Monday May 3rd, 2010

When Kyrie Irving committed to Duke on Oct. 22, 2009, the feeling among Blue Devils coaches, assistant Chris Collins said, was that Irving would be a "game-changer" at point guard. They considered Irving, who played at St. Patrick's in Elizabeth, N.J., to be the best point guard in the high school class of 2010, ahead of Brandon Knight, Josh Selby and Cory Joseph. The Blue Devils had been trounced by a far-more-athletic Villanova team in the Sweet 16 of the previous NCAA tournament and the prevailing wisdom in the media was that Irving (along with the other mega-recruit they were chasing at the time, Harrison Barnes) was the key to them getting back in the national-championship hunt after an eight-year drought. Duke needed a few future lottery picks on its roster to return to glory -- or so we all thought.

Duke managed to win a national title in the season before Irving set foot on campus, and I asked him after last month's Jordan Brand Classic if that was something he expected to happen. "To be honest," he said, "not really."

Now Irving is joining a team that's likely to be No. 1 in the post-draft-deadline Power Rankings I'll release next week, and has a realistic shot at back-to-back titles. While potential 2010-11 contenders Butler (with Gordon Hayward) and Purdue (JaJuan Johnson) are in limbo leading up to the May 8 deadline for underclassmen to pull out of the NBA draft, the Blue Devils' one first-round possibility, Kyle Singler, passed on the draft altogether, giving Duke the country's best 1-2-3 trio for next season in himself, Nolan Smith and Irving. This won't the same kind of Blue Devils team that we saw last year, though: Coach Mike Krzyzewski has a history of changing styles according to personnel, and as Collins said, Irving is a game-changer. So as we wait for the rest of the national landscape to come into focus, let's examine the preseason favorite for '10-11, whose roster is already locked in.

Irving's impact won't be as much on offensive quality as it will be on tempo. Duke had the most efficient offense in the country last year and much of that was because senior point guard Jon Scheyer had a brilliant final season, posting a 127.0 efficiency rating with a 2.98-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Even though Irving's NBA potential is much greater than Scheyer's, I think it'll be impossible for Irving to be that efficient in Year 1.

What Irving can do, though, is make Duke a fast-paced team once again. He said that Krzyzewski recruited him "to be a pure point guard and get up and down the court," and playing alongside Smith, he should be able to make that happen. Scheyer was more of a methodical point guard, and as the Blue Devils made more and more use of 7-footer Brian Zoubek last season, they had to slow down the game. "We made a choice to be more of a half-court, physical, defensive team last year, because of our personnel up front and how little depth we had on the perimeter," Collins said.

And they were wildly successful doing just that, finishing No. 1 overall in's efficiency rankings. But the smart adaptation this year, Collins said, will be to "play fast" -- and a likely lineup of Irving, Smith, Singler and the Plumlee brothers would give them five athletes who can make plays in the open floor.

It's common for coaches of slower-paced teams (Duke ranked 249th in possessions per game in '09-10) to talk about playing fast in the offseason, and then not actually put it into practice, but the stats show that the Blue Devils are willing to run when they have the right personnel. Their pace has varied wildly over the past five seasons:

Compare that to their rival, North Carolina, which has played a similar (fast) pace for each of the past five seasons:

I'd expect Duke to get back in 70-plus possession territory this season -- and there's a chance the Devils could play even faster than Carolina.

Duke's single biggest question mark isn't how good Irving will be: It's how well the Plumlee brothers (Miles and Mason) can make up for Zoubek's effort on the glass. Zoubek grabbed 21.4 percent of available offense boards last season, the highest percentage in the country, and the Blue Devils have no clear statistical replacement for him in that category.

Take a look at the offensive rebounding percentages for Duke's 3-4-5 starters from last season, and their national rank in that category:

With Zoubek, Thomas and Singler on the floor together, Duke was getting 38.8 percent of available offensive boards -- essentially, second-chance opportunities galore.

Now look at the '09-10 rebounding stats for next season's projected 3-4-5 lineup (with the Plumlees being somewhat interchangeable):

There will be more available offensive boards now that Zoubek is gone, but this trio currently projects to be under 30 percent -- a huge dropoff that would adversely affect their offense. The burden is really on the Plumlees to make huge gains on the glass, and it's possible that Mason, in particular, could make a significant jump between his freshman and sophomore seasons. He missed six games with a broken wrist at the start of '09-10, and we only saw glimpses of his full potential.

In the Duke locker room after the national title game, Smith was asked what he thought about next year's backcourt, which includes him, Irving, sophomore Andre Dawkins and Liberty transfer Seth Curry. "It means," Smith said, "that I won't have to play all 40 minutes anymore."

Smith, Scheyer and Singler rarely came off the floor, and Smith's feeling was that he would be even more productive if his minutes were in the lower-30s, as opposed to when he needed to conserve energy to make it through an entire game. Dawkins should be ready to play expanded minutes at two-guard and Curry is an excellent combo guard who should be a major part of the rotation.

While Duke might have some issues with quality depth in its frontcourt -- after the Plumlees, they'll have relatively untested sophomore Ryan Kelly, freshman Josh Hairston and juco transfer Carrick Felix in reserve -- the team's perimeter arsenal will be amazing. Singler shot 39.9 percent from beyond the arc last season, Smith 39.2 percent, Dawkins 37.9 percent, Curry 39.6 percent with the U.S. Under-19 team last summer, and Irving at least looks like someone who could fire at a high-30s clip.

With five strong long-distance options, Duke should be insulated from cold shooting nights. And unless Krzyzewski decides to play small and start a three-guard lineup (which isn't likely), he'll be bringing Curry off the bench -- the same Seth Curry who, on that U.S. U19 team's gold-medal winning trip to New Zealand, made more threes than Butler's Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack, Washington State's Klay Thompson and Pittsburgh's Ashton Gibbs. I suspect that Curry is capable of leading at least 2-3 other ACC teams in scoring right now, and Duke has the luxury of using him as a reserve. With Singler and Smith back for an encore, and Curry's kind of firepower on the bench, it's impossible not to make Duke the preseason No. 1.

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