Can Duke Still Put Together a Special Season?

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 13th, 2017

Before this college basketball campaign tipped off back in November, recall that Duke was the near-consensus choice as the nation’s best team. With a nice blend of established veterans and ultra-talented newcomers entering the program — along with the Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski at the helm — it appeared as if the Blue Devils were in position to dominate (remember some of the 40-0 chatter?). Now, as we approach mid-January, things look a lot different in Durham. It feels like Duke has battled almost nothing but injuries and controversies since practice began. The conventional wisdom has been that the Blue Devils will eventually get healthy and begin to achieve some of those lofty expectations, but is the more likely scenario quickly becoming something far less than anticipated?

With multiple injuries and distractions, Mike Krzyzewski and Jeff Capel have had to coach through major adversity in 2016-17. (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY Sports)

As far as all the injuries, suffice it to say that, among Duke’s top 10 players, only Luke Kennard and Matt Jones have been available for every game. Blue-chip freshmen Harry Giles (who missed the first 11 games), Jayson Tatum (eight) and Marquise Bolden (eight) sat out for most of the early going, putting Duke in the difficult position of building rotations and chemistry on the floor without its full roster. Initially, the Blue Devils played well with Kennard and Amile Jefferson emerging as upperclassmen stars. When Tatum joined the starting lineup in early December and preseason All-American Grayson Allen once again looked healthy and happy, things appeared to be coming around. After the Blue Devils destroyed UNLV in Las Vegas on December 10, many observers thought they were well on their way. Then the bottom fell out.

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ACC Weekend Review: 01.09.17 Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 9th, 2017

After one of the craziest opening weekends in ACC history, things calmed down considerably in the second weekend of conference play. In fact, all seven ACC games were won by the favored squad, and only one of those contests was decided by fewer than 11 points. Even if the games weren’t all that scintillating this weekend, there were still a couple takeaways heading into this week. First, in an unanticipated surprise, the two remaining unbeaten schools in conference play are Florida State and Notre Dame — the Seminoles handled visiting Virginia Tech while the Irish rallied to defeat Clemson in South Bend. And then there’s the continued injury misfortunes for Duke — in the Blue Devils’ first game without head coach Mike Krzyzewski (back surgery), stalwart center Amile Jefferson suffered a first half foot injury and never returned. Early reports suggested that the team captain may miss substantial time, meaning even further interruption to a “dream season” that has been anything but smooth to this point. Here are the highlights from the weekend around the ACC.

V.J. Beachem’s six three-pointers helped Notre Dame defeat Clemson and remain unbeaten in the ACC. (Photo: slapthesign.com)

  • Best Win I: Notre Dame trailed Clemson by seven points at halftime, but the Irish prevailed by five to move to 3-0 in league play. Senior forward V.J. Beachem led the way, making six threes en route to 22 points. Bonzie Colson pitched in with 13 points and 12 boards — his third straight double-double performance to open league action. Notre Dame now faces a very daunting part of its schedule — a stretch of five games in just 13 days, with the first three on the road — beginning with a trip to Miami (FL) this Thursday.

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Specter of Harry Giles Still Looming Over Duke

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 7th, 2016

Mike Krzyzewski is accustomed to unexpected roster transformations. After all, when you spend over four decades on the college basketball sidelines, it is inevitable that injuries, suspensions and other roster-wreaking circumstances will occasionally arise. This season’s Blue Devils are still an early version of what they eventually will become, but Tuesday’s night’s 84-74 Jimmy V Classic win over Florida revealed a group steadily evolving into the team many expected before all the injuries began. Star freshman Jayson Tatum contributed 22 points and eight rebounds in his second career game, while fellow freshman blue-chipper Marques Bolden saw a couple minutes off the bench. The presence of each was important in dispatching a good Florida team, but even the added production of Tatum could not fully obscure the continued absence of the most decorated of Duke freshmen, Harry Giles. The Blue Devils may already have the pieces in place to win the 2017 NCAA Tournament — consider that they just beat a Top 25 team by double figures on a night where presumptive NPOY Grayson Allen went 2-of-10 — but the roster won’t feel complete, the upside not fully explored, until Giles makes his debut.

Harry Giles' Return Could Be An Early Christmas Present For Duke (Photo: Getty)

Harry Giles’ Return Could Be An Early Christmas Present For Duke (Photo: Getty)

Ten days ago, moments after Duke had dispatched Appalachian State in a post-Thanksgiving tilt at Cameron Indoor, Krzyzewski identified just how different this season had been than expected. “We had this unbelievably deep team, supposedly,” Coach K said. “And really the past month, we’ve been back to what we’ve done the last two years, where there’s no practice, you are in therapy…it’s frustrating, but you do what you need to do.” In the days since, of course, the Blue Devils have regained some degree of health. Tatum and Bolden are back in action, although Giles, who has been going through pregame warmups since a November 23 game against William & Mary, remains on the shelf. After last night’s win, Krzyzewski added, “We’re hoping before Christmas, those two games,” when asked about Giles’ potential debut. Those two referenced games are December 19 and December 21 match-ups with Tennessee State and Elon, respectively. Some have suggested that Giles’ best course of action may be to sit out the entire season, but it appears Duke expects him to be on the court sooner than later. Given Giles’ prodigious prep reputation, that development has large potential ramifications for the Blue Devils. But no matter how significant his ultimate impact becomes, Krzyzewski will also find solace in a playable and complete roster.

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Duke is Embracing Its Quasi-Point Guard Situation

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 16th, 2016

There’s a common misconception that every successful offense needs a primary ball-handler. Certainly at the collegiate level, some teams do. But Duke is not one of those teams, especially not this season. Point guards serve two critical roles in traditional offenses: 1) breaking pressure defense, and 2) initiating half-court offense. But in an era where wings and even forwards spend so much time developing “guard skills,” it’s no longer uncommon to see multiple initiators on the offensive end. Whether by choice or by circumstance, Duke has embraced this movement.

Frank Jackson is Duke's Point Guard, But the Devils Really Operate the Position by Committee (USA Today Images)

Frank Jackson is Duke’s Point Guard, But the Devils Really Operate the Position by Committee (USA Today Images)

Following the departure of the team’s last true playmaker, Tyus Jones, in 2015, the Blue Devils have since employed an amorphous offense that lacks a true lead guard. Derryck Thornton attempted to claim this role last season, but the offense ran more efficiently through others and eventually stayed that way. Duke’s motion-heavy offense this season revolves around numerous backcourt scoring threats that are equally capable of creating for teammates. “The Chris Pauls, there aren’t as many,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski recently said. “He’s the old-fashioned point guard, the leader. Now you have a lot of lead guards that score and could run a team, but they may not be the guy that runs the team.”

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Duke Successfully Coping With Early Injuries… For Now

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 14th, 2016

Duke’s lofty preseason #1 ranking was largely based on the outstanding freshman class set to join Mike Krzyzewski’s squad this fall. But two games into the young season, three of those newcomers — Marques Bolden, Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum — are sidelined with various lower body ailments, with no scheduled return in sight. The short-handed Blue Devils managed to dominate two inferior teams over the weekend (94-49 over Marist; 96-61 versus Grand Canyon), but things won’t be nearly as easy in Tuesday night’s Champions Classic meeting with Kansas at Madison Square Garden or the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off later this week. A Saturday matchup with Penn State will be followed by a Sunday meeting with either Rhode Island or Cincinnati — two Top 25 squads.

Three Potential NBA Lottery Picks are not currently on the court for Duke. (Juan Bermudez / The Chronicle)

Three Potential NBA Lottery Picks are currently unavailable for Duke. (Juan Bermudez / The Chronicle)

In Saturday’s postgame press conference, Mike Krzyzewski said about his roster: “Right now, we have to be this team and we can’t think about who we could be. And our complete focus has to be how to win, right now, with this team. I can’t give you a time. I don’t anticipate [Bolden, Giles and Tatum] to play on Tuesday. They may not play the whole week. So we have to prepare the way we have our team right now with nine guys.” The remaining roster still has plenty of firepower, but it is not nearly as balanced with a clear focus on the perimeter. Preseason All-American Grayson Allen was going to be a major focus of the attack anyway, so logging big minutes and high possession numbers won’t be foreign to him. Likewise, Luke Kennard and Matt Jones are comfortable in their supporting roles — Kennard has a complete offensive game, while Jones gives the Blue Devils great versatility on defense. Coming off the bench is Frank Jackson — Duke’s remaining five-star freshman. Jackson had an impressive outing on Saturday (21 points in 25 minutes) and already looks more mature than his age. That’s a solid four-man rotation in the backcourt, but what about up front? Read the rest of this entry »

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ACC Burning Questions: Duke Blue Devils

Posted by Matt Auerbach on November 2nd, 2016

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

Burning Question: Will injuries stand in the way of Duke’s run at history and a sixth National Championship for Mike Krzyzewski? 

A large part of the charm and allure of college basketball is its unpredictability. Grand proclamations and bold predictions made in October rarely see themselves all the way through, and the well-heeled equity a team builds up during an elite regular season isn’t worth a darn when getting pushed to the brink in the NCAA Tournament. That said, with the roster that Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski has assembled in Durham, there is very little doubt that his Blue Devils are the odds-on favorite to cut down the nets next April in Phoenix. And while a random one-game sample could derail the team in its quest for a second title in three seasons, it is a mortal lock that this squad will finish a tad higher than fifth place in the ACC standings last year. By its own astronomical standards, Duke’s 2015-16 campaign was a disappointment. Losers of 10 or more games for the first time since 2007, the 25-11 Blue Devils were unceremoniously extinguished by #1 seed Oregon in the Sweet Sixteen. And while Duke found its defensive deficiencies too difficult to overcome, the team returns a tremendous amount of perimeter firepower from the fourth most efficient offense in the country.

Grayson Allen led the way for Duke with 29 points. (Credit: Getty Images/ Jim Rogash)

Grayson Allen, one of the nation’s top returnees, will be bolstered with the nation’s top recruiting class. (Getty)

Grayson Allen is the headliner. The junior burst into our consciousness during the 2015 Final Four and translated that momentum into an explosive sophomore season. In averaging an impressive 21.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, Allen earned first-team All-ACC and third-team All-American accolades. Combining with freshman star Brandon Ingram to form one of the country’s most dangerous offensive duos, Allen was college basketball’s 44th-rated offensive player, according to KenPom. His rare combination of elite athleticism with dead-eye shooting make him a consensus preseason All-America selection heading into his third campaign in Durham. Read the rest of this entry »

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ACC M5: 10.24.16 Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins on October 24th, 2016

morning5_ACC

  1. Syracuse tipped off its season on Friday night with Orange Madness in the Carrier Dome. Jim Boeheim may be in the twilight of his great career, but the way his school renews the basketball year is not old-school at all. Much like Kentucky’s Big Blue Madness, the event attracts celebrities and is all about entertainment — making sure that players, fans and recruits enjoy the festivities. Sophomore forward Tyler Lydon is expected to have a breakout season for the Orange, but this week he experienced a different sort of breakout — a rash caused by poison oak which caused him to miss two days of practice.
  2. Unlike the light-hearted action at Syracuse, Duke‘s players really got after it during their 20-minute scrimmage that wrapped up Countdown to Craziness in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday night. The intensity of the game was good from a competitive perspective, but it almost backfired when Grayson Allen awkwardly barreled into Amile Jefferson‘s legs while aggressively pursuing a loose ball. After an anxious minute on the floor, Jefferson got up and appeared to be sore but not injured. In other news from the practice, freshman Jayson Tatum showed why he is considered a top-5 NBA Draft pick by pouring in 18 points to lead all scorers.
  3. North Carolina got some bad news over the weekend when it announced that junior Theo Pinson will be out indefinitely with a fracture of the fifth metatarsal on his right foot. Pinson is expected to replace the departed Marcus Paige — who, ironically, also missed the beginning of the 2015-16 campaign with a foot injury — in the Tar Heels’ starting backcourt. Roy Williams has the luxury of good perimeter depth this season, although senior Nate Britt is the only other player with much experience. In the meantime, Britt should get the nod as Joel Berry’s starting running mate, but expect sophomore Kenny Williams and freshmen Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson to gain some extra early playing time as well. Pinson will probably not return until mid-January at the earliest, and sadly this continues his historical pattern of being prone to injury.
  4. After years of struggling to advance deeply in the NCAA Tournament, Mike Brey has now guided Notre Dame to the Elite Eight in each of the past two seasons. Two key players that played on both of those teams are now missing — point guard Demetrius Jackson and center Zach Auguste. As the Irish’s only viable post threat, Auguste may be the more difficult player to replace, and it seems that is what Brey had in mind when he started talking up seldom-used Martin Geben back in the spring. Under Brey, it’s not uncommon for big men to make a leap in productivity as upperclassmen, but we would be shocked if Geben approaches anything close to what Auguste posted during his last two years in South Bend.
  5. After having to play its home games in Greenville, South Carolina, last season, Clemson is looking forward to playing in a remodeled Littlejohn Coliseum this year. Everyone around the program seems very pleased with the new facility, but head coach Brad Brownell has the right perspective when he said, “The building doesn’t win you any games. A better office, nicer TVs and couches doesn’t win any games. Hopefully it brings guys together in an environment where they spend more time together and become closer and that bond wins games.” The other hope is that the updated facilities help the Tigers in recruiting – Brownell has proven he can compete with the big boys in the ACC when he has decent talent.
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ACC Afternoon 5: 02.15.16 Edition

Posted by Matt Patton on February 15th, 2016

morning5_ACC

  1. Duke Basketball Report: If you’re behind at all on ACC play, read this outstanding piece from Al Featherston. If you’re not behind, read it anyway. I agree with him wholeheartedly that Notre Dame has the most likely path to the top seed in Washington, DC. North Carolina is the better team, but there are a lot of traps in the final few games of its conference season. But what I hadn’t considered was all the tiebreaker scenarios (most of which give Notre Dame the advantage). Either way, ACC play has some great games ahead of it in the final month.
  2. Raleigh News & Observer: Will Duke’s Amile Jefferson redshirt? On one hand, he is eligible for a redshirt year and his veteran leadership could be the x-factor in whether next year’s stacked Blue Devils’ roster wins a championship. On the other hand, Duke is bringing in two elite 6’9″ freshmen and Chase Jeter might transfer if he’s relegated to the bench next season (not to mention Duke is still recruiting five-star center Marques Bolden). The bottom line is that Duke is a Final Four contender with Jefferson this year. That’s why I think he returns.
  3. Charlottesville Daily Progress: Virginia lost a heartbreaker in Cameron Indoor Stadium Saturday on a controversial buzzer-beater from Grayson Allen. (Note: I don’t think this was an example of a Duke bias, just the tendency of referees to swallow their whistles in the final seconds to focus more on the clock.) Before the wild ending, though, it was an awesome game. It looked like Virginia would run Duke out of the gym in the first half before Brandon Ingram rescued the Blue Devils, at one point scoring 16 straight points for his team. Then Tony Bennett locked Ingram down with Malcolm Brogdon (who in response put the Cavaliers’ offense on his shoulders), opening the game up for Allen.
  4. Syracuse Post Standard: Tyler Lydon has turned out to be quite a diamond in the rough for Jim Boeheim this season. Lydon has looked like a totally new player during the Orange’s five-game winning streak, using an average of 23 percent of possessions compared with a season usage of less than 16 percent. That’s a big difference. He’s Syracuse‘s most efficient player, mostly thanks to excellent shot selection and stroking nearly 45 percent of his three-point attempts.
  5. CBS Sports: NC State’s Cat Barber finally started getting some national love last week, as he’s scored more than 30 points five times in the last seven games. In those same seven games, head coach Mark Gottfried has let him sit for a total of three minutes. So why has it taken so long for him to get noticed? Part of it is a disconnect. Generally the national media loves underdogs, but Barber doesn’t fit that mold. He’s on a major conference team, and his team is generally viewed as disappointing (unlike former Virginia Tech star Erick Green, whose team was expected to be horrendous). That’s a perfect recipe for getting ignored. Still, it’s nice to see Barber getting some shine, even if it is belated. Also, here’s to him putting on an Olivier Hanlan-esque performance at the Verizon Center next month.

EXTRA: The ACC released its schedule of conference opponents for the next two seasons. Just in case you want to start complaining about unbalanced schedules a little earlier than usual.

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Is Duke Ready For Its Most Difficult Four-Game Stretch?

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on February 8th, 2016

Duke has experienced multiple runs of success so far in conference play. The Blue Devils started ACC action with three straight victories, and are now on a two-game win streak. But in between those five wins came a stretch where Duke lost four times in five contests, which is why there are still major doubts about Mike Krzyzewski’s team heading into the final four weeks of the regular season. Can the Blue Devils play good enough defense to compete with the nation’s (or even the ACC’s) best teams? Are two of the freshmen (Derryck Thornton and Chase Jeter) making enough progress to be solid contributors in big games? Will a lack of depth eventually wear out the Blue Devil core? Many of those questions may be answered, for better or worse, in the coming two weeks, when the Blue Devils’ schedule gets downright brutal. This week features home games with Louisville (tonight) and Virginia (on Saturday). The following week will see the Blue Devils travel to North Carolina and Louisville. That’s four consecutive games against the league’s top three teams.

Derryck Thornton's return to the starting lineup has given Duke a boost defensively. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Derryck Thornton’s return to the starting lineup has given Duke a boost defensively. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Let’s look at those questions one by one:

Can the Blue Devils play good enough defense?

Currently Duke ranks ninth in the ACC in defensive efficiency, allowing 1.09 points per possession in league play. Led by star Grayson Allen, the Blue Devils only trail Notre Dame in ACC offensive efficiency, meaning they have generally been winning by outscoring the opposition. That feat will get harder in the next four games, as Duke will face the top three rated defenses in the conference. To have success against the league’s best, Krzyzewski needs his team’s man-to-man defense to be good enough to use as a viable alternative to the zone that Duke has often employed this season. Duke’s performance in its last two games may give its veteran coach some hope. Using man-to-man exclusively, Duke held Georgia Tech to 0.84 points per possession in the second half of last Tuesday’s road win. In Saturday’s victory over N.C. State, the Blue Devils played man-to-man for the entire first half, holding the Wolfpack to 0.95 points per possession.

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The Devils’ Doldrums: Could Duke Miss The NCAA Tournament?

Posted by Matt Patton on January 26th, 2016

After Duke‘s 11 point loss at Miami, Seth Davis tweeted: “It is time to acknowledge the possibility that Duke will not make the NCAA tournament.” Some context for that tweet: Duke has lost four of its last five, including two games at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Since losing Amile Jefferson to a foot injury, the Blue Devils are 7-5 with exactly one win against the KenPom top 100. That’s not exactly a resume that screams NCAA Tournament. On the other side of the equation: Duke is still 20th in KenPom‘s ratings, its RPI projects to remain in the 20s according to RPI Forecast, and there’s evidence Jefferson’s condition is improving. Perhaps most importantly, losing by 11 to a really good Miami team shouldn’t be a cause for concern, and really it was just a two possession game with less than a minute left.

Duke didn't have the legs to hang with Miami. What does that mean going forward? (photo: Chuck Liddy/News & Observer)

Duke Didn’t Have The Legs To Hang With Miami. What Does That Mean For The Blue Devils Going Forward? (Photo: Chuck Liddy/News & Observer)

Maybe the most amazing factoid about Duke’s current start (courtesy of Patrick Stevens): If the ACC Tournament started tomorrow, Duke and Virginia would face off as the ninth and eighth seeds on Wednesday. So then, the ultimate question: Will Duke miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the infamous Pete Gaudet season? There are three ways this might play out.

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