Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Coping with Reality

Tonight was a big night for me, the first nationally televised Duke game (against a solid Air Force team) as part of the CBE Classic in Kansas City (formerly known as the Guardian Classic). Now, despite the fact that I had to listen to Dick Vitale predict that the current top four teams in the country will make it to the final four (shocker there Richard!) and unfairly compare “Tiger” Dan Shulman’s lack of hair to his own, the game proved to be worth the rush home from work. Now, as you might have picked up from my introductory blog, I consider myself the biggest Duke fan who did not graduate from the actual university. With that said, I have grown into “that guy” who is not fun to watch a game with and if you think there is intense Krzyzewski face on the sideline, you should see the “looks-like-he’s-walking-against-the-wind” face that I make when watching the Blue Devils play. Luckily, I had the apartment to myself for the next few hours and I was ready to wreak havoc at the television!

What may make the 2006-2007 Duke season a bit frustrating is the fact that their two big guns from last year, J.J. Redick and Sheldon “the Landlord” Williams, have graduated and the multiple question marks surrounding this years leadership, experience and underclassman adjustment. Last year, despite the fact that Duke was eliminated from the 06 NCAA tournament in the Elite 8, there was always a sense of assurance that Redick would hit a huge three in the clutch or Williams would come up with a big block or rebound. According to Duke’s standards, some would say this is a rebuilding year. Returning to the lineup are sophomores Josh McRoberts and Greg Paulus, and lone upperclassmen DeMarcus Nelson. A mixed bag as to expectations with this triad considering last year McRoberts was often caught “J.J. watching,” Paulus lead the ACC in assists but couldn’t guard one-game sharpshooter Jason McElwain (you might know him as J-Mac) on a good night, and DeMarcus Nelson logged about 15 games in the past two years due to injury. Joining the team are three McDonald’s All-American’s in athletic combo guard Gerald Henderson Jr., multi-talented two guard Jon Scheyer and local product, power forward Lance Thomas (and the biggest surprise, another local product in seven foot center Brian Zoubek). This combination is a recipe for much uncertainty, however, I like what I see in this group thus far. Through three games, albeit all against sub par competition, there has been a nice balanced attack on the offensive end (including all four freshman averaging around 10 points/game and a different leading scorer in each game) with much focus on execution rather than making highlight-real plays accompanied by gym-rat like defense that is the staple of Duke basketball.

Tonight’s game paired Duke against a senior-laded Air Force squad, lead by 2nd year coach Jeff Bzdelik, that returns five starters who helped the Falcons earn an NCAA tournament birth last year. They run a very efficient, Princeton-like offense where constant movement, crisp passing and dead-eye three point shooting are their keys to success.

Finally, the game. Thomas and Nelson paced the Devils in the first half with 12 and 10 points respectively while the Blue Devils as a team shot an astonishing 74% from the field. Great shooting combined with gritty defense lead the Devils to a 38-24 halftime advantage. Despite the generous lead, there were a few things of concern. First, when a team shoots that well in the first half, you can almost always count on that not continuing in the second half; Second, McRoberts attempted just four field goals in the first half; Third, the Falcons hit only two three’s (a team that shoots well over 50% from behind the stripe). In the second half, Air Force opened with an 11-5 run to cut the lead to 43-35 with about 15 minutes to play and started to connect from behind the arc. Thomas was a non-factor in the second half scoring just 3 points and adding 1 rebound. It was also pretty obvious in the first half that Zoubek and Henderson were having trouble defending the Princeton-style offense and didn’t see much action in the second half. This is the time where the three captains took control. Sparked by an “and-one” off of a full court man-to-man steal by Nelson, the Devils wouldn’t look back. Paulus began to manage the clock and methodically pick apart the Air Force match-up zone (8 points/5 assists), McRoberts continued his consistent all-around play (9 points/6 rebounds/5 assists) and Nelson tossed in a career high 23 points along with 6 rebounds and some great pressure defense.

The final score, 71-56, certainly was not indicative of how close the game truly was. Despite some of the flaws such as unforced turnovers, an inconsistent post-up game, and a superstar who’d rather pass than shoot, it was a solid win over the type of mid-major team that could pose a threat in the post season. Some initial thoughts following the game if Duke intends on succeeding in conference play: 1) McRoberts needs to grab the marbles (“Marbles!…Juevos! Grrr”) and start taking some initiative offensively, Paulus needs to get back to last season form and cut down and turnovers and 3) the freshman need to stop running into each other while setting screens.

Now, luckily for the sake of my television and my vocal cords, I remained quite calm during the course of the game. I continuously repeated to myself, “remember, these are just freshman!” It brought me back to a moment in time when my friend Bill and I played for Muhlenberg College freshman year and rarely paid a lick of attention during practice. We would often loosen the tops to the water bottles or hoist our practice shorts above our naval while impersonating our coach who seemingly produced a solid white substance from the corners of his mouth. That being said, these freshman are playing on basketball’s largest stage coping with the type of pressure one feels when riding on the bus having just eaten a queso burrito, while attempting to enjoy life as a regular student. Maybe this is the year I sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.



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