ACC Preview: Duke’s Burning Question

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 10th, 2015

This team preview is part of the RTC ACC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Can Mike Krzyzewski lead another freshmen-heavy team to the Final Four?

Talk about a tough act to follow. After a season that saw Mike Krzyzewski win his 1,000th career game and capture his fifth NCAA title at Duke, it’s hard to imagine a coach ever having a better year. More than that, after spending years and years as the most hated program in the sport, it seems that Duke has achieved a measure of “coolness” lately, especially in the recruiting world. Perhaps it’s a result of Coach K’s decade-long tenure as coach of the USA senior national team and the success of coaching NBA stars to gold medals. Maybe it’s the perception (and reality) that Krzyzewski has embraced the one-and-done era of college basketball. Either way, it’s interesting to see the Duke coach get praise for adapting to the new way of winning in college hoops, yet the inventor of the model, Kentucky’s John Calipari, has been regarded in a much more negative light (as a system manipulator) over the last six years. Each coach has now won a national championship with a starting lineup of mostly freshmen. There were productive veterans around to guide the young stars in both programs’ title runs, and the three main freshmen on both squads were unusually mature — mentally and physically. That’s why it would be unfair to expect Duke’s latest highly acclaimed group of newcomers to match the success of their predecessors. It’s just not ‘normal’ to do what Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow accomplished in their first year, just as it wasn’t for the 2012 Wildcats’ super-frosh — Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague.

Mike Krzyzewski hopes this year's vaunted freshmen class at Duke can approach last season's frosh accomplishments. (Jim Dedmon-USA Today Sports)

Mike Krzyzewski hopes this year’s vaunted freshmen class at Duke can approach the exploits of last season’s group of Blue Devil newcomers. (Jim Dedmon/USA TODAY Sports)

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for last year’s Blue Devils, especially on the defensive end. The low point of the year came when Duke suffered back-to-back double digit losses to unranked teams, N.C. State and Miami. They were so bad defensively at that point that Krzyzewski, in a desperate and out-of-character decision, implemented a zone defense that Duke would go on to use more often than ever before in the Coach K era. Eventually, the freshmen learned to execute the man-to-man principles that the great Blue Devils of the past were known for, and the result was one of the best defensive performances we’ve seen in recent NCAA tournaments — Duke’s six opponents only managed to score .93 points per possession, and four of those teams boasted top-21 offenses according to Ken Pomeroy. The experience of last year’s team reminds us of a couple of things when considering the future defensive prowess of this year’s squad. For one, don’t expect the Blue Devils’ freshmen to immediately grasp Duke’s man-to-man principles, which may result in another year of a decent diet of zone mixed in;. Secondly, the possible early struggles of the freshmen on the defensive end don’t mean that dramatic improvement over the course of the year can’t happen again.

Krzyzewski is anxious to see how senior leaders Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson adjust their games now that they will be asked to handle a majority of the post minutes for Duke. Both are known more for defense and rebounding than for possessing offensive skill, but Coach K won’t be looking for points out of the pair if they can raise their overall consistency. If Plumlee and Jefferson can regularly bring effort on both backboards, Duke could be in an unusual position for the program as a dominant rebounding team. The two primary frontcourt reserves are also known for their ability to pursue and corral missed shots. Freshman Chase Jeter is gaining praise from his coaches for being very active around the basket, and sophomore Rice transfer Sean Obi led Conference USA in rebounding as a freshman.

Duke will count on seniors Marshall Plumlee (40) and Amile Jefferson (21) for defense, rebounds, and leadership. (Mark Dolejs/USA Today Sports)

Duke will count on seniors Marshall Plumlee (40) and Amile Jefferson (21) for defense, rebounds, and leadership. (Mark Dolejs/USA Today Sports)

Most of the offense will come from the Blue Devil perimeter, which is a young but very talented and versatile group. Many are pegging sophomore Grayson Allen for a huge year, based on his play in last year’s Final Four, which was both outstanding and astounding. But this will be his first go-round as the focus of opposing teams’ scouting reports — something that is often referred to as the ‘chalk-board effect’. Allen is certainly talented enough for a big leap in production, but don’t be surprised if it takes some time for him to adjust to his new role as a primary scorer. The other main weapon for Duke is expected to be Brandon Ingram, a consensus top five freshman from nearby Kinston, NC who is the spoils of a rare in-state recruiting victory over rival North Carolina. Ingram brings great length, athleticism, and ball handling that will allow Krzyzewski to play him at multiple positions on both ends of the floor. Junior Matt Jones is also sure to have a big role as Duke’s best perimeter defender (just ask Sam Dekker). He is also capable of knocking down open threes. Elsewhere on the perimeter, Duke badly needed a point guard after Tyus Jones decided to leave for the NBA, and they got one late when Derryck Thornton reclassified to the class of 2016 and signed with the Blue Devils in the spring. Thornton is known for his ability to pressure the ball defensively and then push the ball when it’s in his hands. Rounding out the backcourt rotation is another talented freshman guard, Luke Kennard, who is being touted as a mature player who should be ready to play immediately. He’s regarded as a great outside shooter and excellent passer, but his ability to defend at the college level is in question.

Nationally, most experts have Duke as a top six team in the preseason, but that may be a little high for this untested group. Certainly, there is a lot of talent, and the guy on the bench calling the shots does have a pretty decent track record. It also appears to be a wide-open season with no obvious great teams, which means there are many schools that have a shot of making the Final Four. Duke is certainly among them, but this Blue Devil squad may have too many question marks — interior scoring and youthful inconsistency prime among them — to make a deep NCAA run this year.

Brad Jenkins (377 Posts)

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