Young, talented and healthy Duke off to a 7-0 start
DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke forward Kyle Singler jogged off the court on Tuesday night following his team's rather pedestrian 82-58 win against Wisconsin with a goofy smile on his face and his tongue hanging out, all geared up to high-five the Blue Devils mascot waiting for him.
It was the only clue Singler might be a freshman.
The 19-year-old played 31 minutes, laughed as a trainer cleaned the blood off his jersey from a cut above his eye and returned to finish with 13 points -- his fifth game in double figures.
Meanwhile, Duke has played only seven games. And won them all.
With only one senior on the roster, Singler and his fellow freshmen are a major reason why the Blue Devils are deeper and faster and look capable of improving upon last season's uncharacteristic sixth-place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference. It was a season during which teams no longer feared the unforgiving atmosphere in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and Duke couldn't beat North Carolina or "the other Williams" at Maryland. The Blue Devils finished 22-11, including a loss to Virginia Commonwealth in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
This season, the infusion of talented youth combined with the experience -- and healing -- of several injured starters has propelled No. 7 Duke to another strong start. Tuesday's game was the team's fifth in nine days, including a Nov. 21 win against No. 10 Marquette that earned the Blue Devils the Maui Invitational title.
"This team has more weapons," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We're deeper, more experienced than last year. Last year, my kids played great. They won 22 games hurt, young. Everyone wants to say it was a disastrous season, and we won 22 games, went to the NCAA Tournament and were a couple buckets away from doing better. That experience of doing that and being tough has translated into more maturity, along with having the three freshmen. And having [Greg] Paulus healthy. I love my guys, and this is a really good group of guys."
Singler, along with fellow freshmen Taylor King and Nolan Smith, are good enough that if Krzyzewski wanted to, he could consistently use a nine- or 10-player rotation, as opposed to the six- and seven-player rotations he has relied upon for the past decade.
Nine times this season, players have come off the bench to score double figures for Duke. Against Wisconsin it was King, who led the team with 15 points, and Jon Scheyer, who added 10. As a group, the Blue Devils' reserves were averaging 33.3 points through the first six games. Last season they averaged 14.4 points.
"Our freshmen are going to contribute all year," Krzyzewski said. "They're really good. Taylor, he had five 3s. It was like dynamite -- boom, boom, boom."
Smith, whose late father Derek played on Louisville's 1980 NCAA championship team before spending 11 years in the NBA as a player and coach, said the rookies on the team entered the program intent on erasing last season's disappointing finish.
"We don't want anybody talking trash about us," Smith said. "We want teams to fear us this year. We made a statement these first six games."
And in the seventh, the Blue Devils answered an important question about whether they'd be able to rebound against a taller team. With the departure of Josh McRoberts, Duke started the season with a hole in the middle, but they proved last night against a bigger Wisconsin team it can compensate for their smaller size with speed and athleticism.
"Even though we're small, we're really quick to get to balls," said Scheyer, a 6-foot-5 guard who led Duke with nine rebounds against the Badgers. "We're athletic enough we can out-hustle teams."
In addition to the speed, Scheyer said he can "definitely tell" something is different from last season.
"Even though we don't have a loss at this point, even the guys' mentality, everything is different I feel," he said. "Confidence is a big thing for us. Taylor, for example, he has all the confidence in the world. It goes to other guys, too. That's the thing with our team last year. We didn't have a lot of confidence and it showed."
Of course, the question now is how long they can sustain it. The ACC has improved from top to bottom, and the league is led by talent-oozing North Carolina.
"We had a really good start last year, and towards the end we finished 4-8," said Paulus, who hasn't missed a practice yet after dealing with a broken foot last season. "Getting off to this kind of start, it's good, but we want to keep getting better and keep building so we don't finish 4-8 like we did last year."
Heather Dinich is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org.