- While many will point to a Sweet 16 Tournament exit as a top seed in the Austin Regional as a mark of failure to meet expectations, Duke actually finished where many expected them to. Sure being ranked as the top seed in the region was an honor, and one that was well earned after a terrific run through the ACC Tournament. However, at no point this season was Duke clearly one of the top four teams in the country. And after struggling mightly with Delaware State in the first round of the tournament, it was clear that the Devils had their days numbered in March. The scoring punch wasn't there as junior J.J. Redick's jumper was apparently left in Durham, right along with the defensive prowess that made Duke so dangerous throughout the season.
Eventually Michigan State put Duke's season into the record books with a sixth loss in 33 games. And that scorecard isn't half bad for this group. In fact 27-6 is much better than expected, especially when you consider that Duke had three reliable scoring threats mixed with a group that was either inexperienced or simply unproven. Add in a rotation that included a pair of walk-ons who used basketball as a second sport for years in the top seven and a rash of injuries and you begin to see that these Blue Devils were among the most successful in recent years, relative to their abilities.
- The evolution of J.J. Redick continued in a big way as the junior continued to shed the label of being a one-dimensional scoring threat by developing a better handle, and thus the ability to put the ball on the floor and draw fouls or finish at the rim. In all it earned Redick ACC Player of the Year honors along with ACC Tournament MVP honors in what was the best individual Duke season in many years. Though he was the team's leading minute man this season, Redick's role is likely to once again evolve next season as Duke will finally have the kind of quality depth it so desperately lacked in 2005.
- Sticking with individual performances that stood out, Shelden Williams established himself as one of the premiere big men in college basketball by logging a number of double-doubles on the season and serving as Duke's default post presence. Despite facing a number of teams who had several players who were as big as Williams, the Duke junior often matched their output or, at the very least, played them to a draw on any given night. Should he opt to return for his senior season, Williams could very well become the nation's most dominating big man which would lead toward many picking the Blue Devils for a deep run into early April, while also locking the 6'9 center not only into the Duke record books, but also the NBA Draft Lottery in 2006.
- On a similar note, the performance of Daniel Ewing as a senior probably won't earn him many post season honors, but it has been critical for Duke as the Blue Devils moved forward throughout the season. Having never played point guard in his career, Ewing learned his new role on the fly as a senior, improving his handle along the way. Though he never displayed the kind of floor vision or passing ability of his predecessors at the lead guard position, Ewing managed to guide his team to a familiar result and winning percentage at the expense of his natural tendencies to take over the game and score at will.
- Both freshmen showed flashes of their potential at times this year as well. And while neither was able to have a dominating season, both DeMarcus Nelson and David McClure look like promising players over the next few years in Durham. Early on McClure's ability to get to the basket with surprising athleticism and body control wowed the Crazies. However a knee problem eventually slowed him to the point of being unavailable for extended minutes towards the end of the year. Meanwhile Nelson had his best game at a crucial time, torching the North Carolina Tar Heels for 16 points as the Devils held off their arch rivals in Cameron for a big victory. Nelson's willingness to do what was asked of him throughout the season was refreshing to see as the 6'3, 195 California prep star was often Duke's second best rebounder despite matching up against players over half a foot taller with at least 35 pounds of muscle on him. With added depth in the paint next season, Duke will be able to move Nelson back to the wing where he can return as a scorer more than anything else. An off season spent re-tooling his jumper and free throw stroke should help elevate him as one of the ACC's most improved players as a sophomore.
- Despite getting little respect it the preseason, the Blue Devils were able to mount a strong attack off the bench at crucial times throughout the season led by junior Lee Melchionni. The 6'6 seldom used wing forward entered the year without much hype, but quickly stepped into the rotation and began taking big shot after big shot – and he made more than he missed. Eventually Melchionni would end up as Duke's fourth leading scorer on the season while his left handed perimeter stroke pushed Duke to a number of wins. Juniors Sean Dockery and Shavlik Randolph also contributed as starters and reserves, and each made their value known in their own ways on different occasion. So did former NFL wideout hopeful Reggie Love, who spelled Williams with his strength inside. Former baseball player and intramural king Patrick Johnson's 6'9 frame and five fouls also helped Duke at times, and when the big man popped his shoulder out of joint and continued to play until the next dead ball with is arm out of socket, it pretty much summed up the effort this team continually gave every night.
- As a team this year's group was, for the second straight season, a case of the sum being greater than the parts. On any given night against top rated competition it could have been argued that the opponents had more talent on their roster than the Blue Devils. That included Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, and North Carolina – all of whom were expected to finish ahead of Duke in the ACC race. However, Duke split with the Deacons and Tar Heels, and beat the Yellow Jackets three times to compile a 5-2 record against the conference's top rated squads. Had a dubious no call against David Noel been correctly whistled in the Dean Dome, Duke would have also swept the Final Four bound Heels. The win against Wake was also impressive as the Blue Devils were left for dead after dropping two straight winnable games heading into a rematch with a hot Deacon group. However another huge night from Redick yielded a 10 point Duke win and the first time the Blue Devils had scored 100 points in nearly two years.
- The overall character of this group was the driving force behind all the success. Running out to a 15-0 start wasn't easy. But avoiding losing three games in a row for the first time in a decade when the opponent is a top 3 caliber Wake Forest team, bent on sweeping Duke for the first time in over a decade made it that much harder. Gutting out three wins in three days with a depleted rotation and the "Big Three playing nearly all of the 120 minutes in the ACC Tournament was further proof of this team's desire to win. In all this group was one of the more likable teams in a recent memory as they were not only playing short handed, but also with the weight of expectations unlike anywhere else in the country. The bottom line was that these Devils had D-U-K-E on the front of their jerseys, but for the first time in a while opponents didn't find themselves intimidated, just that much more motivated to win and win big. But Duke won anyway thanks to a group that truly refused to lose until the final whistle.
- The coaching job done by Mike Krzyzewski has to rank among the best during his long and successful tenure in Durham. Sure the detractors would point to the fact that the Blue Devils had their usual collection of high school All-Americans on the roster, but they won't admit that sometimes prep success doesn't immediately transfer into dominating collegiate performances. That fact aside, Duke had just eight players in the usual rotation, and three of them had about as much meaningful game experience as you or I. Two more of them were freshmen. Add in the injury problems, lack of a true point guard, and loss of the team's most talented player, and a tenuous situation became a razor's edge. And yet Krzyzewski was able to steer his ship well enough to win 82% of his games, add another ACC Championship, and earn a number one seed for the second straight season.
What Went Wrong
- Sure there were claims that Duke wasn't worn down or tired after losing to the Spartans. And that's probably true. If we are looking for accuracy the term "exhausted" is probably a better fit. After winning the ACC Tournament in grand style, many thought Duke would use that momentum to spring board into a successful March showing. However, midway through the Delaware State game it became clear that what little the Blue Devils had left in the tank was spent in Washington. After clawing their way past the Hornets, the Devils managed to gut out a win over Mississippi State, but the Spartans were too strong, and way too fresh. It's easy to understand why Duke was so worn out as Redick, Ewing and Williams combined to average 38, 35, and 36 minutes per game respectively. Add in the roller coaster that was the production from the other teammates and you've got a team that needed a lot to right and little to go wrong to win in March. Unfortunately the scales didn't tip that way.
- With such heavy emphasis placed on the Big Three, Duke simply didn't have the balanced and reliable scoring from other sources that was so desperately needed down the stretch. Perhaps it was a lack of passing ability (see below), or maybe just tired legs all around, but this group seemed content to stand around and hope that Redick, Ewing, or Williams would take over a game and will the Blue Devils to victory. With Redick running on fumes and once again having a subpar March by his standards, the Devils were left with two scoring threats and a bunch of variables. Is it any surprise that averaging 17 points per game less than you did throughout the regular season is a blueprint for disaster? That's just what happened with Duke in the tournament.
- Speaking of offensive troubles, what was really evident was the lack of a true point guard and floor general this season. That was supposed to be a non-issue as Duke signed Shaun Livingston, who was to be given the controls as a true freshman while instantly making Duke's attack much more lethal. Instead the 6'7 point guard signed with an agent and went on to the Los Angeles Clippers with the fourth pick in the NBA Draft where he has spent most of the season injured as the NBA demand on his frail frame proved to be too much. Without a great passing point guard, Duke went most of the season without "making the extra pass" and moving the ball around the offensive end with any speed or purpose. This ended up forcing Redick to work even harder as the junior had to run off an increased number of screens before getting an open look for the first or second pass on the offensive end. In years past Duke would move the ball three and four times before thinking shot. The offense eventually came down to Redick's stamina, which ran out.
- Something else that was a glaring hole was the lack of a traditional wing forward. No where on the Duke roster was there the kind of attack the basket, slashing 6'6 player that has so often helped Duke match up on both ends of the floor. In terms of size there was freshman David McClure at 6'6 and 205 pounds, but his lack of experience and subsequent knee troubles disqualified him. Without that presence, the burden on Williams and whomever was manning the second frontcourt slot (either Nelson, Randolph, or Johnson) was tremendous, and eventually helped contribute to the fatigue of the big man. Another detriment of not having that slashing type of player was the defenses were basically never forced to collapse, and given Duke's lack of passing prowess it meant more work from the guards to get open looks. In short it was a cycle that would only end in the kind of performance we saw at the end of the season.
- While no one really has a crystal clear look into the inner workings of this team, at times it appeared as though this group wasn't as cohesive as last year's edition. Perhaps that was due to the fact that there wasn't a true "leader" in the Duke sense of the word. There was no Battier, no Wojo, not even a Duhon – all players who just seemed to elevate their games and their teammates whenever adversity would hit. Those players also seemed willing to grab the team together and force them to play within the team concept. However that seemed to lack at crunch time in a number of games this season, including the losses against lesser opponents such as Maryland and Virginia Tech. For what ever reason those situations usually yielded players standing around watching one of the guards fire repeatedly or said guards wouldn't begin to look anywhere other than the basket. This goes back to the problems passing the ball and of not having a traditional Duke point guard running the offense.
Now comes the waiting game as far as the off season goes. Duke certainly has the potential to be great relative to the rest of the country. If the expected NBA defections happen around the country, the Blue Devils could make a case for a preseason perch atop the national rankings. The key to Duke's early returns will be the status of junior center Shelden Williams. At this point TDD's sources indicate that Williams' decision could go either way and the likeliness of testing the waters is there. In the end, however, our sources believe he may end up back in Durham if for no other reason than a desire to go in the lottery – something that will not happen this year. Another year at Duke and Williams could become a more featured piece of the puzzle on the offensive side of the ball, and with the kind of exposure that brings while playing at Duke it's not hard to imagine his stock going way up from where it currently sits. Factor in added help on the boards, which means less 40 minute efforts and you've got the potential for Williams to really evolve into a surefire NBA contributor.
On the wing Duke loses Ewing to wherever his professional career may take him, leaving open a hole at the point guard position and in the scoring column. The most likely suspect to step up the scoring is rising sophomore DeMarcus Nelson, who spent much of this season as a power forward, despite being just 6'3. As California's all time leading scorer, Nelson showed a reliable jumper. However, a number of his points came from attacking the basket and finding ways to put point on the board. As a freshman he got away from that as his role was to drive and try to find contact under the boards. Eventually he got away from what made him so successful while trying to help the team. One aspect that really improved was his defensive ability – as he went from a freshman to one of Duke's top on the ball defenders. A summer spent working on his jumper and handle should prove useful as Nelson will be expecting a breakout season as a sophomore.
In addition to the returning contributors, Duke adds the nation's top rated recruiting class headed by Josh McRoberts and Greg Paulus. McRoberts has the potential to earn a starting spot very early on in his career. At 6'10 he's a ferocious rebounder, but his real strength is his ability to see the floor and pass the ball while taking what the defense gives him on the defensive end. Meanwhile Paulus is the best passing point guard to come to Duke in many, many years. He's also unafraid to take the reigns of his team as a vocal leader. Defensively he needs some work, but the insertion of Paulus and McRoberts cures a number of problems – most notably the ineffective passing attack. Center Eric Boateng will help on the defensive side of the ball before he helps on offense, but at 6'11 he's extremely quick and will pick things up as the season goes. Power forward Jamal Boykin will be an instant fixture in the rotation with his blue collar work ethic and winning attitude – he's also a very good basketball player who hasn't benefited from a lot of press. Though he was just named as California's Player of the Year over McDonald's All-American Amir Johnson. Lithuanian guard Martynas Pocius has also avoided the media hype, but has been called the second best player heading to Duke by a number of sources. At 6'4 he's a terrific long range shooter, but is also a great leaper who has years of experience playing on the Lithuanian national team. Duke is also hoping to land a commitment from 6'6, 230 pound combo forward Geoff McDermott of New York who would help out on the boards and fill the void of the traditional small forward. A decision is expected from him by the end of the week.
Bottom line is that Duke looks to enter next season with all of the 13 scholarships allotted by the NCAA – meaning the roster is deep and talented, though the youth factor will certainly play a role. If the seniors are all back and the freshmen can work themselves into the rotation, the Blue Devils have a terrific chance at making it to Indianapolis for the Final Four.
All in all it was another successful season in Durham despite what the naysayers will crow over the next few months. After many expected Duke to fall from the upper echelon of the ACC, this team managed to win 14 ACC games in 19 chances, while running to a sixth ACC title in seven years – something that has never been done. Duke also managed to beat the nation's most talented (on paper) team in North Carolina – and came within a possession of sweeping them. Aside from that this team was obviously not one of the more insanely talented squads to ever wear the royal and white, but they made this season fun to watch and take part in. Next season looks to be shaping up as one of the more traditional Blue Devil squads with depth and talent on the way in the form of the freshmen. However they've got a tough act to follow as the 2005 team did all it could to prove themselves as a group that belongs among the more successful teams in the program's history. And, on that note they succeeded.
Thanks for a terrific season guys. Can't wait to do it all over again in a little over seven months.