Sophomore Slump Slowing Devils

When the recruiting class of 2005 signed with Duke, analysts debated on if the five prospects comprised the nation's #1 or #2 class. Expectations immediately cemented themselves at a very high level. Now, as sophomores, many Duke faithful are waiting for the second year players to take a critical step.

Though his Blue Devils are 6-1, McRoberts' inconsistent play has been a trouble spot for Duke in those seven games. The 6-foot-10 Indiana native was hyped as a preseason Wooden Award candidate as well as a threat to make both the All-ACC and All-American teams. More over, he was expected to emerge as Duke's go-to player. It was why he returned to school over entering the NBA Draft in June. At that time McRoberts told the media that returning would give him a chance to work on becomming a more complete player so that he could make an impact when he finally did shake hands with David Stern. Public quotes from the Duke coaching staff echoed McRoberts', which helped keep preseason expectations at the usual level (read astronomical no mater the roster's makeup) for Coach K's program.

However McRoberts has failed to reach double figures in more than half of Duke's games this season. Though his numbers (10.7 PPG, 6.7 rpg, 3.7 apg) have been solid, they aren't the overall improvement over last year's numbers (8.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.5 APG) the Blue Devils were counting on. Especially with the loss of more than 60 percent of the team's offense with the departure of Shelden Williams and J.J. Redick. In fact, the only real jump in the sophomore's numbers has been at the foul line where he's shooting 89% (23-of-26) on the season, an increase of 23%.

Magnifying McRoberts' marginal increase in overall production has been some below average performances in the team's two biggest tests of the season - against Indiana and Marquette. In those two games he shot just 6-of-24 from the field (.250) and seemed unable to score from anywhere other than the foul line despite many point blank looks at the basket.

Lost on many is the sad truth that offseason back surgery robbed the Duke sophomore of any chance to participate in the program's summer weight training schedule. In addition to being unable hit the weight room hard for a good portion of the team's time off the practice court, McRoberts' surgery seems to have some lingering effects as well. The big man seems to be a notch or two down on the athleticism scale from last year.

It's not that McRoberts is the only Blue Devils struggling to establish his new role in the post Redick & Williams era. The entire sophomore class (which rated as the nation's second best in 2005) hasn't produced at a high level through seven games, which has put incredible amounts of pressure on the four incoming freshmen and juniors DeMarcus Nelson and David McClure.

Second year point guard Greg Paulus, the ACC's leading assist man a season ago, has been relegated to just 24.0 minutes per game off the bench in relief of fresman Jon Scheyer after Paulus logged more assists than turnovers in only two of the seven games. Many of Paulus' problems to date have stemmed from a preseason foot injury that required more than a month on the sidelines. However, head coach Mike Krzyzewski says Paulus has now recovered physically.

"Medically, his foot is 100 percent but his conditioning is not along with his repetitions in playing the game," said Krzyzewski. "When you're off for five weeks, it takes time. He just needs reps."

For his part, Paulus remains positive while fielding questions about his early season struggles.

"I have a long way to go, but I'm coming out here and trying to help my team win," said Paulus. "I'll come along, but as long as I'm helping the team out, that's all I wanted to do."

Though both Paulus and McRoberts are struggling to establish their new roles in the Duke system, the good news for Duke fans is that both are at least playing. Something that cannot be said of the remaining 60 percent of their classmates.

Martynas Pocius, the Lithuanian international scoring guard who was a late addition to the class, is averaging just 1.7 PPG while playing only 8.3 minutes per game. After leading the Lithuanian junior national team in scoring this summer in the European Junior Championships, the 6-foot-4 guard has failed to earn a place in the team's regular rotation. After scoring nine points against Columbia in the season opener, Pocius has scored just three points in six games (all against Davidson).

Meanwhile, power forward Jamal Boykin has returned home to California after being sidelined with mononucleosis. Nearly as soon as Duke released the official statement, rumors of a transfer began to circulate among various Internet message boards. The official comments from Krzyzewski contained in that statement from Duke didn't seem to inspire much hope of Boykin's return this season.

"We're going to try to have Jamal finish up the semester academically because it's at the end and then have him get home as soon as possible to recover," said Krzyzewski. "We'll reevaluate his situation when they start the second semester."

The fifth and final member of the class of 2005, Eric Boateng, has been practicing throughout the season -- for Herb Sendek's Arizona State program after he transferred after the Spring semester.

Without much production from that crop of second year players, Duke has turned to the current group of high school All-Americans turned Blue Devils. And while all have shown flashes of high level play, they are only seven games into their careers and are being asked to carry a tremendous load.

And while Krzyzewksi has stressed patience when judging this young group, many Blue Devil faithful have been unable to turn a blind eye eight miles down the road where North Carolina has as much youth on the roster, playing a good number of minutes. The difference between the two teams is clear - the Tar Heels are getting more from their second year players than Duke. In fact sophomore big man Tyler Hansbrough's production has been as good as the entire five man Duke class by himself.

Certainly an extremely spoiled fan base unwilling to accept anything less than 25 or more wins, advancement in the NCAA Tournament, and so on is one of the byproducts of the level of success attained by the Duke program over the last two decades. But that demand for excellence starts with the head coach, who continues to search for ways to exploit every ounce of potential his roster may hold. Which is why you can bet practices this week have been something close to boot camp.

Unfortunately for Kryzewski, only junior DeMarcus Nelson has been a consistent offensive threat (14.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 56% FG), but clearly Nelson can't carry this team by himself once the level of competition begins to ramp up in late December. He can lead the group, and has done well in that capacity, but the 6'3 scoring guard will need a lot of help from his fellow captains.

Classmate (red shirt sophomore) David McClure has stepped up over the past few weeks while apparently channeling former Duke super sub Nate James. Like James, the new #14 for Duke has scored, rebounded, and played great defense while seeming to live for making crucial plays down the stretch.

Still, with McRoberts and Paulus struggling to redeem their recruiting class as a whole (and individually), the Blue Devils have been forced to rely on defense through the first fourth of the season. Duke is averaging just 70.7 points per contest, good enough to edge out Florida State for 11th in the ACC. Luckily for Duke, they have been as good on defense as they have been bad on offense. Duke leads the ACC in scoring defense (52.3 PPG), while ranking second in field goal percentage defense (.356)

Despite those wonderful defensive numbers, it's debatable that the Blue Devils can continue to rely on their defensive prowess once the improved schedule takes hold. Debatable may be too kind. It's more likely that it's downright doubtful the Blue Devils can be successful without increased production from a group that was ranked as one of the nation's best recruiting hauls in 2005.

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