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Stewart Mandel Inside College Basketball

Blue Devils follow Duhon's lead

Duke finally finds itself offensively while thrashing Spartans

Posted: Thursday December 4, 2003 12:59AM; Updated: Thursday December 4, 2003 1:06AM
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- With 5:44 left in the first half of the Duke-Michigan State bloodbath, with the Blue Devils having stolen the ball yet again from the suddenly hapless Spartans, Chris Duhon took a pass and raced down the floor for an thunderous dunk. When he landed, he stared into the heart of the disheartened MSU student section and let out a delirious scream for all to hear.

Showboating? Yeah, maybe a little bit. But one can also understand if he felt the need to get a little something off his chest.

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He arrived at the Breslin Center on Wednesday as the elder statesman on a team trying to find itself in the wake of a surprising loss to Purdue four days earlier that left many followers of the nation's preseason No. 2 team scratching their heads for answers. None more so than their coach. In the kind of move usually reserved for a midseason slump, Mike Krzyzewski started a player, Sean Dockery, who hadn't scored a single point in four games while letting two of his top three scorers, J.J. Redick and Daniel Ewing, come off the bench.

Redick and Ewing wound up playing key roles in the sixth-ranked Blue Devils' stunning 72-50 victory over No. 5 Michigan State, but it was Duhon, the oft-criticized senior point guard, who earned the biggest praise from his coaches, and rightfully so. Right in front of our eyes, he's morphed from a former question mark maligned by poor shooting and questionable decision-making to the undisputed leader of a team that so desperately needed one.

"He's been our best player so far all season," said Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski, himself a former Blue Devils floor leader. "Our team has become so dependent on his floor leadership. I can't say enough about him."

"Duhon was spectacular in his leadership tonight," said Krzyzewski.

Strong praise for a guy whose stats -- 10 points and six assists -- don't tell the story of his contributions. Four days and several thousand miles removed from an overall defensive meltdown, particularly against Boilermakers guard Kenneth Lowe, Duke took on a team filled with perimeter threats and performed a total lockdown, forcing 17 first-half turnovers and limiting the Spartans to 40 percent from the field. It was Michigan State's worst home loss since 1997 and only its fifth in five years.

At the heart of everything was Duhon, hitting big shots, setting up the offense and constantly shouting directions and encouragement at his teammates. Exactly what you might expect from a guy who's been playing for what seems like an eternity, whose experiences include a national championship and who's played alongside five current NBAers.

"It's a tough job, but over the last two years I've learned how to do it," said Duhon. "It's fun."

Take his contributions during a decisive 20-2 first-half run, which started with the score knotted at 13-13 and included the aforementioned dunk.

Redick, whose 5-of-22 3-point shooting the first four games helped provoke Krzyzewski's lineup change, had hit his first 3-pointer of the game moments earlier to put the Blue Devils up nine, but Michigan State freshman Shannon Brown had responded with a potential momentum-changing jumper to get the Spartans' raucous crowd back in the game. Knowing his team needed a big play, Duhon drove past the defense and hit a driving floater to crush any possible turning of the tide.

Later, on Duke's first possession following Duhon's dunk and Michigan State's subsequent timeout, he spent what seemed like an eternity dribbling at the top of the key setting up a play. In the blink of an eye, he darted a pass into the paint to a wide-open Shavlik Randolph, who gave the Devils an insurmountable 33-15 lead.

Not to get ahead of ourselves, but the sequence, and much of the rest of the game, was vintage Duke. Through their first four games, the Blue Devils had yet to fully execute on offense, with Redick and Ewing struggling with their shots and nobody except Shelden Williams establishing himself in the post.

Against the Spartans, Williams was solid yet again (16 points, eight rebounds), but this time, he wasn't alone. Redick found his shot, albeit briefly, en route to 13 points. Ewing scored several key baskets and new starter Randolph asserted himself inside with 11 points and seven boards.

It's dangerous to read too much into one game, especially against a Michigan State team that has some serious flaws that are rapidly being exposed by their murderous schedule, not to mention this early in the season. As Krzyzewski noted, "If we played them tomorrow, they might beat us by 20. It's that time of year."

But as long as Duhon's new incarnation remains at the helm, Duke should be all right.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.

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