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March 21, 2006

Melchionni finding ways to help Duke win

DURHAM, N.C. - It should have been the crowning moment in one of Lee Melchionni's best games in weeks. Instead, he had to fend off ridicule from his teammates.

Duke was finishing off a surprisingly easy victory over George Washington in the second round of the NCAA tournament when Melchionni drove down the base line. Instead of a simple layup, the former walk-on decided to try for a dunk.

And promptly clanged it off the back of the rim.

''I was too high,'' Melchionni quipped. ''I was worried about the backboard, I didn't want to break it. And I didn't want to hit my head or anything.''

As can be expected, he continues to receive some good-natured ribbing. Melchionni's roommate, center Shelden Williams, was on the court at the time and had a nice view of the play.

He gave him credit for the attempt while pointing out it looked much more graceful than a successful jam last season against Michigan State, when Melchionni barely got the ball through before flopping to the floor.

''I can live with a missed dunk, but squeaking it in and falling down when you're by yourself, that's different,'' Williams said. ''He's making better strides to becoming a better dunker, I guess.''

Melchionni's improvement has come in many other areas, too. He's averaging nearly six points in a reserve role as the Blue Devils are in the round of 16 for the ninth straight year, where they will play LSU on Thursday in the Atlanta Regional.

As a freshman, Melchionni never left the bench in 12 of the 33 games and barely averaged a point in the ones he got in. He doubled his total playing time the next season but most of it still came in garbage time.

Not exactly what he expected when he turned down scholarship offers to Kansas, Notre Dame and many other schools to come to Duke. His father, Gary, was a two-time captain for the Blue Devils in the 1970s, and once coach Mike Krzyzewski showed some interest, Melchionni was sold.

''If Duke recruited me in any way, shape or form, this was the place I wanted to be,'' he said. ''I used to say if you'd cut me open, I'd bleed Duke blue.''

So he came and sat for two seasons. Finally, when Chris Duhon completed his eligibility, Luol Deng decided to go pro after just one season and top recruit Shaun Livingston bypassed Durham altogether, Melchionni had his opportunity.

He made the most of it, playing in all 33 games - with 14 starts - and scoring in double figures 11 times last year. That included a stretch of four straight down the stretch as the Blue Devils won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

''I sort of surprised myself with the way I played,'' Melchionni said of his junior season. ''Just being a part of the team is something special, and it's something that you probably can't appreciate until you graduate.''

He continued his expanded role this season, even though Duke added talented freshmen Greg Paulus and Josh McRoberts. When he doesn't start, Melchionni is one of the first ones off the bench, and his versatility is one of the keys to his success.

At 6-foot-6, 205 pounds, he hardly is physically imposing, but he's often asked to guard a power forward. Melchionni also can play small forward, while giving the Blue Devils another threat on the perimeter.

He made one 3-pointer in that game against GW and added a rebound, a block and a steal in 12 minutes.

''Lee was aggressive, not just with his shot, but that's the best defense he's played for a while,'' Krzyzewski said. ''He was there.''

On a team with Williams and J.J. Redick, that's often enough. Melchionni was picked as a captain before the season, a role that suits him perfectly.

''Lee is a natural leader,'' said Paulus, who is paired with Melchionni in Duke's buddy system. ''He's been great to me, just telling me crowds are going to say this, or they're going to try to do this. He just makes sure you're doing your thing.''

The way Melchionni sees it, that's all part of being in the program.

''I've been so blessed to play here, and play under Coach,'' he said. ''I think he's really made me a man. Whatever I do, from this point on in my life, I know I'll be able to handle because of what I've been through here at Duke.''

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