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How to fix Duke by March

Here’s some bad news: Duke’s lack of depth, exacerbated by several injuries, is being exploited with alarming regularity. The team has lost three of its last six after a 15-0 start to the season, including the first time the Blue Devils have been swept in a regular season series since 1996.

But cheer up, Duke fans. The good news is that it’s mid-February, and despite all odds the battered and battle-tested Blue Devils are still in the hunt for an ACC title. Nonetheless, Duke has a ways to go before it can prove it is again a national championship contender. Here is how the Blue Devils can do it:

 

Create more scoring opportunities for role players

Right now, Duke’s three-headed monster of J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams and Daniel Ewing accounts for more than 66 percent of Duke’s points, 55 percent of its assists and over 47 percent of its rebounds. The Blue Devils will need to develop additional scoring threats if they want to go to St. Louis come tourney time.

Freshman DeMarcus Nelson is already beginning to shoulder a bigger load with 24 points over his last two games. But prep superstar Shavlik Randolph (5.4 ppg), lightning-fast Sean Dockery (6.6 ppg) and deadeye shooter Lee Melchionni (7.0 ppg) could do more on the offensive end to make sure Duke wins even if one of the “big three” falters.

 

Give the “big three” more rest

Redick, Williams and Ewing all average more than 33 minutes a game, mostly because Duke doesn’t have many scoring options outside of them. Virtually every offensive set runs through the “big three,” and the loss of even one of them puts a big crimp in Duke’s game.

Freshness has to be a concern for Coach K as the team inches closer to postseason play. As important as winning every game is, the most important goal for the Blue Devils is the national championship, and ensuring the stamina of Duke’s best through a grueling and physical ACC schedule will be crucial for postseason success. Just ask Redick—for all the games he’s shot Duke to victory, lack of conditioning contributed to his shooting Duke out of the tournament in 2003 with a 2-for-16 performance against Kansas.

 

Fewer fouls from Shavlik Randolph

First, let’s get this straight: Randolph is not a bad player. He is a solid rebounder and a scrappy defender with three-point range. His understanding of help defense also helps keep Williams out of foul trouble.

That being said, the former prep phenom has struggled mightily this season. Randolph, who appears to have never recovered fully from a bout with mono, has been in serious foul trouble in each of Duke’s last six games, including its three losses. As a result, Randolph has been an offensive no-show. As a senior at Broughton High School in Raleigh, Randolph averaged 30 points a game. As a junior at Duke, he has just 29 points over his last six games.

Much of Randolph’s regression can be attributed to two things: mononucleosis and foul trouble. Although he can’t control his rehabilitation from mono, he can cut down on his fouls, which curb the natural aggressiveness that made him one of the most difficult matchups on the AAU circuit as a high schooler. If he can show the tenacity and control he exhibited then, he becomes a much tougher matchup defensively.

But more importantly, Randolph might make a dent in the scoring column, something he has failed to do this season. Part of that change could come by trying to block shots instead of trying to draw charges, which seem to make up a greater proportion of his fouls this season. Realistically, how many power forwards not named Battier have gotten a majority of charges called their way?

This is not to say that Duke has played badly this year. In fact, Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils deserve commendation for the on-court product they have produced despite having lost two NBA lottery picks and having battled injury issues all season long.

Of course, if the Blue Devils falter this year, at least there’s always next year, when wunderkind point guard Greg Paulus and super big man Josh McRoberts will help put the fear of Duke back in the ACC.

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