Duke's First Loss

Well, my Blue Devils just lost their first game, to Georgetown on the road by 3. What made this a fascinating game is what it tells us, both good and bad, about this Duke team. This game simultaneously showed why this Duke team will have a difficult time winning the national championship this year, and why they still have a good shot of doing so. I thought I'd analyze both of those statements for the 3 sports fans who read this page.

1. Why Duke will have a difficult time winning the national championship this year.

Because they have no "tweeners". This Duke team is loaded with guards (Paulus, Dockery, and obviously Redick) and they have one great big man (Williams) and one future star big man (McRoberts). What they don't have is anyone in between, in that 6'6 to 6'9 range who can handle the ball or defend similar athletes. They've got Lee Melchioni, who is 6'7 and a good outside shooter, but he's not a good ball handler and is a poor defender. Memphis gave Duke a hell of a game earlier this year for that reason, with long and athletic players like Shawne Williams and Rodney Carney who can handle the ball, shoot from the outside and play a mid range game.

Georgetown beat Duke because Brandon Bowman and Jeff Green were huge all game and Duke had no answer for them on the defensive end. Put a smaller guy on them and they go over the top, put a big man on them and they put the ball on the floor and take them off the dribble. The only guy Duke has with the athleticism and quickness to guard players like that is Jamal Boykin, a little used freshman who brings a lot of energy to the court but not much savvy. So they've really got problems matching up with teams like that.

And when you look at the teams that are likely to be standing between Duke and the championship, you find more players of that type. Memphis may well be there in the final four to play them again, and that's a very young team that nearly beat Duke once already. UConn has Rudy Gay and Rashad Anderson who are in that same mold. Florida has the same thing in Corey Brewer. Villanova is a team they match up well with, a team that is similar to Duke in having great guards and no small forwards.

2. Why Duke can still win it all this year.

Because JJ Redick works harder than any other player in college basketball. Because Coach K is the best there is. And because even with the difficulty that Georgetown gave them, they had a chance to win that game and didn't because of a few key mistakes by the freshman point guard Greg Paulus. Paulus will learn from this game and make better choices because of it. But Redick is really the key. Duke was down by as much as 16 or 18 points in this game, but Redick just kept making one improbable shot after another to keep them in the game and give them a chance to win.

Redick has become a far better player than I ever thought he could be. His first two years he was just a shooter. Now he's a complete player and an unbelievable scorer. Even with bigger, more athletic players on him most of the game, and even with Georgetown at times playing a box-and-one defense focused exclusively on stopping him, he still scored 41 points and shot over 50% from the field. That was a tremendous performance. He has become such a great scorer that even if he's not hitting from the outside, he always seems to get his 25 points. He uses his body so well to shield the defender when he drives, and he runs his defender off screens until they're so exhausted they can't run anymore. He's the best conditioned athlete in the game and he's got a killer's mentality - when the game is on the line, he wants to be the one to take the shot.

People wonder whether Redick will make it in the NBA. I think it depends on the system and the coach. He's 2 or 3 inches shorter than Rip Hamilton, but he's a very similar player in that he runs off screens relentlessly to free himself for a shot. Reggie Miller had a hall of fame career playing that same style, but again Miller was a couple inches taller than Redick. But put him on the Pistons and he'll do very well. Put him with a coach like Jerry Sloan in Utah and he'll thrive. Sloan turned Jeff Hornacek, a shorter and less athletic pure shooter, into a 20 point a game scorer. Redick is more talented than Hornacek ever dreamed of being and would fit the same role in Sloan's offense.

But for right now, we should enjoy watching this kid in college. I know he's the guy all the other teams love to hate (Duke always seems to have one of those), but even the most die-hard Tar Heel fan has to admire the way he plays the game. He plays almost every minute of every game and never takes a single play off, running his opponents ragged every time down the floor. The kid is a warrior on the court. He's going to finish his career as the all time leading scorer for both Duke and the ACC, beating out guys with names like James Worthy, Tim Duncan, Michael Jordan, Johnny Dawkins, Mark Price, David Thompson, Len Bias and a host of others. He's also likely to finish as the all-time leading 3 point shooter and free throw shooter in NCAA history. He's an easy choice to have his jersey retired at Duke on senior day this year, following in the footsteps of players like Grant Hill, Christian Laettner and Shane Battier. If Duke does win the NCAA championship this year for the 4th time under Coach K, it will be because Redick carried them to the title on his back. And if that happens, his will go down as one of the great 4-year careers in college basketball history.

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I find it odd that you would call Shelden Williams a great big man after Duke's last few games. The guy can't defend other good big men. What's he going to do when he sees Lamarcus Aldridge of Texas? Duke should make it to the Final Four with little trouble, but Shelden Williams is going to be their downfall in the end.

By FishyFred (not verified) on 21 Jan 2006 #permalink

Fred, I think you're missing something crucial about Duke's defensive strategy with Shelden. You might notice that Duke virtually never double teams the post and there's a reason for that. Their focus is on stopping the 3 point shot, which they do extremely well (they only give up 26% from three point range; Redick has made more 3 pointers by himself than every team Duke has faced put together). So they leave Shelden out there on an island, with no real backup for him if he gets in foul trouble, which means they are going to give up points in the post and they know it. That's a tradeoff they're willing to take. Even with that, he's the all time leading shot blocker at Duke and one of the best in the nation every year and he rarely fouls out, which says a lot about how good he is.

By the way, he's already played against Aldridge once this year. Aldridge had 21 points and 6 rebounds; Shelden had 23 points and 6 rebounds. He also had 4 assists to none for Aldridge and 6 blocked shots to none for Aldridge. And true to form, Duke shut down the perimeter completely and Texas was 3 for 12 on three pointers. And Duke won by 31 points. I'll feel perfectly comfortable if Duke plays Texas in the final four. It's those teams with the tweeners that scare me.

I am in Michigan (and I also root for MSU), but I've been a Duke fan since I was about 15, back when Coach K first took over as the coach.

I'm a heel, but begrudgingly say that Duke's prolly the best team out there this year. Ed, you should include Michigan State in your list of teams Duke will have to go through to win it all. They'll be there at the end, just like last year.

As for Duke's performance today, Thompson III used the Dean Smith formula for beating K. Spread the court and let Duke's overplaying defense beat them by going backdoor. Not as easy as it sounds, though. You'll need great ballhandlers and a commitment to that style of offense. K's an incredible motivator and his teams will never give up.

Martin-

MSU is certainly a final four contender as they usually are, but I think those teams actually match up quite well. MSU has a very similar lineup, with three good guards on the outside, one very good post player and a mostly defensive power forward. The one difference is that MSU has a player who can defend those athletic tweeners in Matt Trannon, but offensively he's no threat so Duke doesn't have to worry about matching up with him on that end. If Duke had just one player like Trannon, they'd have a much easier time against teams like Georgetown and Memphis.

I usually hear the argument that in the tournament, guard play is the key. I would think Duke's unbelievable rotation of guards would be a plus, not a minus, once it gets to be March. And Redick simply won't let them lose in crunchtime, that kid is downright nasty.

I wouldn't read too much into the loss today, everybody has a down game or two, especially during the regular season. Duke will be focused and ready to make their run in the post-season, when preparation, coaching, and guard play are at their most important.

Although, don't count Texas out too soon, Ed. They've played much better since that Duke game, finally working out a good rotation and figuring out how to play their stars together as a cohesive unit. Plus their first two guys off the bench are finding their rhythm. This already isn't the same Texas team that got blown out by Duke, and barring injury I think they're going to be extremely dangerous in March.

And I'd put the over-under on the number of sports fans reading your blog at least at 10. Maybe even 11. But definitely not 3.

Oh, I don't count Texas out. That's still a team with as much talent as anyone in the country. Aldridge is likely a #1 overall pick in the draft and I just love Tucker as a player. I don't know that I consider them a team that can win it all, but they're certainly a team capable of beating anyone and making the final four.

Ed: In regards to Duke's defense, that's fair enough. I still see their post position as a glaring weakness. Jeff is right that guard play is the key in the tournament, but Sean May showed last year that a great big man goes a long way in helping your chances. Without him, UNC would have been just another team that got past a few rounds because of excellent guard play.

The way I see it going down is some team in the tourney will find a way to take Shelden Williams out of the game on the offensive end without losing too much on perimeter defense and then live in the paint on the other end. I won't know until I see the brackets, but I know there will be a team to knock Duke off in the tournament.

And I can't believe I forgot that Duke and Texas already played.

By FishyFred (not verified) on 21 Jan 2006 #permalink

I should have qualified that with "I won't know WHO IT WILL BE until I see the brackets..."

By FishyFred (not verified) on 21 Jan 2006 #permalink

Fred-

I definitely agree about Sean May. He was an absolute beast the entire season last year. He was the most skilled big man in terms of low post play that I've seen in college basketball in a long time. Perfect footwork, soft hands and a beast on the boards. Loved watching him play even if it was for Carolina.

HeeHee.

Nothing like a little schadenfreude to warm this Tar Heel's heart. I still think Duke, sorry, I mean Dook, is the best team out there. But I do like it when they lose. At least I won't have to read any more articles in the Raleigh paper about how they're going to go undefeated!

In the long run, the loss will probably help them. Nobody wins a national title without losses any more, and losing now and then can certainly help a team win games down the road.

I've gotta agree with john. While this Tar Heel does the Snoopy dance whenever the University of New Jersey at Durham loses, I bet it will help them in the long run.

My basketball memories are still anchored in the Sourthern Part of Heaven, so forgive me if I bring up a UNC example. Carolina's 93 national championship team had to work for every win it had. With a split season against Dook, a (two-point?) loss to Michigan in an early tourney, a come back from a 23-point 2nd half deficit against FSU, and an ACC tourney loss to GaTech, Carolina was tested enough to give them the temperment to stand up to a challenge.

Carolina's 94 team was a different story. With four returning national champ starters and three of the top recruits in the country, they were in a fat-and-happy position -- and lost early and embarrassingly in the NCAA tournament.

Dook's better off having to work for it. Don't worry yet.

By Mr. Upright (not verified) on 22 Jan 2006 #permalink

john wrote:

At least I won't have to read any more articles in the Raleigh paper about how they're going to go undefeated!

Were they really writing that down there? I know Coach K has tried to quash any talk of that, saying that he thinks this team will lose several games and that going undefeated isn't even a concern. It should never have been a serious consideration by anyone who knows the game at all.

Mr. Upright-

I'm not worried about the team. I always find it funny reading the message boards after a loss - good lord, the world is coming to an end, Coach K obviously doesn't know what he's doing, he needs to bench this player and let this other player get more time, and blah blah blah. I'm sure it's the same thing on the boards of any other top team and it's all quite ridiculous.

This loss did not surprise me. As I said, it's the type of team that Duke is going to have trouble with, they just don't have the athletes to match up with those mid-range players with skills. That will change next year, by the way, with Gerald Henderson coming in, Boykin getting another year's experience and David McClure coming back from his medical redshirt year. That will give us three players in that 6'6 to 6'8 range who are good athletes so we can at least match up with players like that rather than having to put smaller guys on them or bigger and slower guys.

Personally, I've never understood the way rivalries get some people to behave so irrationally. I'm a big Duke fan, obviously, but that never made me hate Carolina (perhaps not being from the triangle area allows that). Of course I want Duke to beat Carolina every time they play, but that doesn't require hating them and a lot of Duke fans do. They say horrible things about Dean Smith or Roy Williams, just as so many Tar Heel fans say horrible things about Coach K. I think Dean Smith was a great coach - I mean, that just goes without saying, for crying out loud, with 879 wins - and I was happy for Roy Williams that he got his championship last year finally (and I thought that 10 years of talk about him "choking" in the big games was nonsense - Roy Williams has been one of the best coaches in the game for nearly 20 years and there was no doubt he was going to win championships and I fully expect him to win one or two more before he's done).

In fact, I'm thrilled that Carolina basketball is back on top after being down for a few years. I want that rivalry to remain at the top. When Williams took the job, I was happy because I knew he would return that team to prominence and fast. I want every game between Duke and Carolina to have national implications, I want it to really mean something. This year is slightly down for the Tar Heels (though Williams has done an amazing job of bringing those young players along and they're better than I thought they'd be at this point), but next year they're a title contender again and Duke will be as well and I expect that to be the case for many years to come. What college basketball fan could want anything more than that?

Here ya go, Ed:

http://www.newsobserver.com/781/story/389526.html

This column was half of a point-counterpoint style discussion of whether Duke would go undefeated. And granted Ned Barnett is not a great columnist, and every bit the local homer. But area sportswriters were wetting themselves with every Duke win. I really do think Duke is better off, the whole exercise would have gotten very distracting by the time tourney season approached.

This Duke team is very beatable, but that doesn't mean they'll be easy to beat. I really think outside of Reddick and Williams they're fairly ordinary. If Reddick is confronted with another tall athletic defender, Duke will have some trouble. Of course, they excel at team defense, ordinary or not, and that makes up for a lot of questions on the offensive end.