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Growing pains loom

Duke fans should temper their expectations for the early season as young players mature, Rich writes.
Duke fans should temper their expectations for the early season as young players mature, Rich writes.

On the way to adulthood, everyone must first wade through the frequently-awkward era known as adolescence. It’s those years, and how one survives them, that often come to define one’s true character.

In the recent past, Blue Devil fans have been spoiled, though, as their team has seemingly skipped its adolescent stage and gone straight on to maturity.

This season, though, Duke fans need to be prepared to pop a few zits.

The 2008-09 Blue Devils, led by a core of juniors and the veteran hand of Greg Paulus, started the season 18-1, with three convincing victories over ranked opponents. The next year, the eventual national champions again had a core of juniors and seniors that started fast out of the gate with a championship in the NIT Season Tip-Off and 13 wins in its first 14 games. And last season, teenager Kyrie Irving exhibited the maturity of a seasoned veteran, leading Duke to eight impressive victories before suffering his now-infamous toe injury.

The common thread is clear—the Blue Devils of the last several seasons have exhibited an unusually high level of maturity that has directly correlated to its impressive early results.

But Duke fans will have to temper such expectations this season. This year’s Blue Devils will be an entirely different squad than those of the last few years. True, the talent is still there, but the experience and maturity isn’t—at least not yet.

That’s why Duke fans shouldn’t be expecting another romp through the non-conference schedule, especially considering the unusually challenging slate facing the Blue Devils in 2011. Duke could conceivably lose at least two or three non-conference games, considering that they face one of the more loaded preseason tournament fields in recent memory at the Maui Invitational and also travel to Columbus to face Ohio State.

But just as the sometimes rocky high school experience helps mold teenagers’ identities, the Blue Devils could be better off in the long run if and when they experience growing pains. While this year’s team certainly has the talent of previous incarnations, no one on the roster has truly been tested as the go-to guy in pressure situations.

And Duke won’t know who to turn to until players like Seth Curry, Austin Rivers, Ryan Kelly and the Plumlees are thrust into those situations. And in all likelihood, most of them will struggle to adapt to these new roles when asked to fill them for the first time.

But November and December difficulties will be forgotten if the team comes together in February and March. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his players will have to use a challenging non-conference slate to discover how the roster’s pieces fit together. Kelly emphasized this following the team’s final exhibition game against Shaw.

“With a new team with new roles, that’s what guys have to figure out,” he said. “It’s getting better every day.... If we keep making steps forward, that’s all we can ask.”

That’s not the kind of attitude Duke fans have come to expect as a new season dawns. Instead, they’ve been accustomed to the team’s rotation being set even before preseason practices even began. This year, even the Blue Devils’ starting lineup for Friday’s season opener is still unknown to the public.

It will take longer than normal for Duke to find a consistent starting lineup, a well-defined rotation and, most importantly, an identity. But once the team’s acne clears and it discovers who it truly is, it should blossom into a confident and talented young adult. Hopefully for Blue Devil fans, that’ll come just in time to ask a date to the Big Dance in New Orleans come March.


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