From The Stands: Preseason NIT

J.J.Redick

Duke completed its 2005 NIT Season Tip Off run with a championship after out-lasting a pair of tough opponents in Madison Square Garden over the Thanksgiving holiday. Despite the third title in program history, all is not well in Durham as the Blue Devils continually search for that elusive mixture of experience and talent. TDD reviews the games against Drexel and Memphis and offers opinions on what went right and wrong, while looking ahead to the next big game.

What Went Right:

Known Quantities: With four seniors and four freshmen in the top nine of the Duke rotation, there will be some games when the Blue Devils get huge contributions from the young players and others when Duke is left wondering where the extra scoring is going to come from. However, two constants throughout the season will be the pair of Preseason All-Americans in the starting line up – J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams. That proved true in New York as Redick torched Drexel for 31, followed by Williams hitting 30 against Memphis for the title. Williams also averaged 8.5 rebounds to take home MVP honors. Against Drexel Williams hit for 21 while Redick had 15 against Memphis. In all the two seniors tallied 97 of Duke's 148 total points for the weekend, or 66%.

Young Kids Can Play Too: With Williams and Redick shouldering a tremendous amount of the load in New York, the freshman class also got a chance to shine both nights led by point guard Greg Paulus who averaged just 2.5 points per game over the two nights. However it was Paulus' contribution away from the points tally that was the difference for Duke.

Midway through the Drexel game the New York native took the reigns from senior Sean Dockery and ran the offense well to the tune of five assists against no turnovers. It earned him a start in the title game against Memphis and Paulus took the opportunity and made the most of it, logging a statline of five points, seven rebounds, and eight assists while playing 38 minutes.

Going forward it's clear that Duke's motion offense runs best with Paulus at the helm. His floor vision and ability to distribute the basketball allows his teammates open looks and takes some pressure off the big two of Redick and Williams IF the other Blue Devils can convert the passes into points – something that didn't always happen. For the weekend Paulus committed just 4 turnovers against 12 assists while logging two steals as well.

Meanwhile, Josh McRoberts began to take steps towards becoming Duke's third scoring option, albeit in flashes. The reigning 2005 High School Player of the Year scored 10 against Drexel and 12 against Memphis while shooting 11-of-15 from the field. He also grabbed a total of 10 rebounds. He also blocked three shots against the Dragons in 31 minutes. As he continues to become a bigger part of the offense, it's likely that McRoberts will also become more aggressive on the offensive end as he's too passive and unselfish for long stretches, when Duke could use another scorer to relieve some of the defensive pressure Redick and Williams take.

Also, in a cameo appearance against the Dragons, Marty Pocius scored seven points in just 13 minutes – three more than senior Lee Melchionni scored in 37 combined minutes over two nights. Pocius registered a DNP against Memphis.

Continual Fight: When you're the top ranked team in college basketball you know that every team will be coming out with its "A" game. That certainly happened in New York as Drexel got hot early and refused to wilt while Memphis came out looking for blood against the Devils on Saturday. In both games Duke was battled for the full 40 minutes by teams that had nothing to lose and everything to gain from upsetting the nation's top ranked squad.

Add in that Duke was without its best athlete and perimeter defender, DeMarcus Nelson for all but seven minutes of the two games, and it's easy to see why Duke was considered a wounded animal by many observers. Despite that and despite the spirited performance from Drexel and No. 11 Memphis, the Blue Devils managed to some how hang in through the various spurts before drawing even and then making crucial plays to come out as victors. With the Atlantic Coast Conference looking to be a bit down this season, these early season struggles should have this team battle tested come March.

What Went Wrong:

D, D, Defense? One liability that seemed to be magnified against the both Drexel and Memphis was lack of pure speed and quickness on the perimeter. On both nights the Dragon and Tiger guards were able to get into the lane seemingly at will. Had it not been for some cold shooting by the Tigers after halftime, it's likely that Duke's NIT trophy would have been a bit smaller and read "Runners Up".

While there is no doubt that head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff will find a way to negate this lack of perimeter speed going forward, it's clear that without a player like DeMarcus Nelson, Duke is going to have problems with quick and explosive guards…such as Texas' Daniel Gibson in a week or so.

Depth Chart? Heading into the season many analysts believed the major difference between last year's Sweet 16 team and this year's edition was the presence of quality depth both in the post and on the wing. However, when the games tighten up it appears as though Duke is reluctant to go to reserves Eric Boateng, Jamal Boykin, and even Martynas Pocius, who has shown flashes of an offensive spark. Perhaps their penchant for getting lost every now and again on defense is the primary factory, but many fans feel a bit queasy watching Lee Melchionni attempting to battle inside for rebounds against opponents with more size, athletic ability, or, as is usually the case, both.

Clearly it's only been five games and Duke it is hard to argue with a 5-0 records. However, when the average observer reflects upon recent history it's clear that Duke needs to have solid and battle tested options in March when Shelden Williams gets into foul trouble or when Redick just wears down. Perhaps those reserves will continue to learn the system on the practice court and will get some more time in the coming weeks. And it's clear that practice will provide a tremendously high level of competition. Still, to see players logging a ton of minutes, especially with the way the last few seasons have ended gives us pause and reason for at least some minor concern.

Player of the Game(s):

Given that the NIT is a multi-game event, it's only fitting to award multiple "POG" merits. The obvious choices are Redick and Williams for their stellar, yet expected, tallies against opponents who threw different challenges their way. However, both benefited tremendously from the improved ball distribution from the point courtesy of Paulus. For their efforts, Paulus, Redick, and Williams are our TDD players of the game.

Next Play:

Things don't get any easier for Duke in the coming week. After losing Nelson until at least after the Christmas holiday, the Blue Devils head to Bloomington, Indiana to face will likely be one of the most intense and raucous opposing crowds this season. That's to say nothing of the terrific IU squad that will be gunning for the upset of the nation's best team – which will certainly help keep their coach employed in the off-season. Currently the Hoosiers are scoring more than 100 points per contest and have yet to be challenged while shooing the lights out from behind the arc. Duke's shaky perimeter defense will be tested early as any open looks will result in a quick three for Indiana. It will be crucial for the Blue Devils to establish Williams on the interior along with McRoberts, who will no doubt hear it from thousands of jilted Hoosiers.

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