Duke is getting starting a few weeks earlier than usual, and the Blue Devils hope their season ends a little bit later than the last one did.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski's team began practice Friday as a favorite to reach its 12th Final Four under him.
This team is built around two players who have yet to play in a game at Duke — Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood and top freshman Jabari Parker.
He says he isn't locking anyone into specific spots on a depth chart because this team is built on versatility.
"It's not like one guy is trying to beat out one guy — basically, you're trying to blend," Krzyzewski said. "The two guys you initially want to blend with are Rodney and Jabari because they're two very talented and versatile players. So that's what we're going to try to do."
The 6-foot-8 Hood is a redshirt sophomore averaged 10.3 points and 4.8 rebounds in his lone season at Mississippi State in 2011-12. He's listed as a forward but said he considers himself a shooting guard on offense and a small forward at the other end of the court.
"I'll play the five (center) if I've got to," Hood said. "I just want to be on the floor."
Parker, one of the most heavily pursued recruits in the nation out of Chicago, is also a 6-8 forward whose ability to play multiple spots is prized by Krzyzewski.
"I don't want all the attention towards me on the court," Parker said. "It's hard for me to be selfish. It's hard for me to take all the shots because I love playing basketball, playing the whole game — rebounds, assists. I think coach is really trying to prepare me for being a scorer now."
Krzyzewski said his 34th Duke team is "not your conventional team of, 'Here are your two big guys, your wing, your shooter and your point guard.'
"It's going to be a team that has, I think, very good versatility," he added. "Guys are going to have to be able to guard multiple positions. I hope that we'll be able to make sure they do that."
The coach said the only starters he's settled on so far are Hood, Parker, high-energy forward Amile Jefferson "and probably Quinn" Cook, last year's starting point guard.
Krzyzewski said this team reminds him of his late 1990s and early 2000s teams "when we were very athletic — really athletic." That was the formula that Duke used to win its third national title in 2001 behind Carlos Boozer and Shane Battier.
"I'm anxious to see what the heck we're going to do," he said.
The Blue Devils are replacing three NBA-bound seniors — Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry — from a team that went 30-6 and lost to eventual national champion Louisville in the regional finals.
While last year's seniors were the undisputed best players on the team, things are a little different now because the three main scholarship seniors — forward Josh Hairston and guards Tyler Thornton and Andre Dawkins, who's back after a year away from the team — shape up as part of the supporting cast.
"You have to have seniors who understand their importance, and their importance may not be based on minutes, starting, number of points, recognition," Krzyzewski said. "All those things that a lot of people put as the main reasons that they want to be a part of something. It means that we have to have a very mature group of seniors, which I think we do."
Thornton, a co-captain along with Hood, said that it shouldn't be difficult to keep a roster full of talented players focused on the team's goals.
"Everybody wants to win. When you want to win, you want to do what the coaches tell you to do, and what they tell us is to do what you can do," Thornton said. "If you're going to score, score. If you're going to play defense, play defense. But do it the best you can."
The Blue Devils are getting an early start on practice because of a rule change that allows teams to hold 30 days of practice during the six weeks prior to their first regular-season game.
Duke opens Nov. 8 against Davidson and hopes to be playing in the national championship game April 7 in Arlington, Texas.
"It's such a long season that we don't want to mentally and physically wear them down," Krzyzewski said.