At this point, some Duke fans would probably rather take our chances in football against the Crimson Tide rather than see a repeat of the Blue Devils' performance against Vermont when they face Alabama in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT. Tipoff is 9:30 EST on Wednesday night in Madison Square Garden.
Obviously, things are going to have to change, in particular at the defensive end, if the Blue Devils want to beat a team most would expect to be far stronger than East Carolina or Vermont. Of course it's easy right now to forget how well this team played against top-5 Kansas on a neutral floor, but still, I doubt there were many thoughts of the Kansas game during Duke's practices the last couple of days. The Blue Devils simply have to get better at moving their feet and staying in front of penetrators; they have to get better at switching, at hedging and recovering, at stepping up to cut off drivers, at challenging midrange shots in the paint. If they're going to continue to pressure the opponents' guards hard, they're going to have to start to see some results -- meaning forcing some turnovers. Vermont ran a layup drill, and when they weren't shooting layups in the second half, they had open 10-12 footer drill instead. All the talk coming into this year was about how we were going to defend against opposing bigs, given our shortness and/or skinniness inside. That hasn't been the problem at all, even against Kansas. It's been lousy perimeter defense, an inability to cut off dribble penetration and then all the bad results that follow from that that has been Duke's undoing. And it's going to have to improve if the Blue Devils want to have the kind of season everyone envisioned for them.
That's not to say that the changes in the defensive rules and the way the games are being officiated have not been a factor. They have. But the refereeing hasn't been unfair to Duke at all. We just haven't adjusted to the changes, at least not yet. Maybe Duke will dial back its pressure, maybe Duke will play some zone. But I doubt it. I think Duke's coaches are going to first try to coach this young team up, in particular at the defensive end, coach them how to defend without fouling, how to play help defense without fouling, how to properly hedge and recover, and all the other skills that are needed to play defense the way Coach K wants to play it. He's not going to throw in the towel on the type of defense he's preached and taught for 30+ years just based on a couple of games worth of bad results from a young team at the beginning of a new season. But what it does mean is that we may be in for some more rough days and nights in our immediate future, including perhaps Wednesday night against Alabama.
So what do the Tide bring to the table? Last year Coach Anthony Grant's squad narrowly missed the NCAA tournament, primarily due to a weak out of conference schedule. Playing Duke should help the old RPI just a bit. They made a nice run in the NIT, reaching the quarterfinals, finishing with a 23-12 overall record. OK, fine.
This year's leading returning scorer is 6'0" senior guard Trevor Releford, and he again leads the Tide in scoring at 18 ppg. He's shooting 59% from the field and 80% on 3's. He's a player. Releford is joined in the backcourt by 6'1" 205 lb. soph Retin Obasohan, who is at 15.5 ppg on 52% shooting, though his 3-ball has been off so far this year. Obasohan is the leading assist man, at 2.5 per game. Levi Randolph is a 2-year starter who came off the bench the first few games of this year due to a knee injury in October, but he's back in the starting lineup now. The 6'5" 205 pound junior is at 11 ppg and 4 rebounds. Rodney Cooper, at 6'6" and 215 pounds, is the Tide's leading rebounder at 6.8 per game. He's not much of a shooter or scorer though, getting 7 ppg but on 30% shooting. The fifth starter is big man Jimmie Taylor, a 6'10" 240 pound freshman.
The Tide is going basically nine deep. JUCO transfer Algie Key, 6'4" 195 lbs is the first guy off the bench, and he's averaging over 10 ppg and shooting a how-is-he-doing-that 79%. The other three guys off the bench that see time are all big. Nick Jacobs is a 6'8" 245 pound junior, who is at 7 ppg and 4.5 rebounds, and then there's 6'8" Shannon Hale and 7'1" 265 lb junior Carl Engstrom.
Alabama sits at 3-1 on the season. They opened in Dallas against Oklahoma, played well for most of the game before fading and dropping a 9 point decision. Key, playing his first game in a Crimson Tide uniform, led the team in scoring with 20. The Tide was really hurt by Releford's foul trouble all night long. Alabama followed that up with a win over Tubby Smith's Texas Tech squad at home by 12. This was a Big 12/SEC Challenge game. Releford was on fire, hitting for 29 points on 11 of 14 shooting, and the whole team shot well, ending at 55%.
In the Pre-Season NIT, Bama began with a 102-65 blowout over Stillman College. I know, I haven't heard of them either. They're a D-II school located literally just down the road in Tuscaloosa. That one's not going to help the RPI much. Randolph led the way with 17. Then the Tide handled Georgia State by 17 to reach the semifinals. Releford had 19 and the Tide really manhandled Georgia State on the boards, 40-24, to win easily.
So there we have it. Before ECU and Vermont, this is the kind of team that most Duke fans would've said, "OK, nice team. BCS conference team, good coach, some nice players. But we're not losing to those guys on the big stage in Madison Square Garden. Na ga happen." Anybody saying that today? I didn't think so.
If Duke can create some turnovers with their pressure, stop dribble penetration better, and play defense inside and out without fouling, they could blow Alabama out. But if they play the same kind of D they have in the last week, well, these aren't the Catamounts of Vermont walking through that door, fans. Sure, we could still outscore them 95-90. Or we could get a far worse result than that.