DURHAM, N.C. (AP) -Lance Thomas is tired of Duke being cast as the team everybody loves to hate.
He dwells often on the crowd's reaction after the favored Blue Devils were upset in the first round of last season's NCAA tournament. Sure, everyone loves an underdog, but he felt an uncomfortable vibe: The crowd wasn't so much cheering because Virginia Commonwealth won but because Duke lost.
``I've never been that hated before,'' Thomas said Friday. ``When you're successful, the program's successful, you become the most hated program. For me to actually be a part of that and get cheered when we lose in the first round, that bothered me a whole lot.''
It was a long summer of discontent for Duke, which enters this season on a four-game losing streak that closed a 22-11 season.
Not only did the Blue Devils go one-and-done in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, but - after reaching the NCAA's round of 16 for nine straight years - they failed to win at least one tournament game for the first time since 1996.
``It's something we need to learn from,'' guard Jon Scheyer said.
That drop-off was dramatic, yet not totally unexpected after the J.J. Redick- and Shelden Williams-led 2005-06 team that spent most of the season at No. 1 and was a top seed in the tournament.
With last season squarely in the past - except for an occasional mention for motivation - the Blue Devils say they're ready to get back to the elite level.
``My freshman year, we didn't lose many games (and) playing with J.J. and Shelden made it easier,'' junior guard Greg Paulus said. ``Last year, just having a different team, we had to deal with a losing streak, had to deal with a young team, me not playing so well at times. Just going through those different kind of things ... to actually have that kind of experience to give a little credibility, it's good to pass down.''
Unlike last season, Paulus no longer carries the burden of being a team captain - senior DeMarcus Nelson was elected the team's lone captain. But Paulus will remain in a leadership role and is counted on to mentor three freshmen for whom coach Mike Krzyzewski has high hopes.
The veteran coach said if the season began today, forward Kyle Singler probably would start, while guard Nolan Smith is a high-pressure defender and forward Taylor King is a shooter.
``Singler is really our most well-rounded player as a freshman,'' Krzyzewski said. ``He just knows how to play. ... He's going to be a special player.''
The focus for the Blue Devils this preseason will be on self-improvement first, an attitude they hope will lead to once again hearing cheers - only this time, for the right reasons.
``Right now, we're worried about us right now,'' Thomas said. ``Last year, when we were doing bad, everybody was happy. If we do good, people are going to be happy. ... At the end of the day, our success or our failures will make one crowd happy and another crowd happy as well.
``There's no excuse for anything this year.''

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