DURHAM, N.C. — Look who's ranked 14th in the nation--Duke.
The Blue Devils are still winning despite losing four starters from a 37-3 team that went to the NCAA final against Louisville--and lost--last season. They also lost a top recruit to academic ineligibility eight games into this season.
"We had so many question marks going into the season, I didn't know what to expect," Coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Krzyzewski has been pleasantly surprised, as his Atlantic Coast Conference opened the season with 10 wins in its first 12 games, losing only to No. 3 North Carolina and No. 8 Illinois. After losing their opener to Illinios, the Blue Devils won 10 in a row before falling to the Tar Heels.
Great things were predicted for Louisville, led by center Pervis Ellison, after the Cardinals defeated Duke in last season's NCAA final. But Louisville, ranked second in the preseason poll, has struggled this season after losing its backcourt and forward Billy Thompson to graduation.
Duke was ignored in preseason balloting because All-American Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas graduated.
As conference play gets into full swing, Louisville isn't ranked. Duke is. And of the reasons is 6-foot senior Tommy Amaker, a quick playmaker who teamed with Dawkins the past three seasons.
"Having Amaker made the transition easier," Krzyzewski said. "For a few games early in the season, he had a little trouble adjusting to the new players, but he's not just a ball handler. He's a leader and he's started in 118 straight games for us and he knows what has to be done."
Amaker, who is scoring more (13.6 points per game compared to 6.4 last season), also keys Duke's pressure man-to-man defense, which has forced opponents into 20 turnovers a game.
"I felt some pressure before the season because I knew it was important for me to play better than ever," Amaker said. "But I didn't feel any pressure once the season started. Johnny and the rest of the guys are gone. We can't dwell on last year. This is a new year."
The only other Blue Devil with considerable experience is 6-10 sophomore Danny Ferry, a part-time starter last season.
"He was one of our main guys last year," Krzyzewski said. "But last year he was in a subordinate role. He has to learn shooting facing the basket. He gives us inside-outside strength."
John Smith, a 6-7 sophomore who scored 22 points against North Carolina's strong front line last Saturday, was the surprise winner of the starting center job. Earlier this season, he scored 20 points against Davidson.
Smith, a pre-med student from Washington, D.C., averaged 5.1 minutes in 18 games while last season's Blue Devils were winning the ACC title and posting an NCAA record for most wins.
"I didn't think he'd start," Krzyzewski said. "But he's shown good inside scoring ability and defense. He needs to improve his rebounding."
Krzyzewski, in his seventh season with Duke after four years at Army, has mainly used nine players this season. The rest of the starting lineup consists of 6-6 junior Billy King and 6-5 junior Kevin Strickland.
Coming off the bench are Martin Nessley, a 7-2, 260-pound senior who clogs the middle; sophomore guard Quin Snyder; 6-5 freshman Robert Brickey; and 6-10 freshman Alaa Abdelnaby, who was born in Egypt and raised in Bloomfield, N.J.
Before being declared ineligible, Phil Henderson, a 6-4 freshman, averaged 7.3 points and made nine of 13 three-point-goal attempts.
After the visiting Tar Heels defeated Duke, 85-77, on Jan. 10, Coach Dean Smith praised Duke.
"I'd say Purdue, them (Duke) and Illinois are equally as good," Smith said. North Carolina's win ended Duke's 22-game home winning streak.
Former Duke Bucky Waters, who still lives in Durham and works as a basketball analyst for television, said after the game, "This is the best defensive team Duke has ever had."
"I don't know how good this team can be," Krzyzewski said. "We've played well. We have to see how they handle a loss, how they handle conference games. They have a way to go before they can call themselves a good team."