Given the spectacular locale, the Duke basketball team’s week-long stay in Hawaii couldn’t really be called a training camp; perhaps more of a group encounter session to sort through thoughts and feelings before the rigors of the Atlantic Coast Conference season.
“Sometimes I’m sitting around by myself and I think about how I’ve changed over the years,” said senior center Alaa Abdelnaby. “Now I find myself being careful about what I say and what I do. Are my actions setting a good example? When I do this, is it right? Will (freshman point guard) Bobby Hurley see this and wonder if this is how you’re supposed to act when you’re in college?”
After years of taking the court with the likes of Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Tommy Amaker and Danny Ferry and blowing opponents away, the Blue Devils, with encouragement from Coach Mike Krzyzewski, have become a group of introspective and sensitive young men.
With a Rainbow Classic field that isn’t nearly as imposing as in years past, there’s a trophy to be had here. But listening to Krzyzewski and his players, winning games isn’t as important as generating some good vibes.
“We want to work hard, but without families here we want to develop our team closeness,” Krzyzewski said. “You have to give a team an occasion to do that. You have to set the stage for that kind of development.
“You’re on a long plane ride and see a couple of guys who never talked to each other before playing in a card game. Then you get here and all of a sudden you see the whole team walking around together . . . that’s something we need.”
During the previous three seasons, team unity centered around All-American Ferry, and his graduation has put Duke in unfamiliar territory. While the 13th-ranked Blue Devils appear to have adapted well to his departure, winning five of their first seven games (only losing to No. 1 Syracuse and No. 5 Michigan), Krzyzewski admits he still isn’t sure what to expect from this team.
To get some answers, he’s done a few things a bit differently. Krzyzewski had little say about the ACC-Big East Challenge matchup against the Orangemen, but he did approve the contract with Michigan, in order to have at least one early game against a nationally ranked opponent.
Of the Blue Devils’ eight December games, seven are on the road, virtually unheard of for a top 20 team. Games against Drake and either Creighton or Cincinnati (Duke’s opponents in the first two rounds of the tournament) and an expected meeting against Rutgers or Virginia Tech in the final here don’t appear to be particularly daunting.
Still, the Rainbow Classic will force Duke to concentrate for three consecutive nights on opponents that could make their season with a victory against them.
“We’re still a target, no matter what year it is or who we have playing for us,” Krzyzewski said. “It still says ‘Duke’ on our chests, so people will come after us trying to gain their own identities. We’re people’s big games. Whoever we play is going to give us their best shot.”
Duke has a string of six consecutive 20-win seasons, averaging more than 27 victories. There have been three trips to the NCAA Final Four in the past four years.
Over his nine-plus seasons at Duke, Krzyzewski has won almost 70 percent of his games and emerged as a respected spokesman for college basketball. With players who are also unfailingly polite and articulate, it is easy to understand an opponent’s glee in knocking the Blue Devils down a peg.
“I can understand it too,” Krzyzewski said. “I call it the R&R; theory--Respect and Resentment. It happens to any team that’s been able to sustain a place at the top of the rankings. Other teams want to be there too. If the tables were turned--and they have been here in the past--you use it as motivation; you beat us to establish your own identity.”
This would seem to be the year for other schools to make a name for themselves at Duke’s expense. Ferry was the last link to the series of great teams that began with the 1983-84 season, and he left behind a legacy of excellence.
Last season, Ferry was the only Blue Devil to average more than 13 points, and only three averaged double figures. This season, Christian Laettner (18.0), Phil Henderson (17.1) and Robert Brickey (14.4) all are averaging more than 14 points a game and all five starters are in double figures.
“We’re running more, getting more dunks and layups, and the ball can be distributed to anybody on the court,” said Laettner. “It’s a lot more intricate than last year, when everything was set up to get the ball to Danny. At the end of games last year, everyone knew we were going to him. Now we don’t even know who’s going to take the last shot or get the game-winning bucket.”
After a solid performance in last season’s NCAA tournament, in which he was named to the all-East region team, the signs all pointed to Laettner picking up the slack left by Ferry’s departure. But the 6-foot-11 sophomore from Angola, N.Y., tried to take on too much of the burden himself.
“Christian spent a lot of time with number 35 (Ferry’s old number) on his chest instead of his own,” Krzyzewski said earlier this year. “If Ferry isn’t here, we don’t want a Ferry role, we want a Laettner role.”
“I didn’t consciously say that I was going to try to do everything that Danny did; I just found myself doing it whenever we practiced,” Laettner said.
The Blue Devils opened the season by routing Harvard, Canisius and Northwestern, but they were only preliminaries to the contests against Syracuse and Michigan.
Duke overcame an 18-point deficit before losing, 78-76, to the Orangemen, and took the Wolverines to overtime before falling, 113-108. The players believe they benefitted from the two losses.
“People would come up and say, ‘Gee, I hope you guys do well in those games,’ ” said Abdelnaby. “What they were really saying was, ‘Good luck, I hope you don’t get destroyed.’ But we hung in there and their perspective changed, they saw that we were a good team. More importantly, I think that we saw that we were a good team.”