DURHAM, N.C. - Duke's upcoming trip to China and Dubai couldn't come at a better time for the Duke basketball program.
Blue Devil coach Mike Krzyzewski has to restructure his team after losing three key players - the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, the reigning ACC Player of the Year and a four-time All-ACC forward (two-time first team) - from last year's 32-win ACC champions.
There's plenty of talent on hand, but it's a mix of former role players and incoming freshmen. The two-week trip around the world, along with the 10 practice sessions to prepare for it, will give the returning players a chance to test out their expanded roles, while giving the newcomers an early transition to the college game.
Most importantly, the August journey will allow the 13 players a chance to jump-start the critical process of team building.
"It's an unbelievable opportunity," junior forward Ryan Kelly said. "I think it will work out great for us this year - not only on the basketball court, but our ability to bond. As we've seen these last few years, the teams that make it are the ones that are most together.
"We know we have great teammates, but we need to continue to get to know one another."
That process has begun with the pre-trip practices. It will be accelerated Sunday when the team boards a charter flight for China. The team is scheduled to leave Raleigh-Durham at 3 o'clock that afternoon and to arrive in China at 1 a.m. Tuesday.
Duke will play games in China on August 17 in Kunshan, on August 18 in Shanghai, on August 22 in Beijing and on August 25 in Dubai. All except the first game will be televised to more than 195 nations (on ESPN3 and ESPNU in the United States) with condensed versions of all four games on www.GoDuke.com.
"It's really going to be a wonderful experience for our team," Krzyzewski told reporters at a press conference Tuesday. "A big thing is getting better as a basketball team and growing together."
The Duke coach has seen the benefits of an off-season foreign trip before. Back in the summer of 1983, the Blue Devils toured France, playing nine games against professional teams. It was no coincidence that the veterans of that trip formed the core of Coach K's breakthrough team - one that turned an 11-17 record in 1983 into a 24-10 season in 1984.
"No question it was beneficial," Mark Alarie, a member of that team, recalled earlier this summer. "It was a team-building experience. When you lose there's a little back-biting. You question your ability as a team, your ability to be cohesive. I think we lost that. When we went to France, we regained that."
Duke also benefited from a trip to London in the fall of 2002, when it gave Krzyzewski and his staff a chance to blend the six freshmen members of that team with six holdovers.
"It was very similar to this year," assistant coach Chris Collins said. "We had six freshmen then. We have five now ... in both cases, it's almost half the team."
NCAA rules allow teams to travel abroad once every four years, but Krzyzewski's last five summers have been filled by his duties as the U.S. National Team coach. He would have been busy this summer too, except that his national team won the world championship last summer in Turkey. That earned the United States a bye into the 2012 Olympics and freed Krzyzewski from having to coach a team of pros in an Olympic qualifying event.
"All of a sudden, I didn't have anything for USA Basketball, so I said, 'Why don't we take a look at that.'" Krzyzewski said. "I thought about China a long time ago, then our school said, 'China might be a good thing.'"
The Duke staff and players will be accompanied on the trip - in all or at least part of the way - by a number of members of the team's extended family. Former Duke All-America Grant Hill will be on hand, along with last year's standouts Nolan Smith and Kyrie Irving. Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, whose son Austin Rivers is a highly touted freshman at Duke this season, will also be part of the traveling party.
The trip will involve more than basketball. Several players talked about sightseeing, especially the Great Wall of China, but the younger Rivers had a few extra side trips in mind.
"I've never been over to China, so just to go over there and see their culture," he said. "I want to see the Great Wall, of course. In Dubai, they have the tallest building in the world and an indoor ski park. I know Coach won't let us go, but if I have a chance, I'll sneak out and go skiing."
Joking aside, basketball is still the top priority for the Duke players.
"We're in a little bit different situation in that we don't have guys coming back who are really solidified in the Duke program," Kelly said. "We have guys we know are really good players but haven't been consistently good players. To have this opportunity, it's at a perfect time for our team for guys to step up and fill roles and figure out who they are going to be."
Krzyzewski suggested that Kelly and Seth Curry were two veteran players who have already shown signs of taking on a larger role this season. He expects a lot from his veteran big man trio of Kelly, Mason Plumlee and Miles Plumlee, promising to feature the inside game more than in the recent past.
He also expects to get a big contribution from his freshman class.
Often, freshmen have a rough transition to the college game. The 2002 trip helped J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams get their careers off to a fast start. Could the China/Dubai trip help this year's freshman class do the same?
"Most freshmen are like they're hit by a bus in the first practice," Kelly said. "This gives them a little transition into it."
Rivers, the most celebrated of the new recruits, is already learning some important lessons.
"Defense is so big in college basketball," Rivers said. "It's not like high school or even the NBA. The NBA is a lot of one-on-one. High school is high school. College is - teams are like this [he squeezed his hands together], just cluttering the paint. You have to know how to score and jump stop and everything like that. It's tough."
Krzyzewski told reporters that Rivers is making quick progress.
"Austin has continued to get better," Coach K said. "With the ball, he's very explosive. One of the main things he's learning is playing without the ball and also when he has the ball, he's playing against bigger, more experienced defenders where people are going to try and get charges on him. [So he's learning] how to jump stop and make plays. He had a really good practice [Monday] because he stopped short of over-penetrating."
The Duke coach also had praise for freshmen Alex Murphy, Michael Gbinije and Marshall Plumlee. But he did have some bad news about freshman point guard Quinn Cook, who is still struggling with a knee injury that he suffered last August. As a precaution, the staff will shut Cook down until mid-September, when his knee will be re-evaluated. He will make the trip to China and Dubai, but he won't see any action.
"The China trip is wonderful and I'm sorry I won't get to play," Cook said. "But I want to be 100 percent for the season. I tore my meniscus last August. I had surgery, but I rushed back too soon. I never gave it a chance to heal. I'm going to do that now. I want to be 100 percent on Oct. 15."
Even without Cook, Krzyzewski will have plenty to look at on the trip. He promises to experiment with lineups and give everybody a chance to try out bigger roles. In fact, several players said that's already happening.
"Guys are already starting to get a feel for each other," junior Andre Dawkins said. "Roles are starting to emerge. To be able to do this this early is really good for us."
Coach K has already had some good luck in China, leading Team USA to the 2008 Olympic Gold Medal in Beijing. The outcome of this month's games won't be as important, but this trip could lay the groundwork for another successful season of Duke basketball.