Back in power

Jason King

DURHAM, N.C. – As he headed toward the parking lot following Saturday's 93-80 victory over Clemson, Duke's Jon Scheyer was stopped by a female fan who wanted him to sign her basketball.

"No problem," said Scheyer, reaching for the Sharpie. "No problem at all."

Then – with a grin as wide as Duke's victory margin – Scheyer posed for a photo. It's obvious he's come to appreciate times like these, probably because he remembers how it felt when the situation was reversed.

"A year ago," Scheyer said, "I was embarrassed to even show my face."

All of the Blue Devils were.

Duke's 11 losses last season were its most since 1995-96. Included in a pair of four-game skids was a setback against Maryland on Senior Day. A few weeks later Virginia Commonwealth ended the Blue Devils' NCAA Tournament run with a stunning first-round upset.

"Even today, what happened last season is still with us," guard Greg Paulus said.

Apparently that's a good thing.

The motivation the Blue Devils are drawing from their 2006-07 shortcomings has led to a banner start. Saturday's victory against an excellent Clemson team was the cherry on top of an impressive stretch that saw Mike Krzyzewki's squad win three ACC games in six days. Duke also defeated Virginia and Florida State.

"That was some really nice basketball," Krzyzewski. "I'm proud of our guys. That was a really tough week, and we got through it with three wins. But it's only Jan. 19. There are still a lot of games left."

No one would be surprised if Duke won most of them. Seriously, did anyone really believe subpar seasons in Durham would become a trend? This program is simply too good and too well-managed to be down for long.

Duke, 15-1, looked like one of the top teams in America on Saturday – a team that more than capable of knocking off Memphis, Kansas, UCLA and North Carolina, the schools that seem to be at the top of everyone's list when it comes to identifying this season's elite.

Asked if Duke was "flying under the radar," Scheyer said: "As far as we're concerned, people can keep talking about Kansas and Memphis and UNC. We're not concerned with those teams. We're just going to keep taking care of our business and, hopefully, keep on winning. We're in a really good place right now."

Duke's victory over Clemson might have been its most impressive of the season, especially considering Krzyzewski called the No. 24 Tigers, "the best team we've played."

The Blue Devils won despite being outrebounded 42-26. Instead of trying to outmuscle the bigger, stronger Tigers in the paint, Duke turned to its defense. The Blue Devils forced Clemson into 21 turnovers. Duke finished with 13 steals.

"I didn't think that we played particularly well here today," Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said. "But, as usual, Duke had something to do with that. Duke lives off turnovers."

It's not just the way that the Blue Devils are playing defense that impresses other coaches. More than anything, Duke – despite starting two freshmen – is playing as a team.

When they weren't scoring an easy bucket off a fast break, the Blue Devils had beautiful spacing and ball movement on offense. Knowing that it couldn't match up with Clemson down low, Duke played fast Saturday, often pushing the ball up the court before the Tigers could recover in time to defend.

Still, it wasn't until Duke uncorked a 20-5 run late in the second half that the victory felt safe thanks to a Tigers team that showed a lot of toughness in a raucous environment.

"(Clemson) was relentless," Duke guard DeMarcus Nelson said. "They never went away. It took us the whole game to really wear them down."

In what might have been the best game of his career, Nelson scored 24 points on 10 of 13 shooting. The play of freshmen Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith helped, too.

Singler gave Duke a huge momentum boost when he blocked James Mays' shot midway though the second half. He also swished a pair of three-pointers after intermission, the second of which gave Duke an 81-65 lead and a momentum it would never relinquish.

Smith, a backup point guard, had 13 points and four assists.

"Our freshmen are just a little bit more ready than our (freshmen) the last couple of years," Krzyzewski said.

No matter who is on the court, though, the Blue Devils continue to operate with the cohesiveness of a team in late season form. They're unselfish when it comes to minutes and picky about shot selection. Scheyer said the chemistry – both on and off the court – couldn't be stronger.

"For us to win games, with the type of team that we have, we need to be close," Scheyer said. "We don't have someone that's going to flat-out dominate every night. We're a really together group. I think it shows the most when we get stops on defense.

"Now, those situations where the game could go either way, that's when we're making tough plays."

A year ago – in those same situations – Scheyer said Duke would've folded.

"We all got together and vowed to not let something like last year happen again," Scheyer said. "Last season was tough on everyone. At Duke, you're expected to be excellent."

After a season-long hiatus, the Blue Devils are just that, once again.