Chris Duhon graduated. Luol Deng went pro. Recruit Shaun Livingston never even bothered to arrive.
By Duke standards this was supposed to be a "rebuilding year."
Well, so much for that. The Blue Devils (25-5) are right where they seem to always be, carrying the ACC tournament championship trophy and holding down a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Duke may lack depth, but it doesn't lack talent. J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams are as good an inside-outside tandem as any in the country. The supporting cast knows its roles, steps up at key times and, most importantly, cares only about winning.
"For the entire season," coach Mike Krzyzewski says, "they have found ways to win and have incredible heart."
Will that be enough this year?
In past seasons the Blue Devils have been able to roll out the ball knowing the deck was stacked in their favor, with a couple of McDonald's All-Americans on the bench just in case anything happened.
Now foul trouble, cold shooting or an injury could play havoc. And a stacked regional is licking its chops for the Blue Devils to stumble.
Syracuse, which was brilliant in the Big East tournament, potentially awaits in the Sweet 16. Kentucky looms on the other side of the bracket, always looking for another chance to avenge the 1992 Elite Eight classic.
But Duke won't play scared. With the Blue Devils it is never about who doesn't show up; the ones who do always seem to be plenty good enough.
1. Kentucky-Duke in the Elite Eight?
The 1992 overtime, Christian Laettner buzzer-beating clash between the two programs is considered by many to be the greatest college basketball game ever played. The chance that they could meet again should get any hoop fan excited. Of course, the two teams met in the 1998 Elite Eight and UK got a measure of revenge, but games between these two never get old.
2. Does Michigan State have heart?
The Spartans' core upperclassmen have won a ton of games, including 22 this season, but the State fan base remains skeptical of the group. State was terrible in close games this year and didn't win a truly big game all season. The Spartans beat teams they are supposed to beat and lose to teams they are supposed to lose to.
The good news is State doesn't overlook opponents, and their Round 1 opponent is a very good Old Dominion team that went 28-5 this season.
The feel-good story of the last few years is in its final act. Star players Taylor Coppenrath, T.J. Sorrentine and likeable coach Tom Brennan all are facing their last game.
Vermont (24-6), which has made the last two NCAA tournaments, faces white-hot Syracuse in the first round. Either way it works out, gang green has given every small school and small state in the country something to cheer for the last few seasons.
Who Will Win?: Kentucky. (When it doubt, pick the Cats).
Dark-horse Pick (sixth seed or worse): Cincinnati.
The question with UC is always: Which team will show up? When the Bearcats are hitting shots, they can compete with anyone, which makes them a scary No. 7 seed.
Upset Special: UTEP over Utah.
Andrew Bogut is a formidable presence for the Utes, but UTEP coach Doc Sadler orchestrates one of the best defenses in America. If they can control the big Aussie, the Miners have the offense to win.
Fun Potential Matchup: Cincinnati vs. Kentucky (second round).
The City of Cincinnati sits on the Kentucky-Ohio border. The two schools are major national powers and have been for years. But they never play each other. This one would be huge on the local rivalry scale.
Or If You Prefer …
Maybe picking teams based on ability isn't your cup of tea. Hey, we all know anything works in the tournament, so here are a few other factors to consider while filling out your Austin Regional bracket:
- Toughest Mascot: Niagara Purple Eagles (OK a purple eagle isn't tough, but Niagara Falls is indomitable).
- Coolest School Color: Syracuse Orange.
- Best Coach: Kentucky's Tubby Smith (in a close one).
- Best Academic Reputation: Stanford.
- Prettiest Campus: Vermont.
- Best Home Court: Cameron Indoor Stadium (Duke).
- Best State Bird: Blue Hen Chicken (Delaware State).
- Best Alums: David Filo, Jerry Yang (Stanford) – with apologies to Ashley Judd (Kentucky).
Five Stars to Watch
Hakim Warrick, Sr., F, Syracuse: He could have turned pro after helping the Orange to the NCAA title two years ago. But the long-armed Big East Player of the Year (21.4 ppg) stuck around, and is now as dangerous as any player in the college game. And, of course, he knows how to win.
J.J. Redick, Jr., G, Duke: Love him or hate him, there is no denying his sharp-shooting (41.7 percent from 3) and high-scoring (22.7 ppg). Redick gives the Blue Devils their traditional star power.
Andrew Bogut, So., C, Utah: The nation's best big man and a likely first team All-American, Bogut gives the Utes a matchup problem for the rest of the field. The Australian is averaging 20.7 points and 12.3 rebounds per game.
Omar Thomas, Sr., F, UTEP: One of the most underrated players in the country, all this high-scoring forward does is light people up – 20.4 points a game.
Chuck Hayes, Sr., F, Kentucky: "All he does is win" is how UK promoted Hayes for national honors this year. It's true. His team's 87-percent winning percentage the past three years says more about him than his numbers (10.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg).
- Usually Cinderella teams have a tough time competing in the paint with the big boys. Not so with Niagara, who boast their own big boy in senior Juan Mendez, who is averaging an impressive 23.6 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks a game.
- If you have ever spent a winter in Western New York than you appreciate that the NCAA sent Niagara to the Tucson subregional. Cleveland or Worcester just wouldn't have been as much fun.
- It's a long shot, but UTEP and Kentucky potentially could meet in the Sweet 16 for the first time since the 1966 NCAA title game. UTEP, then known as Texas Western, was the first team to start five black players. When they beat an all-white Kentucky team for the national championship they broke down the doors of segregation across the South. The story will be retold in the Disney movie "Glory Road" set for release in January of 2006.
- Ticket brokers throughout the Southeast just had their prayers answered when the NCAA sent both North Carolina and Duke to the Charlotte subregional. And while No. 1 seeds never get much love from neutral fans, you can expect some serious booing from opposing camps.
- Duke and Carolina never have met in the NCAA tournament, but if seeds hold they would meet in the Final Four this year. The teams split nail-biters this season.
- Vermont coach Tom Brennan co-hosts a popular morning radio show in Burlington, Vt., and one of his favorite gags is to call coaching friends at the crack of dawn. And his favorite target of all? Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whom he meets in the first round.
- Mississippi State hasn't been as good as it was a year ago, but it still has plenty of athletes who are capable of causing some havoc.
- Eastern Kentucky meets Kentucky in the opening round. EKU is coached by Travis Ford, the ex-Kentucky great.
- Until Oklahoma stepped up its commitment to basketball (facilities, salaries, support) it was widely rumored that Sooner coach Kelvin Sampson would one day replace Lute Olson in Arizona. That probably won't happen now, but Sampson is coaching in the Tucson subregional.