Friday, January 20, 2006

It’s only fitting that college basketball’s ultimate fire and rain combo is located down James Taylor’s beloved Tobacco Road.

With analysts like Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas trumpeting the Blue Devils at every opportunity, it’s impossible to claim that top-ranked Duke is underexposed. But virtually no amount of hyperbole can do justice to the exploits of the dynamic DUo of Shelden Williams and J.J. Redick.

And when that senior pair leads the Blue Devils (17-0) into MCI Center tomorrow for a nonconference game against Georgetown (11-4) with the best start in school history on the line, hoops history indicates the world will be watching one of the greatest inside-outside tandems the college game has ever seen.

During the last 35 years, only one such high-profile pairing has combined to average more points a game than Williams (18.2 points) and Redick (26.5 points) — Oklahoma’s Stacey King and Mookie Blaylock with 46.0 in 1988-89.

“That pair is in very elite company,” said analyst Len Elmore, who teamed with John Lucas at Maryland in 1973-74 to form a similarly splendid 1-2 punch with 34.7 points a game. “I think we’ve seen more gifted inside-outside tandems, but you’d have to search long and hard to find a more polished pair.”

Few players at the college level have ever personified polish like Redick, the game’s golden boy gunner du jour.

Some have labeled the 6-foot-4 Redick the greatest pure shooter in college history. And while those who saw Pete Maravich, Chris Mullin or Mark Price might quibble, it’s hard to debate away the raft of statistical evidence in Redick’s favor.

The senior from Roanoke has the best career free-throw percentage in NCAA history (92.3), and he’s also almost certain to complete his stay in Durham with the Division I record for career 3-pointers; he needs 33 more to surpass Virginia’s Curtis Staples (413) in the category.

But those who would simply pigeonhole Redick as a shooter obviously haven’t seen him play lately. Driven by an inner desire coach Mike Krzyzewski describes as “a will you cannot teach,” Redick has developed into a far more complete player in the last couple of seasons.

Nobody is ever going to confuse his first step with that of Allen Iverson or compare his handle to that of Jason Kidd. But Redick has maximized his athletic gifts by bulking up his upper body, improving his quickness and exploiting the tight defense he forces by learning how to get to the rim, or more often, the line.

The result is the ultimate defensive Catch-22: guard him too loosely, and he’ll torment you with 3s (just ask Texas). Attempt to shadow him for 40 minutes, and few players work harder without the ball, and he’ll feast on you at the free throw line.

That improved versatility has enabled Redick to become the first ACC player to crack the 25-point barrier since Maryland’s Walt Williams averaged 26.8 points in 1991-92. And it has put Redick in position to shatter the league’s career scoring mark held by Wake Forest’s Dickie Hemric (2,587 points from 1952 to ‘55).

Redick currently stands 11th on the all-time list (2,255). And if his torrid scoring average holds over the final 13 games of the regular season, he’ll break Hemric’s record with 2,599 points.

“That’s a testament to how much he’s grown as a player,” said N.C. State great David Thompson, who led the ACC in scoring from 1972-73 to 1974 -75. “When he got to Duke, he was an outstanding shooter who played basketball. Now, he’s a basketball player who is an outstanding shooter.”

And Redick might not be the team’s MVP. Most insiders will tell you the key to the Duke’s 17-0 start (matching the program-best from the national title season of 1991-92) has been the tireless consistency of Williams, the 6-foot-9, 250-pound center who ranks third in the league in scoring and leads the conference in rebounds (9.4) and blocked shots (3.6).

“As good as Redick is, Williams is the guy that makes them go,” said Memphis coach John Calipari after Duke beat his fourth-ranked Tigers 70-67 earlier this season. “Defensively, he’s everywhere. And offensively, you’ve got to double him, which is death against a team that can find and finish like Duke. They’re as good a 1-2 combination as I’ve seen since I’ve been in the business.”

Williams authored his opus earlier this month in Duke’s 76-52 rout of Maryland, recording his first career triple-double (19 points, 11 rebounds, 10 blocks) against the Terps. And like Redick, Williams’ most daunting quality is his desire.

“I didn’t feel I dominated as much as I should have,” said Williams after terrorizing the Terps.

With the ACC down somewhat after last season’s splendor, and the Duke duo rolling along in such unparalleled fashion, Krzyzewski is already being forced to deal with the inevitable question: Can his Blue Devils become the first team since Indiana in 1975-76 (32-0) to run the table en route to a national title?

“We’ve got two guys playing at a different level right now, but some of the things being written about our team are just overdone,” said Krzyzewski after Duke dropped No. 14 N.C. State 81-68 on Wednesday night. “Are [we] going to go undefeated? … We’re starting [former walk-on] Lee Melchionni and Sean Dockery. People didn’t even ask that when we had Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner and Grant Hill. It’s just extreme.”

So is his dynamic duo.

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