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Optimism for next season

While it may be early to start projecting next season's top 25 given that the deadline to declare for the NBA draft is still weeks away, Duke fans probably couldn't be more anxious to put this past season behind them and look to the future.

After all, I know it wasn't exactly the season I had in mind for my senior year. One four-game losing streak was hard enough to take. I didn't need a second one and a first-round NCAA upset to cap off my run as a student fan.

But when it comes to Duke Basketball, I'm an optimist and figure this season was more of an aberration than a trend. So the way I see it, things can only get better.

If the campus reaction meant anything, Josh McRoberts' early departure for the NBA was really a blessing. When your team's most reliable presence down low is afraid to bang in the post and is rumored to be a locker-room cancer, it's time for a change-even if that means Duke might be considerably undersized next season.

And it's not like his departure leaves the Blue Devils with a dearth of talent. Replacing him, Duke has three, possibly four, McDonald's All-Americans on the way, bringing our total number to at least eight. You would think that bringing together that much talent under the tutelage of one of the best coaches in the game's history would place Duke among the favorites to win a National Championship.

Or maybe not.

When ESPN's Andy Katz released his initial 2007-2008 top 25, he had Duke ranked 23rd. CBS Sportsline's Gary Parrish has the Blue Devils a little bit higher at No. 16. And Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn only ranked the top 10, but Duke wasn't among them and was listed 16th among his schools "On the Fringe."

So what did I miss? Have Duke's expectations fallen that far in just one year? Or have the so-called college basketball pundits just lost faith in the current crop of Blue Devils?

I believe there are several reasons that Duke is not getting the same respect it has had for the better part of the last 20 years.

  1. The quartet of Florida juniors that elected to stay in college and were rewarded by capturing their second straight NCAA title proved that leaving early isn't as fashionable as it was two years ago. The NBA's age limit is forcing the top talent to experience campus life and some are finding out that they actually like it. While I don't honestly believe Greg Oden and Brandan Wright will spurn NBA millions for another go-round in college, it's still a possibility (Kevin Durant has already decided to leave). Either way, there is a ton of talent in college basketball right now and most of it is more experienced than the still-youthful Blue Devils.

  2. Duke is suffering from the "What have you done for me lately?" factor. Duke has made it past the Sweet 16 just twice since their runner-up finish in 1999. While the Blue Devils had the longest active streak of Sweet 16 appearances entering this season, just making it to that point doesn't cut it for a program whose expectations have been elevated to almost unattainable heights. Regular season domination has not turned into NCAA Tournament results for the Blue Devils recently, which was highlighted even more by this year's first-round loss.

  3. There are certainly questions surrounding Duke's lineup next season. If recruit Patrick Patterson elects to go elsewhere, Brian Zoubek will be the Blue Devils' only true big man. Lance Thomas, Kyle Singler and Taylor King are all at least 6-foot-7, but none are dominant post presences. Some are still questioning Greg Paulus' ability to run the point in Duke's offense-whether that will be up-tempo like the glory days remains to be seen-and many people are wondering how Coach K will mesh the rest of the talent he has at his disposal.

One sub-par season has cracked Duke's shield of invincibility, and it has put Duke fans in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position. Before everyone overreacts, though, let's keep things in perspective. Most college fans are in this situation nearly every year, and right now we probably deserve it.

Besides, won't this "disrespect" make an ascent back to the top even sweeter?

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