Oct 18, 2008
Durham, N.C. — The Duke Blue Devils know how their 2008-09 season, like every season under coach Mike Krzyzewski, will be judged - not, however, by how they play in November, or December, or January or even February, for that matter.
A program with Duke's tradition and trio of national championships is always judged from the outside come March, come NCAA Tournament time.
And this season will be no different. The Devils return everyone except 2007-08 leading scorer and captain DeMarcus Nelson, who is currently trying to make the Golden State Warriors, and Taylor King, who transferred to Villanova after one year in Durham.
With a nucleus that includes tri-captains Greg Paulus, Gerald Henderson and Jon Scheyer back from a 28-6 team, the ultimate goal is to go much further in the Big Dance than the second round, where the Devils lost to West Virginia last March. Duke hasn't made the Sweet 16 since the 2005-06 season.
"Well, we did have a great year last year up until the end when we lost a few games and we lost confidence in ourselves," Scheyer said. "You know, one thing that's important (is) guys on the team individually and as a team, you know you have an ego and you believe you're good.
"And for us, we're not missing any pieces. This year, I think we have all the pieces to do what we want to do and that's what makes us feel confident."
After climbing to as high as No. 2 in the national rankings last season, the Devils slipped at the end for the second consecutive season, losing five of their last 11 games and three of their final five. In his press conference before Duke's first practice Friday, Krzyzewski said he didn't handle the team correctly.
Since winning the gold medal as the USA Basketball head coach in August, Krzyzewski has publicly declared, with zest, that he won't be "relieved" by any victory, no matter the opponent. He said Friday that he let the pressure of being Duke negatively affect his players late last season.
"I hope that message gets across to my team that we're playing for right now, and we're going to try to be as good as we can possibly be, and we're going to fight like crazy," Krzyzewski said.
"And you don't have to do anything because 'Coach K's' your coach or Duke went to 10 Final Fours."
Krzyzewski added that come March, his players weren't just competing against the other team on the floor, but also against the expectations. He blamed himself for letting that get to his players, saying he has no problem when Duke's tradition is thrown in his face but he must deflect it away from his team.
As for Duke's returning players, they're well aware of the games that matter most, but they also realize the benefits of the contests leading up the big ones.
"It's difficult, 'cause you can have the best season ever in the regular season, but when you get to the postseason (you can) have that be completely erased," Brian Zoubek said. "And that's pretty much what happened to us last year at least, and it kind of definitely overshadows what we did during the season.
"We just gotta look at it like every game's building up to that, and that's the ultimate goal."
A couple things that could aid the Devils come March are health and depth. Everyone enters the season ready to go, including a few players who have recovered from offseason surgery.
Henderson had surgery on his right wrist, which gave him three and a half months to work exclusively with his left hand. Zoubek had surgery on his left foot for the second time, which kept him out until mid-August. He said he's completely healed now and is trying to get back to peak form for the season-opener Nov. 10 against Presbyterian.
Forward Lance Thomas also had surgery in April on his right pinkie. And junior guard Martynas Pocius, who received a medical redshirt last season after re-injuring his left ankle four games into the year, is back healthy as well.
Add freshmen forwards Miles Plumlee and Olek Czyz and guard Elliot Williams to the mix, and Krzyzewski likes the depth of his team.
One of the issues at the end of last season was that freshman forward Kyle Singler, the ACC rookie of the year, wore down under the heavy burden of playing lots of minutes and banging against bigger, stronger players.
Zoubek played very inconsistent minutes because of his foot injury, placing the frontcourt responsibilities on Singler and Thomas. Krzyzewski doesn't expect any of his players experiencing a similar problem this season.
"We can play a lot of people," Krzyzewski said, "and we're healthy now that we (don't) have any injuries, but if we did, we would probably not take a dip like you might take (usually)."
Of course, these Devils will likely be overshadowed all season by the preseason consensus No. 1 North Carolina team 8 miles down 15-501. But that's just fine with them. They're solely focused on what they can accomplish, and — recent March disappointments aside — they're a pretty confident bunch regardless of what outsiders might think.
"We listen to ourselves, we listen to our coaches," Henderson said. "I think within that, we have enough to know how good we are."