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Looking Forward To A New Year


Could 2010 have been any better for Duke basketball?

Not only did the Blue Devils win an 18th ACC championship and fourth national championship in the spring, but Duke's success was magnified by its rival's misery. North Carolina endured a horrendous 17-loss season - which included a 32-point beatdown by the Devils in Cameron. Then there were the postseason decisions by junior superstars Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith to delay their entry into the NBA draft and return for their senior seasons, guaranteeing another stellar season in 2011.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski followed his fourth national title by leading a team of "second-string" NBA all-stars to the FIBA World Championships over the summer, then wrapped up a stellar recruiting class in November by signing Florida guard Austin Rivers, the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2011. Coach K spurred the 2010-11 edition of the Blue Devils to a 12-0 start and a No. 1 national ranking before New Year's Day, catching and passing former UNC coach Dean Smith as the second-winningest coach in college basketball history.

Okay, it wasn't quite a perfect year. It would have nice to pull out that March game in College Park to win sole possession of the ACC regular season title (instead of merely sharing it with the Terps). And the holiday season would have been a lot sweeter without the toe injury that has sidelined gifted freshman point guard Kyrie Irving indefinitely.

Still, it's hard to pinpoint a better year in Duke basketball history. We will always celebrate 2010 as a standard to strive for in future years - such as 2011.

The new year got underway Sunday night with a victory over Miami in Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was a modest start to what we can only hope will be another glorious 12 months. But we should be aware of how quickly a program's fortunes can change.

Just one season ago, North Carolina entered the new year with a No. 9 national ranking and no inkling of the disaster that was to come (the first hint came in a Jan. 4 loss at College of Charleston, which, by the way, may have just consigned another preseason top 10 team to oblivion, winning at Tennessee on New Year's Eve). And don't forget 1995, when Duke greeted the New Year ranked No. 7 in the nation before beginning a nightmarish fall off the basketball map.

That's not to suggest anything remotely similar will happen to the 2011 Blue Devils. I only offer those examples to remind us that we cannot know the future. And just to be fair, it sometimes works the other way. Duke was No. 7 last New Year's Day too after enduring some rocky moments in 2009 (two head-to-head losses to UNC; the embarrassing Sweet 16 loss to Villanova; the pain of watching UNC win the national championship; the early NBA entry of Gerald Henderson; the late-spring transfer of Elliot Williams; the crushing recruiting loss of Harrison Barnes; the first-ever loss in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge). Who would have expected the frustrating 2009 to be followed by such a magnificent 2010?

So let's enter the new year with high expectations, but understanding that there are no guarantees. But I do want to talk about a few story lines that I will be following in 2011:

(1) Kyrie Irving's toe watch: There has been a lot of nonsense written on message boards and bandied about on talk radio about the extent of Irving's injury. I'm sure the truth has been reported, but not from a reliable source - so even if some poster/caller has been on the money, it's impossible to pick out the real information from all the chaff.

Here's what I know/believe. There is a decent chance that Irving will return late in the season. Maybe not at 100 percent, but close enough to that to make it worthwhile to delay surgery until after the season. We should know more by the end of this week, but don't expect anything definitive (unless it's bad news - surgery would almost certainly mean the end of his season).

I will say this - that in 30 years of covering Mike Krzyzewski's program, I've learned that Duke's official injury announcements are almost always on the pessimistic side. From Bobby Hurley in 1992 to Grant Hill in 1993 to Elton Brand in 1998 to Carlos Boozer in 2001, Blue Devil players have usually come back somewhat sooner than expected. I've listened carefully every time that K has talked about the issue and I've never heard him suggest that it's likely that Irving is done for the year. His comments admitting that possibility have almost always been in response to questions posed by reporters.

Is it possible that he's finished? Yes.

But the more likely scenario is that Irving will return sometime in February.

Of course, that opinion is worth little more than all those message board speculations. And I can say definitely is that watching and waiting for the Irving story to resolve itself will be one of the key story lines as the new year unfolds.

(2) How long will Duke's winning streak last?

The Miami win was the 23rd straight for the Blue Devils, dating back to the 10-game winning streak that concluded the 2010 season. That ties for the second longest win streak in school history. When Duke beats UAB Wednesday night for a 24th straight win, it will be the second-longest in school history - behind only the 32 straight won in 1999 (between an early season loss to Cincinnati and the national title game loss to UConn).

Just for the record, the current streak of 23 straight is tied for the sixth longest streak in ACC history. Ahead on the list are:

  1. North Carolina (1957-58) - 37
  2. N.C. State (1974-75) - 36
  3. Duke (1999) - 32
  4. N.C. State (1973-74) - 29
  5. Virginia (1980-81) - 28

The story line about Duke's winning streak ties into another interesting subject:

(3) When will the 2010-11 Blue Devils suffer their first loss?

The 13-0 start for the Devils is impressive, but hardly precedent setting. Duke opened 17-0 as recently as 2006. For the record, the best starts in school history are:

17 - 1992, 2006

16 - 1986

15 - 2005

13 - 1936, 1989, 2011

So with a victory over UAB Wednesday night, the current team could break a three-way tie with the 1936 and 1989 teams for the fifth best start in school history. By beating Maryland Sunday in Cameron, Duke could match its fourth best start.

The real story line will be the growing speculation about Duke's first loss. It could happen at home - in 2008, No. 1 UNC was 18-0 and starting to talk about an undefeated season when unranked Maryland knocked off the Tar Heels in the Smith Center; a year later, UNC's national championship team was 13-0 and a unanimous No. 1 choice when the Tar Heels were upset at home by a Boston College team that followed the gigantic win with a homecourt loss to Harvard.

Still, it's more likely to happen on the road. Every time the Devils play away from home in the ACC, the atmosphere is going to be electric - especially for all the NCAA bubble teams that desperately need a victory over Duke (the only ranked ACC team) to bolster their resumes.

The parade starts Jan. 12, when Duke travels to Tallahassee to meet a Florida State team that might be the ACC's second-best team. A trip to N.C. State will follow a week later on Jan. 19. Don't forget what happened in Raleigh last season when an NIT bound Wolfpack team handled Duke's national championship team with relative ease.

And, while it might be a bit far to look ahead, just imagine the atmosphere in College Park should the Devils make their Feb. 2 visit to Maryland still undefeated, Duke would be 21-0 at that point and just one win short of tying the school's record winning streak of 32.

Wow, the Maryland fans might riot BEFORE that one!

(4) Coach K's pursuit of Bobby Knight's all-time win record.

That story is going on the back burner after all the hoopla last week when Krzyzewski passed Dean Smith for second place on the all-time win list. But if we reach March with Knight's record 902 wins in range, expect the story to go ballistic.

Adding to the drama will be the fact that K's record-setting win would have to come in the NCAA Tournament - maybe late in the tournament (if it's going to happen this season).

Figure it this way: If Duke doesn't lose a game this season (and you know they will), Coach K would tie Knight by winning the ACC championship game … then pass him in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Charlotte.

[Time out for a brief ticket alert: Duke fans should already be buying tickets for the NCAA first-second round games at the Bobcat Arena in Charlotte. Nothing is certain when dealing with the NCAA, but with the new "pod" rules, it's a 99.9999 percent certainty that Duke will start its NCAA journey in Charlotte. So unless Duke fans want to leave the door open for UNC fans to gobble the tickets (it's currently a longshot that UNC will be in Charlotte, but it could happen), they'd better start purchasing tickets now. It's a safe investment and it would be nice to see an overwhelmingly Duke crowd for once in NCAA play. Now back to the story …]

Every loss Duke suffers this season delays the milestone one game deeper into the NCAA Tournament. Pomeroy projects Duke to finish the regular season at 29-2. If that happens, K would enter postseason play with 897 wins. He'd need to win the ACC Tournament, then reach the Sweet 16 to tie Knight at 902. The milestone win would come in the NCAA regional semifinals. A third loss would delay things to the Elite Eight … a four-loss season would force K to reach his milestone in the Final Four.

It's pretty certain that Coach K will get the record in 2011. If he doesn't quite make it this spring, he'll get it early next season - before the new year arrives. Still, it's a better story if he gets there during this NCAA Tournament.

(5) Will North Carolina return to the ranks of the nation's elite teams?

Admit it, UNC's 2010 struggles made Duke's success last season that much sweeter. The Tar Heels finished 18-17 last year (9-13 after New Year's last season; 9-4 before New Year's this season). They were unranked last season and have dropped out of the rankings this season.

The first impression is that UNC is somewhat better this season than the last -- but are they?

A year ago at this time, UNC was 11-3 and ranked No. 9 in the nation. The pre-meltdown Heels had beaten Final Four-bound Michigan State and future No. 2 seed Ohio State and lost only to Kentucky, Syracuse and Texas (all away from home).

This 10-4 team doesn't have as strong a November/December resume. There are no bad losses on the record - Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Illinois and Texas are potential NCAA teams - and there is one impressive win - a homecourt victory over Kentucky.

That's not enough to impressive the poll voters. Last week, UNC got six votes in the AP poll (good for 39th place) and not one single vote in the coaches poll. The computers are a little more kind. Pomeroy has UNC at 24, while Sagarin rates the Heels No. 32. The RPI likes UNC better than anybody else, rating the Heels at No. 19.

If the NCAA selected its field today, UNC would get a bid. Of course, if the 2010 field had been selected on Jan. 3, the 2010 Heels would have gotten a bid too.

Personally, I think it's unlikely that this UNC team will collapse as last year's did. In fact, I believe they will continue to get better as the season progresses - indeed, I think they already ARE getting better. UNC has won six of its last seven with the one loss coming in a hard-fought game in Greensboro against a tough Texas team. During that streak, the Heels have had one bad game - a curious 96-91 victory over 7-8 Long Beach State in Chapel Hill. Otherwise, they've played consistently well during that streak (even in the loss to the Longhorns).

Right now, I wouldn't consider UNC an elite team. Their guard play has been erratic, although sophomore Dexter Strickland has shown signs of progress and freshman Kendall Marshall has moments when he demonstrates his extraordinary passing skills. Larry Drew remains hit or miss in his junior year - he can be very good one night and awful the next.

Drew's erratic play remains a big question mark for the Heels going into the new year. And their frontcourt, while playing well (especially Tyler Zeller, who has been playing at an all-star level) remains paper thin.

But the big concern - and question mark - in Chapel Hill remains Harrison Barnes. Okay, the expectations were unfair (even if Roy Williams and company did contribute to the hype going into the season). And Barnes is not really a bust. He has contributed as a freshman (12.1 points, 5.8 rebounds).

Still, he's nothing like the superstar who dominated on the AAU circuit. When you watch Kyrie Irving, Jared Sullinger, Josh Shelby, Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight, Corey Joseph and Tobias Harris display their talent as freshmen this season, remember that over the last two summers and in last spring's all-star games, Barnes was THE man. He was better than any of them.

Now he's shooting 37 percent from the field, has more turnovers than assists and has jacked up 57 3-pointers, while making just 18 (that's 31 percent).

Barnes is the key to UNC's potential this season. UNC appears to be on a path that will return them to the first division of the ACC and back to the NCAA Tournament … but not past the first weekend of NCAA play. If UNC is going to do better than that - to return to the rankings; to challenge Duke in the ACC; to get to the Sweet 16 and beyond - then Barnes is going to have to explode and become the player we all (including Coach K) thought he would be.

UNC's storyline ties into another fascinating subject:

(6) Who will finish second in the ACC?

I've been following the poll that Jason Evans started on the DBR message board and reading the stories that explore this subject. I see that the DBR readers like UNC (just over 40 percent), ahead of Florida State (just over 30 percent) with Maryland a very distant third pick (just under 15 percent).

Not bad, although Doug Gottlieb of ESPN has a column up ranking the various conferences going into the new year and he picks N.C. State second in the ACC (based largely, I think, on a strong showing against Syracuse without Tracy Smith). He picks Florida State third and UNC fourth.

There's certainly room for all sorts of opinion on this issue. Right now, about the only ACC issues I'm confident about are that Duke is the best team in the league and Wake Forest is the worst (despite a decent showing Sunday in a home loss to Gonzaga). In between, I don't know - maybe Georgia Tech toward the bottom of the league, but I'm not sure the Jackets will finish below Virginia. The Cavs pretty much represent the instability between the Duke-Wake poles of the ACC. Virginia has been good enough to beat Minnesota and Virginia Tech (in Blacksburg!), but bad enough to lose at home to 5-10 Seattle and survive Norfolk State on a last-second tip in. And now senior forward Mike Scott is facing another operation on his ankle and could miss the rest of the season. Yet, the Cavs just routed LSU in Charlottesville with Scott on the sidelines.

How does anybody make sense of that?

Okay, here's what I think. Behind Duke, fighting for the other first-round ACC Tournament byes are a group that includes North Carolina, Florida State (the two favorites in my mind), Boston College, N.C. State and maybe Maryland. The Pack pick is based on my respect for N.C. State's talent … the Maryland pick based on my respect for Gary Williams' coaching acumen.

I also offer one wild card - Virginia Tech. I know that the Hokies have been ripped by injury and as a result have been the ACC's single biggest disappointment so far. And, yes, the team is down to eight scholarship players, so another injury could be fatal.

But eight is enough (as long as it doesn't become seven … or six). And the Hokies still have a veteran core, led by the gifted Malcolm Delaney in the backcourt and the talented Jeff Allen up front. Seth Greenberg's teams have a long history of starting poorly in the pre-conference season, then doing surprisingly well in conference play. Add in the one wild card - Virginia Tech (for the second straight year) is the beneficiary of almost the easiest possible unbalanced ACC schedule. The Hokies get Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Virginia twice each and only have to face Duke, UNC and Florida State once each (with Duke and FSU at home).

Of course, the Hokies have already blown a homecourt visit by Virginia, so the weak schedule is no guarantee of success. But the possibility remains.

Watching the race for second place play out is going to tie into yet another story line:

(7) How many teams will the ACC get in the NCAA field?

It's too early to start the bubble watch, but at this moment, it appears that when we start tracking things in February, the ACC is going to have an extremely crowded bubble.

The league's non-conference performance is going to complicate things. Few ACC teams have quality wins on their resume, while the majority of league teams have bad losses to overcome. Take Boston College for example - new coach Steve Donahue is doing a spectacular job with the Eagles, but come March, that homecourt loss to Yale is going to be an ugly blemish.

Since expansion, the ACC has gotten five (2005), four (2006), seven (2007), four (2008), seven (2009) and six (2010) bids to the NCAA Tournament. But back in 1999 and 2000 (when the ACC was a nine-team league), the conference got just three bids in back-to-back years.

Three bids would not be surprising in 2011. It could be four or five … but could it be two (like the Pac 10 got a year ago)?

As of Jan. 3, the ACC had four teams in the top 30 of the RPI (Duke, Boston College, UNC and Miami), which is usually a guarantee of selection. Virginia Tech was at No. 59, which is usually off the bubble. Florida State, a team many think could be the ACC's second team, could be in a bit of trouble - even at 11-3 (11-4 after losing to Auburn), the Seminoles are at No. 86 in the RPI and that's usually not good enough for an at-large bid. I know the flaws in the RPI, but it's the computer model that seems to have the most impact on the Selection Committee. Over the years, it's been a fair predictor of selection or rejection.

Obviously, there are two months of the regular season for FSU and the rest of the ACC teams to improve their resumes. Watching teams jockey for NCAA position is going to be a fascinating story line headed into the new year.

There are plenty of national story lines to follow as the season plays out. I'll be interested in watching to see if Northwestern can end its NCAA futility (the Wildcats have never gotten a bid, but appear to have a chance this season). I'll be watching to see if Sullinger can drive Ohio State to the Big Ten title or if Purdue's shorthanded Boilermakers can win without Robbie Hummel. I want to see if John Calipari's freshman all-star team can dominate the underachieving SEC once again. Can the Pac 10 rise from the ashes of a 2010 season to forget? How many Big East teams will ESPN try to push for the NCAA Tournament this year?

And you know what?

All of this only takes us up to the NCAA Tournament in March and April. No matter how that plays out - with a second back-to-back title for the Blue Devils or with a new champion - there will still be nine more months of 2011 to enjoy. There will be the debate over retirement of Kyle Singler's jersey … the question of who goes pro and who stays … another summer of international basketball for Coach K (although no pressure to win an Olympic qualifying event this time) … another recruiting class next fall (Alex Murphy, Shabazz Mohammad, Rasheed Suliamon, Tony Parker, come on down!) … another dozen or so games in November and December to start another promising season.

The years come and go. Nobody can promise that 2011 will be as glorious as 2010 was, but we can be pretty certain that it will be at least as interesting.