- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

The offense Jon Scheyer learned in his first season in college was, by Duke standards, mundane.

Lots of basic sets. Lots of halfcourt work. Lots, ultimately, of struggling to score.

When coach Mike Krzyzewski returned from his work with the U.S. national team last summer and installed a version of the Phoenix Suns’ offense, it did not take long for a basic truth to dawn upon Scheyer: Year 2 would be far, far different.

“There was a practice where it was maybe a 10-minute scrimmage and one team had 40-something points,” Scheyer said. “Last year, we’d have had two teams combine for that. We were like, ‘[Wow], we can score a ton of points.’ ”

And so the Blue Devils (27-5) have, averaging 84.1 points (third in the nation) while earning the No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament’s West regional and a meeting with 15th-seeded Belmont (25-8) tonight at Verizon Center.

Duke’s scheme — one that emphasizes ball screens, dribble penetration, kicks to the perimeter and a rapid tempo — has returned the Blue Devils to their usual status as a top-10 stalwart after a one-year hiatus.

Certainly, there is the Phoenix influence, and it comes from a direct source. Suns coach Mike D’Antoni is one of the national team assistants and worked with Krzyzewski throughout last summer.

“They play that way anyway,” D’Antoni said. “He tweaked maybe a couple things, maybe used a few things we did in the summer time, but he’s a Hall of Fame coach. He’s being generous saying he got it from me. But I don’t want him giving me heck if it doesn’t work.”

Still, the Blue Devils are quite a bit different this year, and shades of Phoenix’s offense are apparent. Duke added a crop of freshmen that included guard Nolan Smith and forward Kyle Singler and also had a healthy Greg Paulus to run the point all season.

“Things work better for you when you have more players and healthy players,” Krzyzewski said. “And they’re older. We make subtle changes to every team we’ve had here at Duke. What we try to do is personalize our offensive and defensive systems to suit the talents of the people we have playing for us.”

This year, it meant finding a way to thrive without a true post presence. Sophomore Brian Zoubek is the only Blue Devils player taller than 6-foot-8 — and fittingly, he fills the part of a much leaner version of Shaquille O’Neal in a play dubbed “Phoenix” — so there was an onus to find a way to turn a possible weakness into a strength.

A system that spreads the floor does the trick, but so does deploying a posse of perimeter shooters. Both DeMarcus Nelson and Gerald Henderson do much of their damage on drives, but they still can hit open 3-pointers. But collapse on those guys when they drive, and Paulus, Scheyer and Singler will get a pass and take an open shot.

The Blue Devils always look to score on fast breaks — where size limitations hardly matter — but there’s more to the offense than creating transition opportunities.

Everyone is encouraged to shoot, which makes this Duke team different from some of its immediate predecessors, such as the 2005-06 teams that relied on J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams to create much of the production.

“That was a lot of the times a problem — whenever they were off the court, for whatever reason, we kind of fell into a ‘What do we do?’ kind of a mentality,” junior forward David McClure said. “Everybody knows what they’re going to do every single second when they’re out on the court. Anybody can be the option.”

There is credit to be divvied up for the Blue Devils’ resurgence. Players should be lauded for adapting to the system so quickly, but it isn’t hard to sell the concept of an up-tempo system.

More praise should go to Krzyzewski, who even after passing the 800-victory milestone is adapting to the personnel he collects rather than forcing a group of smaller players into a scheme that helped him win three national titles.

“It shows why he’s the best,” McClure said. “You know that coming in here. He wouldn’t be the national [team] coach if he wasn’t the best. That’s what he’s done all his career, whether he has [Christian] Laettner, [Bobby] Hurley and [Grant] Hill or [Steve Wojciechowski] or whatever team he has, he seems to make it work, and it’s really special to be a part of that.”

Staff writer Mike Jones contributed to this article.

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