Last season, Duke marketed itself as a physical, gritty team. Although those characteristics may still apply to this year’s squad, the name of the game is now speed.
Playing with no true center in the starting lineup, the Blue Devils will push the pace on opponents this year, trying to score in transition and applying full court pressure in the hopes of generating turnovers.
“We’re going to try to implement a system that’s personalized for this team,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said at the start of fall practice. “This team’s very athletic. It’s not your conventional team of two big guys, a wing, a shooter and a point guard. It’s not going to be like that. It’s going to be a team that has very good versatility. Guys are going to have to be able to guard multiple positions…and it’ll be a team that uses the full court, both offensively and defensively.”
Blue Devil floor general Quinn Cook will be tasked with controlling the pace of the game at both ends of the court. Krzyzewski lauded the junior’s ball pressure in late September, saying that the Washington, D.C., native is in the best shape of his career.
“[Playing fast] is very fun. Coach K has the ultimate trust in me with the ball,” Cook said. “On defense it speeds the offense up. It gets them uncomfortable and not running their offense…. They’ll hopefully be so tired, they’ll take plays off and stand up so we can take advantage of that.”
Pushing the tempo and forcing turnovers with their press should raise the number of possessions per game for Duke. With so much depth across the board, Krzyzewski will have no trouble finding fresh bodies to run onto the court to speed up the game.
“We have so many people who are interchangeable at different spots, we have guys who are 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7 and long,” senior forward Josh Hairston said. “We know that five guys can’t run that hard for 40 minutes, so we’re going to try to throw groups at teams. You could see sometimes this year Coach sub three, four, five at a time to give new looks at teams and just continue to beat teams down throughout the process of 40 minutes.”
But the depth means nothing if players aren’t in good enough shape to run for the duration of their time on the court. Hairston, who enters this season listed at 235 pounds after playing at 240 last year, said the team knew summer conditioning would be more intense than in years past.
“We knew it coming into the summer that we were going to be doing a lot running, but we embraced it because we knew we needed it,” Hairston said. “If you come into training camp and preseason already in shape like we did… you don’t have to focus on it during preseason if you’re already in shape when preseason gets here. So it gives us more time to work on ourselves, work on our games and our meshing.”
The summer workout schedule was grueling, with sessions in both the morning and afternoon. On a typical Monday, the team went through some sort of physical conditioning in the morning like swimming or cycling, sometimes followed by yoga. Players then went off to class, returning in the afternoon for more conditioning, usually in the form of either a weight room session or a basketball workout. Every lifting session always culminated with running.
This summer was Matt Jones’ first exposure to the intense offseason workouts that the college game demands. The importance of working to get in shape was not lost on the freshman guard.
“Coach K emphasizes a deeper roster. He tells us every day that if you don’t want to go hard, we have another person that wants to do your job and can do your job,” Jones said. “At the same time, we all just take pride in being in shape so that when our number is called, we’re ready.”
As the season gets going, Hairston said that practice replaces the non-basketball components of the conditioning program.
“Yesterday after practice we just ran a couple of 22’s, down and back, down and back twice under 22 seconds,” Hairston said. “We just did that a couple times, but because our practices are so long and we run so much in practice, there’s really no need to keep running... as a group.”
At the season-opening press conference, Krzyzewski mentioned the team’s schedule of upcoming events: an open practice, Countdown to Craziness and two exhibition games. And then what?
"Off to the races,” Krzyzewski said. “At least I hope we’re off to the races.”