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Tough practices prepare Duke for ACC grind

J.J. Redick needed a break from winter break. The senior guard said Duke's practices over the holiday were so intense and draining that he's actually looking forward to the start of school.

"It's probably as bad as the worst preseason," Redick said. "As bad as preseason can get, winter break is just as bad, especially when there's a big break between games."

While classes are not in session, the NCAA's rules regarding the amount of time a team can spend practicing are relaxed, and the Blue Devils took advantage. Redick said the coaches scheduled activities for them from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. some days, and that one day he arrived at Cameron Indoor Stadium at 9:30 in the morning and did not leave until 8:30 at night. The NCAA mandates that teams take at least one day off per week when classes are in session, but no such rule exists during a break.

Undoubtedly, the No. 1 Blue Devils' 5-0 record in games between the end of finals on Dec. 18 and the start of the second semester took some of the sting off the team's intense schedule. Duke (14-0, 2-0 in the ACC) defeated Valparaiso, St. John's, UNC-Greensboro, Bucknell and Wake Forest over break, with an average margin of victory of 25 points.

Several of Duke's players made important strides, Redick said, singling out senior guard Sean Dockery and freshmen Greg Paulus and Josh McRoberts. The team also spent several days in between the St. John's game on Dec. 21 and the UNC-Greensboro contest on Dec. 31 focusing on help-side defense, which Redick said was lacking against the Red Storm.

"This year I think of any year, we've done the best job of improving over Christmas break," Redick said. "Our young guys are really coming along."

McRoberts, tabbed as one of the nation's top freshmen at the start of the season, elevated his game after a sit-down meeting with head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

"I think he probably had a meeting with Coach K, one of those meetings that everybody talks about where they improve afterwards," Redick said. "He's just becoming more aggressive and is looking to assert himself more."

McRoberts' newfound confidence was on display against Wake Forest Jan. 8. He played 25 minutes despite picking up two fouls in the game's first four minutes and knocked down a key three-pointer as part of a 14-2 second half run to put the Demon Deacons away.

The turning point in the win over No. 23 Wake Forest came when McRoberts chased down the rebound of Trent Strickland's missed dunk, pushed the ball upcourt and drew the defense toward him before finding Redick for a momentum-shifting three-pointer that sparked the 14-2 run.

Duke led nearly the whole game, and except for a brief moment at the beginning of the second half when the Demon Deacons cut the lead to three points, the outcome was never in doubt. The Blue Devils cruised to an 82-64 win in Lawrence Joel Coliseum, an arena where no member of the current roster had ever won before.

McRoberts also starred in Duke's win over Bucknell Jan. 2, a team that has earned a reputation as a giant-killer after wins over Pittsburgh, Kansas and Syracuse in the last two seasons. The freshman's 14 points and 10 rebounds gave him his first career double-double. Duke won easily, taking a 21-4 lead eight minutes into the game and never looking back. Forward Shelden Williams added a game-high 23 points, as the Blue Devils won, 84-50.

In wins over Valparaiso and UNC-Greensboro, Duke showed off its offensive firepower, scoring more than 100 points in each game. J.J. Redick led the way in both contests, scoring 35 points against the Spartans Dec. 31 and 30 against the Crusaders Dec. 18.

Paulus was also impressive against Valparaiso, registering 15 assists, a Duke freshman record. Fellow freshman Martynas Pocius shined in the win over UNC-Greensboro, scoring a career-high 10 points and shooting 3-for-5 from three-point range.

Redick scored only 18 points in Duke's 70-57 win over St. John's Dec. 21, but his teammates picked up the slack. McRoberts and Dockery scored 12 apiece, as Duke used a 26-7 run at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half to pull away from the Red Storm.

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