The 2006-07 Blue Devils may not have the experience of last year's team, but they will get some big-game exposure in a hurry.
In addition to the always-brutal ACC slate, Duke's non-conference schedule this year features several games that will test the young squad right from the start of the season.
Following a possible trip to Kansas City for the semifinals and finals of the College Basketball Experience Classic, formerly known as the Guardians Classic, the Blue Devils face a daunting pre-Christmas stretch in which six of their seven opponents made the NCAA Tournament last season.
Highlighting that stretch are consecutive home matchups against powerhouses Indiana and Georgetown. The contest against the Hoosiers is part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and is a rematch of Duke's 75-67 win in Bloomington, Ind. last season.
The Hoyas, who handed the Blue Devils their only non-conference loss of last year's regular season, return big men Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert and are projected to be in the top-10 of most preseason polls.
"Obviously we want to have a strong schedule every year, and with the ACC being so competitive, you have to prepare yourself before you get to conference," assistant coach Chris Collins said. "Those two back to back will be great tests, especially with a young team."
The difficult stretch ends with Duke's first-ever matchup with Gonzaga. The Blue Devils and Bulldogs own the first-and second-best records in all of Division I over the last six seasons, respectively. Both are recovering from the loss of last year's scoring title race participants-J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison.
"We're very excited about the Gonzaga game in New York," said Associate Athletic Director Mike Cragg, Duke's schedule architect. "We've been talking with Gonzaga for a number of years, trying to set up a neutral-site game, and it never has been able to work out."
This year's schedule also continues head coach Mike Krzyzewski's tradition of playing successful teams from mid-major conferences. Holy Cross and Kent State are NCAA Tournament regulars, but the concept is epitomized in the matchup with George Mason, last year's Final Four surprise, in Cameron Indoor Stadium Dec. 9.
The Colonials lost three starters from one of the biggest Cinderella teams of all time, but Collins said he expects head coach Jim Larranaga's squad to be extremely competitive.
"If our guys didn't really know about George Mason before, they definitely are paying attention now," Collins said. "They are not just coming in to take in the sights and sounds, they are here to win and they have the confidence that they can win."
Although the Blue Devils will encounter a number of talented opponents, they likely won't be seeing too many hostile crowds.
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If they advance to the finals of the CBE Classic, the Blue Devils' first road game would be their 16th contest of the season, when they travel to Georgia Tech. The only non-conference road game is not until Feb. 25, when Duke takes on St. John's in Madison Square Garden.
Duke, which played four non-conference road games last season, is at home in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge against Indiana this year, and it will also face Georgetown and Temple in Cameron after travelling to Washington D.C. and Philadelphia last year.
Cragg said the low number of road games was due to the contract cycle, but Collins noted that the early-season schedule could benefit the young team.
"A lot of home games could end up being a positive with so many freshmen and sophomores having to play large roles this year," Collins said. "We are one of those teams that's going to get better as the season goes on and we find out who we are. So it helps to play at home to a certain degree, but when you look at the teams we are facing, you have to play great no matter where the game is."
The relative difficulty of Duke's ACC slate will likely still be a mystery as the season begins. After sending only four teams to the NCAA Tournament last season, the conference has seen a lot of player turnover-10 of the 16 All-ACC honorees either graduated or left early for the NBA.
In addition to the rival partners North Carolina and Maryland, Duke plays Georgia Tech, Boston College and Clemson twice each. The Blue Devils only face Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Florida State at home, and they see N.C. State, Virginia and Miami only on the road.