DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Mike Krzyzewski wants his latest Duke team to resemble some of its predecessors.
He wants the eighth-ranked Blue Devils to play aggressive defense. He wants toughness, togetherness and passion at that end of the floor.
Some of that was missing last year when their opponents had the ball — and among other things, that inability to consistently stop people helped lead to one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history.
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So, at the dawn of his 33rd season at Duke– where, through the years, key defensive series were heralded with an emphatic slap of the floor — the former Army captain with the dedication to tough, man-to-man defense wants his players to regain that edge.
“The history of our program has been based on really sound, good defense, and team defense. I don’t think we had that” last season, Krzyzewski said. “I think we beat teams offensively last year, and when you don’t have the defense, you lose out on certain toughness and togetherness that’s only found, really, by doing stuff on the defensive end of the court.”
No question, the Blue Devils flopped at the end of last season by losing three of their final four. None was more surprising than the 75-70 loss to 15th-seeded Lehigh in their NCAA tournament opener in which C.J. McCollum regularly dissected them to the point where he made himself a preseason AP All-America pick at their expense.
“Last year, that wasn’t my moment. That’s not what I want to be remembered for,” big man Mason Plumlee said, explaining his decision to return for his senior year. “I wanted another moment here at Duke, another moment with (Krzyzewski), my teammates, and a better one.”
The Blue Devils have two other seniors in the rotation — forward Ryan Kelly and guard Seth Curry — but this team probably will rise and fall depending on how Plumlee performs.
“It’s his time to be the key guy,” Krzyzewski said. “Ryan and Seth are also key guys, but Mason is the key guy. I love when a guy wants that. He owns it.”
The return of Plumlee, who averaged 11 points and a team-best nine rebounds last season, meant the Blue Devils only had to deal with two player losses — older brother Miles Plumlee graduated, and Austin Rivers became Duke’s second straight guard to go one-and-done.
If there is to be a third, it’ll have to be Rasheed Sulaimon — because he’s the only freshman guard on the roster. The 6-foot-4 scorer, who joins Amile Jefferson as 2012 McDonald’s All-Americans on the team, averaged 27 points as a high school senior.
“We have a lot of guys on our team that can shoot,” Sulaimon said. “All the guys really can shoot on the perimeter. But that’s what’s going to make our team special this year, is that we not only have guys who can shoot but we have guys who can create off the dribble as well.”
The Blue Devils also are looking for 6-8 redshirt freshman Alex Murphy to fill the same role that Kyle Singler perfected from 2007-11 — drawing the opponent’s big men away from the basket by knocking down 3-pointers over them — and hope the 6-11 Kelly can continue to develop his inside-out game. He missed the postseason last year with a sprained right foot, and his absence was clearly felt.
“For a guy my size, I can shoot the ball pretty well, but I haven’t completely shown my ability to score around the bucket with my back to the basket,” Kelly said. “With Mason being such a great passer — he can play really inside and out, too — that dynamic will be really important for our team and something we’re going to have to take advantage of.”
That across-the-board size makes the Blue Devils a tough team to match up against on offense. They hope it makes them tougher to score against, too.
“I think we’re going to be better defensively,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re not going to be a pressing team, but I think in the half court, if we can limit second shots, keep people out of the paint and not give up open 3s — with our length, we should be able to get to people and kind of bother their shots. We want to be an outstanding half-court defensive team.”