They are no longer a dynasty, no longer a team going after a three-peat. And having lost a player many considered the best at what he did at his level, there were some who thought this was going to be a down year.
This isn't another story about the Chicago Bulls, about life after Michael. This is about the Blue Devils of Duke, and life after Bobby. This is about a team that wasn't favored to win the NCAA championship, but just might.
"They lose Bobby Hurley, but they're still a great team," Maryland coach Gary Williams said earlier this week. "That's the thing about Duke and the job Mike [Krzyzewski] does down there. They lose great players every year, but they have great players coming back."
After starting the season as a distant second choice to defending national champion North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and as an afterthought among the legitimate national contenders, Duke has emerged as one of the best teams -- if not the best -- in the country.
Although they have looked shaky at times, most recently while sleepwalking through a 74-72 win at home over Notre Dame on Wednesday night, the second-ranked Blue Devils also have managed to win 14 of their first 15 games going into tomorrow's matchup with No. 18 Maryland (12-3) at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The game, which will televised at noon on ESPN, is for first place in the ACC. Both teams are 5-1.
The biggest question mark going into the season for Duke was at point guard, where Hurley had been a four-year starter, leading the Blue Devils to back-to-back national championships before setting the all-time assist record (against the Terps) last season.
However, the question appears to have been answered.
"The chemistry is still good without Hurley," said Clemson coach Cliff Ellis, whose Tigers gave Duke all it could handle during a 71-65 home defeat earlier this month. "They don't have a true point guard, but what they do have is five great players who can play."
And at least three of them -- senior All-American Grant Hill, sophomore Chris Collins and freshman Jeff Capel -- all have seen time at the point.
(Another player, former DeMatha star Kenny Blakeney, also saw time there before being declared academically ineligible.) After using mostly Hill there earlier this season, Krzyzewski has inserted Capel into the starting lineup for 11 of the past 12 games.
It has allowed Hill, a 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward, to handle the ball less and stay fresh late in games, and it has given Collins the chance to play shooting guard, his most effective position. And Capel, the son of North Carolina A&T; coach Jeff Capel Sr., is growing more confident each game.
"It's definitely different, especially being a freshman," said Capel, who broke Terp Joe Smith's string of three straight Rookie of the Week awards after scoring 18 and handing out 16 assists in easy wins over N.C. State and Florida State last week. "I think I've done OK, but I've been getting great support from my teammates."
Said Krzyzewski: "He's really done a great job all year for us. He's going to be a better player as time goes on. Lately, he's been very expressive on the offensive end. He can put points on the board. His passing has improved. The biggest improvement I see is that he's playing much better defense. If he gets better, which I think he will, our team will get better."
Even without Hurley, as well as shooting guard Thomas Hill, there is plenty of talent remaining. Aside from Grant Hill, who is still considered the favorite to win ACC Player of the Year despite a strong challenge from Smith, the Blue Devils have a solid frontcourt with senior Antonio Lang and junior center Cherokee Parks.
Though Duke isn't as deep as it used to be -- only junior guard Marty Clark has been consistent -- it might not have to be. Injuries to key personnel on some of the nation's top teams, including North Carolina (Donald Williams), Kentucky (Rodney Dent) and Arkansas (Darnell Robinson), has caused a rotation of No. 1 teams.
The Blue Devils, who lost a chance at the top ranking when they lost to Wake Forest two weeks ago, could move up if UCLA loses either of its two games this week (last night against Stanford and tomorrow at California). Just in time for next week's first meeting of the season with the Tar Heels.
"I definitely think we've surprised some people," said Collins. "But there's a certain confidence you get playing at Duke. I had people like Bobby and Thomas show me the ropes. There's a standard of excellence that we have to maintain."