Everyone that follows college basketball, even with just passing interest, knows all about the Duke Blue Devils and their mystique. What many fans of college basketball don't know is that this year's Duke team is definitely vulnerable to an upset at the hands of the Fighting Illini. The Duke Blue Devil roster is littered with McDonald's All Americans as four of the five starters (Shelden Williams was denied the opportunity to be a McDonald's All American because he was kicked off his high school team, but he most certainly would have been one) and two bench reserves have received the highest honor possible for a high school basketball player. When you compare that to the Fighting Illini's total of one McDonald's All American on the roster, you might immediately think the talent discrepancy is hugely in favor of the Blue Devils, but that is not the case. The Fighting Illini match up extremely well with the Blue Devils, and have the horses to pressure Duke aggressively all game.
The question remains, though: How well does Illinois match up with the Blue Devils? IlliniBoard.com thought it would be a good thing to take a closer look into each Duke player that receives significant playing time and discuss their strengths and weaknesses. By looking at each Duke player, we can see why Illinois matches up very favorably with the Blue Devil roster.
CHRIS DUHON, SENIOR
Chris Duhon is the only senior starter for Duke, and he is the only player receiving significant playing time that has experienced a Final Four (2001) as a player. The young Blue Devils look to Chris to set both the offensive and defensive intensity. Chris is known as a tenacious defender that will swipe the ball from a careless ball handler in the backcourt as his 2.3 steals per game over this season shows. Chris is Duke's defensive stopper, and is definitely the Devils best on the ball defender.
On offense, Chris has finally abandoned the strict three-point shot barrage that caused him to struggle mightily last season, and has embraced a style that has allowed his skills to excel on the court, driving and dishing. Duke is a team that likes to push the pace when they are on offense, and Duhon will dictate that pace for the Blue Devils on both made and missed baskets. The Illini defenders will need to be ready right away to stop the ball in transition.
Duhon's rib injury, although the severity is not truly known, is thought by many to hamper him at least a bit. Last weekend against Seton Hall, Duhon was seen visibly grimacing at times, but he also was able to play most of the game without problems as the Blue Devils rolled the Seton Hall Pirates. With nearly a week's rest, Chris' rib injury should not hamper his ability to play in the least.
J.J. REDICK, SOPHOMORE
J.J. Redick is one of the best pure shooters in the nation, and he may be the best pure shooter in college basketball. Redick's shot needs to be honored as far out as he is willing to take it, which sometimes can end up being ten feet behind the three point line if he is feeling in rhythm. Redick will take his shots in both the half court sets off screens and in transition either out front or as the trailer. Defenders need to know where Redick is on the court at all times, and cannot even give him a second to get off a shot because if they do, the shot will most likely be up and through the rim before they even attempt to contest it.
JJ is known as a shooter, but what makes him extremely dangerous for teams to defend is that he is not afraid to use the ball fake to get his defender in the air and go around him. JJ's mid-range jump shot is as developed as his three-point and free throw, and he is not afraid to use it. If the opportunity presents itself, JJ will take the ball straight to the basket, hoping to either make the lay up or draw contact to put him on the free throw line where he simply automatic. Defensively, Redick is the worst guard Duke has and whoever he is guarding needs to understand this and take advantage of the mismatch Redick will have on him.
The one thing that helps make JJ a special player, and draws the ire from fans around the ACC and the country is that JJ is a fierce competitor. He will definitely let his emotions get the best of him if he is pushed hard by an aggressive defender, causing him to be more prone to mistakes with the ball during those times. What makes this extremely interesting is that at the end of the game from the free throw line, JJ has ice water running through his veins and does not let anything bother him. The change in attitudes from Redick signifies a fire, and may be his major weakness on the court, his inability to control his emotions at all times.
DANIEL EWING, JUNIOR
Daniel Ewing is probably the most unsung player on this Duke team. He is over looked in his own backcourt by the media as they drown praise on both JJ Redick and Chris Duhon. No one even mentions the intangibles Ewing brings to the game for the Blue Devils. All Daniel Ewing does for Duke is play defense and make key shots. He is the x-factor, and the player that could easily derail the Illini's train to the Regional Finals.
Ewing is not an offensive focal point for the Blue Devils; in fact he may be the fifth option. Ewing is not a player that will be seen breaking his man down off the dribble to score as the shot clock runs out, nor is he the guy that you will see take a spot up jump shot with very little time elapsed on the shot clock. Ewing will find the perfect spots for his points: off a pass from a big man inside, off an offensive rebound, or off a scrum for the ball. Ewing always seems to make the shots that act as daggers stabbed right through the heart an opponent's defensive confidence.
F LUOL DENG, FRESHMAN
I will be the first to say that I absolutely love the way Luol Deng plays basketball, and I have since I saw him and Charlie Villanueva play for Blair Academy together last year on some games televised on the YES Network. Of course, at the time I was watching the games to get a feel for how Charlie played, but the only thing that I could come away with in watching those games was how good of a basketball player Luol Deng was at the time, and how good he could be in the future. I thought last year that Duke had another player they could mold into a point forward that would be successful at Duke and in the NBA, and nothing Deng has done this year has changed my stance in that regard. He has arguably played the best of any freshman in the country over the course of the season.
The major question I have about Deng is: is he in a slump, and just waiting to break out? Or has he hit the freshman wall that many freshmen hit at this time of the year (the same wall teammate JJ Redick hit last year)?
Despite the current streak of bad games from Luol, he is still an all around threat when the ball is in his hand either on the interior, or on the perimeter. In the post, Deng has the moves to get to the basket. On the perimeter Deng is a true triple threat with the ball, he can dribble drive, pass the ball, or shoot it, but he is the most dangerous when he is creating opportunities for his teammates off the bounce.
F SHELDEN WILLIAMS, SOPHOMORE
If you are an avid reader of the IlliniBoard.com Fan Forums you have seen the pictures that intimate a similarity between Shelden Williams and Chewbacca. While these intimations are definitely funny, they are also scary to anyone that has watched Illinois play and the problems they have in matching up with big men on the inside. Unfortunately for Illinois fans, Shelden Williams is a beast in the paint, exactly what the jokes about him looking like a wookie pointed out. They say the best jokes have some basis in truth, and this joke definitely does.
The Blue Devils offense has not changed in the last five years since Coach K started to embrace the three point line as the main advantage his teams would use to over power their opponents. Since Coach K made that tactical change, Duke has routinely played a four-out and one-in offense with just one consistent post presence, be it Elton Brand, Carlos Boozer, or now Shelden Williams. Williams inherited the role from Boozer, and this season Williams has not disappointed. Despite the belief when he was recruited that Shelden could be a player that could be an inside-out threat, Williams does not step outside on offense for the Blue Devils, he strictly does his damage from the paint.
The one problem Duke has by only having one true post presence on offense, they are also limited to that one true post presence on defense. Since there is no Shane Battier who can easily guard a power forward without any issue, Shelden Williams is often times needed to help on defense and is prone to foul trouble. Shelden Williams on the bench in foul trouble is always a good sign for Duke's opponents.
Sean is the only Duke guard that gets significant minutes off the bench, and he may see more time on Friday night if Chris Duhon is not able to play due to his rib injury, which is extremely unlikely. Dockery will probably play anywhere from eight to twelve minutes on Friday night and will provide Duke with two things, a solid ball distributor and defender.
Dockery is best described as a pass first, second, third, and fourth point guard as he has never seen a shot he will not pass up. Defensively Dockery will draw the Illinois guard that has been scoring the most when he gets into the game. He can play defense against all three of Illinois' starting guards, and do it effectively. He is Duke's second best perimeter defender behind Duhon.
F SHAVLIK RANDOLPH, SOPHOMORE
Randolph came to Duke with high hopes as a freshman, but his body was not physically mature last year to take the rigors of the college game. Throughout last year and this summer, Randolph's body matured and now he is able to better handle the physicality that is the college basketball game, and he is showing signs of why he was such a highly sought after recruit by the elite basketball programs. Shavlik is an inside-outside threat, but despite the gains in strength that he has had over the past year and a half is still too frail to be able to consistently score in the post.
This limitation has forced Randolph to be a more perimeter oriented big man, which plays right into the fact that he has a very solid fifteen to seventeen foot jump shot. Defensively, Randolph is still undersized and can be abused inside by a stronger and more aggressive offensive player. His lack of strength causes Shavlik to use his hands more than you should, thus increasing his likelihood to be in foul trouble.
F NICK HORVATH, SENIOR
Nick Horvath is Duke's lone true big man that comes off the bench to replace Shelden Williams when he needs a rest or is in foul trouble. Horvath is not spectacular at anything, but he is solid for what his role is, to bide time until Williams can get back into the game. Horvath is not a threat to score no matter where he catches the ball. Despite his size, he is not a threat to attack the offensive or defensive glass. He does work for solid position, but his lack of athleticism and quickness hamper his ability to close out on the boards.
Now that IlliniBoard.com has talked about the eight key players in the Duke rotation, it shows why exactly the Illini match up well with the Blue Devils. Despite the obvious advantage Duke has on the inside with Shelden Williams, he is not that inside presence in the same mold as a Sean May or Ryan Gomes, two players Illinois struggled mightily to defend. Luol Deng will provide an interesting match up for James Augustine with his agility and ability to play both inside and outside, drawing Augustine away from the basket. There is no doubt that Coach K has looked at numerous game tapes of Illinois and has seen the defensive intensity lapses that have occurred on the inside, in games like Providence, North Carolina, Purdue, and Ohio State. The question remains is how much of an emphasis the Blue Devils will place on ensuring Shelden Williams touches the basketball on nearly every offensive possession. If the Blue Devils play to the obvious advantage, it could be a long day for the Illini.
On the perimeter, Illinois' guards match up extremely well with the Duke guards. Dee Brown, Luther Head, and Deron Williams can and will pressure the Duke backcourt for forty minutes forcing them to take difficult shots and make the difficult entry pass. The Illini's defensive intensity has been at a high level since the end of January and it has picked up another notch since the start of the NCAA Tournament. Of course Duke's backcourt will be ready to attack Illinois' on both sides of the ball, and they will try to create turnovers from the Illini back court by reeking havoc on the ball handler. The question remains is how poised will the Illini backcourt stay, and will they be able to keep the turnovers down like they did against Murray State and Cincinnati in the first two games of the NCAA Tournament.
The X-Factor for both teams will be the play of their third guard, Daniel Ewing for Duke and Luther Head for Illinois. If Ewing scores more than fifteen, Duke will be tough to beat. If Head is shooting well from the outside and stymieing his opponent on defense, Illinois is extremely difficult to beat.
This is the game of the year for Illinois, so there is no reason for them to not come out on Friday night ready to play. I have a feeling that as fans, we will be able to tell whether or not Illinois will have a chance to pull the upset by the time the first TV timeout rolls around. If the energy and excitement is there from the Illini that was shown in the first two games of the NCAA Tournament, Illinois can easily pull off the upset of the Blue Devils. If the Illini are the same team that played Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament Finals, the Blue Devils could easily blow them out of the building.
I guess the only question that remains for me to answer is: Will Illinois pull the upset and beat Duke? Since I have no clue, but have been leaning towards no since Sunday after Illinois laid the smack down on Cincinnati, I will stick with my belief that Illinois will just not have the ability to pull off the upset.
Remember though Illinois fans, I was the same guy that said Illinois would not be able to beat Iowa in Iowa City. I was also the same guy that had Purdue beating Illinois in West Lafayette. I was also the same guy that said Indiana would beat Illinois in Bloomington. I truly believed those defeats would happen, and unfortunately or fortunately I truly believe Friday night will be the last game Illinois plays in the extremely successful 2003-2004 season.