ACC Team Previews: Duke Blue DevilsPosted by EMann on November 1st, 2012
Throughout the preseason, the ACC microsite will release a preview for each of the 12 teams. Today’s victim: the Duke Blue Devils.
The 2011-12 Duke Blue Devils will be remembered primarily for two things: (1) Austin Rivers’ dramatic three-pointer at the buzzer to cap a miraculous comeback and beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill, 85-84, which will live permanently in the rivalry’s lore; (2) their stunning 75-70 loss to 15th-seeded Lehigh in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. That Duke team, however, had a very strange portfolio for most of the season — mostly manifested through its porous defense (by Duke standards), which ranked 70th in the Ken Pomeroy rankings. It was also strange in that it featured a player in Austin Rivers who never quite fit into the Duke mold in many people’s eyes; while Rivers was certainly an extremely competitive player, the combination of his reliance on the ball for much of the team’s offense and individual success (and scoring incredibly inefficiently: his offensive rating was the second worst on the team), along with the ensuing chemistry issues that his style of play seemed to cause, ultimately derailed the Blue Devils (along with Ryan Kelly’s injury). Duke also finished 8-0 in road play in the ACC, but lost three conference games (and nearly five – a 20-point comeback against NC State in the second half and an overtime victory against lowly Virginia Tech) at home, a shocking result for a generally good Duke team in Cameron Indoor Stadium. While it did defeat eventual runner-up Kansas and Michigan State at neutral sites, among others, in non-conference play, it was also destroyed by Ohio State. This year may very well feature addition by subtraction, and Coach K has clearly focused on teamwork and communication as the season gets underway as he sensed that as contributing at least partially to the team’s defensive woes last year.
Duke has four new players eligible for this season, as the fifth newcomer, Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood, quite possibly Duke’s best player on the floor during Countdown to Craziness, must sit out this season. Two of these players are true freshmen, headlined by guard Rasheed Sulaimon. Although Rodney Purvis at NC State has gotten most of the headlines as the favorite for ACC Rookie of the Year, look for Sulaimon to heavily challenge for that honor. Sulaimon is a versatile player in the mold of many of Mike Krzyzewski’s favored guards over the years: a solid outside shooter who can also attack the rim, as well as a strong perimeter defender. With Seth Curry’s undisclosed injury keeping him out for possibly another couple weeks, Sulaimon has been temporarily slotted into the starting lineup. While Sulaimon may not start once Curry returns, he will definitely play a ton of minutes and should see the court at crunch time to take advantage of his opportunity. Forward Amile Jefferson, who chose Duke over NC State at the 11th hour, will provide high motor play and solid interior defense, though his offensive game is still a bit unrefined. Look for him to contribute 10-12 minutes a game.
Duke, oddly enough, also has two redshirt freshmen. One, forward Alex Murphy, has earned a starting spot at this very early point. Murphy, who came to Duke a year early and decided to redshirt after a preseason injury last season, will evoke some comparisons to Kyle Singler. The two players look alike and both like to attack the basket, but there are definitely some differences. Murphy’s offensive game is not nearly as polished as even a freshman Singler, as his perimeter and free throw shooting could best be characterized as erratic. However, Murphy is extremely quick and is a surprisingly adept shot-blocker. He certainly won’t be the leading scorer on the squad, but he should provide the size at small forward that Duke lacked last year. Lastly, redshirt center Marshall Plumlee, the youngest of the three Plumlee brothers, should provide backup minutes and valuable post depth after he returns from the stress fracture in his foot that could keep him out for another six weeks.
Duke returns three members of its starting five from last year: senior guard Seth Curry and senior forwards Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly. Plumlee and Kelly are known quantities and will definitely start all season, with Plumlee already garnering preseason first team all-ACC honors. Plumlee’s offensive game is largely reliant on athleticism, but he has worked on perfecting a hook shot and some more traditional post moves. He has attempted to develop a mid-range jumper, but the results in early season action have been less than stellar — though his rebounding was excellent as usual. Still, Plumlee should average close to a double-double, and if he can continue the upswing in his free throw percentage that he showed at the end of last season (21-26 in his last five games, in comparison to just .528 for the season), his numbers will look much better. Kelly is Duke’s most efficient offensive player per KenPom, as he shot over 40% from the arc last year and flashes an effective mid-range game while functioning as a Euro-style big man. He also gets to the free throw line a lot and converts on over 80% of his trips there. Kelly is not particularly quick and is a liability on defense except for an occasional weak side block. Part of Duke’s defensive scheme this season will be to try to hide Kelly’s issues on that end, but conversely, the offense definitely relies on him for spacing as it looked miserable after Kelly’s injury kept him out of the postseason.
Curry should be able to avoid playing the point this year, as sophomore Quinn Cook is arguably the most important player on the team. With Cook taking over the reins at the one, Curry is free to slide over to his more natural shooting guard position. Curry is an undersized shooting guard who struggles a bit defensively but is a capable outside shooter and excellent free throw shooter who will benefit from not having to be the primary ballhandler or play beside Austin Rivers. However, Curry has not played in either of Duke’s preseason scrimmages as he has been held out with a mysterious injury (that seems to be shin splints). He will play when he can, but this nagging injury could provide issues for an already thin Duke team as the season starts. Cook’s role is hugely important as he takes on a much larger role on this year’s squad. He showed some flashes of brilliance during his freshman season and the numbers bear it out (best assist rate on the team), but his minutes were limited due to inexperience and the lingering effects of a knee injury. Coach K has handed Cook the keys to the point guard position this year, and if he can continue his play from last year on a larger scale, Duke will be in very good shape. He still looked a little erratic in Duke’s preseason action (and his perimeter jumper remains suspect), but he gives the team a much higher ceiling at the point than any of last year’s options.
Juniors Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston are Duke’s other returning players. Thornton played quite a bit at point guard last year: He is a very limited offensive player who will keep a defense honest from the perimeter, but he isn’t much of a threat to penetrate and create offense for other players. He plays intense defense, though not necessarily great defense: He was Duke’s most prolific fouler last year, which also played a role in limiting his minutes. Duke’s ceiling is much greater with Cook running the point than Thornton. Lastly, Hairston remains much the same as before, a capable mid-range shooter who plays with high energy but is unlikely to garner significant minutes due to his general offensive struggles and his lack of a position. Duke lost two players to the NBA last season (Austin Rivers was already mentioned in the first section), but also Miles Plumlee, a surprising first round pick. The loss of the eldest Plumlee weakens Duke’s depth in the post and also eliminates Duke’s most efficient rebounder according to KenPom, though Mason should be able to take over that load of rebounding alongside Ryan Kelly instead.
Duke, as usual, is playing one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the country. In one of the most anticipated early match-ups of the season, in just its second game Duke will face Kentucky in Atlanta in the Champions Classic pitting Coach K against John Calipari for the first time as the Kentucky head coach. Duke also faces Ohio State in an attempt to avenge last year’s loss in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, though the match-up is at Cameron this season. Duke also plays in the Battle 4 Atlantis over Thanksgiving weekend, where it opens against Minnesota and faces potential match-ups against Memphis or VCU in the semifinals, with Louisville, Missouri, or Stanford looming in the next round. If Duke can win this tournament featuring an extremely strong field, it should be in great shape for the rest of the season. Other notable non-conference games are Duke’s annual New York metropolitan area game against Temple and an interesting game in Charlotte against SoCon favorite Davidson.
After running through this gauntlet, Duke faces a challenging ACC schedule, highlighted by consecutive home games against co-Triangle favorites NC State and North Carolina in early February (Duke has an away game against Boston College between those two). Duke plays North Carolina, NC State, and Miami twice, and while it only faces Florida State once, that game is in Tallahassee. On the flip side, the Blue Devils have only one game against the much weaker Clemson and Georgia Tech squads. There is no question that Duke will be tested over the course of the season. Look for Coach K’s team to struggle a little bit early in the season, particularly if Seth Curry has not yet returned from his injury, due to a lack of depth (though Duke typically is very strong early in the season). But the Blue Devils’ difficult schedule should only serve to get the team ready to play for a run in March.
Duke is tabbed as the #8 team in the national preseason polls and #9 in the Ken Pomeroy rankings. This ranking seems like an adequate baseline for the team, but perhaps underestimates Duke’s potential by the end of the season. With three seniors returning, two of whom form one of the best frontcourts in the nation, Duke has a large amount of continuity and experience. If Quinn Cook can have the breakout season that many expect, resembling a similar trajectory that his mentor and friend Nolan Smith had in his Duke career, Duke has a real chance to reach the Final Four in a season with no clear favorites. Rasheed Sulaimon should also be a very important cog in Duke’s lineup as well, and look for him to come very close to winning ACC Rookie of the Year honors. If Cook struggles and Duke’s defensive problems continue, then the team will not advance very far in the postseason (though it should do better than last year’s iteration regardless). Many pundits have put too much stock on how Duke finished last season (ignoring Ryan Kelly’s injury in the process) rather than the full body of last season’s work, similar to how people are evaluating NC State (though with the opposite effects), which has caused some to feel as though Duke is a bit overrated. On the contrary, Duke should win the ACC this season, finishing with a record of around 14-4 or 15-3 overall in the conference, and looks likely to make at minimum a Sweet Sixteen run this year. While the Blue Devils may not have all the pieces to make a legitimate national championship run, Duke’s three seniors and Coach K are not going to let this season end with as much disappointment as the 2011-12 one caused, and they will be a serious threat in March with their offensive firepower and returning experience.