What Went Right:
Duke raced out to an amazing 27 wins in their first 28 games, including a great run against some of the nation's top teams. Duke beat Texas by nearly 40, out-lasted a Memphis team that has been in the top five nearly all season long, and won at Indiana all before the conference season kicked off. In total Duke finished the regular season with an 8-1 overall record against teams in the top 25.
Duke fans were also treated to some of the best individual performances ever in a Duke uniform as J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams routinely put the team on their backs and carried the Blue Devils to victory after victory.
There was a time when Duke fans would get excited to see a Blue Devil hit the 30 point plateau – this season Redick seemed to be passing that mark on a nightly basis. Perhaps his best game came against Virginia where Redick scored 40 points on just 13 shots – which has to rank among the all time best single game performances in Duke history. Redick was just a brilliant against No. 2 Texas, single handedly delivering dagger after dagger to the Longhorns in a blow out victory.
Meanwhile Williams was simply this team's most valuable player throughout the season. Without Williams' inside brilliance on the defensive end, there's no way this team wins 90 percent of its games. Content to go about his business without the fanfare or attention of his more famous teammate, Williams' consistency in the post served as an anchor for the Blue Devils throughout the season and was the primary driving forced behind a number of big victories.
Off and on the Blue Devils also got sporadic contributions from a supporting cast consisting of seniors Lee Melchionni and Sean Dockery, sophomore DeMarcus Nelson, and freshmen Greg Paulus and Josh McRoberts. Each played averaged over six points per contest, while taking turns being that third go-to scoring threat so desperately needed to replace departed senior Daniel Ewing.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment this year's team achieved in the regular season was living up to the expectations set forth for them before the season. In reality those expectations were likely overblown as this team lost its third scoring piece as well as its second best interior defender and rebounder and replaced both with a pair of talented, but untested freshmen.
Perhaps those initial high rankings had more to do with Duke's relative position in the college basketball world (with so many talented players departing elsewhere) than anything else. Either way, this team blew through the first 93 percent of the schedule with just one blemish.
Sometimes they looked like the nation's top team (games against Texas, Virginia, Seton Hall, at Wake Forest, at Maryland); sometimes they appeared to get lucky (a fortunate bounce at UNC in the last minute to hold off a furious Tar Heel comeback; Clemson forgetting how to shoot free throws; Dockery's half court heave against Virginia Tech; a questionable no call against Boston College; a questionable ejection at home against Florida State); but many times this team just gutted out victory after victory on the strength of the senior class.
What Went Wrong:
Call it fatigue (or mental fatigue as Dick Vitale and others would have you believe), inability to adjust to junk defenses, or whatever else you wish – the fact is that J.J. Redick has slowed down considerably over the last four contests. While every player is certainly entitled to go through mini-slumps, Redick's recent dive couldn't come at a worst time for Duke.
With the entire Blue Devil offensive scheme focused on Redick's shooting prowess, Coach K's team becomes extremely vulnerable whenever the ACC's all-time scoring champion can't find his range. Beginning with the February 22nd game at Georgia Tech, Redick has shot a paltry 23-of-80 (.287) from the field, and just 8-of-36 from the perimeter (.222). It's not surprising that Duke has posted just a 2-2 record in those four games against a quartet of teams that has just one likely Sweet 16 participant and, at best, two NCAA Tournament caliber teams.
That ultra reliance on Redick may have been born out of necessity as Krzyzewksi has yet to find a third scoring option outside of his two All-Americans. However, a combination of teams beginning to figure out how to defend Redick more effectively (through a variety of junk defenses), and a season that yielded an obscene minutes per game average of 38.7, has rendered the Duke offense stagnant while their leader continues to fire up shot after shot in hopes of regaining his mid season form.
In the past when the offense has struggled, the Blue Devils could always fall back on pretty strong defense. Unfortunately that hasn't happened towards the end of this season either. Often, opponents are able to penetrate at will, getting easy baskets or dumping the ball off for teammates.
The lack of tough perimeter defense and poor rotation has often left Williams on an island, and while he is truly the nation's best defensive big mane, he can't defend two and three opponents by himself. This is where Duke has missed the departed Shavlik Randolph the most – while Randolph never did realize his talents on the offensive end, he was a terrific weak-side defensive player and understood when and how to rotate. On the flip side, freshman Josh McRoberts has begun to show signs of the defensive strategy beginning to ‘click' and has stayed out of foul trouble more so than earlier in the season.
Perhaps the biggest roller coaster of the season has been the play at the point guard position. At times Greg Paulus has been brilliant. At others he's played like, well, a freshman. Over the past three games Paulus, like Redick, has been mired in a slump of his own committing more turnovers (15) than assists (14) while shooting 7-of-18 from the floor. It's especially troubling since Paulus' biggest strength heading into the season was his ability to see the floor and to get his teammates involved. Early on, when he seemed to play with no fear, Paulus was racking up huge assist numbers while distributing the ball as evenly as he could among teammates. Lately that has not happened. And while it is certainly demanding a lot of anyone, especially a freshman, the point guard play has to be stellar over the next few weeks if Duke is to make a run at a Final Four – or, at least, better if Redick can somehow rediscover his scoring touch.
Another troubling aspect has been the inability, at times, to really put teams away despite taking a big lead. Duke built healthy double-figure advantages at Indiana, Boston College, North Carolina, and at home to Virginia Tech to name a few. In each of those contests it seemed as though the Blue Devils took the collective foot off the accelerator and began to play as if the goal was not to lose. While each of those games resulted in a victory, the troubling habit of letting teams back in the game has haunted this team throughout the season.
Player of the Year:
While there is no doubt that Redick will certainly earn his share of National Player of the Year Awards, and deservedly so, TDD's pick for Player of the Year is Shelden Williams. The soft spoken senior scored 20 or more 16 times this season, and had double figure rebounds in 18 games and blocked five or more shots nine times. Though he was steady throughout the season, Williams had a couple of dominant performances along the way including a 30 point, eight rebound, three block tally that helped Duke outlast Memphis to win the NIT Season Tip Off Championship in November.
After that, it was Maryland who found out that Duke has more than one superstar on the roster as Williams recorded a triple-double (19 points, 11 rebounds, 10 blocks) in the first meeting at Cameron. Dockery's miracle against the Hokies never would have happened if Williams hadn't kept his team in the game with 21 points, 19 rebounds, and five blocks.
It appears as though ‘The Landlord' has saved his best for the end of his Duke career, posting six double-doubles in his last seven games. Over the past month Williams is averaging 20.7 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks per game. If he can continue that trend, he'll make his own strong case for Player of the Year honors, and more importantly it'll continue to give Duke a chance to go deep into March.
The end of the season and several brilliant careers is now on the horizon. Duke's season has between two and nine more games remaining. Given the recent drop-off this team has suffered, this week becomes absolutely crucial. Can they refocus and improve the way in which defense has been played? Will another player (McRoberts, Nelson, Dockery, Melchionni, or Paulus) step up and provide consistent scoring? Can J.J. Redick do a 180 and shrug off what appears to be a fourth straight struggle in March? All of these questions must be answered with a resounding positive if the Blue Devils are going to make it to Indianapolis, to say nothing of cutting down the nets in early April.
Given the many holes and vulnerabilities this team has, there is a very small margin for error when the competition improves. Frankly, this team has no chance of advancing past the third round unless Redick returns to the player we saw until for most of the year. While he doesn't need to score 40 a night for Duke to be successful, he certainly needs to score in the mid to upper 20s as well as shooting far better than he has of late. On that point if Redick's shot does not return, then Duke needs to realize this and distribute in hopes of finding extra points.
In the end this team has traversed through the regular season as well as could be expected and is one of the teams capable of winning six straight contests beginning in a little over 10 days. Several issues will need to be resolved, and frankly it wouldn't hurt for Lady Luck to offer her blessing a few times along the way.