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Duke's inner strength; Elton Brand: After broken freshman season, his presence in paint is brightening the Blue Devils' title canvas.


RALEIGH, N.C. -- Elton Brand played some tight end for his high school football team in Peekskill, N.Y. His mother tried to get him into the martial arts. He insists, however, that "What if?" is not among the games he has tried.

Brand is the 6-foot-8, 260-pound sophomore at the center of Duke's second-ranked basketball team. The Blue Devils, who are home tomorrow against Maryland, are among the favorites to win the NCAA basketball title, which begs the question: Does Brand think they would be defending the crown had he not missed 15 games last season with a broken right foot?

"Not really," Brand said. "The other guys stepped up as soon as I got hurt, and they went on a tear in the ACC. I didn't have anything to do with that."

Brand also had too little to do in last season's South Region final, when he took only four shots and Duke lost its offensive focus and a 17-point lead in the last 10 minutes to eventual champion Kentucky. The Blue Devils developed other options while Brand missed 13 Atlantic Coast Conference games, but what would have happened had he been at full strength?

What was supposed to be a four-month rehabilitation lasted two, and Brand was "maybe 75 percent" when he returned to Duke for the stretch drive last season. Now he is fit physically and mentally, thanks to a two-game benching in December, and giving the Blue Devils a quality they lacked too often in 1997-98.

"We just didn't have the inside presence without him," senior guard Trajan Langdon said after Saturday's win at N.C. State. "You can see all he does for us. He's grabbing boards, blocking shots. People have to collapse when you kick it into him, and that opens the game up for our shooters. He can't be replaced. I don't think there's a big man in the nation who can do what he does."

Brand could be the first player to leave Duke early for the NBA. He will get consideration for national honors, and it will be a shock if he isn't named Player of the Year in the ACC.

He's one of three conference players averaging 17.8 points. Brand also leads the ACC in field-goal percentage (.630) and is third in rebounding (9.0) and blocks (2.6), a category in which he has more than doubled his freshman production.

Remember the first Duke-Maryland game, when Brand and his incredibly large hands came from behind and took the ball away from Mike Mardesich as the 7-footer went up for a dunk? Brand is to glove size what Bob Lanier and his size 17s were to shoes, and it's difficult to get a shot off when he's fully extended.

"For him to be Player of the Year, he has to show it at both ends," Duke forward Chris Carrawell said. "The last couple of games, starting with St. John's, he's been defending well. We might get beat, but we know we have big 'E' back there. That kind of eases the pressure. You can get up on a guy and make him go to the hole, because we know Elton can block the shot."

Carrawell has shut down scorers like Steve Francis, and coach Mike Krzyzewski raves about the defensive technique of forward Shane Battier.

Brand, whose defensive fundamentals are catching up to his low-post mechanics, wants similar recognition.

Krzyzewski got his attention after a so-so performance against Florida on Dec. 9. Brand's recovery from last season's broken foot included a starting role with the U.S. team in the Goodwill Games, but a month into this season, he wasn't in the desired condition.

"He [Krzyzewski] sent a message to me, and the team, that you have to earn your spot," said Brand, who came off the bench against Michigan and North Carolina A&T.; "Battier, [Chris] Burgess, they were playing well and I wasn't. Nothing is guaranteed, especially on this team, where there is so much talent."

Actually, now that Taymon Domzalski has lost his spot in the rotation, Duke is using only eight players, albeit prep All-Americans all. Brand is playing close to 30 minutes a game, but lately he's run the floor as hard as Antawn Jamison did for North Carolina last season.

A second win over Maryland would make Duke 22-1 for the first time in its history. The Blue Devils are cruising toward their third straight regular-season title in the ACC, a feat last achieved by North Carolina in 1976-'78. Brand wasn't born until the following year, and he'll turn 20 on March 11, the day the NCAAs start.

Brand expects to have more of an impact in his second tournament than he did in his first.

Terps tumble

After Sunday's 85-72 loss to Wake Forest, Maryland falls three spots to No. 7 in the Associated Press' Top 25. (Poll, 5D)

Pub Date: 2/02/99

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