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Role players key to NCAA title hopes

At the end of a season, basketball coaches often tell their squads that while teams are made during the season, players are made during the off-season. Although all the Blue Devil players probably heeded this advice, two stand above the rest with respect to off-season work.

The two early-season favorites for the most-improved Duke players are Lee Melchionni and DeMarcus Nelson, both of whom were forced to shift positions last season and step into bigger roles than anticipated. But after a summer of toil, it looks as if the two have made huge strides since Duke bowed out against Michigan State in March, judging from the Blue-White scrimmage Oct. 22 and the first exhibition game Nov. 3.

Melchionni, who was the biggest surprise for the Blue Devils last year when he became a consistent three-point threat and averaged 7.7 points per game, looks like he might have an even silkier shot this year. His range looks better, too. The senior hit five-of-10 from deep against Concordia and seemed to be looking for his own shot more than he did last year.

"I think I established myself a little bit last year, and I'm not trying to prove anything this year," Melchionni said after the blowout win over Concordia. "I know what I can do, I'm confident out there, and that makes it a lot easier to take shots and hit shots."

Although head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game that he was displeased with Melchionni's shot selection against the Stingers, he knows better than anyone that if Lee can consistently drill the long-range shot, the rest of the offense opens up immensely.

Nelson's shot, athleticism and flat-out scoring ability will also help loosen up opposing defenses. Last season, when he was hampered by an injured thumb and a few other ailments, Nelson still managed to put up 6.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.

But the sophomore guard was never able to get into a shooting rhythm (he shot just 40 percent) and struggled when putting the ball on the floor. He was called for a number of offensive fouls when he drove the lane and found out that college defenses collapse quicker than what he was used to in California high school ball.

Now a sophomore, Nelson looks like a different player this year. His shot is falling-including a 7-for-11, 15 point effort against Concordia-and he appears more comfortable with the ball in his hands.

"He is a good player," Krzyzewski said. "He did a nice job for us last year but he's a veteran player right now."

Both Melchionni and Nelson will benefit this season by the return to their natural positions on the wing. Last season, the undermanned Blue Devils were forced to play small when Shavlik Randolph was sick, in foul trouble or just unproductive. Melchionni and Nelson shouldered the brunt of the challenge and were asked to play power forward, taking them away from their respective strengths. On defense Nelson and Melchionni were forced to bang down low and rebound more.

The two should be commended for their sacrifices last year. They surely benefited from the experience-but the team will be better off with Melchionni stroking threes and Nelson slashing to the basket.

The two are key to the success of the Blue Devils this year. Everyone knows what J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams can and will do this season. They are the obvious stars on the team, but they need support. If Redick does not have room to breathe on the outside and Williams is facing double-teams in the post, other Duke players will need to rise to the occasion and carry the load.

The top two freshmen, Josh McRoberts and Greg Paulus, will be great during their time in Durham, but at this point they are still learning Coach K's offense. In addition, neither McRoberts nor Paulus operates on the wing, where the scoring punch will have to come from to stretch opposing defenses.

As veterans with the offensive skills to do exactly that, it is up to Lee and DeMarcus to lead the second tier of Duke players. With their respective shooting ability and athleticism, Melchionni and Nelson will have to be the guys who make opponents think twice before double teaming Redick and Williams.

Having two All-Americans is obviously a great thing, but it will be the less-heralded Blue Devils-namely Melchionni and Nelson-who will determine whether this team will still be playing in April.

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