Center: For the first time in a while the Duke offense starts with the interior attack in the form of 6'9, 260 pound junior Shelden Williams. In the first two preseason games of the season, Williams averaged over 25 points and 10 rebounds thanks to a combination of power and new found post moves. Despite not having anyone his size to compete against in the two blowout wins, Williams will have a chance to face someone close to him, physically, against the Skyhawk big man Cleve Woodfork (6'9, 235). Last year Woodfork tallied just over nine points and close to six rebounds per game.
"Cleve Woodfork continued to get better last year as the season went on," head coach Bret Campbell said "It was his first season playing Division I basketball. I thought he had pretty good numbers when the season finished and he has worked extremely hard in the off- season to get himself in better basketball shape. I think he has a bright future in his remaining years."
In the Skyhawks' exhibition loss to Lambuth College, Woodfork started but tallied just four points and seven rebounds against the Division II foe. Despite his good size, he's still raw and is more likely to score his points off of garbage buckets instead of actually creating his own offense, especially against one of the nation's best interior defenders.
This will be a good test for Williams on both ends of the floor. While Woodfork isn't going to generate a lot of offense, he will compete and has the size to prevent Williams from simply reaching over without a foul being called. Look for Duke to try and establish their inside game early with Williams having a number of chances to score against the likely overmatched opponent. However, the key will be the big guy's ability to stay away from committing silly fouls by reaching in and swiping.
Power Forward: After two seasons of high expectations, Duke junior Shavlik Randolph enters his third year in what could be his make or break season. Early on in the exhibition season Randolph has looked like the player who was rated the nation's best prospect as a high school junior, while at others he still looks unsure of his offense in the post; though the later becoming less frequent. Measuring 6'11 and 240 pounds, Randolph has morphed from a skinny high school senior into a strong and imposing physical specimen with a deep bag of post moves and ball fakes. The only thing he needs to harness is a killer instinct on the court that allows him to go up and finish strong at the rim.
Lined up against Randolph will be JUCO transfer Jason Thompson, a 6'9, 215 pound jumping jack of a forward in the mold of Wake Forest's Jamal Levy. "He is a lit tle bit of an unknown," Campbell said. "He is extremely long and athletic, and he has a chance to be one of the top rebounders for us this season."
That proved true in the exhibition loss as Thompson came off the bench and grabbed a team high 11 boards in just 21 minutes of action, while adding 14 points. While he did well in the heat of the action, Thompson was woefully bad at the charity stripe, missing all six of his attempts. He also picked up four fouls. Still, he should be able to test Randolph off the dribble and with his athletic ability.
The key for Duke will be to have Randolph get some early points to establish confidence. Shavlik should be able to score on Thompson in a number of ways, but he cannot afford to be hesitant with the ball. Like Williams, Randolph also must refrain from reach in and other fouls that will take both big guys out of their game and off the floor.
Small Forward: Freshman David McClure is expected to start in his first home game at Duke. The 6'6, 210 pound wing forward has quickly developed into one of the smartest and most opportunistic players on the Duke roster. Able to defend opponents on the wing, or help out on the boards in the post, McClure spent the preseason rebounding the ball and playing solid defense, coming up with a number of blocks and steals. Offensively he's still getting his feet under him, but really doesn't need to score in bunches this season.
Meanwhile, the Skyhawks' match their best scorer with Duke's in the form of 6'5, 215 pound swingman Jared Newson. Last year Newson achieved third team All-OVC honors after hitting for 15 points and 6 rebounds per contest while converting 39% from three point territory. Though he can hit the perimeter jumper, Newson does prefer to penetrate and get to the rim, and he has his coach in his corner.
"Jared's numbers were extremely good once we started in the conference," said Campbell Any time a player averages 20 points and eight rebounds in league games, he is certainly doing something right. His work ethic is very contagious, we are very excited about what he could do in this program and in the OVC."
Against Landrum Newson hit for 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the floor in 29 minutes of action, and he'll certainly test the freshman's defensive abilities all over the court.
Shooting Guard: Junior All-American candidate J.J. Redick enters his third season at Duke on pace to break assistant coach Johnny Dawkins' All-Time Blue Devil scoring record at the half way point of his eligibility. Redick spent the off season losing weight and working to improve his lateral quickness and speed of his release on his jumper. The results are evident as Redick continues to keep defenses honest with dribble drives and mid range pull ups that compliment his long range shooting ability nicely.
Opposite Redick will be 6'1 senior guard Earl Bullock, who may be the team's top rated shooter.
"I think Earl gives us an opportunity to stretch out the defense in a number of ways," said Campbell. "I am not sure there is a better shooter in the OVC."
That may be true, but Bullock had trouble scoring in the team's opener, forcing up 12 perimeter attempts and hitting just three, on his way to a 4-of-14 shooting performance for just 11 points in 25 minutes of action. That's been his M.O. for the last few years – when he's hot he keeps shooting and when he's cold he will keep shooting. He'll give Redick a chance to display his new found quickness on both ends of the floor, but especially defensively.
Point Guard: For years the NBA types have believed that for Daniel Ewing to make a lasting impression in the league, the 6'3, 180 pound scorer would have to show the ability to run a team as the lead guard. This year he'll get that chance as Ewing has been unofficially dubbed the starting point guard for the Blue Devils. Through the exhibition season he proved capable, logging a 3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio while still scoring around 15 points per game. For Duke to be successful, Ewing must continue to prove to be a quick study in the finer points of running the offense.
Matching Ewing will be 5'9 senior point guard Marcus Ford, who will remind many Duke fans of Seton Hall's Andre Barrett thanks to his scoring punch and quickness. He's also a smart floor general who makes the correct pass more often than the spectacular. As a junior he was the team's second rated three point shooter at 37% while contributing seven points and nearly six assists per contest. The opener saw George connect for 10 points (4-of-5 shooting) while dishing out eights assists against just two turnovers.
Ewing should be able to score against George by either shooting over him or driving through him to the basket. However, he'll have to keep an eye on the ball and protect it against the smaller and quicker defender. Meanwhile George will be able to hurt Duke from the perimeter if left open, but will more than likely try to drive and dish against a team full of giants.
Benches: The Skyhawks go nine deep on any given night with several players able to help out in the post and backcourt. Sophomore forward Will Lewis (6'8, 220) provides help at the big forward slot and actually started in the exhibition season, scoring seven points in 17 minutes. Meanwhile Chris Carter (6'4 190) and Justin Flatt (6'5 220) provide depth and scoring punch on the wings.
Though Duke can go as many as nine deep, it's likely that only eight players will see significant time while the game's outcome is still undecided. Senior big forward Reggie Love will spend time spelling Williams and Randolph in the post. Despite being just 6'4, Love is a chiseled 240 pounds and one of the team's best raw athletes (along with freshman DeMarcus Nelson), and can play around 6'8. Junior Lee Melchionni has provided some un-expected scoring punch from the perimeter off the bench in recent weeks. Junior point guard Sean Dockery comes off the bench to provide starter level talent and defensive sparks with his high energy, high intensity defensive abilities and ball pressure.
Perhaps the biggest jolt off the bench will be freshman DeMarcus Nelson, who is coming off an injury to his right thumb. At 6'3 and 195 pounds, Nelson has the reputation as a scorer who can fill up a stat sheet from the perimeter or off the dribble. He's also a terrific rebounder for a guard, able to over power smaller players with his chiseled frame that sports 3% body fat and the ability to leap nearly 42-inches vertically. Had he not been injured there's good reason to believe that Nelson would be among the first five, and it's likely he will be by the middle of the season. However at this point his role will likely be to come off the bench and provide instant offense.
Bottom Line: Despite their claims and hopes of an upset, it would take quite an accomplishment for the Skyhawks to come away from Cameron with a victory. Duke's rotation consists of four juniors and two seniors in the top eight players, all of whom have Final Four experience. Given the general feelings of Duke being vulnerable this year, it's hard to imagine the Blue Devils will be overlooking anyone, especially in the home opener.
UTM may make this a competitive game and give the Devils some trouble early on, but this is the same team who just fell to a Division II team in the exhibition season, while Duke has looked smooth in a pair of blow out wins. On paper this is a mismatch, though given the parity in today's NCAA there's always a chance of a surprise. Unfortunately for the Skyhawks, that chance isn't very good at all this Saturday.
Duke – 94
Tenn. Martin – 65