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After wiping away the tears, wrapping Coach K in an enormous hug and raising his right index finger to the Minneapolis crowd, Shane Battier put his arms around understudy Casey Sanders and whispered in his ear. "He told me he was once in the exact same shoes as I am," the 6'11" soph said later, in the locker room, while the rest of the Blue Devils were busy celebrating Duke's championship. "And he said if I kept working at it, I could be in his spot one day."
Don't look so shocked. True, the gangly center is as raw as they come offensively (2.5 ppg). But on a squad that expects to return leading scorer Jason Williams and another explosive lineup, including Rutgers transfer Dahntay Jones and frosh guard Daniel Ewing, Sanders is the logical heir to Battier's title as King of the Little Things. Whether it's blocking shots, playing lock-down D, burning the floor or drawing charges, the former McDonald's All-American has more to contribute than mere stats might suggest -- like teaming with Carlos Boozer to hold Maryland's Lonny Baxter to 2-of-10 shooting in their Final Four matchup.
"Talent-wise, we could be at the same level, but our biggest void will be leadership," says Devils assistant Steve Wojciechowski, himself a part of Duke's long legacy of nitty-gritty floor leaders. "Casey can be our dirty-work guy. He's willing and ready to do that."
Sanders, a history major from Tampa, is also Battier's obvious replacement as scholarly statesman, media dignitary and keeper of Duke's cherished chemistry. The son of a musician father and an artist mother, he's a thoughtful, articulate quotesmith -- and like Battier, a guy who understands his teammates and how he fits in with them.
Witness Sanders' take on Duke as family: "Jason is our mom. There's a tenderness to him. He doesn't like to see teammates left out, maybe because he's an only child. Shane is the daddy. I'm the kid -- the most to learn and the most to gain."
As in knowledge and body weight. While the 218-pound Sanders has no trouble beating more physical big men down court, Wojo wants him to add 15 pounds of muscle so he can assert himself more in the low post. "He's gonna have to have a heck of a summer to go from good to great," the coach says. "But he's shown that when he does dedicate himself, his growth comes quickly."
Like father, like son.
This article appears in the April 30 issue of ESPN The Magazine.