A new basketball season is here.
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That means new players, new hopes, new challenges and new expectations.
The expectations at Duke are exceptionally high, thanks to three decades of consistent success under Mike Krzyzewski. He's raised standards to the point where last year's 26-win team that finished No. 8 in the nation is viewed as a major disappointment after a quick NCAA flameout.
This year's team opens play tonight against Presbyterian ranked No. 3 nationally by the coaches and No. 4 by the AP. In Joe Lunardi's first bracketology, released Thursday by ESPN, Duke is projected as the No. 1 seed in the East.
Of course, last year's team opened with similar expectations - the preseason favorite in the ACC and No. 4 in the preseason AP poll. Duke has been ranked in the AP's preseason top 10 every year since 2007-08, when the Devils were all the way down at No. 13. Duke has been ranked preseason top 10 in 16 of the last 18 seasons and has ranked in the top 10 at some point in 28 of the last 30 seasons. The only exceptions were 1987 and 1996 - both seasons topped out at No. 12.
The point is that lofty preseason rankings and the like don't real tell us much that we don't already know. Duke is going to be good … the question is how good? Will they be as good or better than that disgraced program from eight miles down the road? Will they finish ahead of the talented ACC newcomer from the Blue Grass State? Will they overtake the defensive-minded defending ACC champions from Thomas Jefferson's hometown?
And, most importantly, will they be good enough to make a deep NCAA run in March?
That's all got to be played out.
But I thought I'd offer a list of things I'm looking forward to going into the season:
Mike Krzyzewski once said his goal every year is to win championships. And he's won plenty - four national titles, 11 regional championships, 13 ACC championships, 12 ACC regular season championships.
I don't count in-season tournament titles. It's impressive that Duke has won the preseason NIT several times, along with the Maui Invitational, the Battle 4 Atlantis, Coaches vs. Cancer, the Great Alaskan Shootout and so many other November and December events. If the field is strong enough it can be quite impressive - remember beating Minnesota, VCU and Louisville on successive nights in November of 2012 in the Bahamas (and then coming home to beat Ohio State in Cameron four days later)?
But as impressive as it would be for this team to win the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic this month, nobody's hanging a banner for that.
In my eyes, there are four banners than matter. First and foremost is the national title banner. A win there would give Coach K five titles, breaking his tie with Adolph Rupp and leaving him behind just UCLA's John Wooden in NCAA championships won.
To get a national title, a team also has to win a regional championship. A Final Four appearance by itself - even if it does not lead to a championship - is an impressive achievement and deserves a banner. Coach K's 11 Final Four appearances leave him tied with UNC's Dean Smith for most regional championships in ACC history - and one behind Wooden for the most in NCAA history.
I still cherish an ACC championship, which is determined by the tournament in March. While the ACC does recognize a regular season champion these days, the tournament champion remains the official ACC champion. Coach K's 13 titles tie him with UNC's Smith on the ACC list. So another championship would be sweet.
Note: K's 13 titles are more than any ACC SCHOOL other than Duke or UNC. N.C. State, in third place on the championship list, has 10 titles.
The ACC officially recognized the regular season champion in 1990, when Clemson - an original ACC member that had never won anything - finished first in the regular season race (but lost in the tournament semifinals). To give the Tigers something, the ACC reversed 36 years of history and decided to recognize the regular season champion. It actually made sense at the time, since the regular season grind was a better test of a team than a three-day event in March. But that was when the ACC played a balanced home-and-home schedule. Now, with the unbalanced schedule, it's not always clear that the regular season is fairer test than the tournament.
The regular season title is still worth celebrating, but to my mind, it's not nearly so significant as the real ACC championship (and certainly doesn't compare to a regional title or the national title).
Still, the point is that Duke hasn't hung a banner of any kind since winning the 2011 ACC championship.
Over the last three seasons, Duke has made one respectable NCAA run (reaching the Elite Eight in 2013). The Devils have lost in the semifinals, quarterfinals and finals of the ACC Tournament. And even in the regular season, Duke has come in at second, second and tied for third in the ACC standings.
That's the longest "banner drought" for Duke since Coach K hung his first banners in 1986.
So a banner - or banners - is the No. 1 thing I'll be looking for this season.
Coach Krzyzewski will start the season 17 wins short of 1,000 career victories.
That's only significant because it's a round number. Coach K is already the winningest Division 1 Men's Coach of all time - 983 wins.
But the countdown to 1,000 will be fun.
When will the 1,000th victory come?
The earliest possible date would be Saturday, Jan. 17 at Louisville.
Can you imagine the national hype if 16-0 Duke arrives in the Yum Center with Coach K sitting at 999 career wins?
Personally, I don't think that's going to happen. Duke has opened 17-0 on a handful of occasions, most recently in 2005-06. Two of the last four Duke teams have opened 15-0 (2011 and 2013).
But even if Duke is very, very good, there are likely to be a few losses buried in the early season schedule. Lose one (say, at Wisconsin in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge) and the 1,000th win comes in game 18 - at home Nov. 19 against Pittsburgh. Lose two and it comes Jan. 25 against St. John's in Madison Square Garden - that would be appropriate since that's where K beat Michigan State to pass Bob Knight for first place on the career win list early in the 2011-12 season.
After St. John's, there are road games at Notre Dame and at Virginia to close out January.
It's going to come, sooner or later this season. Personally, I'll be disappointed if it doesn't come by the first of February.
A year ago, Duke lost of one of my favorite streaks.
The Blue Devils dropped out of the AP top 10 after losing to Notre Dame in their ACC opener - the first non-top 10 ranking for the Devils since November of 2007.
Duke does own the longest active top 25 streak in college basketball - 136 straight weeks (since the final 2007 poll). Kansas is second at 103 straight weeks in the poll.
A more significant streak is Duke's current homecourt winning streak. The Devils last lost at home to UNC in the 2012 regular season finale. The last two Duke teams have been undefeated at home.
That brings the streak to 33 straight home wins. That's the seventh longest home winning streak in ACC history. When Duke beats Presbyterian tonight, the Devils will tie Virginia (1980-83 when Ralph Sampson was at UVa) for the ACC's sixth best home winning streak.
Duke set the record at 46 straight home wins between 1997 and 2000. The Blue Devils also have the second (45) and third best (41) home winning streaks in ACC history.
N.C. State, which won 36 straight at home when David Thompson was playing for the Pack, has the longest non-Duke streak in ACC history.
Looking ahead, there's almost no chance that Duke loses any one of its first eight home games (more about the schedule in a minute). And that's generous - the ninth home game will be against Miami, which will be lucky to be a middle echelon ACC team. But I respect Jim Larranaga as a coach and he does have a boatload of very experienced, very talented guards. A year ago, a much less talented and less experienced Miami team went to Syracuse and had the No. 1 ranked Orange on the ropes until the final minute.
Duke, which could have lost to Vermont at home last season (that game was the first sign of real trouble with the defense of the 2012 Devils), could very well challenge the ACC record for homecourt wins. Interestingly, if the streak survives the likes of Miami, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, the record-tying game would come Feb. 18 when North Carolina - a team that has had a lot of success in Cameron - makes its annual visit.
Like the potential 16-0 Duke at Louisville for win No. 1,000, a potential Duke-UNC matchup for the longest home win streak in ACC history would be exciting.
Duke has another streak that has far less potential for drama. The Blue Devils have now beaten 109 straight non-conference opponents at home since losing to Eric Barkley and St. John's late in the 2000 season.
That streak is not likely to be threatened this season. Duke plays seven non-conference opponents in Cameron this season and it's an unimpressive lineup - with one exception. Toledo returns four starters off a team that won 27 games a year ago and is the preseason favorite in the Mid-American Conference. Senior point guard "Juice" Brown will be one of the best players to visit Cameron this season.
So maybe Toledo can snap Duke's non-conference streak … but I have to think the next real threat will be early in the 2015-16 season when one of the Big Ten's top teams should come to Durham for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
4. THE SCHEDULE
I want to be perfectly clear about this - Duke plays a very solid schedule this season.
But it is probably the worst HOME schedule that I can recall.
As noted, the seven non-conference visitors are a lackluster bunch. I respect Toledo, but when they are clearly the gem of your OOC home lineup, that's an issue. And the ACC slate is not a lot better. We get North Carolina, naturally, and Syracuse comes back for a second straight year, but neither Virginia not Louisville - two of the ACC's four top 10 preseason picks - will visit Cameron. From the mid-level teams, we get Pitt and Notre Dame, but don't get to see N.C. State or Florida State.
All that just means that this team will have to be road warriors.
Duke has non-conference road games at Wisconsin and St. John's and neutral court games against Michigan State, UConn, Temple and either Stanford or UNLV.
In the conference, Duke has to visit all three of the ACC's other top 10 teams - Louisville, Virginia and North Carolina, plus middle-echelon picks Florida State, Notre Dame, and N.C. State.
It's too early to break down the ACC's unbalanced schedule until we see whether or not the preseason predictions mirror reality, but I'm comfortable projecting that Duke will end up playing one of the toughest ACC schedules possible.
But it's going to be that tough because so many of the games are away from home.
5. COACHING TITANS
The ACC will boast four Hall of Fame coaches this season - Krzyzewski at Duke, of course, but also Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Rick Pitino at Louisville and Roy Williams at UNC.
They've won nine national titles and more than 3,300 games between them. Any time two of their teams meet, it's going to be a huge national story.
The matchup that most fascinates me will be when Duke and Syracuse square off.
I know that Boeheim is Krzyzewski's best friend in the profession (and, I think, vice versa). But their two matchups a year ago were electric - both games were instant classics.
I did lose a bit of respect for Boeheim after the thrilling Duke win in Cameron. His ejection and his post-game tirade about a disputed block-charge call (a tirade that he has continued over the summer) was a classless performance and detracted from a classic game (and also cost his team a very real chance to win).
It stands in contrast to Coach K's classy behavior after Syracuse edged Duke in overtime in front of the largest on-campus crowd ever to see a college game. That game was decided by a blatant no-call as Rodney Hood went for the game-winning dunk. But you didn't see Krzyzewski react by getting tossed and then ranting about the officials' error in postgame.
Still, Krzyzewski-Boeheim is about as good as it gets. Every time they will meet, the game features a new record for the most cumulative victories in NCAA history. Krzyzewski currently leads the parade with 973 wins, but Boeheim is second with 948 wins (the most at one school in NCAA history).
Krzyzewski and Pitino have a bit of history too - dating back to that memorable 1992 East Regional championship game, proclaimed by ESPN as the greatest game of all time (I'd still opt for the 1974 ACC championship game). K won that one, just as he beat Pitino in the championship game of the Battle of Atlantis in November of 2012. But the Louisville coach got a bit of revenge as his Cardinals knocked off Duke in the 2013 Regional Championship in Indianapolis - a win that vaulted Pitino to his second national title.
ODDS AND ENDS
-- I'll be paying attention to the Duke-UConn game on Dec. 18. The two teams have met nine times - Duke has five wins and UConn four. But those nine meetings have a curious connection to NCAA success.
There is the 1999 national championship game, of course, when UConn knocked off the Devils in St. Pete. And in 2005, UConn edged Duke in the national semifinals in San Antonio before beating Georgia Tech 48 hours later for the national title,
But Duke beat UConn in the 1991 NCAA Tournament, en route to its first national title. In both 1964 and 1990, Duke beat UConn in regional final games to reach the Final Four. And early in the 2009-10 season, Duke's future national champs beat UConn in New York.
Here's an oddity about the series - nine meetings and all nine have been played on neutral courts. That will be true of the 10th meeting this season, scheduled for the Izod Center (the old Meadowlands).
-- Brothers: Marshall Plumlee is the third Plumlee brother to play for Duke. Together, the three brothers have scored 2,074 points - 1,384 for Mason, 650 by Miles and 40 so far by Marshall.
That's seventh most prolific brother combo in ACC history. Marshall still has two more seasons in Durham and with 155 more career points, he can vault the Plumlees past Matt and Pat Harpring of Georgia Tech into sixth place.
There are a couple of more brother combos within reach - the Barry brothers, for instance -- but unless MP3 suddenly explodes as an offensive player, there appears to be little chance the Plumlees can threaten the four Mahaffey brothers, who combined to score 3,555 for Clemson in the 1960s.