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Singler's return makes Duke team to beat

Duke will remain at the top and have a chance to stay there a while.

With the decision of forward Kyle Singler to return for his senior season, the defending national champs should be virtually everyone's selection to start the 2010-11 campaign at No. 1.

The only ones who won't have the Blue Devils at numero uno are those thirsting for attention or those who have yet to lay eyes on incoming freshman Kyrie Irving.

Sure, Jon Scheyer is gone and boy was he one heck of a college basketball player. So are improved big men Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas.

But Singler and Nolan Smith are both back and each will legitimate be All-American candidates -- and Irving will quickly make those in Durham forget about Scheyer.

Duke pulled the repeat in 1991 and 1992 and the Blue Devils could well duplicate that feat next April.

Irving may fall behind fellow point guard Brandon Knight in terms of recruiting rankings, but he's right there with Knight as the best incoming backcourt player in the nation -- and has all the intangibles as well.

Trust me on this one.

While Scheyer was a converted floor leader who made a near-seamless transition, Irving is a natural point guard that will push the ball and create easy opportunities for guys like Singler and Smith.

Irving can score and distribute. He can lead and defer. He's athletic and explosive. He's the real deal.

Singler was, according to several NBA executives, likely to go anywhere from 20-30 in June's NBA Draft. However, he opted to return and finish out his four-year career in an effort to become a lottery pick, have his number hung in the Cameron rafters and earn another ring.

Singler becomes the lone projected lock first-rounder this offseason to spurn testing the NBA waters. While nearly every agent is telling these guys to come out now or face the prospect of not playing at all next season due to a potential NBA work stoppage, Singler went against the grain.

He decided to return -- and in doing so, he kept the Blue Devils in the hunt with the nation's elite -- a place they haven't spent all that much time over the last few seasons.

Butler will also be a national title contender -- as long as Gordon Hayward, who has declared for the NBA Draft, returns for his junior season.

Michigan State could be in the mix with a healthy Kalin Lucas, a consistent Durrell Summers and the addition of talented freshmen Keith Appling and Adreian Payne.

Purdue will be as good as just about anyone if JaJuan Johnson elects to return and Robbie Hummel comes back 100 percent from a torn ACL.

But Duke doesn't have many any ifs .

They have proven commodities in Singler and Smith and few question marks.

You can basically plug in the close-knit duo for a combined 35 points each and every night.

The Blue Devils have an ultra-talented and skilled frontcourt player in Mason Plumlee that wasn't able to show what he could do as a freshman after suffering a broken wrist just prior to the start of the season.

``I don't think anyone has really seen the real me," Plumlee said after Duke cut down the nets a few weeks ago.

Agreed.

And Duke has one of the nation's elite freshmen coming into the program in Irving.

They also have a kid named Curry -- Stephen's little brother, Seth -- who sat out this past season after putting up impressive numbers as a frosh at Liberty. Curry has been playing both backcourt spots and, along with the maturation of freshman shooting guard Andre Dawkins, gives Coach Mike Krzyzewski plenty of depth in the backcourt -- something he didn't have this season.

Zoubek will be missed for his size and ability to clog up the middle. Thomas was a quality role player who gave the Blue Devils an energetic and athletic guy up front.

But Duke will have Singler and the Plumlee brothers - Mason and his older brother, Miles, as well as 6-foot-9 McDonald's All-American forward Ryan Kelly and incoming freshman power forward Josh Hairston.

The Blue Devils are loaded with the return of Singler and far more athletic with the addition of Irving and the development of Mason Plumlee.

Coach K and the Blue Devils had taken a back seat to their rivals down the road in recent years.

The balance shifted a year ago and with Singler back in the fold, it's unlikely to change next season, either.