Two months of conference previews on the Dagger begin Monday with a week-long look at next season's ACC. Here's a Duke-centric first installment:
Of all the tips and tricks Duke guard Nolan Smith picked up training alongside the NBA's best at USA Basketball camp this summer, the most important may be a simple suggestion Lamar Odom shared with him last month.
Smith approached Odom between scrimmages in Las Vegas and asked the Los Angeles Lakers power forward for his advice on what it would take to repeat as champions.
"He told me to go out there and have fun, enjoy playing and it will take care of itself," Smith recalled. "It seems simple, but he's right. If we don't put too much pressure on ourselves, enjoy playing with our teammates and play with maximum effort, I think that will take care of everything."
The line of questioning from Smith hints at the banner-or-bust expectations Duke faces heading into a new season. Anything short of coach Mike Krzyzewski's fifth national title would be a disappointment for the defending champion Blue Devils considering the combination of new and returning talent they will have.
Although Duke will miss Jon Scheyer's shooting and the defense and rebounding of big men Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek, their replacements make the Blue Devils quicker at guard and more athletic in the front court. The Plumlee brothers are ready for added responsibility down low, sweet-shooting transfer Seth Curry becomes eligible in the fall and highly touted incoming freshman Kyrie Irving is capable of stepping in right away at point guard.
"Talent-wise this year's team definitely has the chance to be the best of all the teams I've played on," Smith said. "We have everything we need: veterans, guys that have won big games, a freshman class that is highly touted and ready to come in and play right away. The only thing we have to do now is get our chemistry where it needs to be and see if we can take care of business."
The key to Duke's hopes was the return of Kyle Singler, the versatile, high-scoring senior forward who would have been easily the most irreplaceable player off last year's championship squad. In a year when almost every NBA prospect with a pulse seemed to enter the draft, Singler passed up the chance to be a first-round pick and returned without testing the waters, a decision that makes Duke a clear favorite to repeat and gives the team added roster flexibility.
If Krzyzewski wants to go to a big lineup, he can start the Miles and Mason Plumlee in the front court, Singler at small forward and Irving and Smith at guard. And if Krzyzewski wants to go smaller and quicker, he can pull one of the Plumlees, slide the 6-foot-8 Singler up to power forward, and insert Curry alongside Smith and Irving for a three-guard look.
Whereas Maryland was Duke's only legitimate competition for the ACC title last season, the conference features a handful of teams hoping to usurp the Blue Devils this winter.
Virginia Tech returns the core of a 25-win team that narrowly missed last year's NCAA tournament. North Carolina and NC State both feature highly touted freshman trios capable of transforming their respective teams into contenders. And Florida State could make a run at the Blue Devils as well if the Seminoles could ever get their offensive efficiency to the same level as their outstanding defense.
"All those teams are good, but Duke will probably be the biggest competition," NC State freshman guard Ryan Harrow said. "With Kyrie coming in and everything they're returning, they're going to be the team everyone is gunning for."
Maybe the biggest challenge for the Blue Devils will be maintaining the same level of hunger they had a year ago when critics dismissed them as national title contenders, pointing to their track record of early NCAA tournament flameouts. Duke used that perceived slight as motivation, roaring past early-round foes and then narrowly ousting Butler in a memorable title game.
The challenge of making sure their teammates are focused on next season is one that Singler and Smith have embraced. Even as they were celebrating last season's title at the White House or the ESPY Awards this summer, the two seniors were there to constantly remind their teammates that preparation for a repeat had already begun.
"Kyle and I, we want guys to know that last season is over," Smith said. "I have high expectations for this year's team, probably even higher than last year's team. I hope to win more games and lose less. I hope to dominate teams even more than we did last year. I think we have a chance to leave a legacy at Duke and I'm confident we won't waste that."