Giving Devils their due

Publish date:

Ask and ye shall receive. Last week a loyal 'Bag reader claimed that 9-0 Duke (Duke!) wasn't getting enough attention after the Blue Devils' fast start. And while we'd hardly say that Coach K and the boys are underexposed, it's true that the 'Bag hasn't discussed Duke much this season. So we solicited questions, and you brought them with vigor:

A.J. from Arlington, Va., wants to know the 'Bag's thoughts on how Coach K's Team USA experience is translating on the court for Duke. Bo King from Atlanta asks if the offensive principles K has borrowed from his U.S. assistant (and Phoenix Suns coach) Mike D'Antoni will oblige him to finally use more of his depth. B. Wille of Atlanta asks if freshman Nolan Smith will be the odd man out when Coach K inevitably shortens his bench in 2008.

Andrew of Washington D.C. and Adam Lisook of Cincinnati want to know if Duke can run Suns stuff without an Amaré Stoudemire-like big man and whether the small-ball Devils can survive against teams with top-flight post players (like North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough and Georgetown's Roy Hibbert). Meanwhile, Adam Bonneau of Denton, Texas, asks if any of the people who question Duke's interior defense have seen the Devils play, pointing out that they have several guys who can double-team down low. In fact, he wonders, will a good big man hurt Duke more by drawing double-teams and freeing up hot three-point shooters?

First off, it's clear that the tactical changes in Durham this season represent one of the biggest transformations of Mike Krzyzewski's storied career. Coach K has indeed been impacted by his work on Team USA with assistants D'Antoni and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim.Duke isn't running a carbon copy of the Suns attack -- this isn't Seven Seconds or Less -- but the pace has definitely increased. According to, the Blue Devils are averaging 73.2 possessions per game, up from 66.1 last season.

"We talked a lot this summer and [Coach K] said he was going to open it up more," D'Antoni told reporters in Phoenix recently. "I told him, 'Be careful, they might kick you out of the Hall of Fame for that.' You can't go being a rebel now."

Transition basketball suits Duke's personnel well. No, there isn't an Amaré-quality big man or a Steve Nash-quality point guard, but Greg Paulus is doing a nice job so far, and pick-and-rolls are available with Kyle Singler and Taylor King. The main thing I'm marveling at these days is Duke's spacing on offense, which forces defenses either to choose between collapsing on penetration (a forte of DeMarcus Nelson and Smith) and giving up open threes from the wings and corners (a strength of King, Singler and Jon Scheyer).

I really do think K will keep using his depth into ACC play. The three Duke freshmen (Singler, King and Smith) are too good to sit, and the style Duke is playing benefits from using more players. As for the biggest concern -- the lack of a really good big man (Brian Zoubek doesn't fit) -- it really could be a problem against teams like UNC and Georgetown. Carolina, especially, is designed to attack from the inside at all costs, and Hansbrough seems well-suited to getting defenders into foul trouble.

That said, it's good to see a Duke freshman class that's actually meeting (and even exceeding) expectations, and it's refreshing to see a Hall of Fame coach who's willing to change with the times instead of just running the same old things year after year. This will be a fun season in Durham.

I've heard more than enough about all the fabulous freshmen this year -- Mayo, Beasley, Rose, Gordon, etc. -- but which of these guys will actually make the most difference for their teams come March? Mayo and Beasley seem to have gotten the most ink so far, but their teams don't seem like serious threats to make deep NCAA tournament runs, and isn't that the whole point? When it's all said and done, which big-time freshmen do you see making the biggest impact deep into the postseason?-- Devin Gordon, New York City

If you're talking about impact freshmen playing on legitimate Final Four contenders (at this point), there aren't many. You already know plenty about UCLA's Kevin Love and Memphis' Derrick Rose, but they'll have to be big for their teams to reach San Antonio. Duke's Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Taylor King are making the sort of immediate impact that people thought the Duke freshman class from two years ago would make. (Only Greg Paulus has come close to reaching expectations.)

Pittsburgh's DeJuan Blair is a load, and I'm feeling a lot better about Indiana (and superfrosh Eric Gordon) after the Hoosiers destroyed Kentucky without Gordon or Armon Bassett. One assistant coach whose team played IU earlier this season says the Hoosiers are doing a much better job of looking for D.J. White in the post.

Michigan State's Chris Allen, Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers aren't superstars like Gordon, but they're doing a nice job for a Spartans team that pulled off two impressive wins last week at Bradley and a virtual road game against BYU.

I was at Madison Square Garden last week for the "Freshman Sensation Invitational" [aka Jimmy V. Classic]. I've now watched Derrick Rose twice in person and I don't get all the hype. I recognize he has physical tools, but I haven't seen him hit a jump shot, I haven't seen him create many easy baskets for his teammates, and I haven't seen him finish at the rim consistently. He is obviously capable of the sensational, but he mostly seems to vacillate between out of control and timid. Do you think the learning curve is so steep for him -- the point is tough, of course -- or can the tentative word be that he's somewhat overrated?-- Joey Litman, New York City

I'd withhold judgment for now. The Memphis-USC game was a mess thanks to the triangle-and-two junk defense that Tim Floyd threw at Memphis and Rose. I would be less concerned about Rose's ability to get to the rim than about whether he can hit a consistent jumper from the outside. Another worry (the same one I have with O.J. Mayo) is whether they can create easy shots for themselves and their teammates. Too many times Rose and Mayo are going for high-degree-of-difficulty moves. They have the talent to pull them off on occasion, but that's not what you want over the long haul.

I've read that it is particularly important for Texas to do well this season, because there is a good chance that with a top seed they could play their NCAA tournament games this year in Little Rock, Houston and San Antonio. Are there any other programs you see out there who stand to gain from potentially favorable draws in the Big Dance?-- Micah Hart, Atlanta, Ga.

Texas is certainly one of them, although Texas A&M would also stand to benefit from a Little Rock-Houston-San Antonio run. (Keep in mind, though, it's not a failsafe advantage, as A&M learned by losing at the San Antonio Regional last year.) Tournament positioning should be yet another side-plot to this year's North Carolina-Duke rivalry (which will be hotter than ever with both teams being so good and the leftover bile from the Gerald Henderson-Tyler Hansbrough episode): it seems likely that either UNC or Duke will have the chance to reach the Final Four without leaving the state of North Carolina, since Raleigh is hosting first-weekend games and Charlotte has the East Regional. (Obviously, Carolina would benefit more than Duke from the local fan support, but not having to travel far would be an advantage for either team.)

Also, Michigan State may have the chance to play in the Midwest Regional at Detroit's Ford Field, and if Arizona continues its upward trend it may be able to take advantage of the West Regional's location in Phoenix.

Why should a one-and-done player care about the school's APR score? He will be making millions in the NBA, so why should he care about going to class in the second semester if it won't actually affect him? Not all of the one-and-done players will be so selfish, but what real incentive do they have to go to class? It's not like the head coach is going to suspend them in the heart of the conference season.-- Mike Connolly, Brooklyn, N.Y.

You'd be surprised how much pressure programs are putting on one-and-done players to leave school with their academic standing intact. Losing scholarships is an absolute program-killer, and teams like Texas and North Carolina have been adamant with players like Kevin Durant and Brandan Wright that they can't just leave school once the NCAA tournament is over. Will some players be so selfish as to leave school anyway? Probably. I'm curious to see what happens with some of this year's one-and-done guys.

My husband and I were talking about college basketball the other night and he said that recently during a game, Kansas State's Bill Walker had to go to the bathroom but didn't want to leave the game, so he just stuffed some towels down his pants and went. Ok, so my first thought is "EW. I do NOT want to be the assistant he gives those towels to." And my second thought was: "My 6-year-old knows better than that -- go before the game!" Am I wrong? Is this common practice among college basketball players? Is this an appropriate question for the Mailbag?-- Lauren Kaiser, Leawood, Kan.

It's a perfectly appropriate question for the 'Bag, who (when sick at a Final Four game several years ago) threw up into plastic cup while sitting courtside -- and managed to do so without anyone noticing. Bill Walker wasn't so lucky (a Kansas City Star photographer caught him in the act), but as long as it doesn't become a common thing I don't have a huge problem with it. First time I've seen it happen in college hoops; it's said to happen in the NFL a lot, and a TV camera at the 2002 soccer World Cup caught U.S. midfielder DaMarcus Beasley relieving himself on the field as he warmed up on the sidelines during a game. At least (unlike Beasley) Walker kept his experience from being X-rated. Let's just hope that sideline urination doesn't become this year's college hoops "trend" like jersey-popping was a couple years ago.

Just wondering what you think of Drake after the 79-44 beatdown it put on Iowa State. They seem like they could do some damage in the MVC this year with stud sophomore Nick Young and senior Leonard Houston. Not to mention they have a Korver brother playing for them (Klayton). Do you think they have a chance to make a run in the MVC?-- Art Cady, Chicago, Ill.

Big credit to first-year Drake head coach Keno Davis, the latest Tom Davis protégé to make his mark on college hoops. (Unlike Bruce Pearl or Gary Williams, though, Keno is Dr. Tom's son.) I haven't seen Drake play yet, but it may be the best team in Iowa this season. The Missouri Valley once again looks like it'll be a dogfight: Southern Illinois got a much-needed win on Tuesday against Saint Mary's after losing three straight (to USC, Charlotte and Indiana); Creighton looks good again and Missouri State and Wichita State will challenge as well.

My question for the Drake players is this: What do you call your coaches when three of them are named Coach Davis? (There's Keno and assistants Chris and Rodell.)

We got lots of responses to our question last week asking readers to provide examples of four brothers who'd earned Division I basketball scholarships. And while we aren't certain that all of these quartets earned athletic scholarships (we know Nate Walton didn't at Princeton, which doesn't award them), here are three examples of four brothers who played college hoops:

• The Barrys: Scooter (Kansas), Jon (Georgia Tech), Drew (Georgia Tech), Brett (Oregon State). Hall of Famer Rick Barry's kids did all right. A bunch of you wrote in with this one.

• The Waltons: Adam (LSU/Cal Poly), Nate (Princeton), Luke (Arizona), Tuffy (San Diego State). Probably should have remembered Bill Walton's son, since I wrote a story about them in SI a few years ago. Who's up for a Barrys-vs.-Waltons backyard game? We could have it in the home court at Bill's San Diego house, the one that has the 14-foot-high tepee out back. Lots of reader submissions on this one too.

• The Melchionnis: Bill (Villanova), Bob (Villanova), Tom (Villanova), Gary (Duke). Great find from reader Don Turnbull of Bethesda, Md. Gary's son, Lee, played recently for Duke and is now in the agent business working for WMG's Arn Tellem.

Other "almosts" included the following:

• The Graveses: Andrew (Butler), Matthew (Butler), A.J. (Butler).

• The Rushes: JaRon (UCLA), Kareem (Missouri), Brandon (Kansas).

• The Shipps: Joe (Cal), Josh (UCLA), Jarren (Arizona State).

• The Duanys: brothers Duany (Wisconsin), Kueth (Syracuse), Bil (Eastern Illinois), and sisters Nyagon (Bradley) and Nok (Georgetown). Yep, five D-I scholarships from the same family.

• The Dieners: Derek (Army), Drew (Saint Louis), Drake (DePaul) -- and several Diener cousins including Travis (Marquette).

Finally, as reader Shane Rowlands of West Des Moines, Iowa, pointed out: "Keep in mind: in about five to 10 years there could be many Kemps and Pippens college-bound."

• I'm almost ready to drop the class terms (freshman, sophomore, etc.) because they're rapidly losing all meaning. Wouldn't it be more useful to call USC's O.J. Mayo and Memphis' Derrick Rose 20-year-old guards? (These guys are older than Kevin Durant, after all.) What Kansas State's Michael Beasley is doing is even more remarkable considering he's one of the few (only?) top freshmen who's just 18 years old.

• Arizona is on an upswing despite Lute Olson's season-long leave of absence. As good as Jerryd Bayless is, the Wildcats are better when he's in a scorer's mode as a two guard with the hugely improved Nic Wise running the point. I'd love to know what Wise's plus/minus was in the OT win against Illinois.

• Quick thoughts from watching Maryland wet the bed at home against Boston College: I don't think I've ever seen a player draw three fouls in 16 seconds (and foul out) like the Terps' Greivis Vasquez did. The Venezuelan can be a blast to watch sometimes, but he has to keep his emotions under control. And after seeing BC play twice, I'm really impressed with freshman Corey Raji, who had 17 points in 18 minutes against Maryland.

• Sam Houston State is 8-0 with wins over Texas Tech and Saint Louis (poor Rick Majerus), but it's hard to take any school seriously when its mascot is spelled as Bearkats, like it's a gas station name or something.

• If you're a point guard and you see Ed Hightower refereeing your game, you'd better not carry the ball.

• One reason we might be seeing more zone this year: Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl told me he's installing zone to prepare for next season's extension of the three-point line.

• What's up with Jim Calhoun? His two technical fouls/ejection against Northeastern was only the latest bad-boy behavior from the two-time national champion. The 'Houn was hardly classy when he gave a postgame Bleep You handshake to Gonzaga coach Mark Few after UConn's recent loss.

• Breakout alert: Kansas State forward Bill Walker, who whizzed past Cal defenders left and right, putting up 30 and 10 last week as the Wildcats handed the Bears their first loss. If Walker and Beasley can be a consistent one-two punch, then K-State will be a player in the Big 12.

• Is it possible to take back my pick of Louisville to make the Final Four?

• Give Sonny Vaccaro some credit for predicting that the "Denzels and the Jacks" would be seen at college games in Los Angeles this season. Haven't seen Nicholson at one yet, but Denzel was at UCLA's loss to Texas last week.

The 'Bag may be the last person in America to get a DVR/HD setup -- the 'Bag Lady finally relented; long story -- but the benefits have been enormous. Just consider what I'm learning:

• College hoops TV commentators are painfully old. On national broadcasts last week I heard "hip" pop-culture references to the singer Chaka Khan (what is this, 1984?) and the TV series Room 222 (which aired from 1969-74). Yikes.

• This ESPNU/Comcast stalemate needs to end -- fast. I'd be particularly upset if I lived in Eastern Washington, where Washington State and Gonzaga are regulars on ESPNU and locals who can't get tickets are being driven to the radio. (Wish I could have seen Wazzu-Zags and Wazzu-Baylor, which were on ESPNU but weren't available on the ESPN FullCourt package that I paid $104 for. From now on we're calling it the HalfCourt Trap package.)

• The main benefit: I'm seeing three times as many games this season. It's a lot easier when you can fast-forward through commercials, free throws, etc., and watch a game in 50 minutes. But it also got me wondering: When coaches watch games on TV, what are they looking for? Is it any different from what fans are focusing on?

And so I called Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who watches more national games on TV than most coaches I know (in part because the West Coast games aren't on at midnight for him).

"I'll watch offensive systems and what teams are doing defensively," Few said. "How are teams playing ball screens? Are they doubling the post inside? What are they doing in their offense? We'll have staff meetings and say, 'Did you see this play Kansas ran the other night? We should try this.'"

"Or it might be a team like Texas. Rick [Barnes] was doing something with his zone the other day. And with coaches you know well, you can always pick up the phone and call them."

Before we get to the responses we received from coaches around the country, I'd like to put out another question: Now that the AASAA offense (attack attack skip attack attack) developed by Pepperdine's Vance Walberg is spreading around the country (most famously to John Calipari at Memphis), how many other college and high school teams have readers seen using them?

Here were a few other good responses we got from 'Bag readers/coaches around the country regarding what they look for when watching games on the tube:

I like to look at how a team comes out of timeouts to see how they respond to coaching and the effects on the court.-- Steven, Chesapeake, Ohio (high school assistant coach)

I watch all the action away from the ball: How players are getting open, how the defense is playing, etc. If you can teach players to stop watching only the ball, they will learn more about the game at both ends of the floor.-- Steven Culp, Akron, Ohio (high school assistant coach)

The things I watch most closely are "special teams" and defensive rotations. Inbounds plays are pretty universal, and any time you can gain a new one from watching a game is bonus. In terms of rotations, specifically what teams do in running a zone is always interesting. Watching how Syracuse runs the 2-3, or how Carolina runs the Point Zone, or John Beilein running the 1-3-1 gives me a lot of insight on how to teach those things to make sure everything is covered. -- Phil Matthews, Atlanta (high school assistant coach)

I'm looking for the occasional play/set for a specific team I'm coaching. The best example is when I had a small team last year, I watched a ton of Villanova basketball to emulate the four-guard attack they were running. -- Neil Pifer, Concord, N.C.

I really like to look for quick-hitters. Out-of-bounds plays and last-minute plays are relatively easy to spot. Although I rarely watch NBA games, they're also gold mines for out-of-bounds plays. Out-of-bounds plays are a really unappreciated part of basketball. They give you a chance to run a set play (sort of like football) that can often demoralize an opponent (who has possibly just made a good stop). And, think of how many times a team gets the ball under its own basket during a game. The eight points that you could get from running these plays can make the difference in a final score. --Sam Schaffer, New Haven, Conn.

How a team plays defense off the ball is probably my main focus. I can't even begin to tell you how many players have a terrible concept of what the "help line" is. Ball-you-man: Isn't that one of the 10 Commandments of Basketball? I recently saw Indiana when it played in the Chicagoland Classic. It was borderline hilarious watching one of Indiana's players literally glued to his man on the weak side, no matter where the ball was, no matter who he was guarding, whether it was being swung on the perimeter or if it was being dribble-penetrated. It was also a treat watching Xavier out-work, out-hustle, and out-do the little things better than anyone else. --Brett, South Elgin, Ill. (high school coach)

See you next week.