ACC Team Preview: Duke Blue DevilsPosted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 7th, 2013
Duke had a successful 2013-14 season but it will be remembered as three seasons in one. Led by the senior trio of Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly, Duke got off to the best start in the country, winning its first 15 games against a very tough schedule. Then Kelly went down with a foot injury and the Blue Devils dropped to merely a good team, going 9-4 without him in the lineup. Kelly’s dramatic return in a 79-76 win over eventual ACC champion Miami gave hope to Duke as a national title contender, but they couldn’t quite get there, losing to a superior Louisville team in the Elite Eight.
Ordinarily, losing three quality starting seniors would indicate a worse season to come, but thanks to a pair of highly regarded new forwards, Duke is expected to remain a national contender. Mike Krzyzewski has also made it clear that a change in style is coming. Duke will not have the veteran post players it had last year, but it will be a much more athletic and deeper team so look for the Blue Devils to push the tempo on both ends of the court. It’s been said that the makeup of this team is similar to Coach K’s 2012 USA Olympic team. That team lacked a true post scorer and was built around versatile play-making forwards on offense and a switching pressure defense. Look for Krzyzewski to use that experience to build this Duke team in the same fashion.
In the preseason, Coach K has stated that his offense will revolve around Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. Parker is one of the most celebrated freshmen ever to suit up at Duke, bringing some of the same versatility that Grant Hill did on Duke’s first two National Championship teams in the early 1990s. He handles the ball well, makes good decisions and can score inside and out. At 6’8″ and 235 pounds, he will also be asked to play post defense. It remains to be seen if that leads to foul problems or related issues with his durability. Hood is trying to follow in the footsteps of the previous transfers that Coach K has successfully had in the past (Roshown McLeod and Dahntay Jones come to mind). The redshirt sophomore lefty is also regarded as a versatile player, albeit a bit more perimeter-oriented than Parker. He has an accurate jump shot from either side of the three-point line and has scored and rebounded well in Duke’s two exhibition games. Matt Jones and Semi Ojeleye are also two incoming freshmen that were rated as top 50 recruits. Jones has already earned a spot in the perimeter rotation with his strong preseason play, while the athletic Ojeleye may need more time to adjust to major college competition.Returnees
Although last year’s three senior stars got most of the attention, point guard Quinn Cook’s play was the catalyst for Duke’s great start. After an inconsistent freshman year, Cook was a much improved player as a sophomore, earning a third team All-ACC selection. He did slump a bit in the NCAA Tournament, but overall he gave Duke the solid point guard play which was missing the year before. Now he’s expected to be even more consistent and take advantage of his more athletic teammates running the floor. Rasheed Sulaimon was second in last year’s ACC Rookie of the Year voting and gave the Devils’ good perimeter defense along with some nice offensive flashes. Like all the returning Duke players, he too will have to learn how his game will fit around the two new star forwards. Seniors Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston will provide experience off the bench, as will Andre Dawkins, who took last year off for personal reasons. Redshirt sophomores Alex Murphy and Marshall Plumlee may find it hard to crack the rotation, but each helps make this the deepest Duke team in recent memory.
Potential Breakout Player
One player who seems to have already figured out how he fits in is Amile Jefferson. As a starter in the frontcourt with Parker and Hood in Duke’s two exhibition games, the thin 6’8″ sophomore has averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds, including a monstrous 16-rebound effort against Drury last Saturday. He is certainly not a traditional center, but he won’t be asked to play one either. It appears that Parker will act as the primary post defender among the starters, so Jefferson will be able to use his length shading out to the perimeter. On the other end, he has a knack for offensive rebounds and can finish strongly at the rim. He does need to improve on his 61 percent free throw shooting from last year as his opportunities at the line should increase.
Duke has its usual heavyweight non-conference matchups with Kansas, Michigan and UCLA. Also, the Blue Devils are expected to have a showdown with Arizona in the finals of the NIT Season Tip-Off. In the ACC schedule Duke must play Syracuse and North Carolina along with Georgia Tech and Wake Forest twice each. But the Blue Devils get a big break with no conference games scheduled on Thursdays or Sundays. In past seasons, they have had more games on those two television days then most other ACC teams, which resulted in opponents usually having an extra day off before a game with the Devils. That will certainly not be the case this year.
Most preseason polls have Duke in the national top five and they certainly have the potential to get to that level, but many questions are still unanswered. The biggest concern may be Duke’s interior defense. Without a true center to protect the rim, opponents are certain to attack the basket which could lead to significant foul trouble. Duke will try to offset that weakness with defensive pressure on the perimeter, and the ability to switch screens with their interchangeable forwards will help matters there greatly. It’s also yet to be determined if the returning backcourt meshes with the three new starters up front. Chemistry must be developed on the court and that may take a while before it clicks. Of course Coach K has a pretty good track record of helping his players figure things out, so a first place ACC finish is the expectation this sseason, even if it won’t come easily.