Lineup change paying off for Duke
DURHAM, N.C. -- A week ago, Duke lost to Boston College for the first time in nearly a quarter-century. The Blue Devils had lost consecutive conference games and were in danger of falling out of the ACC race.
So what did Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski do?
He benched his team's point guard, deciding the Blue Devils really don't need a player on the court whose primary responsibility is to distribute the basketball. Krzyzewski replaced senior Greg Paulus with freshman Elliot Williams, who hadn't played a single minute in Duke's previous two games.
And you know what? Duke has never been better this season.
With Williams lathering up the Cameron Crazies with his tenacious defense, and Gerald Henderson and Jon Scheyer combining to score 65 points, the No. 9 Blue Devils ran way from No. 8 Wake Forest in a 101-91 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Sunday night.
The Blue Devils led by as many as 22 points in the game's first 13 minutes, before finally pulling away after Wake Forest cut its deficit to two points twice in the second half.
Duke remains in a three-way tie for second place in the ACC standings, only one game behind leader North Carolina in the loss column. The Blue Devils play at the No. 3 Tar Heels on March 8 in a game that might decide the league's regular-season title.
"It was a big win for us," Krzyzewski said. "It was just a huge win. The one thing I've tried not to do here is assume winning -- that you assume you're going to win. Tonight was a huge game for us. It was as big a game as we've had in three years, because we're 7-4 [in the ACC standings coming into the game]. So you have to win this game. I know that."
Krzyzewski couldn't have known what he'd get from Williams when he put him in the starting lineup for Thursday night's game at St. John's. Williams, a high school McDonald's All-American, made his first career start in Madison Square Garden. He scored 11 points in 31 minutes and, more importantly, played tenacious perimeter defense in the Blue Devils' 76-69 win.
We just felt we needed a change. He plays with a really good enthusiasm and confidence that you wouldn't think would be there for a kid who hadn't been playing.” -- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski on Elliot Williams
Krzyzewski liked what he saw from the freshman from Memphis, Tenn., and decided to stick with him.
"Since the last Wake Forest game [a 70-68 loss on the road on Jan. 28], when we had a tough loss there, our pressure on the ball kind of went out the window," Krzyzewski said. "Our defense starts with disciplined pressure on the ball, not stealing. Elliot's been working really hard. He's been really good in practice, and always has a good attitude. We just felt we needed a change. He plays with a really good enthusiasm and confidence that you wouldn't think would be there for a kid who hadn't been playing."
Confidence? Williams might have more courage than a poker player holding pocket aces. In the game's opening three minutes, he decided to stay near the basket after Duke buckets to try and steal the basketball from Wake Forest's Jeff Teague and Ishmael Smith, two of the quickest guards in college basketball. Williams came away with three steals in four possessions, converting two of them into easy layups.
Williams said he caught Teague off-guard when he poked the basketball from his hands.
"I think he was kind of relaxed at the beginning," Williams said. "In the last game, we didn't do that so I wanted to make sure he felt my presence at all times. He was relaxed in the beginning, and I got a couple of steals off him."
Krzyzewski said Williams decided to pressure the Wake Forest guards on his own.
"That wasn't something we calculated," Krzyzewski said. "You would never calculate getting a steal from Teague or Smith. I think it surprised them. That emotion and energy gave us a spark right away."
With six minutes to go in the first half, Duke had a 41-19 lead and was threatening to run the Demon Deacons out of the gym.
"Starting the game, Elliot was unbelievable," said Henderson, who scored a career-high 35 points. "With his pressure, he caused three or four steals in the first 10 minutes. That's why he's in the lineup if anyone is wondering why we're starting a freshman. That's one of his strengths, really putting pressure on the ball and making opportunities for us."
Williams' play has also taken the pressure off Scheyer, who struggled mightily out of the gates in ACC play. In his first 11 games against conference foes, Scheyer shot 28.3 percent from the floor, making only 19 of 62 3-point attempts. He scored more than 14 points in a game only twice.
But in the past two games, in which Scheyer became Duke's primary ball handler, he also has been one of its most dependable scorers. Scheyer scored 18 points against St. John's and posted a career-high 30 points against Wake Forest. Scheyer made 8 of 16 shots against the Demon Deacons, going 5-for-10 on 3-pointers.
"A lot of times today, Smith was guarding me," Scheyer said, of Wake Forest's generously listed 6-foot backup point guard. "Obviously, he's really quick guarding the ball, but once I get the ball inside, I have someone who's smaller than me guarding me. He's someone who's not really used to chasing someone off screens. I think I can use that to my advantage."
With another reliable shooter on the perimeter, opponents can't focus solely on Henderson anymore, either. He made 11 of 15 shots and went 12-for-14 at the foul line.
"That was his best performance as a Duke player," Krzyzewski said.
Wake Forest tried to run several different players at Henderson, but no one could slow him down.
"We were right in his face and that's all you can do without fouling him," Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio said.
Much to the surprise of Gaudio, the Blue Devils beat the Demon Deacons at their own game. By using a quicker lineup (junior center Brian Zoubek, who started 17 of Duke's first 20 games, never even left the bench) and a bigger point guard, Duke was able to take away many of Wake Forest's biggest strengths. The Demon Deacons' superior post players never became much of a factor because they couldn't keep up with the frenetic pace on the floor, and Teague and Smith struggled to defend taller players.
"I just thought the game was so incredibly fast," Gaudio said. "It wasn't a game for our big guys. It was just so fast."
The old Duke team that tried to use Zoubek in the paint, and shuffled the much-maligned Paulus and sophomore Nolan Smith at point guard, never would have had a chance to beat Wake Forest like this.
"I would say this: If somebody had said we'd score 91 points and lose, I would have called them a liar," Gaudio said.
The old Blue Devils would have had no chance of doing any damage in the NCAA tournament, either. Just a week ago, Duke seemed destined to make another early-round exit in March. Just like the past two seasons, when the Blue Devils lost to Virginia Commonwealth in the first round in 2007 and West Virginia in the second round in 2008.
But for one night at least, these Blue Devils looked different.
They looked like a Final Four team again.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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