Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Updated: November 29, 11:04 AM ET
Challenges start on offense for Duke, Indiana
By Andy Katz
DURHAM, N.C. -- OK, time to get caught up on college hoops.
And, in case you've been tuning out the games on the court these first three weeks of the season, instead turning your interests to football -- both college and pro at this time of year -- there is something you might not have known about Duke and Indiana.
The traditional hoops powers are going through growing pains.
Now, for those who follow the game closely, especially in Blue Devil and Hoosier nations, this isn't news. But, for anyone who turned on ESPN on Tuesday night, that's exactly what you saw in No. 10 Duke's grinding, defense-oriented 54-51 victory over unranked Indiana. Indiana-Duke was billed as one of the two headline games in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but the reality is the game was promoted more for the names of the universities than for any promise that this would be a classic like, say, Florida-Kansas was Saturday night in Las Vegas.
Look, no one thought Duke would play like a top-10 team at this early juncture of 2006. Not fresh off of losing J.J. Redick, the all-time ACC leading scorer, and Mr. Reliable inside -- Shelden Williams. Duke's loss to Marquette last week in the finals of the CBE Classic in Kansas City was the first example that this Duke team is in transition. The second came Tuesday night when the Blue Devils had to rely on their defense nearly every minute to hold off the Hoosiers at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
As for Indiana? Well, all you had to know about these fragile Hoosiers was they lost to Butler in Indianapolis in the second round of the NIT Season Tip-Off two weeks ago.
Sure, Duke is ranked No. 10, and Indiana isn't ranked at all. But if you're consumed with rankings at this time of year, you'll be sorely disappointed when a highly ranked team goes down.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game that the Blue Devils "have to play great defense, or we don't win this game because on offense we just struggled.
"We couldn't catch the ball, and we couldn't dribble. Then [to] go down to the other end and play beautiful basketball, it seems crazy."
Translation: This game turned into the equivalent of a pitchers' duel, something a coaching purist would enjoy on the defensive end but an offense-minded public would groan at a bit.
Duke's offensive issues stem from having a point guard, Greg Paulus, who is 100 percent recovered from a broken foot but, according to Duke, not there in terms of conditioning. And the reality is that Duke is putting freshmen Lance Thomas, Gerald Henderson and Jon Scheyer on the floor for major minutes, as well as redshirt sophomore David McClure (out last season with a left knee injury); a junior who has never been a go-to player, DeMarcus Nelson; and a supposed star in sophomore forward Josh McRoberts.
The biggest problem? McRoberts isn't asserting himself enough just yet.
When asked how often he needs to touch the ball in a possession, McRoberts said he didn't know. He said as long as his team scores, that's all that matters. But Nelson was more candid, saying McRoberts needs to get his hands on the ball every possession for a shot, for a perimeter pass or to take his man off the dribble.
Tuesday night, McRoberts finished 2-of-8 from the floor for seven points in 38 minutes. It was the fourth time in seven games he failed to reach double figures in scoring.
First-year Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson knows how important McRoberts is to the Duke offense. He implored Indiana's own preseason all-American candidate, D.J. White (who missed all but five games last season with a foot injury), to ensure he didn't let McRoberts pick up his dribble and make a move in the post. White did as his coach asked, limiting McRoberts to one such move in the paint.
When asked whether the Blue Devils were offensively challenged, McRoberts put this spin on the night, "I don't know, I guess we're defensively strong. That might be a better way to put it."
Yes, Duke did limit White's scoring by harassing him throughout the evening. Sampson said White had plenty of touches (18 in the post) but was 3-of-11 for a mere mortal seven points in 38 minutes.
Sampson didn't have junior Lance Stemler (double figures in the past two games) because of a concussion from Sunday's practice, so he needed White to be even more assertive as the coach figures out whether he has two to three reliable guards.
"He's got to have confidence he'll make a shot in traffic," Sampson said of White. "At some point, he has to take over and say, 'This is my time.' He has to develop that attitude. The first thing I'm going to do in practice [Wednesday] is show him his possessions."
Sampson went on to say the toughest place to dominate a game is in the post. Sampson said the Hoosiers need to find identity. It was supposed to begin with White, sort of like Duke was expected to center on McRoberts offensively.
"I'm disappointed with myself," White said. "Shooting 3-for-11 isn't me. I feel for this team to be successful I have to put the team on my back and score the ball. I just have to be that guy and step up."
Six games into his first season at Indiana, Sampson is still trying to see how the pieces fit in Bloomington. The Hoosiers (3-3) still host Charlotte and Southern Illinois and play at Kentucky and Connecticut among highlighted nonconference games. Then they must go through a Big Ten that is top-heavy with Wisconsin and Ohio State. With highly touted guard Eric Gordon out of Indianapolis coming in 2007-08, Sampson just wants to survive this season and, ideally, make the postseason (the NIT will do).
As for Duke, the expectations are the NCAAs every season. And barring some sort of odd collapse, these Blue Devils will be in the field. But how they get there, and in what form, is still very much a work in progress. Duke hosts a more polished Georgetown on Saturday and still plays decent mid-majors George Mason and Kent State at home before Gonzaga in Madison Square Garden. That's all before the ACC unfolds.
So, be patient with both clubs. Expect more from Duke than from IU. And while the BCS bowls and NFL playoffs unfold, don't be surprised to see each suffer a few more bumps along the way to March. Remember, this is a Duke team in transition, and even Blue Devil Nation goes through a maturation process.
The difference with Duke? When it comes to the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the Blue Devils always find a way to win at home, even if it's not very pretty.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.