DURHAM, N.C. -- The Duke Blue Devils and freshman Grant Hill step into the future tonight when they open the college basketball season by hosting Marquette at 7:30 in rowdy Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The game (ESPN), which will feature the regular season debut of Hill, is one of eight first-round games in the preseason National Invitation Tournament, which features a powerhouse field, including No. 2 Arkansas, No. 3 Arizona, No. 15 Oklahoma and Notre Dame.
The Duke-Marquette winner will face the Boston College-Memphis State winner Friday at a site not yet determined. The four semi-finalists will gather in New York next Wednesday and Friday to play for the championship.
The Blue Devils' hopes rest in large part on the wide shoulders and multiple talents of Hill, Duke's entry into this year's class of Atlantic Coast Conference super freshmen. The son of former Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys running back Calvin Hill, Grant Hill is a one-man gang on the basketball court.
Long before he played his first college game, his coach, Mike Krzyzewski, had christened him "our third key player," joining center Christian Laettner and point guard Bobby Hurley in the Blue Devils' triumvirate.
Hill, one of the most coveted prep players in the country last season, is a little of everything. He's one of the few players who can shift from power forward to point guard from one possession to the next. In high school in Reston, Va., he spent part of his career playing what he called "point forward." He was the biggest player on the team and the best ball-handler.
In two preseason games, Hill has flashed the versatility that allows him to fit so easily into Krzyzewski's system. It's not a system built on labels. Big guard, small forward, they're mainly just called "players" in Krzyzewski's system.
With the skills Hill possesses in his 6-8 frame, he'll do time in the frontcourt alongside Laettner and, when Hurley needs to take a break from his furious pace, Hill will engineer Duke's offense at the point.
The pressure, Krzyzewski said, isn't on Hill. It's on the coach to find ways to use his new star.
"I like it a lot that Coach Krzyzewski has gone around and told people what I can do," Hill said yesterday in an empty Cameron Indoor Stadium. "It shows he has confidence in me. But I try not to let the expectations get the best of me. They're always going to be there.
"I try not to believe my own press clippings. My dad taught me that a long time ago."
Indirectly, it was Hill's football-playing father who taught his son to play basketball. As a youngster, Grant Hill never played football. He played soccer, baseball and basketball, but he left the shoulder pads to others. Hill appreciated what his father, now a vice president of baseball's Baltimore Orioles, accomplished, but he never had the desire to follow in his cleatprints.
"When I was young, my dad made up a crazy story about how he wanted my bones to develop before I played football," Hill said. "But I guess he just wanted me to avoid the comparisons. I guess he figured I'd never be as good as he was and I'd be upset about it. So he kind of pushed me away from football, and I lost my taste for it."
Basketball became the younger Hill's passion four years ago, and many consider him the most versatile freshman in the college game. He taught himself to be a ball-handler out of necessity. When Hill would play fullcourt pickup games against his best friend, he couldn't get the ball upcourt. After about a year, though, he was winning the one-on-one wars.
In high school, Hill played "point forward" his first two seasons, shifted to center as a junior, then moved back to the point in his senior year. It taught him to play the game in a variety of ways and led to comparisons with Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
"One of the things I like about Coach Krzyzewski's system is, except for the point, there are no definite positions," Hill said. "I'm willing to do whatever I have to in order to play. If that means taking 10 charges, I'll do it.
"If it means playing the point, I'll do that. At the point, you have to think differently. You have to know what each player is capable of doing, how to set things up. There's a lot more thinking and a lot more pressure there."
Pressure, though, isn't something that bothers Hill. It's something he'll get accustomed to as the Blue Devils play a brutal early-season schedule that includes non-conference games against Georgetown, Oklahoma and Michigan in addition to the NIT games.
"The bigger the game, the better," Hill said. "I've always been that way."