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Duke has reasons for optimism

Diehard Duke basketball fans may be concerned that their beloved team has been picked as low as fifth in preseason ACC polls. Rest assured, Blue Devil faithful, there is little reason to worry about the 2004-05 men’s basketball team.

This year’s squad will be the most experienced and efficient group head coach Mike Krzyzewski has had since the 2001-02 team attempted to repeat as national champions. The surprisingly low expectations reflect the level of competition in the ACC instead of a decline in Duke basketball. With its highly competitive schedule, Duke may drop a few more games in the regular season than it is used to, but this is not a regular season team. The Blue Devils are engineered for the NCAA Tournament, as this sleek group has more experience in big games than any other team in the nation.

If one looks at the patterns in Krzyzewski’s career since his Final Four run in 1986, one observes two things. From 1986 to 1994, Duke largely exhibited solid regular seasons and then dominant tournament runs. The Blue Devils were in the Final Four seven times in those nine years, winning two titles.

But in Krzyzewski’s post-back surgery career, a pattern of dominant regular seasons mixed with slightly less blessed tournament runs emerges. Duke’s regular season résumé has persuaded the NCAA selection committee to seed Duke No. 1 in its region for six of the last seven years. But in that period, the Blue Devils have won only one National Championship and competed in three Final Fours, which is no small accomplishment by any measure. This recent run, however, did not bring the same postseason success as the period from 1986 to 1994, when Duke had slightly less regular season prowess. I believe this team will be a throwback to Krzyzewski’s first group of great teams.

Duke will be a very good team this year because every player on the team has improved his game. I think at least three players will especially surprise the conference and the nation with their improved games.

• Sean Dockery—Krzyzewski called “Dock” the best teammate on the squad several times last year. Coach K said that because Dockery does whatever is best for his team, never letting his ego get in the way of a team goal. Last year Dockery played behind the Blue Devils’ clear leader, Chris Duhon. Dockery accepted his role as a scrappy backup and helped the Blue Devils with his quick defensive hands and fast-break skills.

Some worried that Dockery would not be able to run Duke’s offense effectively because he rarely took the reins from Duhon and did not demonstrate much leadership. But Dockery is the type of player that will fit any role he is given. When he needs to follow, he will follow. When he needs to lead, he will lead.

In Saturday’s Blue-White game, Dockery led the Duke offense with ease while also showing an improved jump shot, a skill he developed with the help of sharp-shooting assistant Chris Collins. After the next two seasons, I believe Dockery’s name will naturally appear on the list of great point guards under Krzyzewski.

• Daniel Ewing—Something happens to some players their senior years in college. Often one will observe a player who had a solid first three years break out for a giant senior season. Chris Carrawell comes to mind as an example from Duke. Ewing has the potential to pull this feat off as well.

The senior captain has shown signs of brilliance in his first three years at Duke, winning the 2003 ACC Tournament Most Outstanding Player award. With his shy demeanor, something seems to always hold Ewing back from taking over games. He often deferred to his elder teammates, allowing them to control the game. This year, however, Ewing is the only senior expected to get major playing time. With his role as elder statesman and his combination of skills and athleticism, I expect Ewing to be considered for first-team all-conference.

• Shavlik Randolph—”Shav Diesel” has yet to have the opportunity to show how great a player he can be. He played his entire freshman season with a major hip injury and did not fully recover from corrective surgery until the 2003-04 season began. With his increased bulk and improved skills from working alongside Duke big-man coach Steve Wojciechowski, Randolph should finally be able to show off his array of skills that are rarely seen in a 6-foot-11 player. Catapulted into the starting lineup due to Luol Deng’s departure, Randolph has the opportunity to show why he was rated the No. 1 high school junior in 2001.

J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams should also have strong years, which is a surprise to no one. Redick will be the best shooter in the country again and will compete to lead Duke in scoring for the second year in a row. Williams could become a first-team All-American this season, as most big men of his size and talent have already left for the professional ranks.

Freshmen David McClure and DeMarcus Nelson will give Krzyzewski quality minutes this season, as some experts expect Nelson to average double figures in his first season. Reggie Love rounds out the rotation. After four varsity seasons on the football team, Love will finish his eligibility in basketball by playing bigger than his 6-foot-4 frame.

Although there are many things for which to praise the basketball team, at times winning will be extremely difficult. The Blue Devils play one of the toughest schedules in the nation and one injury could end Duke’s status as a top-25 team. But if the Blue Devils remain healthy and resilient throughout the season, Duke should find itself, at the very least, in the Elite Eight playing for a chance to give Krzyzewski his 11th Final Four appearance in the last 20 years.

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