Duke lost two princes to the NBA, but the Blue Devils kept their king. That's an off-season trade the Blue Devil Nation will gladly accept. In early July, when Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski decided not to follow Luol Deng and Shaun Livingston to the NBA, nothing else mattered at Duke.
Not Deng, who departed after just one season, or Livingston, a high school recruit who never got to campus. Only Krzyzewski, who spurned a five-year, $40 million offer from the Los Angeles Lakers to return for his 25th season with the Devils. With Coach K sitting safely on his throne, the focus for the Blue Devils, a Final Four team in 2004, now turns to a new role as underdog. For the first time since '97, the Blue Devils are not the favorites to win the ACC.
The Blue Devils not only lose Deng, their best player in the NCAA tournament, and Livingston, the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft, but also bid farewell to Chris Duhon, the team's leader for the past two seasons.
The Blue Devils will begin life in the new ACC looking up at Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and, worst of all, North Carolina. For Duke's players, they know this season will be different from their dominating run from '97 to '04. They also know it could have been worse.
"It is a great feeling that everything is OK," said senior guard Daniel Ewing.
FRONTCOURTDuke's hopes this season hinge on the continued improvement of a pair of junior forwards - Shelden Williams and Shavlik Randolph. Williams averaged 12.6 points as a sophomore and led the ACC with an average of 3.0 blocks per game.
Randolph, who struggled as a freshman with foot injuries, emerged at the end of his sophomore season as a viable post option. He averaged 10.2 points in the NCAA tournament but also fouled out of two of those five games.
Beyond Williams and Randolph, there is limited depth. Junior swingman Lee Melchionni is 6-foot-6 but is more of a shooter and too small to be a post defender. Freshman David McClure, a top 100 recruit, is 6-7 but is more suited to play small forward. Both reserves will get minutes by default, because Duke has only eight scholarship players. "We have eight players," Krzyzewski said. "We have to start figuring out combinations."
BACKCOURTKrzyzewski counted on Duhon at the point for four years, and particularly the past two with such an inexperienced team. Livingston was supposed to fill Duhon's slot but instead will be learning on the job with the Los Angeles Clippers.
"We know we have to step up and replace Chris," junior shooting guard J.J. Redick said. "We feel like, between Daniel [Ewing] and myself, we can do it."
Junior Sean Dockery, an above-average defender but below-average scorer, is the only true point guard on the roster.
The Blue Devils are still blessed with two exceptional shooting guards in Ewing and Redick, last season's leading scorer (15.9 ppg).
Freshman DeMarcus Nelson, a 6-3 combo guard, will also be part of the rotation. "He can play," Redick said of Nelson. "I'm telling you right now, he can flat out score."Ewing could be the great unknown. With more responsibility, the smooth 6-3 shooter from Texas could flourish. Ewing was steady in '03-04, averaging 12.6 points, but he was clearly a fourth option behind Deng, Redick and Williams. That won't be the case this season.
"He's ready," Redick said, "and we have confidence Daniel's game can take the next step this season."
FINAL ANALYSISCoach K and Blue Devils fans can't afford to ask, "What if?" With Deng and Livingston, Duke would likely have opened the season ranked No. 1 in the nation. But without their raw talents, the Devils will need breakout seasons from Ewing, Randolph and Williams to continue their recent domination of the ACC. With stocked teams in Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and UNC, the Devils will be the hunters instead of the hunted.
That doesn't mean Duke doesn't have talent; all five probable starters were McDonald's All-Americas. It just means they could've had more.