While Duke had a number of dramatic finishes and close calls, this one was one of the easier selections the staff at TDD faced. Heading into the final game of the ACC's first half, the Blue Devils traveled to arch rival North Carolina to face a very talented, if inconsistent, bunch of Tar Heels.
Carolina certainly presented a number of potential match up problems for Coach K's troops, namely how to stop sophomore scorer Rashad McCants on the perimeter while slowing down preseason Player of the Year Raymond Felton. Early on the Devils looked every bit of their top ranking, storming to an early lead before the Heels rallied after intermission to take a seven-point advantage with under six minutes to go.
Duke then turned up the defense and went on a 10-0 run, taking a 72-69 lead on two free throws by freshman Luol Deng with 1:06 left. However a late three would send the game into overtime, where the teams would battle again before UNC hit another three to tie it at 81. At that point Duhon drove the length of the floor and hit a reverse lay-up with six seconds remaining to win the game for Duke.
Worst Game: Maryland-95, Duke-87 OT
While the season ending loss to UConn ran a close second, Duke could take solace in the fact that the Huskies are a National Championship caliber team that got the benefit of a few calls and bounces here and there to win the game. Certainly Duke did enough to lose that game, but it was nothing like the ACC Championship round when the Blue Devils led by 12 with under five minutes to play only to see the Terps rebound and force overtime.
Both games saw Duke's interior disintegrate with the disqualification of Shelden Williams, however the end of the Maryland game cost Duke a record sixth ACC Championship, as well as the overall top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Perhaps the toughest part of that game to swallow for Duke fans was that the Blue Devils gave the game away in the end. Much like the end of the UConn game. In Duhon's words: "We didn't execute down the stretch and it cost us.". Indeed that would be a recurring theme.
Best Team Performance: Duke-89, Texas-61
Quite simply, Duke was dominant against the Longhorns in Madison Square Garden in a nationally televised performance. The Blue Devils raced out to a 19 point halftime advantage, shooting a sizzling 62% in the opening period. The second half was much of the same as the Devils led by as many as 34 while out-rebounding the beefy Texas frontline 43-34. Defensively Texas was held to 32% shooting from the field while six Blue Devils reached the double figure plateau.
Best Individual Performance: Chris Duhon vs. Illinois – 4 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists
Sure it wasn't a dominating stat sheet performance, but with Duhon the Blue Devils would have been bounced in the Sweet 16. Still suffering from his much publicized rib injury, the senior captain came up with big play after big play including diving out of bounds, collecting rebounds in traffic, and setting up his teammates for open looks.
Aside from keeping his team alive in the single elimination dance, the performance against Illinois was symbolic of his career at Duke – always doing what it took for his team to win.
Biggest Surprise: The Emergence of Sean Dockery
Coming into the season there wasn't too much to go on when it came to the sophomore point guard. And some even begin to write him off after Alaska. However a start against Michigan State did wonders for Dockery as he would quickly develop into Duke's best on the ball defender, earning more and more time as the season wore on. He's still got some work to do when it comes to a jump shot, but without his contributions, Duke would have been in dire trouble considering Duhon's injury and backcourt match up troubles with some of the more quick and athletic opponents.
Player of the Year: Shelden Williams 12.6 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 3.0 BPG
For the first time in many years the Blue Devils had a true shot blocking presence in the lane, and for the first time since Carlos Boozer left there was a legitimate rebounder as well. Both allowed Duke's perimeter defense to be taken up a notch as Williams was always back looking to erase any mistakes.
Along the way Shelden set the record for career rejections in the season at Duke (111), assumed the lead for career double-doubles in the league among active players (18), and improved on the offensive end of the floor. Now all he needs is to avoid foul trouble and he could establish himself as the premier big man in the conference, and among the best in the country.
Most Valuable Player: Chris Duhon 10.0 PPG, 6.1 APG, 4.1 RPG
What can you say about Duhon that hasn't been said? He led this team though the season with incredible results. He overcame personal adversity after unrealistic expectations hampered him as a junior. He kept his team from falling apart after a number of rough defeats, all the way to 31 wins, his third 30 win season in four years.
Without Chris this team would have mirrored the 2002-2003 season when there was a lot of talent, but a real lack of leadership. Duhon filled that role as well as any of his predecessors, Shane Battier included.
Most Improved Player: Luol Deng 15.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG
Coming into the season Deng had a ton of promise matched with a ton of expectations. He also had no idea how to fit in with his team, and his team wasn't sure how to adapt to the new guy either. Early in the season Deng tried to be a scorer. Then he settled for rebounding and defense. However, towards the middle of February the 6-foot-8 frosh really began to figure things out in a big way.
By the end of the year Luol had become Duke's best all around player after putting it all together. It was a remarkable and exciting transformation for any and all Duke fans, especially considering potential future #2 has in a Duke uniform.
Most Likely To Break Out Next Season: Shavlik Randolph
Sure we heard it all throughout last summer. Shav had bulked up to 245 pounds and that was the missing piece to the puzzle. However those expectations proved to be premature as Coach K reminded anyone who would listen that Randolph was essentially coming in with half a season's experience and no off season to improve on.
His late season performances, particularly in the NCAA Tournament, offered a glimpse of the player that was so coveted out of high school in 2001. Randolph was back to being confident with the ball and simply out working, out-thinking, and out performing his opponents. Hopefully he gained some confidence and it has finally ‘clicked' in his head.
After all, Coach K did pull Shavlik aside earlier this month and told him in no uncertain terms "It's time for the nation to see how good you really are." Next year will be that time.
Tomorrow: Part Two – Looking Ahead