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DURHAM, N.C. -- Before the Duke Blue Devils began practicing one day last week, their coach, Mike Krzyzewski, stood in front of his players to explain the presence of the 200 or so onlookers who would be watching the workout from the upper deck of Cameron Indoor Stadium. The visitors were executives from around the country who had paid to participate in a weekend leadership seminar that Coach K was conducting through Duke's Fuqua School of Business.
"They want to see how our company is run, how our corporation is run," he said.
A few minutes later the Duke players were cutting, passing and shooting their way through a crisp, efficient and, yes, businesslike two-hour workout. This is what blue-chip success looks like -- robotic, mechanical, maybe even a little antiseptic. If college basketball is the business world, then Coach K is Steve Jobs, and he's got the four banners to prove it. (One for the MacBook, one for the iPod, one for the iPhone, one for the iPad ...)
I choose this analogy as a compliment, but I imagine not everyone will recognize it as such. For much of the last two decades, Duke has been the benchmark of excellence in this sport, and that has understandably engendered some resentment and jealousy. While it sounds silly to suggest that last year's team flew under the radar -- "Yeah, we were fifth or sixth in the country," Krzyzewski cracked -- the fact is, by Duke standards it did. This year promises a return to the program's Forbes 500 roots; the Blue Devils are beginning the new season as the consensus favorite to repeat as national champions.
I have much to report about my visit to practice, but allow me to cut to the chase. I was one of the 55 voters (out of 65) who voted the Blue Devils as the No. 1 team in the country for the AP's preseason poll. From what I saw, we may have underrated them.
I had an interesting frame of reference for evaluating this team, because I was coming off visits to two other squads that were voted in the AP's top eight: Villanova and North Carolina. In both instances, I came away a little underwhelmed. Both teams had much potential, but they seemed young and unpolished to me. There was, however, nothing unpolished about Duke. If Nova, Carolina and all the other wannabes are starting on "Go," then Duke has already collected its $200, made its first turn on the board and is currently sitting on Pennsylvania Railroad. The Devils have a long way to go to reach Park Place, but they've got a huge head start.
It's not often that a team boasts two returning seniors from a championship team -- one of whom is a leading candidate for national player of the year -- and neither is the most talented player on his team. By my lights, that is Kyrie Irving, a 6-foot-2 freshman point guard from Elizabeth, N.J., who was named a Parade and McDonald's All-American last year. Yes, the graduated Jon Scheyer was a terrific floor leader, but he was never really a point guard. He only ran the offense out of necessity. It has been a long time since Duke has had a player of Irving's caliber at the most important position on the floor. He will make plenty of spectacular plays, but mostly he will make everyone around him better -- and they're already pretty doggone good.
Irving has all the physical tools to be special. He has solid (though not overwhelming) size. He is extremely quick and agile, and he is a deft three-point shooter. He changes direction so quickly you almost don't notice it. But what really makes Irving elite is his innate feel for the position. He knows how to change speeds, he slides his way to the rim through subtle feints and hesitations, and he consistently makes smart deliveries on the break. Irving is not an overpowering point guard in the Derrick Rose/John Wall mold. He's more like Isiah Thomas or Chris Paul, orchestrating the action with more artistry than explosiveness.
Even those returning seniors, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, sometimes find themselves marveling at Irving's gifts. That was apparent when I asked the two of them after practice to recall their favorite play of his thus far. "Oh man," Singler said. "When was it that he split those three guys?"
"Last week," Smith said.
"Yeah, last week," Singler continued. "That was ridiculous. He was coming off a ball screen going to his left, then he split the post coming up to help. Then two defenders came to stop him and he split that [double team] too and then made a nice reverse layup. It was real impressive."
Indeed, the Duke coaches have "complained" during staff meetings that Irving is making it near impossible for them to practice double-teaming the dribbler, because he's so good at splitting defenders. Toward the end of the practice I watched, Irving drove the middle of the lane and leapt toward the basket. When 6-10 junior Miles Plumlee shifted over to help, Irving brought the ball down, flung it underhanded over Plumlee's outstretched arms, and gave it a little English to bank in a layup. Krzyzewski cracked a smile, turned to an assistant and said, "I can't teach that."
I had seen Irving play plenty in high school, so I knew how good he was. But I didn't go full man-crush on him until I sat down with him one-on-one for 20 minutes. It's hard enough for me to remember what it was like to be 18 years old. It's even harder to imagine being 18 and having the kind of poise and intelligence Irving evinces, even as he operates in a fishbowl with the weight of the world on his shoulders. "Nobody really, truly understands the transition from high school to college until they actually experience it themselves," he told me. "Listening is a skill. That's something I'm doing a lot of, especially learning from Kyle and Nolan and Coach K. They're always giving me advice on how to get better. That's a key word this year, is just getting better."
The good news for Irving is that he doesn't have to carry this program by himself. Besides Singler and Smith, he will be playing with two veteran post players in Miles Plumlee and brother Mason, who's a sophomore. Any of the second five are prepared to contribute, most notably the two guards who will provide instant offense off the bench -- 6-4 sophomore Andre Dawkins and 6-1 redshirt sophomore Seth Curry. (Yes, that's Stephen Curry's little brother. Seth transferred to Duke from Liberty, where he averaged 20.2 points per game as a freshman.) Duke's surprising dash to the championship last spring makes it easy to forget that it was coming off a stretch during which the Blue Devils failed to make it past the Sweet 16 for five consecutive years.
I would not anticipate the start of another such streak beginning next March. Duke is not the only good team in the country, but it is the only one with no real weaknesses. The Blue Devils' business is winning, and their stock is only going to rise from here.
Let me save opposing coaches some time in putting together their game plans: Do NOT zone this team. I had been thinking during practice that Dawkins and Curry were kind of quiet. Then Coach K had the players work on their zone offense, and those two started shooting darts from well behind the three-point line. Dawkins and Curry aren't shooters. They're snipers. Don't give 'em the chance to spread the floor and fire.
As I reflected on the practice in the days that followed, I realized how much of my positive impression resulted from the Plumlee brothers. In most programs, either one would be a first or second option who would be looked on to create scoring in the post. On this team, they only need to worry about setting screens, working the boards and keeping their hands ready for passes when they're open. Both Plumlees are good athletes with longer-than-expected shooting range, but what really surprised me was their ability to pass. They also have that telekinetic thing that brothers have, and it's a lot of fun watching them feed to each other in Duke's motion offense.
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