N.C. State basketball coach Mark Gottfried used to coach at Alabama. He also used to have a media day in Tuscaloosa, just before the start of preseason practice.
A week ago, he took the court at the Dial Center (N.C. State's practice facility) and looked at the mass of media - at least half a dozen TV crews and two dozen reporters - that were waiting to mob him for N.C. State's media day. The turnout reminded of him of why the ACC is a special basketball league.
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"I used to do press conferences like this at Alabama - for close family and friends," he said. "This is a great basketball league - everywhere you go it's important.
Gottfried was speaking less than 48 hours after the N.C. State football team had upset No. 3 Florida State in Carter-Finley Stadium. It was a great weekend for all three of the Triangle's ACC football teams - in addition to the Wolfpack triumph, Duke routed Virginia to improve to 5-1 and North Carolina stunned Virginia Tech in Chapel Hill.
That's nice, but when basketball opens on Tobacco Road, football moves to page two.
Yes, N.C. State's upset of FSU was impressive, but the Pack remains unranked and largely unnoticed nationally. That's in contrast to a basketball team that will open the season in the top 10. Duke is having its best football season in 18 years, yet it's a safe bet that the Blue Devil basketball team will finish with a far more significant season. The same goes at North Carolina, where a year after losing 80 percent of his starting lineup to the NBA, Roy Williams will still have a better basketball team than Larry Fedora's probation-ridden gridders.
This is basketball country, even if the ACC's brand has slipped in recent years. There is a reason that Midnight Madness was invented in the ACC (by a Duke graduate). The rest of the country may be immersed in football for another few months, but in this region, basketball is king and the season can't start soon enough.
That's what Lefty Driesell found out when he reasoned that the NCAA mandated Oct. 15 as the first day of practice - didn't the new day start 12:01 a.m.? He first exploited the loophole in 1971 to have his team take their preseason running test under the lights at Byrd Stadium. Just to be on the safe side, he waited until 12:03 a.m. (in case his watch was fast). He was amazed to see some 3,000 fans turn out in the dead of night to watch Tom McMillen, Len Elmore and company do nothing more than run.
Driersell, who was once temporarily dismissed from the Duke basketball team "for being a fancy Dan", immediately realized the potential of his midnight workouts to sell his program. A year after that midnight run, Maryland held the first real "Midnight Madness" - filling up Cole Field House for a late-night scrimmage.
Other basketball-oriented schools soon followed. The late-night scrimmages turned into spectacle with stunts and skits and Roy Williams trying to dance. The Midnight Madness formula became so popular that the NCAA eventually changed its rules to allow the combination pep rally/scrimmages to begin at a reasonable hour. Either way, it's always been more of a symbolic rite than a real practice.
But whether called Countdown to Craziness, Late Night with Roy, Big Blue Madness or Midnight Madness, these opening events feed the hunger of basketball fanatics for the return of their new sport. Last Friday night, ESPN devoted four hours of television coverage to look in on a number of "Midnight Madness" celebrations.
Duke wasn't among them. The Blue Devils' Countdown to Craziness won't be until Friday (Oct. 19). Blue Devil coach Mike Krzyzewski pointed out that fall break started last Friday, so most of the student body would have missed the traditional kickoff celebration. They'll be back for this Friday night's show.
No matter - the Duke basketball team actually started full practices last Friday along with the other 349 Division 1 basketball teams (the number keeps growing!). Krzyzewski, starting his 33rd year at Duke, held his preseason media conference at the Emily Krzyzewski Center off-campus and followed his standard press question-and-answer session with a brief second press conference with several of the young enrollees from the youth center.
It's hard to say who asked better questions. The traditional media asked questions about the Duke team, while the kids asked more life-oriented questions. It was an interesting and informative session.
As far as hard news, there was little. Krzyzewski explained why he could not address the Lance Thomas issue, except to explain that Duke was cooperating fully with the NCAA. He talked about the importance of his three senior starters and his hopes for the young players who will join them in the rotation.
He did tell us that two players would start practice with injuries. Senior Seth Curry has an undisclosed injury that will be monitored for the next month or so, while Marshall Plumlee injured a foot during drills last week and will be sidelined for the time being.
Later, Seth Curry explained that his problem was not serious and he'll be practicing with the team from Day One. The youngest Plumlee was not on hand to meet the media, so it was hard to explore the nature of his injury. The young big man was later spotted wearing a boot and using crutches. No confirmation, but it looks like another broken foot. If so, maybe that's a good sign -- recent Duke big men Elton Brand and Carlos Boozer suffered such injuries during their freshmen year and both of them turned out alright.
Duke allowed reporters to watch the first hour or so of the practice that followed the press conference. The Blue Devils will get national exposure Monday when they hold an open practice - to be televised by ESPN - at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville. Then Countdown to Craziness, the first exhibition game on Oct. 27 (the same day Duke plays Florida State in football), the opener against Georgia State on Friday, Nov. 9 and, finally, the REAL start of the season - the game in Atlanta on Nov. 13, when Duke meets Kentucky.
It's almost upon us â¦ and it's reasonable to wonder what we can expect from the 2012-13 Blue Devils?
OPTIMISM OR REALISM?
As most of you know, I attended Duke from 1967-73 (it took me almost six years to get my degree). In over 30 years with the Durham Sun and the Durham Herald-Sun, Duke was often my primary assignment. And since I was laid off by the Herald-Sun in 2005, the great majority of my writing has been for Duke outlets - goDuke.com; goDuke - The Magazine; and, of course, DBR.
Because of my close association to Duke, I've always tried especially hard to be objective when I write about the ACC. Many of my colleagues in the North Carolina media attended the journalism school at UNC and they have the same challenge. I've always respected those (the great majority, I believe) who do a good job of maintaining their objectivity while distaining those few who allow their collegiate allegiance to taint their work.
I mention this to explain why I am so reluctant to voice my real opinion about the coming season. I don't want to sound like a homer. But I can't escape the fact that I believe that Duke is being badly underrated headed into the 2012-13 season.
I believe that Duke has - on paper -- the best team in the ACC and is as strong a championship contender as there is nationally - not the favorite, but at least as good as Indiana, Louisville or any of the other candidates being offered a preseason No. 1 teams.
I know that's not the popular opinion. N.C. State appears to be the consensus choice to win the ACC. I have no doubt the Pack will be picked No. 1 Wednesday when the ACC media meets in Charlotte for ACC Operation Basketball.
Most preseason polls I've seen rank N.C. State as the strongest ACC team - and the Pack is almost a unanimous pick to start the season in the top 10. ESPN currently projects N.C. State at No. 6, North Carolina at No. 13 and Duke No. 15.
Frankly, that's just bizarre - not so much the high ranking for N.C. State, but the low ranking for Duke â¦ and the higher ranking by a UNC team that was decimated by early entry into the NCAA. To be fair, there are media outlets that disagree. Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated rates Duke No. 8 in his preseason power rankings - ahead of No. 12 North Carolina, but behind No. 3 N.C. State. The Sporting News has Duke at No. 6 - ahead of both No. 9 N.C. State and No. 13 UNC.
But even though Duke is sometimes included as a top 10 team - after all the Blue Devils have an active streak of 93 straight weeks in the AP top 10 and Duke has finished in the AP top 10 in 15 of the last 16 years - nobody is talking about the Blue Devils as a national championship contender. Usually, Indiana and Louisville lead the debate, but I've seen advocates for Kentucky, Ohio State, UCLA, Syracuse and even Kansas.
None for Duke. Although a team like Duke can never truly be "under the radar" I do think the Blue Devils are being about as underrated as it's possible for them to be.
Of course, before anybody gets too upset about that, it would be well to remember Coach K's response to an "under-the-radar" question Friday:
"I would rather be praised for what we have done and not for expectations of what people think we are going to do."
Fair enough - although it would be a shame if the low expectations of so many people would cost Duke a place in the AP's preseason top 10. If the Blue Devils stumble early against its killer preseason slate - Kentucky, Ohio State and probably Memphis and Louisville all before Christmas - then by all means drop the Devils in the rankings. But I would hate to see that streak of 93-straight top 10 appearances (the second-longest such streak in history) snapped because voters underestimated Duke's potential.
I think there is a perfect storm of circumstances that have caused normally astute observers to underrate the Blue Devils.
(1) The Lehigh game.
Make no mistake, the media gives a lot of credence each year to how a team finishes, especially when that team returns the bulk of its roster.
And Duke has no excuse for the Lehigh debacle - not even the absence of Ryan Kelly with an injury. That's what people remember about Duke's 2012 team â¦ just as they remember that the 2012 N.C. State Wolfpack reached the Sweet 16 and took NCAA runnerup Kansas to the wire before losing.
That performance - along with the four returning starters - is the reason that N.C. State is showing up so high in so many preseason projections.
But the Wolfpack coach said something very interesting last Monday when he met with the media.
"I go around town and have people say to me a lot: 'Coach, what a great year last year.'" Gottfried said. "Well, the truth of the matter is that it really wasn't a great year - it was a great finish. But our year wasn't great. We were just okay. So we have to be a lot better this year."
Indeed, N.C. State was a borderline NCAA team in 2012. The Pack was 22-12 on Selection Sunday and only slipped into the field by compiling a four-game winning streak that started the last day of February. Gottfried said that a friend on the Selection Committee later told him that N.C. State only moved onto the board after beating Virginia in the ACC Tournament semifinals.
If that's true, it was a very near thing - the Pack struggled to a 67-64 victory over a crippled Virginia team (one that ended its season by losing four of its last five games).
But given the chance in the NCAA playoffs, the Pack caught fire, beating a higher seeded San Diego State in the second round, upsetting No. 15 Georgetown in the third round and barely losing to No. 6 Kansas in the Sweet 16.
That's what everybody remembers about State - not that they were 0-7 against ranked teams before that Georgetown win.
Duke is almost the exact opposite scenario. The Blue Devils enjoyed a tremendous regular season, but flamed out in postseason.
Duke was 27-6 on Selection Sunday. That record was compiled against the nation's second-toughest schedule and included wins (all away from home) over Kansas, Michigan State, North Carolina, Michigan, Washington and Florida State. The Blue Devils were ranked No. 3 in the nation when they played North Carolina in Cameron on March 3 - and were almost certainly competing that night for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The Devils lost that game, starting a spiral that ended the season with three losses in four games. Part of it was the Kelly injury, of course, but extended shooting slumps by Curry and (especially) Andre Dawkins didn't help. The Duke team that lost to Lehigh was in sad shape.
But the question is should we now be evaluating Duke based on that dismal finish or the spectacular regular season?
Duke, like State, returns four starters off its 2012 team, and adds a strong freshman class (more on that later). Both teams lost three players out of its 2012 rotation - one starter, its top frontcourt reserve and a top backcourt reserve.
Based on the season-long comparisons of the two teams, there's no question that Duke was better in 2012 - and should be ranked higher going into this season. But the majority of the media sees how much stronger N.C. State finished in 2012 and consequently ranks the Pack higher going into this season.
That's not an indefensible position. I think N.C. State will be good - a better season-long team than in 2012.
I would just argue that I'd rather base my evaluation on a large sample size than a small one. We've seen teams bounce back from horrible NCAA exits before and do well. Duke did that in 2010 (after a wipeout against Villanova in 2009). The players on the 1986 team were 1-2 in NCAA play before they made their run to the title game. In 2005 and 2006, Kansas was knocked out of the NCAA first round under Bill Self - they bounced back to reach the Elite 8 in 2007 and win the national title in 2008. UNC made a second-round exit in 2004 and won it all in 2005. Jim Calhoun's 2010 UConn team flamed out in the second round of the NIT â¦ his 2011 team won the NCAA title.
The Lehigh loss should not define this year's team.
(2) Freshman rankings.
N.C. State's three-man freshman class was ranked No. 10 in the nation by ESPN, while Duke's two-man class was ranked No. 12.
Advantage N.C. State, right?
Well, maybe not. Because there's a hidden factor that many experts seem to be overlooking - Duke is actually adding FOUR freshmen in 2012-13, not two. Two 2011 recruits redshirted last year, but will join 2012 newcomers Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson on the roster - and probably in the rotation.
Where would Duke's class rank if the Blue Devils were credited with Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee?
Three of Duke's four freshmen were McDonald's All-Americas and Murphy almost certainly would have been had he not skipped his senior year in high school. He was rated a top 10-15 recruit in the Class of 2012 until he reclassified as Class of 2011.
That move seems to have removed him from the consciousness of the people who rank college basketball teams. Yet, the 6-8 Murphy is on my opinion, one of the most important new players in the ACC, if not all of college basketball. He should provide Duke with the length on the perimeter that the Blue Devils lacked a year ago.
"A couple of times last year I wanted to get him off the redshirt because we were missing that element on our team," Krzyzewski said. "I think Alex has a chance to be an outstanding player. When you see him in person, you'll see that he's over 220 â¦ he looks like Kyle [Singler]. He can do some of those things [that Singler did] for us.
"Playing for the Under 20 team for Finland last summer - he was the leading scorer, rebounder, assist guy. He got to play for a month in really good competition. I think his confidence is sky high."
Murphy said he's a better player after redshirting last season than he would have been had he stayed in high school and come to Duke as a celebrated prep All-American.
"I sometimes think about what would have happened if I had stayed in high school, but I think that coming down here early and going through redshirt year was by far the best thing I could have done for myself," Murphy said. "Not even close."
It's also possible that Sulaimon is being underrated. I read and hear a lot about the impact that Rodney Purvis will make at N.C. State or Marcus Paige at UNC or Shaquille Clear at Maryland â¦ but Sulaimon is the highest rated (by the RSCI, which averages recruiting rankings) freshman in the ACC this season. And Amile Jefferson (No. 21) is the third highest rated (Purvis comes in at No. 17).
I think it's not unreasonable to argue that - in adding its two redshirt freshmen to its two returning freshmen) Duke has the BEST freshman class in the ACC this season.
(3) The Quinn Cook factor.
I've written before about how for nearly the last decade - at least since the graduation of Chris Duhon in 2004 - Coach Krzyzewski has had to find a way to win without a natural point guard (with the exception of the eight games before Kyrie Irving was hurt in 2010-11). He's made do with a lot of combo guards: from Sean Dockery to Daniel Ewing to Greg Paulus to Nolan Smith to Jon Scheyer to Smith again to Seth Curry and, finally, to Tyler Thornton.
Don't get me wrong - that lists includes some exceptional basketball players. Scheyer was good enough to lead Duke to the national title. Smith was an ACC player of the year. Currently, Curry and Thornton are valuable members of the 2012-13 Blue Devils.
But they aren't point guards.
Quinn Cook is.
There was a time - not so long ago - when Cook was regarded as the finest point guard in his class and one of the best pure playmakers in recent years. In the spring of 2010 (while Duke was celebrating its national title), Cook was one of the most acclaimed players in high school basketball after leading DeMatha to a 32-4 record and its second straight DC city championship.
Following that spectacular season, Cook was named the Washington Post's All-Met player of the year, beating out among others senior point guard Kendall Marshall of Bishop O'Connell in Arlington, Va.
That summer, Cook started at point guard for the U.S. Under 17 team that went 8-0 to win the World Championship in Hamburg, Germany. He averaged 7.5 points, 3.6 rebounds and passed out a tournament-high 7.4 assists a game.
More significantly, he started at point ahead of Marquis Teague and Tony Wroten.
I bring that up because it means that in the summer of 2010, you could make the case that Cook was a better - and certainly more celebrated - high school point guard than three point guards who were selected in the first round of the 2012 NBA draft - Marshall, Teague and Wroten.
But that was all before Cook suffered a knee injury in the fall before his senior season at Oak Hill Academy. Cook returned quickly from surgery and played that season. He was still a good player (averaging 21 points and 10.9 assists), but clearly he was not the dominant playmaker he had been before the injury. When he got to Duke in the summer of 2011, the Blue Devil staff thought it best to shut him down.
Cook went more than four months without playing before he joined the team for preseason practice a year ago. His surgically repaired knee was better, but the long layoff impacted his game - and his confidence.
"The hardest part of coming back from an injury is getting there mentally," Cook said. "I just battled with pains here and there, then I stopped believing in myself because I wasn't playing. I was not feeling motivated to practice because I wasn't confident in myself. I wasn't in the best shape. My teammates never believed in me because they never played with me until the first day of practice."
Cook had a few bright moments, but he averaged less than 12 minutes a game. Coach K said the young guard struggled to pick up Duke's defense and his outside shot - normally a strength in Cook's game - was dreadful (just 25.0 percent from 3-point range). He did, however, demonstrate his playmaking skills - his ratio of 63 assists to just 18 turnovers was the best on the Duke team.
"Just coming from high school to Duke basketball, this is a whole different level and you need months to prepare," Cook said. "By missing my whole spring and summer and not preparing was definitely a setback. That's what's motivated me this summer and last spring."
Cook, who has spent the summer working with his close friend Nolan Smith, provided a tantalizing taste of what he may offer this season when he played in the Four Nation's Cup. He averaged 22.0 points in the three-game event and shot 51.1 percent from the field.
"Coach [Guy] Ramcourt told me that it was my team and he wanted me to control everything," Cook said. "He basically had a lot of trust in me. All in all, it did a lot for my confidence."
"This summer was reassuring for me," he said. "Both the Nation's Cup and the Pro Am â¦ playing basketball again â¦ working on my game during those games â¦ I performed well. I needed that, just for confidence. I know it's not the ACC, but I feel good where I am. I feel good about what I can contribute to the team."
In a very real sense, Cook is the wild card for this Duke team. If he regains the form that made his game so admired in 2010, Duke will have discovered a very important weapon. Coach K will have a true point guard to gameplan around for the first time in years.
It's not so farfetched - most preseason projections expect a lot from UNC sophomore James Michael McAdoo, who averaged a modest 6.1 points and 3.9 rebounds as a freshman. There were reasons McAdoo didn't make more of an impact (basically, he was playing behind two veterans in the post who were first-round NBA draft picks lasts pring). But there is a reason Cook didn't do more as a freshman (his injury/layoff).
Both sophs have a great deal of potential. I just don't understand why so many outlets seem to recognize McAdoo's potential, while I rarely see Cook mentioned in Duke projections.
(4) The senior factor.
It's very simple. Duke returns three senior starters who each averaged double figures for the 2012 Blue Devils. Just one other ACC team can say that (Miami) and not many nationally.
"I think older, really good players are the best thing a coach can have," Krzyzewski said. "You always want the young, great players, but the seniors are outstanding and they have game experience and they are 22, 23-years old - which our guys are - it gives a different dimension to your team. In 2010 we were like that."
Duke opponents ought to get nervous when Coach K starts linking this year's team to 2010 - Duke's most recent national championship.
But outside observers didn't give that team a lot of respect either - it started the year No. 9 in the first AP poll, behind No. 6 UNC (which would play in the NIT). The ACC media made Duke and UNC co-favorites that year, even though Duke returned four starters off the ACC championship team and UNC returned just one starter off the regular season champs.
Hmmm, does that sound familiar?
Both Mason Plumlee (tied with N.C. State's Richard Howell as the ACC's top returning rebounder) and Seth Curry made third-team All-ACC last season. Ryan Kelly didn't make the ACC postseason list, but certainly demonstrated his value by his absence in postseason.
There's also reason to think one or more of the Duke seniors could emerge this season as a true superstar. That's happened remarkably often in recent years under Coach K. Chris Carrawell was one example - he was third-team All-ACC as a junior and became unanimous All-ACC and ACC player of the year as a senior. Neither DeMarcus Nelson nor Jon Scheyer made even third team in their first three seasons before emerging as first-team picks as seniors. Even Nolan Smith blew up late in his career - after a disappointing sophomore year, he was second-team All-ACC as a junior and ACC player of the year as a senior.
Of course, that doesn't count the most amazing late-bloomer of recent times - Brian Zoubek.
If there's a candidate to make a similar jump this season, it would appear to be Mason Plumlee.
The 6-10, 235-pounder surprised many when he elected to return to Duke for his senior season instead of opting for a probable spot late in the first round of the 2012 NBA draft. He was a very good player as a junior - 11.1 points a game, along with 9.2 rebounds and a 57.2 percent average from the field.
There were critics who suggested that Plumlee should have done more, especially offensively. He was limited by his shooting range and his poor free throw percentage (his final average of 52.8 actually reflected a big improvement late in the season).
Plumlee believes that he will be much more of an offensive force this season.
"The biggest thing is consistency," he said. "I think I've shown flashes over the course of my career, but being reliable every game, so that Coach and my teammates know what they're going to get. I should shoot the ball better this season. I really worked on that in the offseason. I also feel that if I get the ball in the block, I should score or get fouled every time."
Critics have charged that Duke doesn't do enough to take advantage of Plumlee's skills. Whether true or not, it appears that Krzyzewski is planning to make Plumlee the centerpiece of this year's team.
"You'll see," the Duke coach said. "I think he is as good a player as there is in the country. He's almost 7-feet tall and his shooting, handling â¦ he wants to score inside. I really like where he's at.
"If we do something special this year, the big thing will be because of him. I don't think that puts pressure on him - he wants it. He's been very good, but it's his time to be the key guy. Ryan and Seth are also key guys, but Mason is THE key guy. It's exciting."
Krzyzewski said that over the summer, he's formed a special bomb with the second of the three Plumlee brothers.
"In the time I've been coaching, I've been lucky to have so many good players," he said. "The great ones are the ones who grab you and say, 'Let's do this together.' We form a bond with those players.
"I feel like [Mason and I] have that since last spring. We had a good relationship. But there's a big difference between having a good relationship â¦ a strong relationship and a bond."
I realize that what I've offered sounds like a partisan evaluation of this Duke team. That's why I've been so reluctant to offer it. But it's what I believe and for more than 40 years, I've tried to separate my emotions from my judgment and I THINK I'm doing it in this case.
Obviously, Duke has question marks. Will Cook really emerge as a first-class point guard? Will Mason blossom into stardom? How much will the four newcomers help?
But every team has question marks. Is NC State as good as the team that played in March or only incrementally better than the team that barely snuck into the NCAA Tournament? How many of UNC's supposedly talented backups will step into starring roles (remember how well that worked in 2010, when Williams last had to replace four starters)? Leonard Hamilton told me over the summer than he expects to have his best team at FSU - is that possible after losing four senior starters and SIX of his top nine players?
Wednesday, when the ACC media meets in Charlotte to predict the 2013 season, I suspect they'll vote: 1. N.C. State; 2. Duke, 3. UNC; 4. Florida State and 5. Miami â¦ although I wouldn't be shocked if UNC ends up ahead of the Blue Devils.
No problem, it's just a preseason poll and it doesn't mean anything. The season will be shaped by injuries and developing players and teams that find chemistry and those that don't.
My opinions are no more valid that anybody else's. But my 40-plus years of covering ACC basketball suggests to me that Duke is being undervalued going into the season.
This group of Blue Devils have a chance to be a very special team.
(Next week: Looking at the ACC after Operation Basketball)