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November 22, 2006

Commentary: Loss a bump in the road

When Duke loses a basketball game, it's big news.

Forget about the Blue Devils being young; their jerseys still say Duke and as long as that's the case any loss will reverberate across the country.

Tuesday night's 73-62 defeat at the hands of Marquette was frustrating for all Duke fans, and in the emotion of that frustration it's easy to draw ominous conclusions about just how good this year's Blue Devils are/will be.

The most pessimistic fan now sees Greg Paulus as a liability on both ends of the court, Josh McRoberts as an incapable finisher around the basket in the clutch, and the team as a whole lacking the necessary level of athleticism to win big on the national level.

Taking a step back from Tuesday's game and removing oneself from the emotion of it, the picture becomes clear as to what the game was: a bump in a long road.

And it was a bump that everyone should have seen coming based on the preseason traffic reports given by coach Mike Krzyzewski.

No one could have known for sure that it would come against Marquette, but it was surely coming sooner or later.

It's hard to look at Duke in that context, because any Blue Devil loss does indeed stop the presses, but this is one of the most unique teams in school history.

It's a team that almost certainly will not continue Duke's run of three consecutive NCAA Tournament number one seeds, an achievement the Blue Devils have also earned eight of the last nine years.

But no matter where Duke is in the bracket in March, this is a team that will be capable of making a deep run if it improves from the snapshot we saw against Marquette.

Nobody knows that better than Krzyzewski, who was certainly disappointed in the loss but wouldn't trade the experience of playing against a top caliber opponent that provided an accurate measuring stick.

"It was a great learning experience for our guys, just the whole physicality of the game. I thought we got knocked back a little bit," Coach K said after the game on the Duke Radio Network.

"We haven't been in a game like that and now that we have we need to learn from it. That's what Novemeber and December have to be about, is learning. We're not the team we will be and we have to play these games. Thank God we played in a championship game and felt the pressure, the excitement, the enthusiasm and all that of playing in a championship game."

The picture isn't all rosy for the Blue Devils.

Paulus does need to be better, much better. Even with some of his defensive limitations, he can be a real asset to this team if he simply improves his decision making with the ball.

Dribbling into traffic, trying to throw passes through defenders, and playing sloppy with the ball will get Duke beat against a number of teams.

Some of his struggles might be attributed to his injury layoff in preseason practice, but more than likely it's the combination of adjusting to his role as a captain and adjusting to several new faces around him.

But we know the Paulus that we have seen struggle through much of the first five games won't be the same player who leads the Devils into the ACC schedule in January.

McRoberts does need to be better on the block and Duke as a team does need to be more sound defensively and on the boards, but there are still several strengths of this team that should be accentuated.

DeMarcus Nelson is playing some of the most consistent basketball we have seen from him at Duke. He's showing more of the scorer everyone knew he could be and his defensive presence is the best on the entire team at the moment, not only on the wings and on the ball but in the full court as well.

David McClure has also bounced back well from injury and is becoming one of Duke's more versatile options at multiple positions.

Though Jon Scheyer and Gerald Henderson had off nights Tuesday, the freshmen class has so far exceeded expectations. Lance Thomas continues to play with a warrior's heart and Brian Zoubek is developing on a daily basis.

While Duke certainly suffered through a rain storm Tuesday night, the sky is not falling, and with the staff's track record of formulating roles and adjusting on the fly through adversity, there's every reason to believe this first bump in the road will serve as a detour to greater success as the year progresses.


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