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It's 4 men and the babies at Duke

WashPost: Group of seniors eyeing first national championship since '01 for Blue Devils.
Georgia Tech v Duke
J.J. Redick is one of four senior captains who hope to lead Duke to a national championship this year, writes the Washington Posts' Eric Prisbell.Streeter Lecka / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Shelden Williams opened the doors of his off-campus apartment this summer to three freshmen still weeks away from officially joining him on Duke's basketball team. Josh microburst, Greg Paulus and Martynas Pocius played video games, slept on couches or air mattresses and absorbed nuggets of advice from Williams, who in many ways needed the youngsters as much as they needed the senior.

Williams was once part of a similarly touted class many believed would capture at least one national title. Two other current seniors, J.J. Redick and Sean Dockery, talked to each other about winning four titles during their visit to campus four years ago.

This season, still searching for their first national championship, the four senior captains -- Williams, Redick, Dockery and Lee Melchionni -- have embraced six freshmen, hoping the combination will result in the school's first title since 2001. With two senior all-American candidates, Redick and Williams, and the addition of three McDonald's All-Americans, Duke is the overwhelming choice as the nation's top-ranked team.

"We've got four grandpas, and we've got some young guys," Redick said. "We can't play down to the level of the freshmen right now. As they adjust to the college game, I think they will come up to our level."

Because of the unorthodox roster configuration, Coach Mike Krzyzewski has never had a team so experienced and so young at once. Only one player who is neither a freshman nor a senior, sophomore DeMarcus Nelson, is expected to log significant minutes.

The disparity was apparent at a recent clinic for hundreds of various coaches, during which Krzyzewski introduced his team by class, resulting in a total of 12 freshmen and seniors sandwiching only a few sophomores and juniors. The goal: Play at the speed of the best, namely Redick and Williams, without leaving behind the freshmen.

"As you are compensating, how close do you get?" Krzyzewski said. "To me, it is incredibly interesting. If we are there by March, that is when the train leaves."

During practice's first week, Krzyzewski found himself instructing the newcomers on basics more than helping seniors refine their games. The freshmen wanted to please but wound up thinking more than reacting during live action.

Nevertheless, the benefits of the class are significant. Paulus, for example, made open-court passes so deft during last month's intrasquad scrimmage that Krzyzewski said the 19-year-old saw openings no Blue Devil point guard has seen in years.

And big man McRoberts, whose one recent dunk was so resounding Redick still raves about it, could be the ACC's best freshman and an NBA first-round pick whenever he chooses to turn pro.

What's more, the 22-year-old Williams said in some ways he feels 18 again, and Redick added that he is fueled by the zeal of the youngsters, however raw the freshmen energy appears.

"If there is a day when we're really tired," Redick said, "or there is a game where me or Shelden played a lot of minutes, their energy, their youth, their spirit can really carry us at times."

That intangible will be a welcome addition after last season, which Krzyzewski called one of his most gratifying. Despite virtually no bench, Duke reached a No. 2 ranking, won the ACC tournament and earned a top seed in the NCAA tournament.

An emotionally spent Redick, "wanting to keep Duke on my chest," refused to take off his jersey for as long as possible in the locker room in Austin, where the Blue Devils' season ended against Michigan State in the round of 16.

Injuries and illness to teammates forced Redick, Williams and senior Daniel Ewing to each play more than 33 minutes per game and restricted Duke's ability to play pressure defense. This season, Krzyzewski has an abundance of options, such as giving Redick the freedom to audible out of a set play if he feels he has a scoring opportunity.

"When my wife goes to the grocery store, based on who we are right now, she can buy anything she wants. When I coached at Army, she had to be much more selective," said Krzyzewski, comparing this year's roster to last year's. "As a coach, the more you have, the more options you have. Last year's team had limited options, great heart and a couple kids in Shelden and J.J. who carried us."

Given the number of freshmen, having Redick and Williams return for their final seasons became an even bigger boon for the Blue Devils. Redick has always known he would remain in school four years, even after a junior year in which he led the ACC in scoring and diversified his game to become a better defender and overall offensive threat.

Unlike Redick, Williams pondered the lure of the NBA last spring, listening to advice from Duke's coaching staff. Both Williams and Redick were considered likely first-round picks, but Williams decided to lean on the ethic his family instilled: Finish what you start.

"In today's climate, where college is basically a quick fix, show your skills and then you leave, it's just different for guys to stick around when they've accomplished at a high level," Redick said. "It's really important to me to leave a legacy. If we were in North Carolina's position last spring and won a national championship, he might not be here, I might not be here."

Redick and Williams not only logged excessive minutes but also were thrust into leadership positions as underclassmen. In part because they were not groomed under senior leaders as freshmen, Krzyzewski said, the current seniors harbor particular empathy for this year's newcomers.

To that end, Williams said the one thing he wishes he would have known as a freshman was how hostile road venues are when the Blue Devils visit. So he told the freshmen: "Once you put that Duke jersey on, it's either a love or hate relationship. There are a lot more people that hate you than like you, so you have to be prepared for that."

Redick and McRoberts, a 6-foot-10 native of Carmel, Ind., have instant-messaged each other on the Internet for the better part of the past year and are basically inseparable, Redick said, which plays to the team's mantra, "Band of Brothers."

"What you wear in the locker room, what you wear to team meal, how you stretch, a professional approach to things," Redick said of the many details the freshmen must learn. "I wasn't a pro my freshman or sophomore years. It took me a while; hopefully it won't take those guys two years."

While staying within certain parameters, Krzyzewski does not want to inhibit the personalities of the freshmen, who might have given Williams as much as he gave them.

"We don't feel like old men," Williams said of the seniors. "At least not yet."