Among the six young men who actually play for Duke and don't merely wear the uniforms and fly on the team plane, depth is not an issue. "A part of you says, 'I don't care if we're deep,'" says sophomore wing Mike Dunleavy. "That just means you get to play more."
The man who coaches this sextet also insists depth is not a concern, though his other players were good for a combined 24 minutes of relief in the Blue Devils' three most difficult games this season. "Would we like to have more people ready to play at this level? Absolutely," Mike Krzyzewski says. "But that won't be the determining factor of how far we go."
It is tough to argue with Coach K. He has been to so many Final Fours we don't even feel silly calling him Coach K. And Duke's success a year ago reinforces his argument. The Devils earned the ACC championship with a 15-1 record despite getting only 21 minutes per game from outside their top six. So a lack of depth won't derail Duke's pursuit of a third national championship under Krzyzewski. Unless it does.
There is so little in the way of weakness on this team, but the one that exists is glaring. Outside of the six former McDonald's All-Americans who make up the Duke rotation -- big men Shane Battier and 1999 Juneau-Douglas High School graduate Carlos Boozer and perimeter players Jason Williams, Nate James, Chris Duhon and Dunleavy -- Krzyzewski has not been able to rely on anyone for even basic sustenance.
The coach still does not believe the Blue Devils were undone in their pre-Christmas loss to Stanford on account of their shortage of able bodies. Krzyzewski cites a series of four missed dunks as the difference. Mathematically, he has a point. Had any one of those shots connected, the Devils would have been a point better than the Cardinal.
If math is to be the determinant, though, should we ignore the affects of subtracting Battier and Boozer? Each reached the five-foul limit in the closing minutes, which sent Krzyzewski far deeper into his bench than comfort permits. As Battier and Boozer sat, their teammates were overwhelmed inside by twin towers Jason and Jarron Collins.
This picture might have unsettled Blue Devils fans but was far from their most-feared scenario. It was only a regular-season game. A reprisal of last season's NCAA Tournament could be devastating and is not inconceivable. Entering the week, Duke had lost only two of its previous 20 games. Boozer was disqualified from both. In six losses dating to the start of last season, at least one Devil finished with four personals.
Duke is not likely to lose in the NCAAs because its shortage of players leads to exhaustion. Battier and Williams are the only players averaging more than 30 minutes against major-conference opponents. If Duke's deficient depth is to be disarming, it most likely will be related to foul trouble affecting the inside game. Boozer had reached four fouls in eight of his past 19 games and fouled out four times in that stretch.
On the perimeter, Duhon and Dunleavy provide the illusion of significant depth.
Dunleavy, 6-7 on the preseason roster, appears to be growing daily. His size and variety of skills permit him to play nearly every position. Duhon, the Devils' one busy reserve, could start at the point if Williams, a certain first-team All-American, weren't already there.
"I'm just going out there and playing my game, knowing I have to give Jason time to be on the bench, or Mike or Nate," Duhon says. "I don't want them to be tired down the stretch. I try to get after the opposing point guard so he'll wear down, so they'll have to bring in their backup."
Up front, however, the Devils have been unable to get much of anything from their most advanced reserve, 6-10 sophomore Nick Horvath, who averaged 8.4 minutes as a freshman but has been out a month with a foot injury. He is pondering a medical redshirt, but with the severity of the injury still uncertain and Duke lacking frontcourt players, there has been no rush in the program to declare that intent.
That leaves 6-11 sophomore Casey Sanders and 6-10 junior Matt Christensen, neither of whom has evinced a sufficient degree of competence against high-level competition.
With Boozer out of last Saturday's final pre-conference game because of the flu, Sanders started against North Carolina A&T and produced seven points and three blocks. In 20 minutes, he grabbed one rebound. Christensen played 23 minutes and managed seven rebounds and 6 points. But each has had multiple moments against low-major opponents. It's when the opposition is stronger (than Sanders) or quicker (than Christensen) that problems develop.
"In practice, there are days when they look real good and days when they don't. I think it's just confidence," Duhon says. "We work on them every day, telling them they can do it so when they get in a game, they'll believe they can handle it."
"If we can get one of those guys, all of them or two of them playing well, it would be huge," Dunleavy says. "In the next few weeks, we're really going to try to get those guys going."
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