DURHAM — Before the season began, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski shared his thoughts on what was the most prized possession in college basketball.
Older, really good players are the best thing a coach can have in college right now, he said in October. You always want the young, great player, but if the seniors are outstanding and they have game experience and are 22 or 23 years old, which our guys are, it gives a different dimension to your team.
That formula worked for No. 1 Duke, as the Blue Devils rolled to a 15-0 start thanks in large part to contributions from seniors Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly. But the Blue Devils arent the only team in the ACC that has found the value in veteran players.
The three teams at the top of the ACC standings Miami, N.C. State and Duke rely primarily on upperclassmen. The No. 25 Hurricanes actually start four seniors (two fifth-year players and one sixth-year veteran), and that group will host Duke on Wednesday.
Like the Blue Devils (16-1, 3-1), Miami is missing a key senior in Reggie Johnson. The big man broke his left thumb Dec. 21 and has missed the past eight games, but another senior, Durham native Julian Gamble, has proven a viable replacement.
Theyre an old, very good team, Krzyzewski said. Theyre accustomed to playing together, and theyve adjusted really well with a key guy out, although hes been out at different times over the last couple years, so theyre a little bit more familiar with it.
The Blue Devils, meanwhile, are still adjusting to Kellys absence, and they dont have another senior to replace him. Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson have played additional minutes, but neither plays the position the way Kelly does. Compounding the issue is the fact that, due to Seth Currys nagging right shin injury, Duke rarely gets to practice with all its starters. The Blue Devils had six days in between the Georgia Tech and Miami games, but Krzyzewski said last week that Curry would only practice once in that span.
As a result, the Blue Devils have installed a few new plays on the fly, and they ran some of them for the first time against Georgia Tech.
The biggest thing is that we have to find a new identity because we are different team, Mason Plumlee said. So whatever that is, we have to find it and play to our strengths.
Jefferson has shown promise in the past two games, especially on defense. Krzyzewski sees him developing into a good defender, screener and offensive rebounder, all while providing high energy.
His challenge is avoiding fouls. He fouled out and was limited to 12 minutes in the loss to the Wolfpack, and he was whistled four times in 28 minutes against Georgia Tech. Jefferson and Hairston will be tested by Miamis Kenny Kadji, a fifth-year senior who can shoot from outside and post up down near the basket. Kadji hit two 3s and scored a game-high 18 in Miamis recent victory over North Carolina.
What happens is that, especially for big guys, theyve never played theyve never had to play defense like they have to play in college in high school, Krzyzewski said of Jefferson. Thats just a period of adjustment that a young player has to go through.
As Krzyzewski knows, theres no substitute for experience.
Keeley 919-826-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley