Where is the Duke mystique?

Basketball season has arrived.

Finally, Duke fans have more to look forward to than fried Snickers bars at Wallace Wade Stadium.

Unfortunately, the optimism about the start of the season was muted somewhat when word spread Saturday that Duke's top 2008 recruit, 6-foot-10 center Greg Monroe, had committed to Georgetown after taking in the Hoyas' Midnight Madness festivities.

Monroe choosing Georgetown over Duke this weekend is not exactly a doomsday scenario for Coach K's program, as some have suggested. It is, however, a reason for concern.

The Blue Devils still have eight McDonald's All-Americans on their roster and still have enough talent to compete against (and beat) every team in the ACC this side of North Carolina. Monroe would have been a nice complementary piece to a Duke team that could make a legitimate run at a national championship next year, assuming Kyle Singler and Gerald Henderson don't turn pro. But he still would have been just a freshman, and his reported desire to turn pro quickly would not have meshed well with the vision of Duke's program.

Still, the fact that the third top post recruit in as many years turned down Krzyzewski's offer-without even taking his official visit to Durham-is troubling, especially after a 22-11 season that was Duke's worst in a decade.

This string of recruits who have chosen to take their services elsewhere is concerning for two reasons. First, Duke could use a brawny big man to fill the role that Shelden Williams, Carlos Boozer and Elton Brand played on the program's best teams of the past decade. Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas will have a tough time containing the likes of Tyler Hansbrough and N.C. State's Brandon Costner. Having Patrick Patterson this year or Monroe next year would have made a difference, allowing Zoubek more time to develop and Thomas to shift back to his more comfortable position off the block.

Second, there are image issues that could have effects lasting beyond the next couple of years. There used to be an adage in college basketball that said, "Duke doesn't recruit, it selects." The Blue Devils are still a powerful force on the recruiting trail, but it's not the same it once was.

Outside of the context of recruiting and before the Monroe decision, Krzyzewski was asked Friday whether Duke still had the same "mystique." The legendary coach quickly dismissed the suggestion, saying "Going 22-11?.. We've won a lot of ball games here. And we've won a lot of championships. And as long as I'm coaching here, that's what we're going to try to keep doing. That's what we're going to try to do this year."

It's clear, though, that Monroe, Patterson and Brandan Wright have all come to the same conclusion: Duke's reputation isn't what it once was. That doesn't mean it's bad, and it doesn't mean it isn't still among the nation's best. There's no doubt in my mind that this year's team will surprise a lot of people, finish second in the ACC and make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

But even Duke's players admitted Friday that there was a high level of disappointment with the current state of the program. Greg Paulus admitted that "it's not characteristic for a Duke team to lose 11 games" and that he'd be playing with a big chip on his shoulder this year because of that. Coming from the ultra tight-lipped point guard, that statement carries even more weight.

Whether Coach K admits it publicly or not, his program is currently in a bit of a valley. On the court and on the recruiting trail, the Duke brand has lost some of its value.

That's not to say Krzyzewski and Co. can't exceed expectations this year to bring the Duke program back to where it was when Williams and J.J. Redick left in 2006. But Greg Monroe's verbal commitment to John Thompson III and the Hoyas was one more reminder that the start of the 2007-08 season brings less than unbridled optimism about the Duke program's future.


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