Oh boy, this was a hard one to stomach. The Blue Devils were asleep for the majority of their ACC opener against the Hokies and lost in overtime 69-67. Greg Paulus played the worst game of his career, scoring 0 points and giving out just 2 assists while turning the ball over 5 times and getting absolutely embarassed on the defensive end. Paulus’ season thus far has given all Duke fans plenty of reason to be nervous; after a great season as a freshman, his sophomore year has been very rocky. No longer can the fans or coaches point to Paulus’ preseason foot injury as cause for his maddening inconsistency. The team is now halfway into its season and needs Paulus to become the primetime player everybody expects him to be. After a couple of really good games in a row, this Virginia Tech game is a serious setback for the point guard. Two consecutive away games against Georgia Tech and Miami will show whether this game was an aberration or a sign of worse to come.
I’m ready to write this game off largely on Paulus. He was, in a word, atrocious. The rest of the team wasn’t a whole lot better, but I have never seen Coach K pull his starting point guard out of a game for any reason other than foul trouble. Paulus sat for a long stretch in the middle of the second half which in turn caused all sorts of ball control problems for the Devils. Freshman shooting guard Jon Scheyer is clearly not ready to handle the offense, and junior DeMarcus Nelson, as good a scorer as he can be, is simply too reckless with the ball to be a distributor. The team didn’t shoot poorly, but it turned the ball over a stunning 20 times, explaining Tech’s 69 points, the second-highest total Duke has allowed this year. This year’s team is built around defense, and the turnovers absolutely crippled what had been a whithering Duke man-to-man.
There were a couple of bright spots worth mentioning. Gerald Henderson, Duke’s top-rated freshman, is garnering more and more playing time. This kid is a Player of the Year in the making. He played a career-high 37 minutes and scored 10 points. Freshman forward Lance Thomas, another future All-American, finally returned to the lineup after being sidelined for a month with an ankle sprain. He was a little lost at times, but Duke badly needs his muscle next to Josh McRoberts. As for Duke’s top scorers, Nelson was excellent, scoring 22 points on 8 of 13 shooting (4-6 3PT), including a three-pointer with 18 seconds left to tie the contest. McBob, on the other hand, had a tough first half but was strong in the second. The Hokies did not want him to beat them, but McRoberts did his best to carry the Devils anyway. He scored 13 points in the second half (16 total for the game) and is beginning to show signs of becoming a dominating paint presence.
I attended last night’s Blue Devils’ matchup against Temple at Cameron Indoor. To be honest, it was the least enthusiastic I have ever experienced a Crazies’ crowd. Of course, it should be noted that Duke is still on Winter Break, and the student section was filled largely by an older crowd not familiar with the student fans’ numerous rituals. Regardless, the Devils overcame a dreadful start (going down to the Owls 16-4 about 5 minutes into the first half) to pull out a convincing win against Bill Cosby’s alma mater, 73-55.
The most impressive performance of the night belonged to Duke G/F/C Josh McRoberts. Though criticized extensively earlier in the season, McBob is growing into his role as the Devils’ “play-everywhere, do-everything” potential All-American. Over the last four games, McBob is averaging 16.5 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 4.5 APG, and 4 BPG. He also has 7 steals and just 5 turnovers during the same span. That is a stat-line unlike any other forward in the sport today. Without getting too enthusiastic, Duke’s former 6’10″ monster, Shelden Williams, never put together a four game stretch like that, and Williams was certainly never trusted with the job of bringing up the ball. McRoberts’ passing and ballhandling ability is so phenomenal that he would have PG Greg Paulus’ job if McBob weren’t so essential on the interior. Duke’s schedule will be brutal from here on out (they open ACC play against Virginia Tech on Saturday); McRoberts, who is getting better with every possession, will be a household name by the time March rolls around.
As for the rest of the squad, G Demarcus Nelson had a solid game despite missing some layins early. He set a career-high in rebounds with 11, bringing his season average to 5.6 per game. For a 6’4″ shooting guard, Nelson has an uncanny ability to set himself up in the paint and outmuscle much larger players for the boards. Hopefully, he will stay healthy this season; his stellar on-ball defense is going to be essential against the likes of Georgia Tech’s Javaris Crittenton and UVA’s tough guard combo of J.R. Reynolds and Sean Singletary. G/F Dave McClure was solid as usual. The red-shirt sophomore had 12 boards to go with 6 points and a couple blocks. He looks recovered and confident following his serious knee injury and subsequent surgery. McClure is the prototype of Coach K’s new recruiting style. The coach is no longer looking to sign the top high-school talent that intends to use his program as a bed-and-breakfast walkthrough before jumping to the pros. Players such as McClure, Paulus, Nelson, G Jon Scheyer, and C Brian Zoubek are all four-year players who will grow with the program. Even McRoberts isn’t a lock to leave (though it is, unfortunately, highly probable). Put it all together (the junior Nelson is the oldest contributor on the squad), and this team, with or without McBob, is going to be a force next season. Stay tuned this year and watch them make that leap.