- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2007

It was the perfect setup, a plot so worn it belonged on TV Land late at night.

Duke, down a point in the closing seconds at Cameron Indoor Stadium, funneled the basketball into the paint and even grabbed a couple of offensive rebounds to extend the possession. But the expected climax — a putback falling through, the Blue Devils scratching out the latest miraculous victory in the program’s storied lore — didn’t happen.

Instead, it was Florida State raucously celebrating a victory Sunday over a suddenly snakebit team. Toss in Wednesday’s loss to North Carolina — Duke’s third at Cameron this season — and the Blue Devils suddenly seem mortal entering Sunday’s visit to Maryland (17-7, 3-6 ACC) .

“You can look, we could be 4-4 we could be 5-3 or we could be 7-1 right now,” freshman guard Jon Scheyer said earlier this week of a team that has lost three league games by a combined five points. “It’s really tough.”

And unusual. The No. 16 Blue Devils (18-6, 5-5) have lost three straight in a season for the first time since 1996 and permitted large leads to evaporate in each. Duke is also a setback away from dropping six conference games for only the fourth time in the last 20 years.

Plus, the Blue Devils are young and thin, two traits that rarely work well together. Duke has only two upperclassmen, its fewest since 1945-46. Just seven players are averaging 10 minutes a game, a group that does not include Brian Zoubek, a surprise starter on Wednesday.

But those concerns did not prevent Duke from collecting early victories against Air Force, Indiana, Georgetown and Gonzaga.

“We have shown we can be a mature team,” freshman forward Lance Thomas said. “We started out the season 0-2 [in the ACC] and we were on a five-game winning streak. We just can’t let these losses pile up and kill our team’s confidence because we’re a really good team.”

At the very least, the Blue Devils are feisty and pesky. They lost an eight-point lead to Virginia in the final four minutes last week, and were knocked out in overtime by Sean Singletary’s acrobatic shot with a second left that point guard Greg Paulus nearly answered at the other end with a 3-pointer.

A few days later, Josh McRoberts and DeMarcus Nelson both nearly made tip-ins against Florida State that would have averted the necessity to answer questions about a squandered 17-point lead.

“He made a winning play, he didn’t hit a winning shot. The same thing at the end of overtime,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said of the Virginia loss. “Obviously we had three shots in the last seven seconds [against Florida State], and we had a chance for three winning shots. We have to keep taking winning shots and hopefully we’ll hit those.”

Besides missing more critical shots than usual, there is something else strikingly different about Duke. Now that J.J. Redick’s No. 4 and Shelden Williams’ No. 23 jerseys can be found hanging from the rafters rather than on the floor, the aesthetics of the Blue Devils’ play is much different.

The up-tempo Duke teams of recent years are just a memory as these Blue Devils are reliant on defense. Duke is surrendering 58 points a game, the lowest in Krzyzewski’s 27-year tenure, while a more controlled offense has morphed in a season from the ACC’s highest-scoring outfit (81.1 points) to its lowest-scoring (69.6).

The suffocating defense helped keep Sunday’s game close in the final minutes. Duke stopped Florida State on its final four possessions but also missed its final five shots as the Seminoles clung to a one-point lead.

“It really hasn’t been too much different,” said Nelson, the Blue Devils’ lone junior. “You kind of get used to it. You just do whatever you need to do to win. For this team, we have to value every possession, defensively and offensively.”

Added freshman guard Gerald Henderson: “We have guys that really care about defense and we know it’s going to be important for us to win and it’s really kept us in a lot of games this year.”

There are hints Duke could regroup in time for the ACC tournament, which it has won seven of the last eight years, if not sooner. Paulus has played well of late after battling injuries early in the season. Henderson and Scheyer both established career highs in scoring against North Carolina. Nelson (14.3 ppg) is stealthily one of the league’s most consistent performers.

Wednesday’s effort showed Duke isn’t too far from its usual self, and that the rare skid might only be a minor bump as the Blue Devils rapidly grow up.

“I think it could be,” Scheyer said. “Hopefully we look back on this and [say] this is a turning point and we’re not going to lose anymore.”

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