- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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J.J. Redick guessed right on Rashad McCants on Wednesday night.
He had UNC's final play read perfectly, shadowing McCants and denying him the ball from Raymond Felton.
As a result, Felton couldn't execute the play that was designed to get McCants a jump shot, and instead passed off to David Noel, who couldn't handle the ball and didn't get off a shot before time expired in Duke's 71-70 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
It was Redick's previously much-maligned defense that was the difference, and it is Redick's newfound love affair with 'D' (as well as his more aggressive mentality as a driving scorer) that has made him one of the most improved players in the country.
"He shut down Robert Hite when we played them," Miami coach Frank Haith said of Redick limiting Hite (17.6 ppg) to 2-of-7 shooting for six points. "He is an underrated defender. Rob couldn't get open. J.J. had tremendous patience and waited for Rob to make a mistake and then he burned him."
Sure Redick is one of the top two or three top shooters (42.4 percent on 3s) in the country. He's probably the best free-throw shooter (93.2 percent). But who knew he would become such complete player as a junior?
"One reason why he's playing so well is because he knows we need it," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Part of his development has been to put the ball on the floor and that compliments him as an outstanding shooter. You can't play J.J. for one thing."
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said he's the best perimeter shooter he's ever coached against in his career.
"He's one of those shooters that doesn't need space to get a shot off," Hamilton said. "We've had more of a difficult time defending him this year than last."
Redick's play is the main reason Duke is tied with Wake Forest and North Carolina atop the ACC two-thirds of the way through the season. It also could earn him first-team All-American honors and, potentially, the ACC player of the year award.
Last season, Redick averaged 15.9 points a game. He entered the North Carolina game averaging 22.8 before scoring 18 on the Tar Heels.
When asked for three things that he is better at than a year ago, he responded "Score. Defend. And Lead."
It's hard to argue with his assessment. Redick has hit big shot after big shot in the big games. He averaged 29.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists a game last week in a loss at Wake Forest and a home win over Georgia Tech.
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While a host of other players could join Redick in the category of "vastly improved," few are as important to their team as Jared Dudley.
Dudley averaged 11.9 points and 6.6 rebounds as a freshman last season. He's averaging 16.4 points and 7.7 rebounds through 21 games this season. Those numbers don't adequately reflect the game-saving 36 points he put on Villanova and his overall intangibles. He grabs loose balls, errant rebounds and is constantly exploiting mismatches inside.
"He's like a senior in this league," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said of Dudley's maturity in late-game situations.
Redick has to be the BMOC on the Blue Devils. He can play off of Shelden Williams inside and Daniel Ewing is there as a complement, but Redick has to be the go-to scorer for the Blue Devils have a chance deep into March.
Dudley is treated somewhat similarity. The Eagles have leaned heavily on Craig Smith throughout the season. But if it weren't for Dudley, the Eagles wouldn't have been in a few of their 20 straight wins to open the season.
"He's putting the ball on the floor better," Boston College associate head coach Bill Coen. "It's not that his shot has improved but he's so much more of a confident kid. He was feeling his way around last year. But this year his confidence is to the point where he can make the big play in the big games. He doesn't shy away from it at all."
BC is using Dudley inside and out to take advantage of his versatility. Dudley's rebounding makes him a even tougher matchup. Anyone who saw him score 13 points and grab nine rebounds in BC's second-round loss to Georgia Tech in the NCAA Tournament would understand why he's becoming a player.
"He benefits playing with Craig," Coen said. "He draws so much attention that when teams are preparing for us they have to think about two guys, not just one."
For various reasons our case for most improved is between Redick and Dudley, two players who could ultimately be the difference between a Sweet 16 appearance and something much bigger for their respective clubs.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.