ACC Basketball Preview: Duke
By Joedy McCreary
DURHAM ó Greg Paulus has become the Duke player that opposing fans love to hate. It’s a role passed down through the years, from Laettner to Hurley to Redick.
Paulus greets it with his familiar, knowing smirk. He’s ready for that relentless, neverending cascade of boos that always rains down on whomever the masses anoint as the lightning rod in coach Mike Krzyzewski’s lineup.
Duke’s senior point guard loves being that player.
“It makes you concentrate harder, it makes you focus harder, it makes you want to keep them quiet,” Paulus said. “I know that whenever you win on an opposing team’s court, it’s a pretty good feeling when you go in the locker room and you’re celebrating with the guys and you know that you just accomplished that.”
That’s a feeling that seemingly everyone in Duke’s program has learned to share, ever since Krzyzewski established his standard of excellence with 10 Final Fours and three national titles in nearly three decades at the school. But after two straight earlier-than-usual exits from the NCAA tournament, that swagger has taken a hit, and now it’s Paulus’ job to help recapture that March mojo.
“We understand what it’s like ó we’ve been going through this for quite some time now,” Paulus said. “That’s part of why we wanted to come here. We wanted to be a part of the program. We wanted to add to it, and we understand that if you don’t play well in March, this is what’s going to be said, written or described your season as.
“We understand that we had a pretty good season last year in the regular season, but we did not play the way we wanted to or fulfill what we wanted to, as far as our standards. Not other people’s ó ours. We judge that by ourselves.”
These Blue Devils, ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press preseason Top 25, appear better built to maintain that high level of play and make the kind of deep tournament run that became commonplace over the years.
Nine of the top 11 scorers are back from a team that rose to No. 2 nationally, beat rival North Carolina on its home court in a 2-vs.-3 matchup and claimed the No. 2 seed in the ACC tournament.
They wore down late and finished 28-6 with losses in three of five to end the year, capped by a 73-67 setback to West Virginia in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“We had a hell of a year, and I need to make sure that we have a hell of a year the whole year,” Krzyzewski said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to win the NCAA, but we could. Last year, the way we were, we couldn’t.”
This year’s team is better for several reasons ó most importantly, experience.
After having just one scholarship senior in the past two seasons ó DeMarcus Nelson ó this team has two (Paulus and swingman David McClure). There’s also a fourth-year junior (guard Marty Pocius, back from a knee injury) and two third-year players who have two years of starting experience, guards Gerald Henderson and Jon Scheyer. And ACC rookie of the year Kyle Singler joins sophomore guard Nolan Smith in hoping to benefit from their first year in the ACC’s grind.
Krzyzewski hopes a team that could go 12 deep will have more of an interior presence, with 7-foot-1 center Brian Zoubek finally healthy after a nagging foot injury and with a pair of freshmen ó 6-7 Olek Czyz and 6-10 Miles Plumlee ó adding additional bulk to a lineup that was criticized last year for being too small and too dependent on its perimeter game.
“You can’t understate the importance of a big guy to play with and complement the other players,” Zoubek said.
The Blue Devils hope that blend of size and talent can help them erase the scars of previous NCAA tournament failures ó quite literally, in Scheyer’s case. The junior guard still sports a lasting abrasion under his left eye from one of the program’s recent low points, that opening-round loss two seasons ago to Virginia Commonwealth.
“The biggest thing for us is, we’re a different team this year,” he said. “Last year and the year before, we’re going to use those as learning experiences.”