Well, the Duke Basketball season is upon us and what a way to open things up. The Blue Devils will face off with the Kentucky Wildcats tomorrow evening in Indianapolis, IN in a matchup of college hoops heavyweights. So, what are my thoughts going into the game?
Win or lose, it will be a learning experience
Mike Krzyzewski has one of the youngest teams he's ever coached. While this group is immensely talented, they still start four new freshmen, This game will be a measuring stick for the program for Krzyzewski has in no way implemented his full hand yet with concern to how this team will look in March. This is by no means a must-win game for either team. It is instead, a game for college basketball fans around the world to celebrate the tip-off to another season. And, yes, the winner will stay atop the polls for sure, but the loser will not fall too far in the rankings.
What are the potential weaknesses for Duke this season?
If you watched the ESPN special eight-part series on Duke Basketball, you will see Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski addressing his team. One of the things thee things he mentioned was that players needed to be better three-point shooters via their approach. Duke does not have a lot of known three-point artists on this years team, so many of the players are getting accustomed to adding the shot to their resume, This, in turn, will reflect on two other areas of play in rebounding the ball and knocking down free throws. Duke is not as big up front and could go small, so that means all players will need to hit the boards and they could struggle against teams like Kentucky which have big, fully grown men in their frontcourt. As for free throw shooting, Duke should get to the line often, so struggling in any of the three aforementioned areas could haunt them at some point of the season,
What are the potential strengths
The defense will be improved where Krzyzewski has shown he will go man to man much more often. Duke is long and athletic and can get in passing lanes while pressuring the ball. This team will run. When the breaks are there, Duke will be off and running. Duke will also benefit from knowing their roles and or chemistry this season. asked veteran players in the locker room about this and they said this team is together on and off the court. I suppose we have to mention how ridiculously good the freshman class is as well. R.J. Barrett is an alpha dogs, alpha dog. Zion Williamson is a pleasure to watch skywalk, Cam Reddish knocking down threes is nice too. And all three can pass the ball as can true PG Tre Jones. Duke will benefit greatly from having a more traditional point this season in their positionless scheme.
How can Duke beat Kentucky
It will not be easy for Duke to beat Kentucky in that the Wildcats are a solid nine players deep and they have some grown men in their lineup. You just cannot concentrate on any one player for there is a danger at each position on the court. One thing which Duke needs to do is stay out of foul trouble early and the whole game for that matter. Duke loses a lot of talent when they go to their bench, but there are players capable of quality minutes there and they need to step up against the Cats. If those two things happen, Duke will be tight their in what should be a tense and close game before the final buzzer sounds.
Early season test will prepare Duke for the ACC and March
Duke has a very challenging early season schedule which includes tomorrow evenings opener against Kentucky. The Blue Devils will face stiff competition in Hawaii for the Maui Invitational where they can run into highly ranked Auburn and Gonzaga, not to mention Arizona. Even the opener against San Diego State is tough. Duke will take on one of the most underrated teams in the nation when they face Indiana in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge and mark my words, the Hoosiers will have move up the polls by then. These games along with a brutal ACC schedule and a late-season contest with St. Johns, where Mike Cragg now resides as the AD will have them a seasoned bunch before March Madness.
Who do I think will be good in the ACC this season?
The league is loaded. I voted for Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, and Syracuse in no particular order in the top four and have Virginia Tech, Florida State close behind. N.C. State will be better than some think, never sleep on Miami. Clemson will be solid and Notre Dame has an interesting roster. I went a little outside the box and voted Tyus Battle preseason ACC POY and R.J. Barrett as the top freshman. I also place both Barrett and Zion Williamson on the first team. It is a safe bet that Duke will have no less than three newcomers on the ACC All-Freshman team at seasons end.
What is Al Featherstons take?
Al thinks this years team can reach the Final Four but that a lot has to go right. He felt Marques Bolden contributing solid minutes is a major key to success as is bench development of the seventh man in crunch time. I watched all of the games in Canada with Al before he passed on this morning and he was excited to see what the team would look like with Cam Reddish and Tre Jones in the lineup. He scanned over the last exhibitions games box score fervently before saying, they're going to be pretty damn good. I will miss talking Duke history with Al and was honored he valued my opinion. I had hoped he'd make it through what may be a special season.
BDN Premium Special Still Available
We are still offering a special rate for new or former Blue Devil Nation premium subscribers of 60 bucks for one year. I will be talking recruiting happenings later this week while offering up behind the scenes tidbits.
My longtime friend, Al Featherston died Monday, Nov. 5th, 2018 at Duke Hospital after a long illness. Many of you know that Al has been a sportswriter for more than five decades and has authored books on both history and ACC sports.
Al attended Duke University and contributed to the ACC Sports Journal, Basketball Times, Blue Ribbon Yearbooks, Duke Basketball Report, GoDuke.com and many other outlets over the years. He spent a great portion of his career writing for the Durham Morning Herald and the Durham Herald Sun as well.
He battled his illness until the end, but never recovered well from elective heart surgery. He was also diagnosed with ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. Being a long time New York Yankees fanatic, Al was able to go out like one of his favorites.
I had a lot of history with Al, which included seeing Duke win a National Championship together. Having seen a lot of Duke athletics in my time, he enjoyed someone to talk history with,
Towards the end, another good friend of Al's named Ed McIntyre was able to help get our pal into a retirement home. I would take Al to appointments and run errands while going over on Saturdays to watch college football games.
Make no mistake, Al loved his sports and we watched the Duke away football games together right up until his passing. Al was staying on a strict diet and got down to 212 pounds, but he liked that I would bring something special for him for football Saturday,
We thought we'd lost Al about two weeks ago, On a Monday, following the win over Georgia Tech, Al went back into the hospital never to come out, He would also lose conscience for about five days.
Thankfully, Al came out of that and just in time to inform his sister Libby who was up from Southport on his final wishes. He was able to get some closure and I can tell you after conversing with him that he was still very sharp minded and at peace with what was to come.
So, as soon as I get to his room, Al spots the box score to the Duke Basketball exhibition game in my hand. Before he can say hello, he is reaching for it while asking me about Marques Bolden.
Yep, his faculties were intact and he wasted little time in wanting to talk about that game and the Duke loss to Pitt in football which he had just watched.
I spent the better part of three hours with Al the last time I saw him. I filled him in on what he missed while being out and he sponged it all in while wanting to continue to talk about this years basketball team.
Al was very excited about tomorrows Duke matchup with Kentucky and the Duke-UNC football game coming up this weekend. He mentioned that he was sad that he would miss this basketball season with this year's talented team, but we had all hoped he could bounce out of his issues and at least make it through this week.
I was saddened to hear the news of his moving on from his sister this morning whom I have been able to get to know through the process. I contracted a virus and could not make it back to see Al beyond that last conversation.
But in the end, I realized I had a great conversation with him that day and it was a normal exchange which I think he liked. I will miss my friend greatly and talking Duke Athletics, ACC sports in general and appreciate the many memories with him by my side.
Al wanted his sportswriter friends and acquaintances to know he was thinking about them. He was in his favorite spot in the world on press row where he enjoyed socializing. Towards the end, the plan was for him to dictate some messages to me but time would not allow for that. But, again, he was thinking of many of you.
Whether you are a sportswriter, work at Duke Athletics or in the ACC offices in Greensboro, just know Al was appreciative of the relationships.
Al was the son of Louis Alywn Featherston Sr. and Mary Norfleet Vick Featherston. He is survived by his sister, Elizabeth "Libby" Featherston if Southport, N.C.; and brothers, Mark Featherston of Caddilac, MI and Richard Featherston of Seymour, Conn.
The family plans a private cremation. A celebration of Al's life will be announced at a future time. I will let you know of any further details and please pass this information on.
I appreciate your friendship Al, who last told me he was looking forward to seeing what happens next.
Does Major League Baseball still produce TWIB? I used to watch This Week In Baseball every weekend when I was a kid. Well, if MLB has TWIB, then BDN has TWIDF. BDN Premium’s Football Friday is your weekly look inside the world of Duke Football. It’s been a busy week in Durham, as the Blue Devils were recognized for their work in the classroom and also added a verbal commitment to the class of 2012.
Duke named among top 10 percent in APR
The NCAA honored the Duke football program, along with 14 other Duke teams, for placing among the top 10 percent in the multi-year Academic Progress Report. The APR is an attempt to provide a real-time evaluation of each student-athlete’s academic progress (as opposed to graduation rates, which are retrospective). While this kind of recognition has become expected among Duke teams, it’s still a great acommlishment. The Blue Devils were first in the ACC and second overall with 15 teams recognized; Notre Dame had 17 teams honored. As the Duke football program strives for excellence on the field, they also continue to excel in the classroom.
NCAA visits UNC, again
UNC defensive end Quinton Coples was spotted at a post-draft party in Washington, DC along with former teammates Marvin Austin and Robert Quinn in pictures posted on Facebook. This is either a complete non-story or a really big deal. Here’s why. If Coples paid his own way for the trip and related expenses, his attendance at the party is allowed by NCAA regulations (though ill-advised given UNC’s recent issues). If, however, Coples did not pay for any part of his trip to DC, Coples will likely be ruled ineligible for at least part of his senior season. Experts have Coples ranked among the top 5 NFL draft picks in 2012, so this could be another high-profile UNC player with eligibility issues. Given the similar infractions last year, the NCAA could have solid ground for strong sanctions against UNC. Stay tuned.
Duke receives third verbal commitmentfor 2012
As you know by now, Dwayne Norman committed to Duke on Wednesday night. The Blue Devils were the first to offer the 6’0” 185 pound strong safety prospect from University Christian in Jacksonville, Florida. Norman joins fellow Jacksonville native TE Erich Schneider and DE Allen Jackson as the first three members of Duke’s class of 2012. Thus far, all three prospects appear to be solid verbal commitments to the Blue Devils.
As for Norman, he’s a hard-hitting safety prospect who totaled over 70 tackles and an interception as a junior, while also lining up at wide receiver. His highlights can be viewed here. Norman finishes tackles very well and does an excellent job getting into the opposing backfield. He will need to improve his coverage skills to play at the college level, but has the speed (4.5 sec 40-yard dash) and athleticism (33 inch vertical) to make the transition.
New Blue Devils on campus
Several members of the class of 2011 moved on to campus and began their first college courses this week. The first summer semester began on Wednesday, and the Blue Devils will have 8 players enrolled for this term. Several of these players worked hard to finish up their final semester in high school early so that they could arrive on campus as early as possible. The remaining members of the class of 2011 will join them for the second summer term at the beginning of July. Fall training camp will open during the first week of August, at which time all members of the team are required to report to campus.
The players enrolled on campus are:
OG Cody Robinson 6’3” 290 pounds
OG Lucas Patrick 6’3” 305 pounds
CB Tim Burton 5’9” 170 pounds
CB Jared Boyd 5’9” 170 pounds
P Will Monday 6’4” 185 pounds
TE David Reeves 6’6” 245 pounds
WR Nick Hill 6’2” 200 pounds
LB Jon Woodruff 6’3” 205 pounds (January enrollee)
Duke to host Nike camp this weekend
Spring football is in full swing for most high school prospects, and that includes both spring football practices as well as combines and camps. On Sunday, Nike will hold an invitation-only football camp on Duke’s campus for top prospects in the class of 2012 and 2013. Needless to say, this is great exposure for the Duke program, and a testament to the recent improvements in Duke’s football facilities. With the indoor practice facility under construction, Duke’s commitment to football should be clear to prospects. Duke will host their own football camps the 2nd and 3rd week in June, but this camp is another great opportunity to get top prospects on Duke’s campus for unofficial visits.
Here’s the list of Nike Football Training Camps this spring:
March 27 Miami
April 3 USC
April 10 TCU
April 15 Georgia
April 17 Florida State
April 30 Penn State
May 1 Rutgers
May 7 Houston
May 15 Stanford
May 21 Ohio State
May 22 Duke
June 5 Oregon
June 19 Washington
Al Featherston does it again
If you’ve read this far, clearly Hooked on Phonics worked for you. Maybe you’re willing to read a little more. If so, we highly recommend the next installment of preview articles by Al Featherston at GoDuke. This week, Al speaks with Kurt Roper and analyzes what should be an improved running game for the 2011 Blue Devils.
That’s what’s happening in the world of Duke Football this week. Until next week, WE ARE DUKE. [/private]
We hope you all had a great Cinco de Mayo. We certainly did. Anyway, with the surprising retirement of Gary Williams and the spring signing period wrapping up, we understand that you’ve been distracted this week, but that’s no excuse for not joining BDN Premium so that you can get your inside look at Duke athletics. Also, if you don’t have BDN Premium, then you can’t read Football Friday, which means that this is the end of the ride for you. Cue the Oompa Loompas! [private]
You didn’t know you were going to be assigned homework when you started reading this article, did you? Too bad. I’ll keep this week’s article short so that you will have time to complete the following assigned reading.
When I first started writing this column, I intended to include a section of noteworthy links each week, and to this point, I haven’t really followed through on that idea, mostly because there hasn’t been much to read this offseason. This week, however, I came across two important articles to read. As most of you know, Al Featherston is a great friend to BDN and also one of the most knowledgeable Duke writers around. This spring, we’ve touched briefly on some of the hopes and concerns for the new Duke defense, but not nearly to the depth of Al’s recent article for GoDuke. It’s a must read for Duke football fans, and gives some insight into the strategy Duke will apply this fall, straight from the mouth of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles. The 4-2-5 defense is an interesting strategy that is based on the concept that speed will be a strength for the Blue Devils. It also should be noted that TCU is one of the more successful programs to implement a 4-2-5 defensive scheme.
The second development this week is the letter sent from the Justice Department to the NCAA regarding the BCS system. While there may not be a formal investigation into the BCS at this time, the letter clearly outlines the potential antitrust issues. The questions raised by the letter should be thought-provoking to the NCAA and college football fans. What are the advantages of the BCS for schools, student-athletes, and fans? What are its disadvantages? And of course, what might an alternative system look like, and how would that affect a program like Duke? Sounds like great material for the message board.
Duke recruiting genetics?
In recent years, the Duke men’s basketball program has enjoyed the benefits of genetics – Gerald Henderson, Nolan Smith, Seth Curry, and Austin Rivers are all the sons of former NBA stars. In the class of 2012, the Duke football program is targeting a group of football legacies, hoping that at least part of NFL stardom is genetic.
Patrick DeStefano: the 6’4” 275 pound offensive lineman from Roebuck, South Carolina is the son of former Blue Devil and NFL offensive lineman Frank DeStefano. The versatile prospect is one of the hardest workers in the class of 2012 and plans to lead Dorman back to the state championship this fall. With over a dozen scholarship offers, DeStefano has his choice of ACC and SEC schools, and plans to narrow his list down later this spring.
Max McCaffery: the 6’2” 180 pound wide receiver prospect from Highlands Ranch, Colorado is the son of former NFL and Stanford WR Ed McCaffrey, Max is also the nephew of former Duke men’s basketball player Billy McCaffrey, who transferred to Vanderbilt after the 1991 National Championship. Max and his younger brother, Christian (a rising sophomore running back) will look to lead Valor Christian to their third state championship this fall. Max currently has scholarship offers from Duke, Wake Forest, and Arizona State.
Woody Baron: the 6’3” 250 pound defensive end prospect from Brentwood, Tennessee is the nephew of former Virginia Tech defensive tackle James Baron, who later played briefly in the NFL and for several years in the AFL. A 2011 Finalist for Mr. Football in Tennessee, Woody finished his junior year with 50 tackles and 17 sacks at Brentwood Academy. With family ties to Virginia Tech, the Hokies may be tough to beat in this recruitment, but Duke was one of the first schools to offer the top prospect.
Torey Agee: the 6’4” 247 pound defensive end prospect from Opelika, Alabama is the son of former Auburn star fullback Tommie Agee. A talented run-stopper, Torey hopes to work on his pass rush this fall at Opelika. The Blue Devils joined South Alabama as the first to offer the talented junior, who now has 5 scholarship offers and interest from Auburn and Georgia Tech.
Nick Davidson: the 6’7” 270 pound offensive lineman from Eden Prarie, Minnesota is the son of former Ohio State and NFL lineman Jeff Davidson. Nick moved to Minnesota this spring from Charlotte, North Carolina, after his father left the Carolina Panthers to become the offensive line coach for the Minnesota Vikings. With 14 scholarship offers already, Nick will have his choice of schools throughout the country, though he's still waiting for an Ohio State offer.
With high school spring practices kicking off across the country, the Duke staff has been busy on the recruiting trail. We’ll have lots of recruiting coverage coming up next week, so be sure to check back in with Blue Devil Nation. As for the current Blue Devil team, we wish them best of luck as they wrap up their finals and take a well-deserved break. Of course, we also with the seniors well as they prepare to graduate on May 15. Duke’s first summer session begins on May 18 and several members of the class of 2011 will be on campus for the first time.
We promised a short column so that you could get to your assigned reading. Have a great week and be sure to chime in on the 4-2-5 defense or the BCS on the BDN premium message board. WE ARE DUKE.
BDN Exclusive - Like Caesar’s Gaul, all ACC basketball seasons are divided into three parts.
At least that’s the way Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski approaches the basketball year. He divides each season into (1) the non-conference “pre-season”; (2) the conference season; and (3) postseason.
Of course, there’s not always a fine dividing line before the first two parts of that equation. This season, for instance, Duke will open conference play Sunday night against Clemson – but the Blue Devils will still have three more non-conference games on the regular season schedule. And while the ACC as a whole dives into conference play a week from Saturday, there have already been a handful of league games.
Still, the three-part division of the season makes a lot of sense. The league’s six-week “pre-season” is coming to an end and it should give us a better idea of how the league is going to shape up this season.
But does it?
Let’s go back to the beginning. At ACC Operation Basketball late in October the league’s media members got together and tried to rate the conference this season. For the first time in history, the vote for first place was dead even – both Duke and UNC wound up with 545 points. The rest of the standings sorted out as Clemson in third, followed closely by Georgia Tech and Maryland. There was a fairly substantial gap in the voting after the Terps – but just one point separated sixth place Wake Forest and seventh-place Florida State. Virginia Tech and Boston College were just a little further back. Then there was another gap and before the final three: No. 10 Miami, No. 11 Virginia and No. 12 N.C. State.
To me, the most interesting part of the vote was not the tie at the top, but the race for third place. You see, over the summer, I had to provide an ACC ranking for the Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook. Finding it impossible to sort my own feelings out, I consulted with almost a dozen other writers I respect.
To my dismay, they were as confused as I was. Everybody agreed that Duke and UNC were the two favorites and that Miami, Virginia and N.C. State (in some order) were the league’s three also-rans. But that was the extent of the agreement. I got votes for seven different teams in third place (Clemson, FSU, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest) and saw those teams ranked in almost every imaginable order.
Well, going into the new year, the 12 ACC teams have played an average of almost 12 games each. Shouldn’t it be easy to re-rank the league with some semblance of confidence?
But what are we to think when we see Wake Forest lose at home to William & Mary ... then go on the road and beat Gonzaga in Spokane? Or when N.C. State loses at home to a Northwestern team playing without its best player ... then goes to Milwaukee and knocks off Marquette? We have Boston College upsetting Michigan in Ann Arbor, returning home to edge Miami in the ACC opener ... then losing at home to Harvard for the second straight year.
And what are we to think about Clemson? One moment, the Tigers are building a 23-point second half lead on Illinois ... a lead Clemson manages to squander in barely six minutes before losing in Littlejohn to the Big Ten visitor.
Making the picture even more confused, several teams have had to play without key players. Duke fans know how much the early season wrist injury that sidelined freshman center Mason Plumlee has delayed his development. But Boston College had to play a month without Rakim Sanders, the Eagles’ best player. Maryland played its early schedule without projected starter Dino Gregory. Georgia Tech has been without budding star Iman Shumpert. N.C. State has had to deal with injuries (Richard Howell) and suspension (Farnold Degand). Veteran guard Marcus Ginyard has been in and out of UNC’s lineup.
Krzyzewski offered a warning to those who would try to read too much into the early season results. After Duke’s pre-Christmas victory over St. John’s, a reporter asked him about his visible efforts to pump up an uninspired Cameron crowd.
“Our fans are great – they expect us to win,” Coach K answered. “They don’t understand developing a winning team. This is still very much a developing team. Every team has to be given a chance to develop and this one had a chance to be a very good team.”
If Duke – with one of the most experienced core groups in the ACC – is “developing”, what about Georgia Tech, trying to work four freshmen into the rotation? What about UNC, trying to replace four starters off its national championship team? What about Florida State, trying to learn to play without Toney Douglas, or Boston College, trying to replace Tyrese Rice or Miami, trying to replace Jack McClinton?
A LOT of ACC teams are still developing.
As a result, it’s almost as difficult to rank the ACC going into the second third of the season as it was back in late October.
Almost – but not quite. We have learned a lot – enough to make a better guess at how the league stacks up headed into league play. Here’s my personal ACC power rankings as of Dec. 31, 2009 (with an extended look at Duke). I include the date because the league is still sorting itself out and I reserve the right to change my mind when somebody gets hot in January or loses a key player in early February.
But entering the new year:
1. Duke (11-1). It seems hard to believe, but before the season, many outside observers thought that the team’s weakness would be its backcourt. Check out ESPN, The Magazine, which ranked the Devils No. 11 national – largely because of its questionable backcourt.
If the first month and a half of the season has proven anything, it’s that Duke doesn’t have a problem in the backcourt. Every question mark facing the team in preseason has been answered in the positive.
Can Jon Scheyer handle the point? Well, how do you like a 6.6-to-1 assist-turnover ratio (the all-time ACC record is 3.48 to 1)? Can Nolan Smith take the step up from erratic supporting player to become a consistent star? How does 17.4 points a game (up from 8.4) and a 2.4 assist-to-turnover ratio (up from 1.1 to 1 last year)? Can Andre Dawkins, who skipped his senior year of high school, provide enough depth as the team’s third guard? How does 9.8 points and a 2.5-to-1 assist to turnover ratio in 19 minutes a game sound? His 49 percent 3-point shooting doesn’t hurt either.
One month into the season, Duke unquestionably has the best backcourt in the ACC and maybe the best in the nation. If the vote were taken today, Scheyer would be the ACC’s runway Player of the Year choice.
Up front, the answers haven’t been as universally positive, but they haven’t been negative either. The five-man post rotation has been solid, especially with senior Brian Zoubek stepping up his game. And Lance Thomas, freed from the responsibility of defending bigger players in the post, has emerged as a defensive dynamo. Sophomore Miles Plumlee is still looking for consistency, but the progress he’s made since last year are amazing – he already has more points, more rebounds, more blocked shots, more assists and more steals than he had all last season. His younger brother Mason has been limited by his injury, but he’s shown flashes of his extraordinary passing skills and his shotblocking ability. And Ryan Kelly, supposed to be little more than a shooter, has also proven to be a deft interior passer and a shockingly good shotblocker – averaging just 12 minutes a game, he already has 13 blocked shots (10th in the ACC).
Their strong play inside has freed Kyle Singler to roam the perimeter. So far, the 6-8 junior has played well, but he’s struggled with his shot. In a way, his early play resembles Gerald Henderson’s start to the 2008-09 season, when his offensive woes hid his strong all-around game. Singer is rebounding, defending and distributing the ball at a very high level. If his shooting comes around, he’ll make a run at the ACC player of the year award he was voted in preseason.
Overall, Duke has emerged as the clear ACC favorite and a potential national contender. Long Beach State coach Don Monson -- who has also faced No. 2 Texas, No. 3 Kentucky, No. 6 West Virginia, plus UCLA, Notre Dame, Utah State and the Wisconsin-Green Bay team that beat the Wisconsin team that beat Duke – declined to rate the Blue Devils against the other top 10 contenders.
“That’s what everybody asks when you’re going on this Washington Generals tour,” Monson said. “As I told the people at Kentucky, none of these teams are good enough to win a national championship right now. And all of them are striving to do that. It’s just a matter of who keeps improving in the next two months – because they all have the ability to do it ... All of them have strengths that they can win a national championship.”
If Duke is going to win it all, the Blue Devils need to hold on to their obvious strengths – that superb three-man backcourt; that excellent interior depth; the strong overall defense – while improving in just a few areas – Singler needs to find his shooting touch and Mason Plumlee needs to become the pre-injury player who had 18 points and 13 rebounds in Duke’s first exhibition.
2. North Carolina (11-3) – It was ridiculous to rank UNC No. 4 in the AP’s preseason poll. This team bears little resemblance to last season’s national champs.
At the same time, it would be absurd for Tar Heel haters to dismiss this team because Coach Roy Williams has struggled to blend a talented group of young and inexperienced players into a team good enough to cope with top 10 teams such as Texas and Kentucky (on the road) and Syracuse (in New York City).
It’s a difficult struggle – Williams has admitted that’s been more negative with this team than any other at Carolina. At the same time, he notes that UNC is about in the same place they were in 2005-06, when another young team melded late and finished second in the ACC.
The good news for Williams is that he’s gotten strong play from his veteran combo of senior center Deon Thompson and senior guard Marcus Ginyard. Sophomore point guard Larry Drew II hasn’t been great, but he’s been better than his lackluster freshman season would have suggested. And sophomore big man Tyler Zeller has really provided quality play off the bench.
The bad news for Williams has been the lack of immediate production from his celebrated freshman class. Forward John Henson, who was projected as the No. 2 freshman entering the ACC (behind Georgia Tech’s Derrick Favors) has been a non-factor so far. Dexter Strickland showed signs of life in the Rutgers win – although Williams ripped him for taking (and hitting) the big shot in that game. Overall, he’s been far less effective than Duke’s Dawkins. The Wear twins have been marginal contributors and Leslie McDonald can barely get off the bench.
That doesn’t mean they won’t eventually become quality players, but of the group, only Strickland appears to be on the verge of contributing.
However, the biggest question mark for UNC has been the play of Ed Davis. The sophomore power forward would have been a lottery pick if he had declared for the draft last spring. His talent is such that he made first-team All-ACC in preseason after averaging 6.7 points and 6.6 rebounds as a reserve forward last season.
Davis has stepped up his game, but he’s yet to become the monster that so many predicted. He’s averaging 14.7 ppg. and 9.9 rpg and ranks No. 3 in the ACC in blocked shots. That’s very good, but he hasn’t been dominating – yet.
If UNC is going to challenge Duke in the ACC and make a run at national honors, Davis has got to take another step forward. Strickland and maybe Henson have to find their games. And most of all, UNC has to find some reliable 3-point shooting.
3. Clemson (12-2). Tough to rank the Tigers third after their collapse against Illinois and their close call last Tuesday night to South Carolina State.
Still, almost all the rankings agree. Clemson is 21st in the AP poll and among ACC teams ranks second (ahead of UNC) in Pomeroy, third in Sagarin and fourth (behind FSU) in the RPI.
Trevor Booker remains a beast inside and he’s getting help from his younger brother and from veteran Jerai Grant. Tanner Smith and Andre Young are helping veteran Demontez Stitt make up for the off-season loss of perimeter stars K.C. Rivers and Terrence Oglesby.
The Tigers haven’t played the toughest schedule in the world, but they do have a one-point victory on a neutral court over No. 12 (at the time) Butler, plus wins over South Carolina and solid mid-majors Western Carolina and Long Beach State.
Clemson – like UNC and Wake – was expected to have a problem finding 3-point shooting, but the Tigers currently rank third in the ACC in 3-pointers made and a solid sixth in 3-point percentage. They have the second best turnover margin in the league and lead the ACC by a wide margin in steals.
If there’s been a disappointment, it’s been the play of McDonald’s All-American Milton Jennings, who might be the most celebrated recruit Purnell has ever landed. Like UNC’s Henson, he’s been a marginal factor so far.
Oliver Purnell has established a baseline of solid performance at Clemson. His teams play good defense and get good shots (second in the ACC in field goal percentage). Now if he could just get them to shoot free throws – the Tigers currently rank 11th in the ACC in the category where they almost always lead in futility.
It appears to be unlikely that the Tigers will push Duke and UNC for the ACC regular season title. But matched against the mass of good-but-not-great teams in the middle of the league, Clemson appears to have a slight – a very slight – edge.
No. 4 Florida State (12-2). Leonard Hamilton suffered just one key graduation loss, but point guard Toney Douglas may have been the single most irreplaceable player in the ACC. A year ago, he not only led the ACC in scoring, he was the league’s defensive player of the year. He led FSU in scoring (in fact, he was the Seminoles only double-figure scorer), assists, 3-point shooting and steals.
Nobody on this year’s roster has replaced Douglas, but the Seminoles have found partial substitutes in holdovers Derwin Kitchen and Deividas Dulkys and freshman Michael Snaer. FSU might be the most balanced team in the league. Sophomore big man Soloman Alabi, a future NBA lottery pick, leads the team with 12.7 points a game, but seven players average six points or better.
Hamilton is loaded down low. Alabi anchors the middle, but gets plenty of help from sophomores Chris Singleton and Xavier Gibson and senior Ryan Reid.
The Seminoles lost tough road games at Florida and Ohio State (which was still a top 20 team before losing Evan Turner), but have solid neutral court wins over Marquette and Alabama. They also have an early ACC road win – winning in overtime at Georgia Tech.
The ‘Noles block more shots than anybody else in the ACC, but need to protect the ball better – with almost 18 turnovers a game, FSU is by far the sloppiest ballhandling team in the league. That’s got to improve if Hamilton’s team hopes to finish this high in the standings.
No. 5 Georgia Tech (10-2) The AP voters have given the Jackets a lot of love. I’m not sure where it’s coming from.
Don’t get me wrong. The freshman class that Paul Hewitt was hoping would revive his staggering program (and save his job) is every bit as good as advertised. Derrick Favors, the nation’s No. 1 prospect, hasn’t emerged as a dominant player, but he’s solid – 13 points and 9 rebounds in 27 minutes a game. Point guard Mfon Udofia has been surprising productive, averaging almost 12 points in 28 minutes a game. Wings Brian Oliver and Glen Rice Jr. have been contributors.
Throw in veterans Gani Lawal and Zack Peacock up front, along with defensive ace D’Andre Bell back after a year off for injury, and the Jackets ought to be as good as the pollsters think – even with Shumpert on the sidelines.
It’s hard to understand why sum of the parts aren’t as good as the individual pieces ought to be. Sure, there’s going to be an adjustment period as the youngsters work their way into the lineup, but is there anybody on the roster who can merge them into a winning team?
So far, the team’s body of work is extremely unimpressive. Yeah, there are 10 wins, but which ones matter? A homecourt victory over Southern Cal will look good at tourney time unless the committee remembers that it came before transfer Mike Gerrity became eligible at USC and revived a team that was 4-4 without him.
There’s a reason that Georgia Tech is No. 92 (10th in the ACC) in the RPI. The Jackets have lost to the only two decent teams they’ve played – Dayton on a neutral court and FSU at home.
There’s still a lot of talent there and maybe it will come together. Maybe the return of Shumpert in the near future will provide a burst of energy.
No. 6 Wake Forest (10-2). A year ago, Coach Dino Gaudio had three NBA lottery picks to anchor his team.
Now he has one – and sophomore Al-Farouq Aminu has stepped up his game beyond where projected lottery picks Ed Davis and Soloman Alabi have taken theirs. His 17 points and (an ACC best) 11 rebounds a game made the Deacons a team to respect.
Senior point guard Ish Smith has also been solid. He’s no Jeff Teague, but the tiny playmaker is one of the quickest players in the ACC and he can get to the basket on anybody. But he’s not a very good outside shooter (15 percent from 3) and after a decent year at the foul line as a junior, he’s reverted to his freshman/sophomore ineptitude, shooting just 34.5 percent from the line. That’s not a good for a point guard who should have the ball in his hands at the end of close games.
The good news for the Deacons so far has been the surprisingly solid play of unheralded recruit C.J. Harris, a local kid who is leading all ACC freshmen with 12 points a game. He’s provided the 3-point shooting that the Deacs needed so badly, hitting 45 percent on 31 attempts. The team’s best long-range gunner is also a freshman, forward Ari Stewart, who has hit almost 46 percent on 35 attempts.
Offsetting the pleasant news is the regression of Gaudio’s big men. Chase McFarland has struggled, while soph Tony Woods, who looked like a budding star at times last season, has failed to bloom (averaging less than 4 ppg. and 4 rpg.). Soph Ty Walker, a celebrated recruit, can’t get off the bench.
The Deacons still have a lot to prove. The impressive win at Gonzaga was offset by the dismal home loss to William & Mary. Beating N.C. State at home in the ACC opener is not all that impressive. At the moment, the Deacs look very much like an NCAA bubble team.
7. Miami (13-1). Forget the gaudy record. At least 10 of the Hurricanes’ 12 victims are non-entities. Only a neutral court wins over South Carolina and a home victory over Minnesota amount to anything.
Still, you have to admire the way Frank Haith has rebuilt his backcourt after the loss of Jack McClinton, was almost as important to Miami last year as Douglas was to FSU.
Freshman Durand Scott and Villanova transfer Malcolm Grant have both had moments of excellence. Scott is a surprisingly mature playmaker averaging an excellent 2.1-to-1 assist/turnover ratio (fourth best in the ACC).
In the middle, veteran big man Dwayne Collins is doing what he’s supposed to do – almost 13 points and nine rebounds a game. Haith could use another big man inside (neither Cyrun McGowan, Julius Gamble or 300-pound freshman Reggie Johnson has been all that impressive), but he has some solid wings in veterans James Dews and Adrian Thomas.
It will be interesting to see how the ‘Canes young guards and that shaky inside game holds up when Haith’s team starts playing some tougher competition. It doesn’t bode that well that Miami lost its first ACC game to Boston College – although that was a one-point loss in Chestnut Hill, so it’s hardly that embarrassing.
8. Maryland (8-4). If Miami is the most overachieving team in the ACC, there’s no question about the league’s biggest disappointment.
The Terps, an early top 20 team, have been about as underachieving as its schedule makes possible. Maryland has played four decent teams and lost to them all. The eight Terp victims make Miami’s unimpressive schedule look like Murderer’s Row.
There’s no question where the problem lies. Senior guard Greivis Vasquez, who ranks as one of the ACC’s most talented and most erratic players, has until very recently come down on the erratic side. Although his season numbers – 16 points, six assists and five rebounds a game – look good, when his team has needed him most, he’s been below par. In Maryland’s four losses, Vasquez averaged 19 points, but he shot 36 percent and had more turnovers (19) than assists (17).
It’s a shame because Maryland has gotten solid play from veteran guards Eric Hayes and Sean Mosely. Freshmen big men Jordan Williams and James Padgett (especially Williams) have been as good as expected.
In the last few years, Gary Williams’ Maryland teams have had the habit of starting slowly then making a late push to get off the NCAA bubble. He was hoping that this team wouldn’t need to follow that path. But it does.
Maryland will go as far as Vasquez takes them. He’s bounced back lately, scoring 79 points and passing out 22 assists in Maryland’s last three games. He had two very good games against Winston-Salem State and Florida Atlantic and a less impressive one in the loss to William & Mary.
9. Virginia Tech (11-1). Malcolm Delaney continues to get better and better. But Jeff Allen remains a mystery and Seth Greenberg is still looking for some complementary players.
Delaney leads the ACC in scoring (21.5 ppg.) by a wide margin, which is pretty impressive considering that the Hokies play the third-slowest tempo in the league. At least he did lead the league in scoring before he suffered what is reported to be a serious ankle sprain in Wednesday’s victory over Longwood and left the game without scoring a point.
Freshman guard Erik Green stepped up against Longwood and the Hokies got double figures from freshman Ben Boggs, who had been invisible going into this game.
It’s hard to hell how Delaney’s extended absence would impact Virginia Tech. You’d think, since he was carrying such a large share of the scoring and playmaking role, that the Hokies would flounder without him. But it might have the “Dereck Whittenburg” effect – in 1983, when N.C. State lost its best scorer for more than a month, it forced others to step up and expand their roles, so when he returned in March, the Pack was prepared for its historic postseason run.
In the short run, Virginia Tech will probably lose some games that it might have won with Delaney out – but in the long run, the Hokies are likely to be a stronger team when he returns. Watch carefully to see how Green, Dorenzo Hudson and J.T. Thompson step up in his absence.
And most of all, keep an eye on Allen – whose scoring and rebounding are down from last year’s solid 14 points and nine rebounds – responds. Can he snap out of his early season funk?
At least the Hokies haven’t pulled their usual December trick and lost a couple of games they shouldn’t have – although they had a close call in an OT win over Delaware. The one loss at Temple doesn’t look bad. Wins at Penn State and at Iowa, along with a homecourt win over Georgia, aren’t bad.
Several of Greenberg’s teams have overachieved in the ACC after a lackluster preseason schedule. If this team does that, the Hokies will earn an NCAA bid – because for once, they haven’t dug themselves a deep early season hole.
10. Boston College (9-4). I’m tempted to rank the Eagles higher, especially since they were my preseason choice for No. 3 in the ACC.
I’d give them a pass for early season losses to St. Joseph’s and Northern Iowa when Sanders was out, if it weren’t for the more recent losses at home to Harvard (again??) and Rhode Island.
The ACC’s smallest team is getting great wing play from sophomore Reggie Jackson, who stepped up his game in Sanders’ absence, and veteran Corey Raji. Joe Trapani is solid, as always – a poor man’s Kyle Singler. And Courtney Dunn is providing Josh Southern will some help in the post. Now that Sanders is back at fullspeed (22 points in Wednesday night’s victory over South Carolina), the Eagles have a lot of firepower.
But what’s really hurting BC is the defense – unusual for an Al Sanders team. Right now, BC is the ACC’s worst defensive team, allowing opponents to shoot 42.5 percent from the field and forcing a league-low 11 turnovers a game.
That’s got to change if the Eagles are going to move up in the standings. As it stands, BC has dug itself the kind of hole that Virginia Tech often does in the pre-ACC season. It’s going to take a strong conference performance to even put this team on the NCAA bubble.
11. N.C. State (10-3). The Wolfpack has been about as good as any rational N.C. State fan could have hoped. That’s still not good enough to move very far out of the ACC basement.
Maybe next year when ACC-quality guards Ryan Harrow and Lorenzo Brown arrive ... as for now, the Pack will ride the strong inside play of junior Tracy Smith and the improving point guard play of Javier Gonzales while youngsters such as Scott Wood, Josh Davis, Richard Howell and DeShawn Painter get a little experience.
N.C. State proved at Marquette that is can be a dangerous opponent, but the Pack has not come close to sustaining that level of play. Marquette and a competitive loss at Wake Forest aren’t bad, but there’s also a three-point home win over Elon and home loss to a Northwestern team that was without its best player.
The heartbreaking loss at Arizona was not as good as ‘Zona’s reputation would suggest – the Wildcats are pretty mediocre this season. Some State fans noted – with rare perception – that it might have cost them an NIT bit.
Better days are ahead in Raleigh, but not this season.
12. Virginia (7-4). New coach Tony Bennett has tried to refute suggestions that he is bringing a slow, ball-control game to Charlottesville.
Well, maybe he’ll run when he gets some talent, but right now Virginia is playing the slowest tempo in the ACC (the Cavs and their opponents are averaging 128.7 points a game ... one point less than N.C. State at 129.7 points a game).
Sophomore guard Sylvan Landesberg has picked up where he left off last year and is averaging a solid 15.9 ppg. But he’s getting less help than Delaney at Virginia Tech. Virginia doesn’t have another top 20 scorer in the ACC – and no Cavaliers rank among the top 20 in rebounding or in the top 10 in steals, assists or blocked shots.
Virginia (like several other ACC teams) has lost to every good team it’s played. Its best victory is probably a neutral court victory over Cleveland State, which is rebuilding after beating Wake Forest in last year’s NCAA opener, or maybe Wednesday night’s easy homecourt win over a decent team from UAB.
Bennett worked miracles with the little talent he inherited at Washington State. It will take a miracle to turn this Virginia team to anything other than a last-place ACC team.
[private]12/10/2008 - Al Featherston, Courtesy of GoDuke.com
DURHAM, N.C. – When the Duke basketball team goes on the road, it’s never just a basketball game – it’s an event.
“We always laugh because when we go in for the day-of-the-game shoot around the seats are always covered with their giveaway tee-shirts or the freebie towels,” assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “I think we help the marketing departments of other schools out quite a bit.”
Last week, the Blue Devils helped out the marketing departments at Purdue and Michigan as Duke visited those two Big Ten schools. It’s not just that both games were sellouts. At Purdue, students camped out for seating for the first time in school history. Licensed ticket brokers were asking almost $600 a ticket for prime seating.
Duke always gets the best opposing teams – and their fans – can offer.
“It’s kind of been that way for almost 20 years,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “[I still remember] going down to LSU in’92 with them camping out and having the tiger out. We’ve experienced that for two decades.”
The evolution of Duke’s road “aura” is interesting to track. It didn’t happen overnight.
This reporter was lucky enough to cover all three Triangle basketball teams in the 1980s and early 1990s. I can clearly remember 1986, when Coach K first burst through with an ACC Championship/Final Four team. What stands out in my mind are back-to-back trips to Charlottesville that season.
On Jan. 30, 1986 No. 1 and unbeaten North Carolina visited University Hall. The dark, dingy arena was electric that night – kind of like Mackey Arena was for Duke last week. The boisterous crowd helped spur the Cavs to an 86-73 upset of the top-ranked Tar Heels. Exactly one week later, surging Duke – ranked No. 4 and just two weeks away from a No. 1 ranking – visited University Hall. The arena was sold out and the fans were loud and supportive, but it wasn’t anything like what UNC experienced a week earlier. It was kind of like the difference in Cameron Indoor Stadium between a normal ACC game and a Carolina game.
Of course, that kind of reaction must be earned. In 1986, UNC was reaping the fruits of 20 years of excellence under Dean Smith. Duke was an upstart, just emerging as a power under Krzyzewski.
It’s not possible to pinpoint the exact moment when all that changed, but it’s clear that by 1992 – after five Final Fours in six years and Duke’s first national championship – the Blue Devils had become the primary focus of opposing fans. Covering the ’92 Blue Devils was like following a rock band. Buffalo produced the largest college basketball crowd in its history for Christian Laettner’s homecoming. So many fans swarmed outside the Duke locker room that the Blue Devil players had to escape through a locker room window. At Clemson, mobs of fans surrounded the team bus – many of them screaming teenage girls.
The hysteria continued in 1993, when this writer noted the same disparity between road crowds for Duke and UNC as I had noted in those two trips to Charlottesville in 1986.
Only this time it was Duke that endured the frenzied madness, while Carolina faced relatively normal ACC road crowds. The contrast was most sharp in Tallahassee, where on Jan. 24, the loudest and most enthusiastic crowd in Florida State history spurred the Seminoles to an 89-88 overtime victory over No. 6 Duke ... while a month later, a relative sedate crowd watched No. 3 UNC defeat the ‘Noles 86-76.
For Duke, it’s been that way ever since.
“With where our program is right now, we get every team’s – and every opposing arena’s – best shot,” Wojciechowski said. “I can’t remember a game where we have gone on the road and we felt there was no atmosphere or no environment.”
Not that anybody connected with the Duke program is complaining.
“That’s why our guys came to Duke – you want to be in those type games,” assistant coach Chris Collins said. “Who wants to play in an arena when nobody’s there? You want to play against the best teams. You want to play in hostile environments. Our guys were really excited about it [at Purdue]. You get that little bit extra energy and excitement when you play that type of game.”
Wojciechowski said that’s what he was looking for when he came to Duke as a player.
“If you ask any player the type of atmosphere they want to play in – they want to play in packed arenas,” he said. “When you’re a kid, growing up and shooting baskets on a playground or in your backyard, you don’t dream of hitting the game-winning shot in an empty arena. You dream of playing in big games with big crowds who are rooting against you ... and coming up big in those situations.”
Wojciechowski and Collins had to go through the fire when they were Duke players in the 1990s. Those players currently dealing with the enthusiasm that the Devils face on the road seem to share their appreciation of the situation.
“It’s exciting for us,” Kyle Singler said. “The way other teams are camping out for games, that kind of reminds us of our home court. There’s no other place we’d rather play than in that atmosphere. We want everybody’s best shot.”
Duke’s schedule hasn’t included that many true road games in recent years. Of course, the Blue Devils play eight ACC opponents on the road every season and annual trips to the Smith Center in Chapel Hill and the Comcast Center in College Park, Md., certainly provide as hostile an atmosphere as anyone could want.
However, outside the league, Duke has – with a handful of exceptions – been more likely to play its big non-conference games on neutral courts. Part of that is by design. The NCAA Tournament is played in neutral, big-city arenas. It’s good preparation for the Devils to play Xavier in the Izod Center in the Meadowlands (as they will on Dec 20) or Pittsburgh in Madison Square Garden (as Duke did last season).
But part of the reason is because several of Duke’s favorite non-conference opponents use big-city arenas as their home courts. Both Georgetown (the MCI Center) and St. John’s (Madison Square Garden) play all their big games in such arenas. Temple often moves games either to the Palestra or the U.S. Bank Arena (where the 76ers play).
“It’s just who we have in intersectional play,” Krzyzewski said. “We like playing some of the traditional powers. Our schedule has always been in the top 10 in the country. We have a tough schedule this year. We think a veteran team needs it, so we can learn as we go along.”
Krzyzewski’s boast about his schedule is not an exaggeration. In the last five years, Duke’s RPI strength of schedule has been eighth, third, first, fourth and fourth.
Of course, it’s not always easy to go on the road and deal with teams and fans who treat your visit as the highlight of the season.
“I think [Purdue coach] Matt Painter put it the right way when he said that for our kids, every game is a game like that, whereas for his kids, only a few games are like that. The more we get accustomed to playing in games like that, the better we’ll be.”
“I think that’s a strength,” the junior forward said. “It makes us keep our edge. We are not going to relax anywhere we go because every game is going to be somebody trying to slit our throats. It’s really good for us.”
Plus, it’s fun to win in such a frenzied environment.
“I know for me, and I can speak for my teammates, it’s always good to win on the road,” Thomas said. “Back against the wall ... everybody against you – that makes it that much more meaningful.”
But is there a danger of playing so many emotional games over the course of the season?
“I’d rather not look at it as a disadvantage,” Krzyzewski said. “Whether it is or not, if we make that as an excuse, I think it weakens you. You try to use everything that is there in a positive way, so we’ve always tried to use it in a positive way.”
And the positive way of dealing with Duke’s testing road schedule?
“I think it’s great preparation as you go forward with the year,” Collins said. “In our game, it’s a one-and-done deal at the end of the year. We always expect a team’s best shot. We know it’s a big game for them, especially when they are at home. Their crowd is going to be as excited as they are all year.”
Duke, after years of being one of the nation’s successful programs in March, has not finished well the last two seasons. But it’s hard to attribute that blip to the parade of pressure-packed games the Devils have to play. After all, that pressure has been there for decades – and previous Duke teams have handled it well.
“I think the last two years had a lot to do with youth,” Collins suggested. “There’s no question that our guys were under intense pressure that only a handful of programs have during the year – where every game is scrutinized, where every game is a big game.
“I think when you have some older guys, they understand that journey better. In the last couple of years, we had good players, but they were very young players. They were figuring it out and they were playing as hard as they could, but at the end of the season, we just ran out of a little gas and we weren’t playing our best.
“Now we have so many juniors and seniors ... we have great leadership. Although you can’t guarantee success, I don’t think that’s quite going to be the factor this year.”
Everybody in college basketball plays road games. But few programs play the same kind of road games that Duke does. That’s a result of the team’s past success and maybe, just maybe, a contributor to success in the future. Wojciechowski certainly believes that Duke’s impressive performance against Purdue in front of a historically jacked-up crowd at Mackey Arena will pay future dividends for the Blue Devils.
“You have to be able to win big games when you’re playing in front of a hostile sellout crowd,” he said. “For our group, it was great to have an early season test like that. It was a great environment against a really good team. For us to come out and play on the level we did, we were really excited about that.”