Last season, Duke's two nonconference losses in November and December reaped rewards during March Madness. Losses to Syracuse and Michigan during the regular season prepared the Blue Devils for the NCAA tournament and a third straight Final Four berth.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski hopes this season will be no different. Despite losing to Arkansas in the preseason NIT two weeks ago, eighth-ranked Duke (5-1) is looking forward to its matchup against Georgetown (3-0) in Wednesday's ACC-Big East Challenge doubleheader at Capital Centre.
"It's a great game for us," Krzyzewski said. "November and December has been so exciting for our basketball team that we just want to take advantage of it."
The Hoyas, with their formidable frontcourt of Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, will be an unpleasant sight for the undersized Blue Devils. With the departure of 6-foot-10 center Alaa Abdelnaby to the NBA, Duke relies on the inside game of 6-11 junior Christian Laettner, who leads the team with 21.7 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. He shares his coach's excitement in playing the Hoyas.
"I'm looking forward to it, everyone's looking forward to it," said Laettner, coming off a career high 37 points in the Blue Devils' 111-94 victory over UNC-Charlotte on Saturday. "We like playing big-time games and that's going to be a big-time game."
If history is any indication, Laettner will have a banner day against Georgetown. As a freshman, he scored 24 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in the Blue Devils' 85-77 victory over the Hoyas in the 1989 East regional final.
Laettner knows he cannot do it by himself, however, as evidenced by Duke's 98-88 loss to Arkansas. Although Laettner finished with a game-high 28 points and 14 rebounds, the Blue Devils saw an 11-point first-half lead slip away when he ran into foul trouble.
Several Duke players from the Washington area will help him inside. Foremost is 6-9, 235-pound junior Crawford Palmer, from Arlington. Inserted into the lineup two games ago, Palmer has taken the pressure off Laettner with 12 points and six rebounds against East Carolina and 11 points and five rebounds against UNC-Charlotte.
"Crawford's playing well for us, and I'm sure he'll start on Wednesday," Laettner said. "We're just going to need a total team effort to beat them."
Part of that effort will come from freshman starter Grant Hill of Reston. The 6-7 Hill is the team's third-leading scorer (13 points) and second-leading rebounder (4.8), hitting 54 percent from the field. Beyond the numbers, Hill gives Duke a unique versatility because he plays all five positions.
"There's not an aspect of the game he doesn't do well," Krzyzewski said. "He can play point guard, he can play inside and he's a good passer."
Hill relishes the opportunity to play against a team that seriously recruited him last season. "Growing up in the area I think everybody was once a Georgetown fan," he said. "I've seen all the games at the Capital Centre, watching Georgetown. Now I'm playing against them."
Duke does have an advantage over Georgetown with a deep backcourt. Other than Hill, sophomore point guard Bobby Hurley returned for his second season as a starter. Hurley continues to hand out assists (7.5 per game), but this season he provides more scoring punch, averaging 11.5 points.
The season's biggest surprise has been the play of 6-3 sophomore Billy McCaffrey. The Blue Devils' top shooter, McCaffrey won the starting spot with a 19-point effort in reserve duty in the season opener against Marquette. Brimming with confidence after struggling as a freshman, McCaffrey is scoring 16.7 points a game.
Junior Brian Davis of Capitol Heights and sophomore Thomas Hill provide Duke with defensive support and raw athletic talent. Both the 6-6 Davis and the 6-4 Hill are explosive leapers and good rebounders. Although Davis and Hill began the season as starters, they have adapted to substitute roles.
Two other Washington area Duke freshmen will probably not play against the Hoyas. Guard Kenny Blakeney, a Washington native who went to DeMatha, has not seen action for the Blue Devils this season. Given Duke's wealth of guards, Blakeney most likely will be redshirted. High Point's Christian Ast, from West Germany, has seen only limited time.
Besides the five local players, two of Krzyzewski's assistant coaches are returning home to the Washington area. Falls Church's Tommy Amaker started for Krzyzewski for four years at point guard before becoming his assistant. Rockville's Mike Brey played at George Washington, and he was an assistant coach for Morgan Wootten at DeMatha, his alma mater.