This season the emphasis on improving post-season performance began with preseason workouts that focused on building lasting endurance and a fitness program that aimed to balance added strength against burnout - something the Blue Devils seemed to face in each of the last two seasons. The plan appears to have worked as Duke enters the 2009 Tournament upbeat and prepared.
"We're fresh," said head coach Mike Krzyzewski. "Health isn't always about a sprained ankle. It's also mental healthy. Our guys are staying after practice, and working hard. They want to be in the gym and they want to work. That's a good sign."
A year ago that was clearly not the case. The Blue Devils came sputtering to the finish line in the ACC behind the efforts of a clearly exhausted Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer. After losing the regular season finale to North Carolina, Duke lost to Clemson in the ACC Tournament and then nearly lost to Belmont in the opening round of the NCAA. Coach K's team was put down for good two nights later as West Virginia cruised to a surprisingly easy second round win.
A year later and Duke is a more dynamic, and if you believe Coach K, a more fit team. But it's not just Krzyzewski's opinion. Junior First-Team All-Conference performer Gerald Henderson believes his fellow players are ready to go and return his team to the top of the ACC mountain.
"People talked about Kyle and Jon being run down [last year]," Henderson told the media. "They even said that last year. But they are playing the best basketball that they have played all year at this time. There are no excuses for us at all."
Certainly Scheyer and Singler seem to be getting stronger as the season winds down with Scheyer scoring nearly 20 points per game over the final three weeks of the season and Singler topping the 20 point plateau in each of his last three contests. Add in Henderson's brilliance and the likely return of sophomore guard Nolan Smith, and Duke does have the look of a team poised to break out of the recent trend of March letdowns.
Then, of course, there is the built in spark of freshman Elliot Williams. The 6'4 freshman moved into the starting lineup a few weeks back and has scored 11.0 points, grabbed 3.2 rebounds, and logged 1.1 steals per game since being named a starter. Williams will be needed as Duke opens the tournament tonight against a Boston College team that beat Duke last month after rallying from a double figure deficit behind Tyrese Rice. This time, however, things appear to be a bit different from where the Blue Devils sit.
"Tyrese Rice is a great player," Williams said. "I didn't play in the Boston College game, but I was on the bench watching. He is kind of similar in [Ty] Lawson a little bit. When he attacks he is fast. He can also shoot. He is a great player like every player I've guarded in the ACC."
With Williams' energy added in, and with the seeming strength of the Blue Devils' top trio of Scheyer, Singler, and Henderson - Duke appears ready to make a run in March. It's been a few seasons since that was the case. The race begins tonight at 9:00 PM.