Duke senior Nolan Smith has one goal for his team this season - to repeat as national champion.
And he's already pondered what the key might be: "I think what it's going to take is some losses."
Don't get him wrong - Smith would love it if his team went undefeated en route to another title. Who wouldn't? But realistically, the last squad to finish the season with a perfect record was Indiana in 1975-76, when it went 32-0. And when Smith watched Kentucky, one of the best teams in the country, win 19 straight last season before losing once in late January, once in late February, then in the NCAA regional finals, he wondered whether the young Wildcats would have gone further had they lost a game earlier.
"No one ever wants to lose ... but there is such a thing as a good loss, especially if it comes early - because you learn something from it," he said.
He knows from experience. Smith, a starting guard, credits three defeats for pushing his Blue Devils (35-5) to the NCAA title last season. Duke's second loss of the season, Jan. 9 at Georgia Tech, he said "reminded us that everyone's going to come after us, especially on the road." The Jan. 20 loss at N.C. State "taught us that it doesn't matter what an opponent's record is - everyone can be beaten, and we have to remember that."
And the Jan. 30 loss at Georgetown, which featured a snowy backdrop and a high-profile fan in the form of President Barack Obama, "showed us that we had to be able to fight through distractions."
Added Smith, "those three losses, in particular, brought us together as a team, brought more focus to the team ... that really helped us through the NCAA tournament. ... If we can win every game this season, that would be great - if we're learning from those games. But if we don't, then we need to learn from those losses; that's the most important thing."
Smith in select group
Speaking of learning, Smith this week is headed to New York for his second stint with the USA Select Team - a group of 10 college players who are scrimmaging against the U.S. World Championship team, which is coached by the Blue Devils' Mike Krzyzewski. Smith will be joined again by Duke teammate Kyle Singler and Florida State forward Chris Singleton, who were members of the select team that trained in Las Vegas last month.
After that experience Smith said, "the first thing I did when I got back here [to Durham] was hit the weight room ... because those [NBA] guys are strong, and it showed me that I just need to get stronger."
Smith said that he and Singler, in particular, were teased by the pro players that they should have been playing on their side - meaning they should have left early for the NBA, after winning the national title. But Smith said he had no regrets about returning to Duke, where he averaged 17.4 points last season.
Paulus, Ginyard team up
It wasn't too long ago that Navy assistant coach Ronald Ginyard was seated behind the North Carolina bench - cheering for his brother Marcus, and against Duke and its point guard, Greg Paulus.
So the Ginyard family giggled a bit - in a good-natured way - when Paulus was hired as an assistant coach at Navy this week.
"When Marcus heard, he told me to tell Greg congratulations - then of course he had to say some anti-Duke stuff," Ronald Ginyard said, laughing. "That's just part of the rivalry, and I'm sure I'll hear more about it. ... But the entire staff at Navy, including me, is glad to have Greg here. He's an extremely hard worker, he's extremely humble ... and he's not that far removed from playing, which means he'll really be able to relate to the players."
After four years of playing point guard at Duke, Paulus played quarterback last season for Syracuse, throwing for 2,024 yards and 13 touchdowns in 12 games. After finishing his master's degree in a year, he was invited to the New Orleans Saints camp in May and June but didn't earn a contract.
Growing up, Paulus said this week, he always wanted to be a basketball coach one day - even telling Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski about that goal while he was being recruited. Playing football for a year, he said, will help him in his new job, "because every time you get to compete at the highest level, you learn something different through each experience, each challenge ... and hopefully, that helps me become a better coach."
He said he's thrilled to get an opportunity at Navy, and although he hasn't had time to experience much Duke-Carolina banter with his new colleague, he knows it's coming.
"I have a feeling we'll have some fun with it when the two schools play each other," Paulus said, laughing.
firstname.lastname@example.org, 919-829-8944 or follow on twitter at bylinerp