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DON'T LOOK BACK

Just six months ago, Duke was on top of the world.

Fresh off another Final Four appearance, head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 10th overall, the Blue Devils look to return four starters. Krzyzewski had garnered another trademark Blue Devil recruiting class, replete with two McDonald’s All-Americans, including point guard Shaun Livingston, the nation’s consensus No. 2 player. Despite the loss of Chris Duhon’s senior leadership, the Blue Devils appeared to be one of the nation’s deepest teams yet again.

That was before freshman phenom Luol Deng bolted for NBA riches, leaving Duke with just two true big men for the 2004-2005 season. Just weeks later, Livingston followed suit, leaving Duke with one true point guard and just eight scholarship players. In the span of two months, the Blue Devils went from a team with towering expectations to a team in the unfamiliar position of being overlooked.

“It’s kind of hard to understand when you see guys like myself, J.J. Redick, Shelden Williams, those two All-American guys back from last season’s team that helped us get to the Final Four,” senior Daniel Ewing said.

So far, Duke has responded to its new role as an underdog. The Blue Devils implemented a new basketball conditioning program in preparation for the season, and some Blue Devils are in the best shape of their lives. Redick, for example, has dropped 20 pounds since last season.

The Blue Devils are loaded at shooting guard—both Ewing and Redick are strong offensively and look to provide the bulk of the Blue Devils’ scoring this season. In particular, the smooth-shooting Redick looked especially sharp during the Blue-White Scrimmage, a tribute to his improved conditioning.

“I just think J.J. never got tired,” Krzyzewski said after the scrimmage. “You get tired guarding him and that’s good. He’s in great, great shape.”

Freshman DeMarcus Nelson, a top-30 recruit last season, broke the California state high school scoring record after averaging over 30 points per game last season. His muscular 6-foot-3, 195-pound frame gives the Blue Devils another dangerous slasher from the backcourt.

The only true point guard on the roster, however, is junior Sean Dockery. The Chicago native, who has 90 steals in 70 career games, has long been prized for his intense on-the-ball defense. With just two career starts, he will be hard-pressed to provide the game management and steady leadership that Duhon provided as a four-year starter last season. Yet Krzyzewski is optimistic that Dockery can fill Duhon’s shoes despite his inexperience.

“He’s a real important guy for us,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a good player, I think he could have a little bit of a breakout year this year, but he needs to realize his importance.”

Should Dockery falter, Nelson and Ewing will assume point guard duties. Krzyzewski plans to have two players on the court at any given time who can serve as the primary ballhandler. Ewing, who spent the off-season playing against NBA point guards in Houston, is preparing for a dual role this season as both a point guard and a shooting guard.

“How I am going to use Daniel Ewing? Every way possible,” Krzyzewski said. “Will he bring the ball up? Yes. Will he shoot it? Yes. Will he guard the other ball handler? Yes. Will he guard off the ball? Yes. Will he rebound? Yes. Will he lead? Yes. If he didn’t earn his scholarship in his first three years, which I think he did, he’ll earn graduate credits this year.”

The Blue Devils will need that kind of versatility to compensate for their questionable depth in what is shaping up to be the nation’s most competitive conference. Although Duke returns three starters, only one original scholarship player off the bench, junior Lee Melchionni, has collegiate game experience. Duke’s weak bench got even thinner when Nelson ruptured a thumb ligament during the Blue-White Scrimmage, sidelining him for two to four weeks.

The most critical question for Duke’s bench will be its ability to give Williams and junior Shavlik Randolph a break. Former walk-on Patrick Johnson is the only Duke reserve taller than 6-foot-8. In order to preserve Williams and Randolph’s stamina, Krzyzewski indicated that the Blue Devils may not use as much pressure defense as they have in years past.

“We can’t full court press and use their energy up doing that type of stuff,” Krzyzewski said. “We have to look at our system and see how it corresponds to our talent and the number of people we have.”

Should Randolph or Williams fall to injury or foul trouble, Duke will look to 6-foot-6 freshman David McClure and to 6-foot-4 senior Reggie Love. Although undersized, Love and McClure have earned reputations as top rebounders and defenders. In addition, the 6-foot-7 Melchionni added 10 to 12 pounds of muscle this off-season to help with Duke’s interior depth.

Despite these shortcomings, the Blue Devils remain one of the most talented teams in the country. And regardless of Duke’s preseason rank, the Blue Devils are expected to remain one of the nation’s premier teams as long as Krzyzewski roams their sidelines.

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