DURHAM, N.C. -- Before the Duke Blue Devils began practicing one day last week, their coach, Mike Krzyzewski, stood in front of his players to explain the presence of the 200 or so onlookers who would be watching the workout from the upper deck of Cameron Indoor Stadium. The visitors were executives from around the country who had paid to participate in a weekend leadership seminar that Coach K was conducting through Duke's Fuqua School of Business.
"They want to see how our company is run, how our corporation is run," he said.
A few minutes later the Duke players were cutting, passing and shooting their way through a crisp, efficient and, yes, businesslike two-hour workout. This is what blue-chip success looks like -- robotic, mechanical, maybe even a little antiseptic. If college basketball is the business world, then Coach K is Steve Jobs, and he's got the four banners to prove it. (One for the MacBook, one for the iPod, one for the iPhone, one for the iPad ...)
I choose this analogy as a compliment, but I imagine not everyone will recognize it as such. For much of the last two decades, Duke has been the benchmark of excellence in this sport, and that has understandably engendered some resentment and jealousy. While it sounds silly to suggest that last year's team flew under the radar -- "Yeah, we were fifth or sixth in the country," Krzyzewski cracked -- the fact is, by Duke standards it did. This year promises a return to the program's Forbes 500 roots; the Blue Devils are beginning the new season as the consensus favorite to repeat as national champions.
I have much to report about my visit to practice, but allow me to cut to the chase. I was one of the 55 voters (out of 65) who voted the Blue Devils as the No. 1 team in the country for the AP's preseason poll. From what I saw, we may have underrated them.
I had an interesting frame of reference for evaluating this team, because I was coming off visits to two other squads that were voted in the AP's top eight: Villanova and North Carolina. In both instances, I came away a little underwhelmed. Both teams had much potential, but they seemed young and unpolished to me. There was, however, nothing unpolished about Duke. If Nova, Carolina and all the other wannabes are starting on "Go," then Duke has already collected its $200, made its first turn on the board and is currently sitting on Pennsylvania Railroad. The Devils have a long way to go to reach Park Place, but they've got a huge head start.
It's not often that a team boasts two returning seniors from a championship team -- one of whom is a leading candidate for national player of the year -- and neither is the most talented player on his team. By my lights, that is Kyrie Irving, a 6-foot-2 freshman point guard from Elizabeth, N.J., who was named a Parade and McDonald's All-American last year. Yes, the graduated Jon Scheyer was a terrific floor leader, but he was never really a point guard. He only ran the offense out of necessity. It has been a long time since Duke has had a player of Irving's caliber at the most important position on the floor. He will make plenty of spectacular plays, but mostly he will make everyone around him better -- and they're already pretty doggone good.
Irving has all the physical tools to be special. He has solid (though not overwhelming) size. He is extremely quick and agile, and he is a deft three-point shooter. He changes direction so quickly you almost don't notice it. But what really makes Irving elite is his innate feel for the position. He knows how to change speeds, he slides his way to the rim through subtle feints and hesitations, and he consistently makes smart deliveries on the break. Irving is not an overpowering point guard in the Derrick Rose/John Wall mold. He's more like Isiah Thomas or Chris Paul, orchestrating the action with more artistry than explosiveness.
Even those returning seniors, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, sometimes find themselves marveling at Irving's gifts. That was apparent when I asked the two of them after practice to recall their favorite play of his thus far. "Oh man," Singler said. "When was it that he split those three guys?"
"Last week," Smith said.
"Yeah, last week," Singler continued. "That was ridiculous. He was coming off a ball screen going to his left, then he split the post coming up to help. Then two defenders came to stop him and he split that [double team] too and then made a nice reverse layup. It was real impressive."
Indeed, the Duke coaches have "complained" during staff meetings that Irving is making it near impossible for them to practice double-teaming the dribbler, because he's so good at splitting defenders. Toward the end of the practice I watched, Irving drove the middle of the lane and leapt toward the basket. When 6-10 junior Miles Plumlee shifted over to help, Irving brought the ball down, flung it underhanded over Plumlee's outstretched arms, and gave it a little English to bank in a layup. Krzyzewski cracked a smile, turned to an assistant and said, "I can't teach that."
I had seen Irving play plenty in high school, so I knew how good he was. But I didn't go full man-crush on him until I sat down with him one-on-one for 20 minutes. It's hard enough for me to remember what it was like to be 18 years old. It's even harder to imagine being 18 and having the kind of poise and intelligence Irving evinces, even as he operates in a fishbowl with the weight of the world on his shoulders. "Nobody really, truly understands the transition from high school to college until they actually experience it themselves," he told me. "Listening is a skill. That's something I'm doing a lot of, especially learning from Kyle and Nolan and Coach K. They're always giving me advice on how to get better. That's a key word this year, is just getting better."
The good news for Irving is that he doesn't have to carry this program by himself. Besides Singler and Smith, he will be playing with two veteran post players in Miles Plumlee and brother Mason, who's a sophomore. Any of the second five are prepared to contribute, most notably the two guards who will provide instant offense off the bench -- 6-4 sophomore Andre Dawkins and 6-1 redshirt sophomore Seth Curry. (Yes, that's Stephen Curry's little brother. Seth transferred to Duke from Liberty, where he averaged 20.2 points per game as a freshman.) Duke's surprising dash to the championship last spring makes it easy to forget that it was coming off a stretch during which the Blue Devils failed to make it past the Sweet 16 for five consecutive years.
I would not anticipate the start of another such streak beginning next March. Duke is not the only good team in the country, but it is the only one with no real weaknesses. The Blue Devils' business is winning, and their stock is only going to rise from here.
• Let me save opposing coaches some time in putting together their game plans: Do NOT zone this team. I had been thinking during practice that Dawkins and Curry were kind of quiet. Then Coach K had the players work on their zone offense, and those two started shooting darts from well behind the three-point line. Dawkins and Curry aren't shooters. They're snipers. Don't give 'em the chance to spread the floor and fire.
• As I reflected on the practice in the days that followed, I realized how much of my positive impression resulted from the Plumlee brothers. In most programs, either one would be a first or second option who would be looked on to create scoring in the post. On this team, they only need to worry about setting screens, working the boards and keeping their hands ready for passes when they're open. Both Plumlees are good athletes with longer-than-expected shooting range, but what really surprised me was their ability to pass. They also have that telekinetic thing that brothers have, and it's a lot of fun watching them feed to each other in Duke's motion offense.
• On several occasions, Krzyzewski turned to the spectators in the upper deck and said, "I have ultimate confidence in my staff." He was especially referring to his co-associate head coaches, Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski, to whom Coach K delegates a great deal of responsibility. Those guys are in their 11th and 12th seasons on the staff, respectively, and they also assist Coach K in all of his endeavors with USA Basketball. Yet, their names rarely crop up for major job openings when the annual spring carousel gets started. I wonder if they've become like the pretty girl in high school who doesn't get asked to the prom because everybody assumes she has a date. These guys are clearly ready to run their own programs, and they're more eager for the chance than you might think.
• Krzyzewski is on the verge of a couple of major milestones. He is five wins away from his 800th career victory at Duke. He is also just 35 away from passing his college coach at Army, Bob Knight, for the most career Division I wins in NCAA history. As it happens, 35 is the exact number of games that Duke won last season. Can you imagine if Coach K had the chance to set the record and win his fifth NCAA title in the same game?
• Here's one reason why it might be a wee bit harder to hate Duke this year: Bruce Springsteen's daughter is a freshman there this year. I visited Duke just after parents' weekend, and I missed Springsteen at my hotel by just one day. I heard he was chilling at the bar of the Washington Duke Inn on Saturday night with all the other parents. Even though I knew he had checked out, I still fantasized that The Boss would wander into the fitness room in the morning and catch me working out on the elliptical while listening to Tenth Avenue Freeze Out on my iPod. Maybe next year.
Heart and soul: Singler. My Irving man-crush aside, there is no doubt whose team this is. Duke got extremely lucky last spring when Singler decided to return for his senior year, because he definitely would have been a first-round NBA draft pick and might have gone in the lottery. Singler had a great summer, working out with the pros for USA basketball, competing at every elite camp imaginable and adding 18 pounds to bring his weight up to 235. "It's all good weight," Krzyzewski told me. "He's becoming more of a man." Singler shot the ball poorly for the first half of last season, but once he got accustomed to playing on the perimeter full time he found his groove and was named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four. Besides his strength and skill, Singler is a whole lot tougher than people give him credit for. He had minor arthroscopic surgery to clean out his left knee in September, but I didn't notice any ill effects. Singler is also shooting the ball better than he ever has.
Most improved: Dawkins. After Elliott Williams transferred to Memphis in the summer of 2009, the coaching staff convinced Dawkins to bypass his senior year at Atlantic Shores Christian High in Chesapeake, Va., and begin his freshman year of college at the age of 17. Dawkins played well early, but in December, his sister and mother were in a horrible car accident which killed his sister and badly injured his mother. Dawkins understandably was not the same player, but his improved strength, stamina and confidence are going to be a big help this season. Krzyzewski pointed out that one reason for Dawkins's improvement is that he is usually being guarded by Singler in practice. "So you're going to get better just to keep your head above water, because you're matched up every day against a kid who will probably be a lottery pick."
Glue guy: Smith. I would not have guessed that Smith would be my choice here before watching practice, but things could get a little touchy for him this season. While he has improved his NBA prospects, Smith is not the sure thing that Singler is, and he has to know in the back of his mind that he has a better chance to make the pros as a point guard than as an undersized two-guard. Smith's ability to spell Irving at the point will help Duke win games, but there is no doubt that Irving will be running the offense when he is on the floor. Smith is hard to stop when he's attacking the rim, and he is capable of being one of the best perimeter defenders in the ACC. If he's totally dedicated to helping the team win, he could have an All-America-type of season. If he succumbs to senioritis and lets his mind wander to the NBA, it could spell trouble.
Lost in the shuffle: Ryan Kelly. Usually I choose someone in this category who will get little or no minutes, but I do think Kelly, a 6-10 sophomore, is going to get a healthy share of playing time. I actually almost picked him as my most improved because his physique looked so dramatically different -- he's nearly 30 pounds heavier than he was this time last year. But for all the talk about this team's depth, the reality is that Krzyzewski usually trims his rotation to seven or eight players by the time the NCAA tournament starts. Kelly is big and very skilled, but I don't see him edging ahead of either of the Plumlee brothers for minutes, and 6-8 freshman forward Josh Hairston will make a strong push as well. Kelly will contribute, but he's still a year away from being a featured performer in this program.
Bottom line: Nothing in sports is automatic, of course. Lots of things can trip up Duke between here and Houston -- injuries, chemistry, the pressure of trying to repeat, the challenge of holding the No. 1 ranking wire to wire, or even plain bad luck. But there's not a team in the country that wouldn't love to have those problems. As always, I reserve the right to change my opinion dozens, if not hundreds, of times between now and March. But until further notice, it says here that you are looking at your 2011 NCAA champions.