Friday, March 27, 2009

Plummeting Minutes, Enthusiastic until the End

It’s the second half and the players just walked out of the 16:00 time out. Duke is down to Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen, 38-26. Greg Paulus, after not playing in the first half, is in. He immediately drains a three. Next time down, while setting up a play, the senior guard drives to the left sideline in order to produce a jump skip pass to an open Kyle Singler, who bangs another trifecta. A Duke stop and a crisp pass to Scheyer off a baseline screen opens up another one from behind the arc. And then, off a catch and square on the right wing, he punctuates the Blue Devil run with a stop and go elbow jumper. Duke spurt, TO Nova.

All of that happened on Thursday in Boston…except, almost all of it. What was true was the first shot Paulus hit. And the TO, though it was Duke who called it. Paulus actually threw the skip pass out of bounds, miscued on the pass to Scheyer which left the ball short and not in shooting position, and was stripped on the next possession.

For some reason, though, I found myself rooting for the lost Paulus, and for the Duke program to generate another miracle comeback. It’s had plenty, but, like a movie that continues to build for that Oscar climax, I was hoping -- if for only a 4-minute sensational span cued by the former starting court leader -- until the next break in action.

Actually, the TO that Paulus himself called came on an order of his mentor, the one who decided to confine him to the pine. Now, we don’t really know what it’s like day in and day out in the program. Or if Paulus remained coachable and was a programmed citizen in practice. We can only go by what we see, what quotes we read, and the reasons the coaches give. It seems the senior captain who started for three consecutive years and scored more than 1,000 points while shooting just under 40 percent from 3-point range for his career was outplayed in his final season as a Duke baller (perhaps he’ll become the next serious assistant?). He couldn’t do the things that were needed. He didn’t have the length or the athleticism or the penetration ability or the defensive lockdown skill.

But, it appears, he did understand the system – and, he bleeds white and blue. In the form of Wojo. Collins. Dawkins. Another in the list of highly aggressive, slap-the-floor, swearing point guards who went on to coach. As his minutes dwindled, time became scarce, and his fading career turned into a double-digit loss in a half-as-happy season. I know that he reluctantly tasted his role and hesitantly gulped the tragedy that was his to become. Just watching him on the court Thursday evening, attempting to lead, it was apparent that he was out of sync. He was trying to stay within himself, but it looked as if he wanted to explode and let loose a season of frustration.

Despite the newly obligatory position, he was still the one crouched next to the coaches on the bench, and remained the exuberant teammate that stood up to slap five to his substituted playing peers. He maintained the fireball of energy that allowed him to rumble in and out of the backcourt in Cameron Indoor Stadium -- and the QB pocket in high school. If anyone is looking for an image of a competitor and a developing leader, by the looks of Paulus on TV and in the paper, he is it. Congratulations to him on, what is becoming more less likely for a consistent starter in college basketball, the closing of a 4-year career. He dealt with a difficult personal situation, but stuck with it and gave it his all in his last game.


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