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November 25, 2005In a season that Duke fans hope ends with several trophies, the Blue Devils will try to win their first tonight as they face Memphis for the NIT Season Tipoff championship.
How will Duke play minus the services of DeMarcus Nelson?
That's perhaps the biggest storyline leading up to the game as Mike Krzyzewski will be without one of his best athletes and defenders due to a hairline fracture in Nelson's ankle sustained Wednesday against Drexel.
How will Duke respond after a much tougher than expected 78-68 victory over Drexel in the semifinals two nights ago?
That's the other big storyline as the top ranked Devils and 11th ranked Tigers meet at Madison Square Garden for a 7:00 EST tipoff.
Drexel's success in attacking Duke early and often on both ends of the floor has some analysts saying that Duke was exposed against the Dragons.
Memphis will be a better test to examine that theory, as the Tigers will be playing 40 minutes of up tempo basketball.
With nine players on the roster averaging more than 10 minutes and no player averaging more than 30, John Calipari has been keeping fresh legs on the floor at all times to keep the heat turned up on opponents.
That style has helped Memphis jump on their opponents early. Through three games, impressive wins over Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Alabama, and UCLA, the Tigers have built an average halftime lead of 46-31.
A quick look at that stat shows Duke must come out of the gates with a very high intensity level.
Slow starts against Boston University and Drexel still resulted in wins for the Blue Devils. A repeat sluggish beginning against Memphis would be much more difficult to overcome.
The engine that drives the Tiger offense is point guard Darius Washington. The athletic playmaker can score if he needs to but he's also adept at using his skills to involve teammates.
After a solid freshman season in 2004-05, Washington became a national object of sympathy when he missed two of three free throws at the end of the Conference USA championship game against Louisville, costing his team a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
He's succeeded at putting those bad memories to rest this year, as he's stroking free throws at an 85 percent clip and averaging better than 18 points a game to go along with four assists per contest.
The other two big guns in the Memphis offense are particularly dangerous playing with Washington.
Senior Rodney Carney has a versatile set of offensive skills and has range out to the three point line, making him a difficult matchup for most teams because of his 6-foot-7 frame.
Freshman Shawne Williams is making a name for himself in the paint. He has been an instant impact scoring the basketball and has been effective on the defensive end as well.
Williams and Carney aren't exactly bruisers on the boards though. If Memphis has somebody to fit that description, it would be Joey Dorsey, a 6-foot-9, 265 pound who must be accounted for to keep him off the offensive glass.
Williams might have made a mistake after watching Duke's matchup with Drexel. The young freshman commented after Duke knocked off the Dragons that he felt the Devils couldn't guard off the dribble, thereby implying a prediction that Memphis would be able to penetrate into the lane and create quality scoring opportunities.
While it's probably not wise for an opponent to publicly question Duke's ability to defend, Williams does raise a worrisome factor for Duke. How good will their defense be without Nelson's energy level, athleticism, and sound fundamentals?
Martynas Pocius will be called on to play several minutes and he must come through on the defensive end first and foremost.
His offensive creativity, ability to score, and distribute the ball are not in question. If he really wants to make a strong impression on Duke fans and coach K though, he'll make sure he plays high intensity defense as he sees extended minutes.
The pressure will be on guards Sean Dockery and Greg Paulus to shut down dribble penetration. Memphis will be looking to push the tempo whenever they can, so stopping the ball in transition will also be of paramount importance.
Duke always has the insurance policy of Shelden Williams around the basket, but if they have to consistently rely on him to stay near the goal in case his shot blocking abilities are needed, there will be gaps to exploit for the Tigers.
There's no such thing as a must win game in college basketball while the calendar still says November, but this game affords Duke the opportunity to make a statement.
While questions swirl about just how strong this team is and just how much Nelson's absence will impact them, a championship environment on the big stage of MSG against an 11th ranked opponent would be a perfect set of circumstances for the Devils to remind the country why they are the most equipped team to win the national title in March.
It won't be an easy task tonight, as it's safe to expect a physical matchup with 40 minutes of fast paced action.
Regardless of the outcome, this game is clearly the best barometer we will have had so far this season to see just exactly how good Duke is right now, and potentially how good they could be.
Final analysis and prediction
Memphis is about as ready for this game as a team can be, practically salivating at the prospect of knocking off the country's top ranked team. Duke absolutely must set the intensity bar higher than the Tigers right from the opening tip.
That will be difficult to do, because Calipari's team certainly saw what a gritty Drexel squad was able to do Wednesday night.
As long as Duke doesn't start slow, contains dribble penetration and forces their customary amount of turnovers, I see this being a solid victory for the Devils.
Even if some of those objectives go unaccomplished, the Devils still have an advantage that no other team in the country possesses: J.J. Redick.
You get the feeling watching him lead this team so far this year that he just refuses to let Duke lose. His 31 points against Drexel were just what Duke needed to counter the scoring of Dominick Mejia and keep the Dragons at bay.
Whatever is needed to slip past Memphis tonight, I think Redick will provide. Until the proof shows otherwise, the prediction will always go to Redick and the Blue Devils.