When you place your allegiance with a program with so many successful teams like Duke, it begins to get tougher and tougher to distinguish the best teams from each other. College basketball is particularly difficult as much is determined (in my opinion, unfairly) by the NCAA tournament and how far you advance. Teams can go 37-2, have the best record in the country, and finish second (or lower), a result that may not be indicative of their true performance. So, I am taking it upon myself to do the distinguishing for you by picking apart the ten greatest teams in Duke basketball history each week. To begin our list, we look at a team with a crippling achilles heel: 2003-2004.
You might be asking yourself how could a team featuring Duke’s all time leading scorer, rebounder, shot blocker, stealer and second leading assist man be all the way down at #10. Well, allow me to explain.
Entering the 2003-2004 season, Duke was looking at a squad built with all of the components to go deep in the tournament. Chris Duhon returned for his senior year after a disappointing junior season in which he had been picked ACC Preseason Player of the Year but only managed 3rd Team All ACC and missed out on the All ACC Tourney team. He shot just 27% from outside and only 38% from the field. That would qualify as a good season if he were, well, me. He wasn’t. Duhon entered his senior year with a chip on his shoulder and out to prove his doubters wrong.
Luol Deng starred as a frosh
Accompanying him was Luol Deng, the #2 rated player in his class behind only Lebron James, a do it all wing forward that could post-up and stretch defenses out to 20 feet. Deng was believed by many to be the missing piece the team needed to compete for a championship, taking pressure off of Shelden Williams inside and giving the Blue Devils a high-low option.
Williams and J.J. Redick were super sophs just beginning to scratch the surface of their talents. Redick averaged 15 points per game as a freshman (which is on the high end for Duke freshmen all time and a bar to set your expectations for Jabari Parker) and Williams chipped in 8 points, 6 rebounds and nearly 2 blocks per game in only 20 minutes a night. Redick’s averages would only slightly increase as a sophomore, where Williams would bump his production up to 12 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks a game.
Alongside Redick, Daniel Ewing provided another shooter around the arc, allowing Williams to operate on an island inside. This opened up the lane for Williams to back his man down and work a couple of post moves to get to the hoop.
However, as sophomores, Redick and Williams werent quite the finished products of 2006. Redick was still very one dimensional, albeit excellent at that dimension, and was a poor defender. Williams still hadn’t developed many post moves and was still coming into his own defensively. They were very good but not yet great.
With bench players like Sean Dockery, Shavlik Randolph, Nick Horvath and Lee Melchionni, Duke had a solid rotation of stars and glue guys to make a deep run.
Duke struggled early in the season against Pacific and Detroit and ultimately lost to Purdue in the Great Alaskan Shootout. Gene Keady marched out an average squad and knocked off the #2 team in the country. Perhaps this was Duke looking ahead to the match-up in East Lansing with Paul Davis and Michigan State a few days later. Whatever it was, Duke needed to right the ship.
That they did. Duke opened the game with a big lead early and never looked back. In the first half, Duke shot over 55% from the field while crashing the boards and contesting every Michigan State jumper, holding the Spartans to 42% shooting in the first half. Improbably, Duke played even better in the second half hitting 13 of 20 shots and stomping on the Spartans collective throat. Not a single player on MSU cracked double digits and its All Big 10 center, Paul Davis, was held to just 7 points and 3 rebounds. Duke won by 22 over Tom Izzo’s #5 ranked Spartans in the Izzone. This was the first sign that showed how good this team could be.
Chris Duhon and the 04 Blue Devils
The win over Michigan State was the first of 18 straight wins for the Blue Devils until back-to-back road losses to #21 NC State, led by Julius Hodge, and #15 Wake Forest, led by Chris Paul. Three games later, fellow 2004 Final Four participant, Georgia Tech came into Cameron and labored Duke into a sloppy loss (44 turnovers and 71 missed shots).
The Georgia Tech game was a sign of what could doom Duke in the tourney. The Blue Devils shot extremely poorly from outside (8-29) and couldn’t keep Tech off the glass. In 04, Duke only out-rebounded opponents by two boards per game (Duke was 282nd in defensive rebounding that year according to KenPom.com). Much of this can be attributed to Duke’s leading post men being underclassmen. Often Deng would venture away from the glass on the offensive side, even though he had a size and reach advantage on almost every opponent. Having Redick and Ewing on the wings certainly wasn’t helping rebounding in any way. Teams had a blueprint to beat Duke and they would enforce it at every turn.
To end the year, Duke welcomed UNC to Cameron having won 13 of 15 in the series. The Heels attacked the boards and forced Duke to shoot themselves out of it and it almost worked. Duke went just 3-11 from outside and were crushed on the glass by 12. Luol Deng, who came off the bench as Nick Horvath got the start on senior night, led Duke with 25 points on 12-16 shooting. UNC had no match for him as Deng continually abused Jawad Williams and David Noel. Although Duke won, none of its problems had been alleviated.
Duke marched through the first two rounds in the ACC Tournament but drew Maryland in the title game. Once again, Duke shot poorly from outside (5-21) and was outworked on the boards. Duke got 28 rebounds combined from Williams and Deng but it wasnt enough to fend off the Terps who weren’t even a particularly big team. To add to the Blue Devil misery, Duke found itself in foul trouble (Ewing, Horvath, Williams and Randolph all fouled out) and committed 17 turnovers.
Starting to see why I ranked this team so low?
Heading into the NCAA tournament, many were looking ahead to the Duke-UConn matchup that was looming in the Final Four. Many believed them to be the best two teams in the country and were salivating at the potential match-up between Williams and UConn’s Emeka Okafor, the National Defensive Player of the Year and Big East Player of the Year.
Duke rolled through their first two rounds by an average score of 93-61. They matched up with a-year-away Illinois squad featuring Dee Brown and Deron Williams in the sweet 16. Duke made a late push once again led by Luol Deng and advanced to the Elite 8 to find a cinderella Xavier squad led by Romain Sato and Lionel Chalmers.
Once again, Duke was shooting and rebounding poorly in the first half as Xavier took a 30-28 lead into halftime and Duke found itself shooting just 33% from the field. Whatever Coach K said at halftime worked because Duke came out firing in the second half, hitting 44% of their shots and 5 of 9 from deep. Duke would fight off Xavier in the end and advance to meet UConn in the Final Four.
In what many believed to be the unofficial title game, Duke and UConn met in the National Semifinals with a date with Georgia Tech on the line. It was a physical game from the get go as both Emeka Okafor and Shelden Williams got into early foul trouble. Once again, the game was about Duke’s shooting and rebounding. However, Duke led by 7 at halftime while shooting just 2 of 11 from outside. It was the play of oft-injured and much-maligned forward Shavlik Randolph that kept Duke pushing through. His 13 and 6 performance in the game was overlooked because of the Williams-Okafor matchup but when it mattered most, Randolph was on top of his game and I wish people would remember that.
The real battle to watch, since Okafor and Williams were sitting on the bench most of the game, was Josh Boone and Luol Deng. The PFs chased rebounds down like game show contestants in a phone booth with money whirling all around them. Deng gave Boone trouble on the defensive end and Boone returned the favor (somewhat, Deng ended with 16 points).
However, down 9 with a few minutes left, UConn and Okafor surged back into the game. After Okafor ripped a loose ball out of the hands of Luol Deng and laid it in, UConn held a one point lead with 21 seconds to go. After a Duke timeout, JJ Redick drove the lane into a forest of UConn defenders. He went up for a shot but was hounded by Boone and Okafor, no foul was called. UConn would seal the game with free throws (Duhon hit a running bank shot from 35 feet to end the game, one point shy).
The 2004 Duke Blue Devils were an insanely talented squad but may have been a year away from true dominance. Duhon was the lifeblood of the team but its main offensive contributors were underclassmen that weren’t quite ready to dominate. Its most talented player was a still raw Luol Deng and its supporting cast was just above adequate.
Duhon, Redick and Williams were All Americans as well as All ACC players. Deng finished on the All ACC 3rd team.
The bottom line on this team was that they had the pieces but they just couldn’t quite pull it together. They had the consummate point guard and leader, they had two smooth stroking shooters, they had a hybrid forward that could defend anybody and oozed potential, and they even had a back to the basket force that was one of the best defenders in the country. But they were young. Only Duhon, Ewing and Randolph were upperclassmen that contributed. JJ still hadn’t crafted his scoring abilities and conditioning. Shelden still didn’t have many post moves and was still undisciplined on defense. Ewing was barely more than a role player instilled in the offense for the mere fact he was a safe player, adequate offense and possessed good enough foot speed on defense to not get burned on high screens. They were consistently out-rebounded down the stretch, their jumpers weren’t falling and Williams simply wasn’t reliable enough to dump it into every possession and get points.
Maybe if Deng returns for his sophomore year, the 2005 squad reaches a Final Four. Maybe Dockery thrives more with more weapons around him. Maybe Lee Melchionni never has to start and be leaned on. Maybe JJ is freed up more with another viable offensive option and is more effective. Maybe Shelden doesn’t feel the pressure of defending the entire paint. Maybe Shelden can play more aggressive defense without fear of short-handing his team. Maybe 05 cracks this list. Instead, we’ll start off the top 10 with a team on the cusp of what could have been.