The Washington Times - January 23, 2009, 09:44AM

Time for the first of three trips down Tobacco Road on the season (and the first of six games against the ACC’s North Carolina schools). And that means the chance to pick the brains of some writers who get to see a lot of basketball.

We’ll start off with Bill Cole of the Winston-Salem Journal, who covers Duke and North Carolina. He’s been kind enough to answer three questions about Duke as Maryland prepares for its annual venture to Cameron Indoor Stadium tomorrow.

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Onto the Q&A:

1. It seems like Gerald Henderson is playing better than ever of late (22.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.5 apg in the last four games). Is there anything behind his recent outburst, and how crucial is it for Duke to have him faring so well?

BC: Coach Mike Krzyzewski said the reason Henderson is playing so well is that he is finally over the wrist surgery he had after last season to repair damage from an injury in a game at North Carolina. Henderson cites another reason. He said that he decided after a loss at Michigan – Duke’s only
setback – that he needed to be more assertive and contribute more. His accuracy and points production are a necessity because Duke has not shot well from the outside consistently in recent games.

2. Much was made in the preseason about the decision to start Nolan Smith over Greg Paulus at point guard. How good does that choice look now?

BC: Smith has made a tremendous difference. He is more athletic than Paulus and is almost as deadly a 3-point shooting threat. Moreover, he is a determined defender, not that Paulus isn’t. Paulus was slowed by a knee injury at the start of practice but there’s no doubt that Duke is better with Smith playing point guard. The move strengthened the bench because a veteran can now come in and spell Smith.

3. We saw a Duke team look pretty good over the first half of the season a year ago, only to fade in March when its depth issues were exposed. Are these Blue Devils a better bet to remain a factor in the long term?

BC: I find it hard to say at this point. Help off the bench has been minimal in some recent games. Krzyzewski cites various factors for the shortcomings, chief among them matchups with the other team’s players. Duke’s inside game is still not overpowering. Brian Zoubek, a 7-foot center, has layups blocked and Miles Plumlee, a 6-10 freshman, isn’t yet a force inside. One bad shooting night or one poor rebounding effort might send Duke out of the NCAA Tournament. But there’s no doubt right now that Duke is one of the ACC’s top teams for the regular season.

Thanks again to Bill Cole for insight. I’m off to College Park. More to come later on.

Patrick Stevens