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Seniors value Duke experience in last campaign

Before the disappointing loss to North Carolina on Senior Night in Cameron Indoor Stadium March 4, Duke's seniors held a dinner to honor the occasion at the Washington Duke Inn.

On the eve of the group's final regular-season game together, the six senior players, the senior managers and head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his family sat down over a fancy meal to evaluate their accomplishments together.

Krzyzewski said his wife and daughters asked the seniors if the Duke experience, to this point, had been what they expected.

Player after player, the response was, "and more," Krzyzewski said.

"To see them express that makes you feel good," Krzyzewski said. "You think of those kids when you recruit them, you promise them a total development. And then for them to be able to say 'it was better and I expected the best,' that's a neat thing."

Although the players told Krzyzewski that the overall experience as Blue Devils has been more than they had hoped, the graduating class of 2006 has yet to live up to the lofty expectations it set for itself when the players committed to the program in 2001.

Back then, there were six recruited players in the class-and many considered it one of the best groups in history. J.J. Redick, Sean Dockery, Michael Thompson and Shavlik Randolph were McDonald's All-Americans and Shelden Williams was thought to have just as much potential. The sixth, Lee Melchionni, was no slouch himself-he was a top-100 recruit who agreed to walk on during his freshman year because of a since-repealed NCAA rule limiting teams five scholarship newcomers per year.

The group had astronomically high hopes for its time in Durham. Melchionni drew a comparison between his class and Michigan's 'Fab Five' from the early 1990s, which went to consecutive National Championship games in 1992 and 1993.

In 2001, Redick even predicted his class would win "tons of games and tons of championships."

The class of 2006 has been extremely successful. All told, the group has won 111 games so far, including two ACC Tournament titles and one trip to the NCAA Final Four.

But still absent from the resumé is the elusive National Championship that Redick said he would bring home to Durham during his career.

"You come to a program like Duke and your goal every year is to win championships," Melchionni said. "It's a program built on championships."

Four years later, the group is not the same as it looked when the six came in as freshmen. Randolph left for the NBA last spring, and Thompson left the program during his sophomore year. Still, having four recruited seniors at a high-profile program like Duke's is almost unheard of in college basketball these days.

Over their four years, the four players who have stayed-all of whom are on pace to graduate in May-have matured. Redick, for example, has transformed from a cocky, trash-talking freshman into a confident team leader as a senior. Melchionni and Dockery-two fairly high-profile recruits-have adjusted to playing in a program loaded with talent, gracefully adjusting to complementary roles.

Williams passed up the opportunity to be a likely first-round pick in last June's NBA draft to finish his career with the guys he came in with. At the time, Williams said he came back to win a National Championship.

But even though that is still the ultimate goal for these Blue Devils, the seniors are singing a more humble tune about the meaning of achieving that goal with the sunset of their college basketball careers on the horizon.

"I don't know if we've overachieved or underachieved," Redick said. "I can only speak for the four guys who are still here. We've all turned out to be pretty good guys. We've all grown a lot and we're all on pace to graduate in May.

"We've done a lot of great things here and obviously we would like to cap it off with a National Championship, but that can't be what we put our whole focus into. We don't put all our jelly beans in that jar, I guess."

Championship or not, the class of 2006 has left its mark on Duke's basketball program and college basketball as a whole.

Redick will almost surely have his jersey retired next season. Even after a late-season slump, he will be a first-team All-American and is in the running for National Player of the Year.

Williams has already won one National Defensive Player of the Year award, will likely join Redick as a first-team All-American and could have his jersey hanging in Cameron's rafters too.

Redick said the group would not consider its time at Duke disappointing without a championship, but the seniors will work hard over the next month to make their old dreams come true.

"I think it's a fine line that all the seniors are walking," Redick said. "You want to be obsessed with a championship... but you don't want to put everything into that so that if you don't do that, you feel like you're a failure."

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