Mike Krzyzewski met with the media on the first day of preseason practice. The Duke coach made it clear from the opening moments that he didn’t want any questions about “defending” his team’s title.DURHAM, N.C. – Back in the fall of 1991, when Duke was coming off its first national championship,
“We’re not defending anything,” Coach K said. “We’re pursuing another title.”
That applies today – the 2010 national championship belongs to Duke and will remain in the Blue Devil trophy case no matter what happens next season. The 2011 title, on the other hand, is up for grabs and the Devils will attempt to become just the third team since 1973 to successfully repeat as national champions, trying to match 1991-92 Duke and 2006-07 Florida as the only teams to do in the modern 64/65 team NCAA era.
The 2010-11 Blue Devils will certainly have the talent to make a title run, especially after adding a gifted class of newcomers, including Liberty transfer Seth Curry, junior college transfer Carrick Felix and incoming freshmen Kyrie Irving, Josh Hairston and Tyler Thornton. They have the raw talent to replace departed seniors Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas, but if Duke is to be a title team again, someone else must replace the leadership that trio provided.
That comes back to Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith.
“For us next year – for Kyle and me – we’re going off what those guys did,” Smith said. “Now we can teach Kyrie [Irving], Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston and Carrick Felix. We can teach those guys that it’s not going to be free. They’re coming into a championship team. They might think it’s just going to be handed to us again.
“Now that we’re going to step into a leadership role, we know it’s going to be our job to push these guys –to push them, lead them and do whatever it takes so that they know that nothing is going to be handed to them.”
Singler suggested that one of the things he learned from the outgoing seniors is the importance of sharing the ownership of the team.
“It’s not going to be my team,” he said. “It’s going to be our team. That’s something this last group was very good at. They let you know as a group, that it wasn’t just on Jon’s or Brian’s shoulders. I think that was important we had great seniors, but everyone had a voice on the team. I think that was important too.”
Still, the first voices heard every day will be the seniors. There are lessons that the veterans can impart. For instance, Mason Plumlee said that he had to learn the work ethic that’s required for success.
“I don’t think anybody – at least in this year’s freshman class – I don’t think anybody played hard enough,” the younger Plumlee brother said. “We played hard in spurts, but when you talk about our seniors and what they taught us – it’s to play hard all the time ... don’t take plays off. If you do, they’ll let you know it.”
Of course, not every player has to learn the same lesson.
“I was fortunate to have a coach in high school who demanded that we practice hard and do the necessary things to be worthy of winning,” Singler said. “As a freshman, I thought I had a good understanding of working hard and it wasn’t much of a learning curve for me in that. But it is a transition – and this is where the older guys come into play. We have to be sure that guys are staying focused and making sure they’re coming to practice every day and working hard at getting better.
“I think the most important thing for freshmen is to be comfortable and to know you can be yourself. If you come in and be who you’ve always been as a basketball player, you won’t have to worry very much. “
The five newcomers will be joining a team that will start the season with very high expectations. Duke is almost certainly going to be the No. 1 or at worst No. 2 team in every preseason poll.
“It’s a cool thing,” Singler said of the lofty expectations. “You really have no idea what’s going to happen. The things you can control are how hard you’re going to work. Are you going to move on from what happened last year and realize this is a new year? You have to take big advantage of it. I think that’s a big thing for Nolan and me as leaders to help this team go through that, to make sure we’re not thinking about last year, but to make sure we’re thinking about this coming year.”
That is also Smith’s focus.
“Kyle and I have already had talks about next year. We’re going to let it be known early that nothing will be handed to us. Nothing has been handed to us since we got here. We’ve been out in the first round and we’ve been out in the second round – we came back to not let that happen.”
Actually, the return of Smith and Singler was not a foregone conclusion in the days after Duke cut down the nets in Indianapolis. It was funny because the two classmates went through exactly the same process – only one did it very publically, while the other did so very privately.
Singler, who explored his NBA options for two weeks after the Final Four, surprised a lot of people when he announced on April 19 that he was returning to Duke for his senior season.
“Kyle will be a pro,” Coach Krzyzewski told reporters at Singler’s press conference, explaining that it would help his star forward in the long run to wait a year to realize his NBA potential. “There are a multitude of things that can happen only when you are a senior – to graduate with your class and to share the experience of being a leader on your team and to develop that leadership as only you can as a senior.”
Smith never had a staying-or-going press conference. He took his deliberations out of the public eye early when he told reporters at the ACC Tournament that he was definitely returning to Duke for his senior year. But his return wasn’t as certain as he made it sound.
“I also had meetings with Coach,” Smith admitted. “I was also thinking about it. It just made it easier for me, not having to deal with all the questioning every day by letting them know I was coming back. If I had to change my mind, I would have done that.
“But Kyle and I made a decision – we came in together, so we were going to leave together.”
Will they leave as Christian Laettner and Brian Davis did, with back-to-back national titles in their last two seasons? That’s the goal, but it’s not an easy one to accomplish – just remember, as good as the ’92 Blue Devils were, it took a historic last-second shot by Laettner against Kentucky to get that team to the Final Four. And only two teams – Duke in 1991-92 and Florida in 2006-07 – have managed to repeat since John Wooden’s seven-year run ended at UCLA in 1973.
The return of Smith and Singler should guarantee that Duke will be very good in 2010-11 … but little else will be guaranteed. It will have to be earned.
“At the beginning of the season, you really have no idea what’s going to happen,” Singler said. “Last year, we sat down as a team and we wrote down standards. I think that helped us do what we did and not really focus too much on goals like winning championships. It was about us focusing on what we were going to do every day. I think it helped.”
To that end, both Smith and Singler will spend the summer trying to improve as individuals.
Singler just completed his fourth annual Kyle Singler Southern Oregon Open – a three-day tournament in his hometown of Medford, Ore., for boys and girls from the sixth through the eighth grade. He plans to participate as a counselor at summer camps sponsored by Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
Smith plans to follow the same off-season routine that paid off so handsomely last season. He’ll return to Washington, D.C., where he’ll work out with a personal trainer and play in pickup games with NBA and other college players. He’s also planning on working at summer camps sponsored by Chris Paul and Deron Williams.
But both will be back at Duke for the second summer session, where they’ll get to know their new teammates in pickup games – and begin to assert their leadership skills.
For Smith, that should come easy. Oak Hill coach Steve Smith called Nolan the best leader he ever coached. He is the only two-time captain in the history of that famous basketball prep school.
“I just developed it from my mom,” Smith said, when asked about his leadership skills. “You learn from what you’re around. That’s watching my mom and her abilities. So when I went to Oak Hill, my junior year, I was a captain. I was a captain our senior year. I just wanted to take charge. I wanted to be someone who people listen to. I’m obviously not shy. I like to talk. I like to be heard. Now that I’m in that role on the college stage, I feel very confident that I can help lead this team with Kyle.”
Singler has always been a quieter player. Krzyzewski suggested that was why returning for his senior year could be such a good thing for him.
“One of the things I see going into next year – I see Kyle as somebody who will captain our defense,” Krzyzewski said. “I think he has a really great understanding of defense. He was one of the best defensive players in the country this year. We have to take advantage of that. He needs to share that knowledge with his teammates. Lance did that. And Brian did that. I think that’s a role Kyle needs to step up some.
“He’s an amazing guy to coach. Kyle has great heart. He’s a warrior and I think through leadership, he can bring out the heart of others.”
It’s an exciting combination: Smith and Singler … talent and experience.
Together, they provide the 2010-11 Blue Devils with the two things that championship teams require.