Everyone had questions about Will Avery. His coach wondered if he was mature enough to handle the responsibility. His teammates were concerned whether helping set them up would take away from his explosive game.
And then there was the media, which said that the sophomore point guard was the weak link of a strong Duke team.
"I knew what people were saying, and I took it as a challenge," Avery said recently. "I like challenges. I wanted to prove to everyone that I could do the job."
The job of playing point guard for the Blue Devils is unlike most in college basketball. It's almost anointed, considering those who have played the position and what they have done before, during and since Duke's nine-year dynasty ended in 1994.
They fit a certain mold. Players such as Tommy Amaker, Bobby Hurley and Steve Wojciechowski were the trigger to coach Mike Krzyzewski's suffocating half-court defense, the glue to the perimeter-oriented offense and the team's emotional fuse.
And then there's Avery.
"He's a little different than the other kids we've had at that position," said Krzyzewski. "He's been able to score and set other people up. He's just one of the best guards in the country. He's better than I thought he'd be at this stage."
The Blue Devils are where many figured them to be heading into the bulk of their Atlantic Coast Conference season, which begins Sunday against fourth-ranked Maryland (13-1) at Cole Field House.
Duke (12-1) is ranked second and recently dismantled then-No. 3 Kentucky, 71-60, in the Jimmy V Classic in East Rutherford, N.J. Avery is averaging just under 15 points, but the statistic that sticks out is his 2.6-1 assist to turnover ratio.
"When Will came in the lineup last year, he was kind of a spark," said senior guard Trajan Langdon. "Nobody knew exactly what he was going to do. This year, he's become the leader. He's had to play a lot more under control, and that's what he's done."
As a freshman, Avery had only 87 assists in 674 minutes, while committing 60 turnovers. He also launched 108 three-point shots, making just 32 of them. He seemed the antithesis of Wojciechowski, the former Cardinal Gibbons star.
"It was kind of hard because coming out of high school, I had kind of a scorer's mentality," said Avery, who started his high school career in Augusta, Ga., and ended it at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. "I had to learn how to be more of a point guard."
Avery had a terrific teacher, and learned quite a deal playing behind as well as with Wojciechowski.
"He was a tremendous leader. He really knew how to pull the team together," Avery said of Wojciechowski. "His work ethic was tremendous on and off the court. I never looked at myself as competing with him. But the competition we did have in practice made me better."
Wojciechowski, the Gibbons grad who recently returned from a stint in a Polish professional league, now gets to see the result of those confrontations they had in the solitude of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"He's matured and developed so far beyond everyone's expectations, even his own," said Wojciechowski, who is back on campus working in athletic fund-raising and serving as analyst on the team's radio broadcasts.
It doesn't hurt having two of the best players in the country in Langdon and fellow sophomore Elton Brand, a 6-foot-8, 260-pound center, to set up. Langdon is one of the country's best long-range shooters, and Brand constantly draws double teams inside.
"It's easy for me having [Langdon and Brand]," said Avery. "I get open threes all the time."
Avery's eight threes in a game broke a record of seven held by Langdon and former Duke guard Chris Collins. It came in a 116-86 win Dec. 9 over Florida, a game in which Avery finished with 26 points on eight of 12 shooting and nine assists.
"My job first is to get others involved, and still look for my shot," said Avery, who also scored a career-high 30 in the team's only defeat, a 77-75 loss to Cincinnati Nov. 28 in the championship game of the Great Alaska Shootout.
Defensively, Avery has also improved quite a bit and is looking forward to his matchup with Maryland's Steve Francis. After shutting down Kentucky's Wayne Turner in the second half of the Dec. 22 game, Avery said that Francis will be the best player he will face this year.
"He's a point guard who looks to score, and they're a lot tougher to stop," said Avery.
' Avery should know. Terps results, schedule Record: 13-1, 1-0 Date, Opponent, Result/Time 11/14 Western Carolina W, 113-46 11/17 UMBC W, 90-62 11/20 Hofstra W, 89-59 11/23 Duquesne W, 81-47 11/26 American U. (PR)* W, 82-32 11/27 UCLA* W, 70-54 11/28 Pittsburgh* W, 87-52 12/3 Wake Forest W, 92-69 12/6 Stanford-x W, 62-60 12/7 DePaul-x W, 92-75 12/12 at Kentucky L, 103-91 12/19 Princeton-y W, 81-58 12/23 North Texas W, 132-57 12/27 South Carolina State W, 104-70 1/3 Duke 1: 30 1/7 at Virginia 8 1/10 N.C. State 1: 30 1/13 at North Carolina 9 1/19 Georgia Tech 9 1/24 at Clemson 4 1/27 Florida State 8 1/31 at Wake Forest 1 2/3 at Duke 9 2/6 Virginia 1 2/10 at N.C. State 7 2/13 North Carolina 4 2/21 at Georgia Tech 1: 30 2/24 Clemson 7 2/27 at Florida State 1: 30 3/4-7 ACC tourn.-z TBA *-Puerto Rico Shootout x-BB&T; Classic, Washington y-at Baltimore Arena z-at Charlotte, N.C. Next for Terps Opponent: Duke Site: Cole Field House, College Park When: Sunday, 1: 30 p.m. Rankings: Duke No. 2; Maryland No. 4 TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM) Tickets: Sold out
Pub Date: 1/01/99