 HENDERSON: Stunning. That’s all I can say. Shane Battier was the last player who made such a leap from one year to the next. Battier’s excuse was the departure of Brand, Avery and Maggette after the 1999 season. The team needed a leader and Battier stepped up. For Henderson, it’s been about health. His wrist is healed and his confidence is up. He’s hitting a stunning .471 from three, but that’s not really what impresses me. It has been his ability to drive into the lane and nail that mid-range jumper again and again and again.
#2 SINGLER: He leads the team in points, rebounds, assist and steals. Maybe he should be number one.
#3 ZOUBEK: Don’t get me wrong, Smith and Scheyer are better players, but Zoubek’s presence in the paint is more important to this squad. Remember when he was a freshman and got called for traveling just checking into the game? I could have sworn Brian had not seen a basketball before college. That seems like so long ago. Since then, I’m starting to believe he can handle himself. Will he ever be great? No. But can he be an Aaron Grey-type center next season? Maybe.
#4 SCHEYER: His shot had disappeared prior to the Maryland game. Hopefully that was the slump breaker. However, he’s made up for it with solid D and dishing out assists. In fact, he’s now tied with Singler in assists at 2.9 per game.
#5 N. SMITH: So far, he’s been good. He’s still learning the point position (he only has 38 assists to 36 turnovers), but don’t sweat the details. First, this offense is not about a single person dishing the ball. The point in this offense is to bring the ball down and set the offense. Don’t ever look for a Duke point to lead the conference in assists anymore as long as they are running the motion offense. However, Smith has been huge on the defensive end of the floor, hitting a decent 37% from behind the arc, and a amazing 90% at the free throw line.
#6 PAULUS: It is obvious that Smith should be starting, especially with Greg’s health issues early on, but he’s starting to feel it. He’s a threat to hit it from anywhere and has gotten better each game. In fact, he’s 6-14 in his last four games.
#7 McCLURE: Defense. Defense. Defense.
#8 THOMAS: He still looks like the scarecrow in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ when he’s jumping around, but he’s done a better job being in the right spot at the right time on the floor for rebounds and receiving passes near the basket. Most importantly, he’s a energetic bunny off the bench.
#9 E. WILLIAMS: The Maryland game summed it up for Elliot. During junk time, he tried to lay it up three times, and each time he was blocked. The next two times he went in and dunked the hell out of the ball. While he won’t get too much time this season, hopefully Coach K will find spots for him throughout the season. I still believe he’s a quicker DeMarcus Nelson.
#10 PLUMLEE: He’s played some good defense, he’s been aggressive on the offensive end and displays some decent post ability. However, he’ll only get PT if Duke’s big’s get into foul trouble or during junk time.
#11 POCIUS: He’s been a disappointment at Duke throughout his career, struggling to stay healthy. It’s a shame too, he actually had a decent stroke heading into college. He’s played good D when he’s gotten on the floor, but shoots way too much, making too few (.303 from the floor) to justify all the attempts.
MID-SEASON MOMENTS THAT STICK OUT IN MY HEAD:
BEST GAME: Beating Maryland 85-44. Hell, that was fun. The back-to-back fast breaks, the three’s from all over, Zoubek controlling the first three minutes, and Vazquez sitting quietly on the bench for the final ten minutes of the game. Life is just good sometimes.
BEST PERFORMANCE: Gerald Henderson’s 7-7 in the first half against Georgetown. Heading into that game, I was worried. It was a true test (so I thought). While the team struggled to shoot, Henderson’s perfect 7-7 start in the first half propelled the team to a huge win.
WORST GAME: Come on, you know…Michigan, 81-73. The Wolverines 1-3-1 shut the Devils down.
FAVORITE PERSONAL MOMENT: Sitting on the court in Madison Square Gardens and getting this on tape.
MOST ANNOYING MOMENT: A single Florida State fan chanting ‘Paulus!” for almost the entire game, forcing me to actually turn off the volume on my TV. Would it kill the FSU fans to get up and actually cheer so one fans chant can’t be heard over everything else.
OPPONENT I WAS MOST IMPRESSED WITH: Jimmy Baron, Rhode Island guard. Baron did his best J.J. impression hitting 8-10 from behind the three line.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Greg Monroe getting a technical and a 4th foul sitting on the bench. He says he didn’t say anything. There’s no video proof he did, so I believe him. The foul changed the game. My feeling is, if you’re going to call a ‘T’ on a player for talking trash, make sure you know for SURE he’s the player talking.
WHAT TO EXPECT?
I won’t predict the tournament. I can’t without knowing what the brackets will be (even if I did, I’d be wrong). We got 12 games remaining in the regular season. In reality, Duke will more than likely win nine of ten of those games, meaning they’ll drop at least two, if not three games. The Devils face both North Carolina and Wake Forest twice. Let’s assume we split both series (which would be fine in my book), it would be hard to imagine that at least one team doesn’t pull off an upset against us. Most likely suspects; at Clemson or at Virginia Tech.
If they can somehow win 10 of 12, then Duke should wrap up their 18th ACC regular season title, and its first one since 2006. Not bad considering UNC was suppose to own the world this season.
WHAT I HOPE?
A deep run. Yes, I want a championship. With a little bit of love and a little bit of luck, this team could go all the way. However, after falling short prior to the second weekend in the tournament the last two years, I’d be excited to make it deep into the regional.
WHAT I PRAY FOR (If i believe in a God)?
Title game against Connecticut, down 67-65 with seconds to go. Henderson drives, gets doubled and dishes to Paulus standing behind the line. He shoots it, nails it, Duke wins by one and the nation collapses knowing Greg Paulus will become part of the tournament folklore.
Note: If we can home in time, Big Duke Balls will be live-blogging this Wednesday’s Duke/Wake Forest game.