Defending champ Duke hungry for moreKyle Singler (left) and Nolan Smith are back to try and lead Duke to another NCAA title
DURHAM, N.C. – Six months after winning the NCAA title, the Duke basketball team stood in the middle of Cameron Indoor Stadium on Friday as the song "We Are the Champions" boomed through the loudspeakers.
Some players waved as 9,314 fans snapped pictures and held up signs. Others hugged their coaches or bobbed their heads to the music.
Then there was Mason Plumlee.
"I just kept looking at our rings," Plumlee said. "You can see them from a distance, with all those diamonds. Those things are bold"
Adorned with four blue sparkling stones to commemorate the program's quartet of national championships, the rings were presented to each Blue Devil during "Countdown to Craziness," Duke's annual kickoff to college basketball season.
"It's big, but I love it," said Mason's brother, Miles. "I don't know if I can wear it out anywhere. I'll have to wait until I go to something fancy to wear it. It's so flashy."
Just imagine if Plumlee and the Blue Devils were sporting two of them.
The vision hardly seems far-fetched. As good as it was last season, Duke could be even better in 2010-11. Mike Krzyzewski's squad is ranked No. 1 in virtually every preseason poll and returns two of its top three scorers in Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith.
The biggest difference-maker, though, will be freshman Kyrie Irving, who could easily end up being Duke's best point guard in the last decade.
"There's not a kid on the floor that we don't think can help," Krzyzewski said. "We have a really good group of kids. It'll be fun to see what they develop into."
Before they moved forward, Duke's players spent the early portion of Friday's festivities reveling in the past.
The "One Shining Moment" video chronicling Duke's NCAA tournament was shown on the Jumbotron, and players were presented with the glitzy rings and shiny new wrist watches.
Jon Scheyer and Lance Thomas – two of the three senior starters from last year's squad – returned for the ceremony. Brian Zoubek was not in attendance. For Smith, the highlight of the night came when the banner commemorating the championship was unfurled in the Cameron Indoor Stadium rafters.
"It definitely set a very high tone," Smith said. "From here on out, everyone in this locker room is putting [last year's title] behind us. But in the back of our minds, we can look up there each day and know that we know how to do it. We know what it takes."
Each player was introduced with his choice of entrance music, and Miles Plumlee surprised fans by riding a unicycle across the court. Andre Dawkins won a memorable dunk contest, but fans filed out of the arena buzzing mostly about Irving, who hardly looked like a freshman during Duke's 24-minute intra-squad scrimmage.
"There have been a lot of point guards who have done a lot of great things here," Irving said. "I want to exceed all of them."
Irving didn't waste any time making an impression, when he stole the ball from Seth Curry on the game's opening possession and scored an easy layup. Whether he was penetrating and dishing, hitting 3-pointers or using his long arms to come up with deflections, the 6-foot-2 Irving carried himself like a veteran from the opening tip to the final horn.
Irving finished with 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting. He also posted game highs in assists (11) and steals (three). And remember, that was all in 24 minutes.
Like Irving, former Duke All-American point guard Jason Williams grew up in New Jersey and is very familiar with the Blue Devils' freshman. Williams, who was in Durham on Friday, said Irving has a maturity that's rare for someone his age.
"When I think of a point guard," Williams said, "I think of someone who can dictate tempo and understands touches. He'll be able to say, 'OK, I'm playing with a couple of All-Americans. Has Kyle gotten enough touches? Has Nolan gotten enough touches?' It's a rare accomplishment for a guard at a young age to understand those kinds of things."
Williams paused and smiled.
"At the same time,” he said, “[Irving)] can take over a game when he needs to. He's that good."
He must be, considering Krzyzewski is tailoring his entire offensive game plan around Irving, who seems to be fitting in well with his new teammates. At other schools players may be upset when a freshman comes in and receives so many minutes. But that's hardly the case at Duke, where Smith is excited about sharing the perimeter with one of the game's up-and-coming stars.
With Irving and Smith in the backcourt and Singler on the wing, the Blue Devils' will tout arguably the best group of guards in the country – especially when you include Curry, a Liberty transfer and the brother of Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry. If he comes off the bench, there may not be a better sixth man in college basketball than Curry, who received eight stitches Friday after being elbowed above the eye.
The Plumlee brothers are expected to start down low, where Duke has quality reserves in freshman Josh Hairston and sophomore Ryan Kelly. Hairston had a game-high 20 points Friday, and Kelly took the court took the court 26 pounds heavier than he was last season. Singler also added 18 pounds of "good weight."
Krzyzewski said Duke has 10 players that could be regular contributors this season, including Curry and all three members of its freshman class (Irving, Hairston and Tyler Thornton). He said the Blue Devils will be able to use multiple combinations and play a variety of different schemes.
Other than seniors Smith and Singler, Krzyzewski doesn't anticipate any player being on the court for more than 12 minutes.
With such a good blend of talent, experience and depth, the bigger issue for Duke may be avoiding that complacency that so often sets in after teams win NCAA titles. Krzyzewski doesn't think that will be a problem with this group.
"I'm hungry," Krzyzewski said. "I stay hungry all the time. [We can’t] assume something is going to happen. Winning a national title is not an easy thing. It's not like, 'OK, we're going to win four of them.'
"It's a very, very difficult thing. It's one of the toughest things in sports to win because it's one-and-done. It's as tough as anything there is in sports."
But it's certainly possible.
Especially for this Blue Devils team.