| ||Tuesday, March 14|
Special to ESPN.com
|Did Duke fool all of the preseason prognosticators? Duke started 0-2 for the first time since the pre-Vic Bubas era, and for those of you who do not go back that far, that's before JFK was president. The Blue Devils looked very young and very inexperienced in the roles they now fill, and launched up perimeter shot after perimeter shot in New York at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in falling to Stanford and UConn.
While Duke is working on its weaknesses, the Blue Devils are pointing to the mistakes made in each game and saying that they played so poorly yet barely lost each game. However, Stanford and UConn are both saying exactly the same things about their wins over Duke, which they feel could easily have been wider margins. There will be no sympathy for the Blue Devils. On the contrary, many teams smell blood in the water, and nobody is currently intimidated by this Duke team. That could change soon.
Illinois is a team searching for an identity with all of its new talent and promise. The Illini have a new point guard and several new big men, and few know what to expect from this team. Well, you can expect this: Illinois will defend on every play, and set numerous screens for Cory Bradford and crash the glass against a Duke team that does not rebound the ball particularly well early on the defensive end.
When Illinois has the ball
Illinois looks to push the ball upcourt in transition and has a very good secondary break. The Illini are very concerned with looking for Bradford, one of the most dangerous scorers in the Big Ten, and they try to spring him with a variety of screens that will require help and communication on the part of the defense. Marcus Griffin, Brian Cook, Robert Archibald and Damir Krupalija are all used as screeners who will hunt shooters and free them up with bone-jarring screens.
Lon Kruger likes to use "big on small" screens that force defenses to make the decision whether to switch, which can provide for some great mismatches. Illinois will run its continuity offense and sets, some out of low stacks and others out of flex action. Bradford will look to camp out in the lane, then decide whether to go off of a single screen on one side, or a double screen or stagger off the other side.
Griffin and Cook are both good rebounders in addition to being low post threats, and Archibald and Krupalija were outstanding in a tour of Australia over the summer. Given Duke's problems inside early, look for Illinois to be active in the post and on the boards. On the perimeter, Frank Williams is the point guard and he has Bradford and Sergio McClain to go to. McClain has improved his shot selection, and is looking to attack the basket more on the drive.
When Duke has the ball
Duke is a motion offense team with a "pass and screen away" philosophy. Motion offense is difficult to teach and to learn, so the Blue Devils have gravitated to more set plays early this season because these give the young players somewhere they have to be on the floor each time down, helping with spacing and floor balance for rebounding. Set plays also define responsibilities and options so that players do not have to think too much on the floor.
Duke traditionally attacks the basket off the dribble, but this season has been strictly a jump-shooting team. Duke's main threats are Chris Carrawell and Shane Battier. Battier has been spending most of his minutes on the perimeter, and as the trailer on the break, he often acts as a point forward. Carrawell's strength is to take the ball off the dribble and use his unorthodox style to pull up or take it all the way. However, the key to this team is freshman Jason Williams. Williams is pure point guard with speed, quickness and strength who looks to penetrate and kick, yet still pulls the trigger from deep. Williams has played very well in spots early, but has struggled with his decision-making. He is close to gaining a comfort level on the court, and when he does, Duke could make a quantum leap in terms of performance as a unit.
In order to be a complete team and to contend for the ACC title and national honors, the Blue Devils need to have consistent play inside. Carlos Boozer, a freshman, is just back from a foot injury and still rounding into shape. Boozer must provide low-post scoring and rebounding and shake his mentality of being a small forward. Duke needs Boozer to be a low-post player -- the Devils already have the perimeter covered.
Matt Christensen is a complimentary player, but must become a capable rebounder and defender, and also a threat to score on his limited touches. Casey Sanders is a good shot-blocker and runs the court well, but does not have the strength or offensive ability yet to play big minutes. Duke's play inside and on the glass will decide this one. Can Boozer provide a presence inside and will Duke attack the basket off the dribble instead of settling for 3s? Free throw attempts will tell the story.
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