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Please Welcome Alex Schwartz

One of the things we've truly enjoyed here is helping people to either develop into good writers or to offer good writers greater exposure. We've relished all of our contributors and are always open to anyone who wants to give it a shot. In that spirit, we were approached recently by Alex Schwartz, whose ambition is to become a sports writer. Here's his first submission, a preview of Duke's season.“The Blue Devils are headed to the Sweet Sixteen!”. . . I think those are words that all of us Duke fans missed last year. Well, fear not, the Blue Devils will be back this year. Duke, on the shoulders of senior guard and captain DeMarcus Nelson and freshman phenom Kyle Singler, are all but guaranteed a spot in the Sweet Sixteen. In fact, the Blue Devils may even make it back to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2003-04. The Final Four? Let’s not get carried away.

Although the Duke team is young, the group is immensely talented. The only key member from the disaster that was the 2006-07 season that is gone is Josh McRoberts. The Blue Devils added three top 60 recruits in forward Kyle Singler, guard Nolan Smith, and forward Taylor King. More importantly, they add a hunger, which has been lacking at Duke since maybe as far back as the 2000-01 season. Last year’s first round NCAA loss to VCU has caused Duke to become fighters, trying to get back to the top. That’s not a spot anyone (other than Duke fans and coaches) wants to see the Blue Devils in. A motivated Blue Devil is a scary Blue Devil.

Not only does Duke have the motivation to succeed, the right pieces are in place. I don’t know if there has ever been a time that Duke has had two shooters at the same time at the caliber of sophomore Jon Scheyer and King. Along with these two are the aforementioned senior Nelson, Sinlger, and Smith. Duke also has three other high quality sophomores in center Brian Zoubek, forward Lance Thomas, and guard Gerald Henderson. Also returning are three juniors; guard Greg Paulus, guard/forward Martynas Pocius, and forward David McClure. That is 11 solid players, meaning that Duke may have their deepest bench ever. Despite having just one senior (Nelson) in the rotation, the Blue Devils have a lot of experience. McClure has been a Blue Devil just as long as Nelson, but had to sit out his sophomore year due to injury. Greg Paulus has had to deal with a large amount of adversity and criticism in his two years at Duke. Lance Thomas, Gerald Henderson, and Nolan Smith all played on high-level private school teams during their high school years. King, Singler, and Zoubek were members of top-notch public school teams while they were in high school. Thus, many players on this year’s Duke team have experience playing in meaningful games.

There are a number of problems with Duke, though. First and foremost, the Blue Devils lack any dominant big man. The only true post player on the roster is Brian Zoubek. To put it plainly, the Blue Devils are small, really small. In fact, Zoubek is the only player on the team above 6’8” (he is 7’1“). Duke will struggle against teams with solid big men, such as North Carolina, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, Boston College, Clemson, and Florida State. Oh, and that’s just ACC teams. If Duke is to run into big teams such as Georgetown, Kansas, UCLA, Kansas State, Indiana, Memphis, Texas A&M, or Stanford in the NCAA tournament, they will have to play close to flawless basketball to pick up the W. Athletic big men such as Clemson’s James Mays will present the biggest problem to the Duke defense, as Zoubek isn’t what one would call a “natural athlete.” Duke will not be able to contend with the Tar Heels, who have the nation’s best player in 6’9” junior Tyler Hansbrough, along with up-and-coming 6’8” sophomore Deon Thompson. No one on Duke can match up with either of UNC’s top big men, and although it’s tough to think about, this just may be a year that even Cameron Indoor won’t help Duke to beat their archrivals. Then again, with Duke-UNC, anything can happen.

There are also a questions surrounding Duke that are the size of Robert Traylor. Will Zoubek be able to regroup from an off-season injury? Will Nelson be fully healed after his summer surgery? Can Nelson live up to the leadership expectations that have been placed upon him? Will Paulus be able to build on his late season progress and success? Does Taylor King have enough athleticism for the college game? Can Kyle Singler live up to his gigantic expectations? How will the team rebound from last season’s disappointment? Will Mike Krzyzewski’s extensive work with the NBA players on Team USA affect his interactions, coaching, and preparations for the Blue Devils? If a few of these question marks fall into place, a Sweet Sixteen trip should be easily attainable for Duke.

All said, my prediction for the Blue Devils this season is a four seed in the NCAA tournament and a loss in the Sweet Sixteen. I’m expecting a third place finish in the ACC regular season and an exit in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. DeMarcus Nelson will be an All-America Honorable Mention and Second Team All-ACC choice. Kyle Singler will win the ACC’s Newcomer of the Year title, and will be selected to the Third Team All-ACC. The 2007-2008 season will be a moderate success for the Duke Blue Devils, and will be a good building block for the years to come.