by Matt Saldaña
In the Indy's basketball preview issue last December, we took a position-by-position look at Duke's roster. Sophomore Nolan Smith had recently replaced senior Greg Paulus as the team's starting point guard, but we noted that Coach Mike Krzyzewski seemed content to keep a rivalry between the two brewing. At the time, Coach K insisted that Paulus would either play "with [Smith], or for him." Indeed, following Duke's 27-point loss to Clemson, Paulus replaced Smith in the starting rotation, reclaiming his role as the team's leader--in what would, apparently, be a brief coup d'etat.
After squeaking by Miami in overtime, a Paulus-led Duke team went on its first losing streak in a calendar year, falling consecutively to UNC and BC. Yesterday, Coach K turned to his number three option on the flow-chart to start against St. John's: freshman McDonald's All-American Eliot Williams, who we said in December could "provide relief--and bursts of energy--down the stretch." We meant, like, mid-way through the second half, not the season. Nevertheless, Duke won, 76-69, and Williams went 5-for-6 for a neat 11 points. He's scrappy, and not the best defender (certainly not as good as Smith), but he gives it his all, approaching his defense much like a linebacker. His eyes are always on the ball, even if he's not quite sure where his feet are. According to the AP recap, Coach K said he was impressed by Williams' "verve" in practice.
There was one thing missing from Williams' performance yesterday, however: he didn't log a single assist. We suspect that may have been intentional--or at least tolerable--on the part of Coach K. (He also played Smith for 20 minutes, at both guard positions, and, as usual, power-forward Kyle Singler led the team in assists.) In fact, as we predicted back in December, the point position may be "less about dropping dimes, and more about leading the team up the court with confidence." Make that, leading the team up the court, and getting the ball into the hands of Singler, Gerald Henderson or John Scheyer (all of whom have been known to dribble the ball up-court themselves). All three can pass, and create shots, on their own, and they've been at the core of Duke's successes this season. The problem is, 3-out-of-5 dependable starters hasn't quite cut it. In any case, we'll be anxious to see who Coach K starts at the one-spot versus Wake, and--more importantly, perhaps--if he utilizes that player as a true point guard.
One other note: Lance Thomas has quietly replaced Brian Zoubek at center, with minimal success. (Thomas started for all but one of Duke's past four losses, and between him and Zoubek, the two centers averaged just over 6 rebounds--combined-- in those games. Not surprisingly, Duke has fared poorly inside, on both ends of the court, all season.) Meanwhile, Miles Plumlee, another third-string freshman, had four fouls in 8 minutes against St. John's. But he also had two blocks, three rebounds and four points. He's not the most exciting player on the court--and, frankly, he may not be big enough-- but he's got a soft touch, and fierce determination, in the paint. Could he make a run to join Williams in the starting rotation, this late in the season? It all depends on this week's practice, we suppose. Then again, "verve" won't suffice against powerful teams like UNC and UConn. But neither will Duke's center rotation, as it stands--so anything's possible.