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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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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ACC M5: 12.05.16 Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on December 5th, 2016

morning5_ACC

  1. For Duke this season, the injury bug giveth and the injury bug taketh away. After missing the first eight games of their freshmen campaigns, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden made their season debuts in Saturday’s blowout win over Maine. Given the new additions to his lineup, head coach Mike Krzyzewski decided it was a good time to rest two other ailing Blue Devils: guards Grayson Allen (toe) and Frank Jackson (foot). Afterward Krzyzewski also mentioned that Harry Giles is also close to full health, perhaps as soon as exams are over in two weeks. Luke Kennard took full advantage of the extra possessions, posting a career-high 35 points in the easy win. If the Blue Devils get healthy, it may not be wise to reduce the role of a player sporting an offensive rating of 130.9 on the season.
  2. Speaking of injuries, North Carolina suffered one of its own in Sunday’s rout of Radford in the Smith Center. Star point guard Joel Berry sprained his ankle early in the second half and did not return to the game. In the press conference afterward, Roy Williams said he hopes Berry can return to practice soon: “We’ll have to see what they say tomorrow, but I’m encouraged about it right now.” The next two games for the Tar Heels are at home against Davidson (Wednesday) and Tennessee (Sunday), both of which are winnable games even without their junior point guard. That will be followed by a six-day break, so hopefully Berry can return to full strength when North Carolina clashes with Kentucky in Las Vegas on December 17. In other injury news, Theo Pinson may be getting close to returning from his preseason foot injury.
  3. After bursting out of the gate with six impressive victories, Virginia quickly climbed all the way to the top of KenPom’s national ratings. Following a lackluster week that included squeaking by Ohio State and losing to West Virginia at home, however, the Cavaliers have slipped back to sixth. The Mountaineers came into Charlottesville on Saturday and handed Tony Bennett‘s team its first loss of the season — perhaps a sign of things to come when the competition gets consistently tough once ACC play begins. Great defense alone will not be enough to beat talented squads.
  4. At the other side of the spectrum we find North Carolina State. Mark Gottfried‘s team can score but are not very good on the other end of the floor. The Wolfpack are 6-2 on the year, with the two losses coming to the only two KenPom top-100 teams on the schedule to this point. Even more disturbing is the margin of victory against those inferior foes — three of their six wins came by four points or fewer. This is shaping up to be a very similar NC State team to last year’s version. Freshman guard Dennis Smith looks just as dynamic as Cat Barber was a year ago, but the Wolfpack’s defense looks just as porous as well.
  5. At first glance, Pittsburgh‘s loss to crosstown rival Duquesne on Friday night looks like a classic letdown game against a highly motivated opponent. The Panthers were coming off their most impressive win of the year — easily handling Maryland on the road in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge — and the Dukes hadn’t beaten Pittsburgh since 2000, a streak of 15 consecutive losses. It also didn’t help that senior star Jamel Artis was serving a one-game suspension for what Kevin Stallings said was a failure to “meet our high standards.” The Panthers’ offense struggled mightily without Artis in the lineup, posting a miserable 0.80 points per possession. Even ACC leading scorer Michael Young was off his game — he finished with 19 points on 8-for-21 shooting. So much for an easy transition for new head coach Kevin Stallings.
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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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Rushed Reactions: #7 Kansas 77, #1 Duke 75

Posted by Justin Kundrat on November 16th, 2016

RTC’s Brian Otskey (@botskey) and Justin Kundrat (@justinkundrat) are providing on-site coverage of the Champions Classic this evening.

Three Key Takeaways.

Frank. Mason. For the Win. (USA Today Images)

Frank. Mason. For the Win. (USA Today Images)

  1. Josh Jackson’s coming out party has commenced. Following a disappointing nine-point debut on 3-for-11 shooting against Indiana, the 6’8″ freshman posted 15 points on just nine shots tonight. His obvious hesitancy and discomfort in the first game and a half of his career forced Frank Mason into the role of primary scorer while pressuring other players such as Devonte’ Graham to fill the void. But Jackson broke out in the second half, using his length to defend the passing lanes while creating for himself at will on the offensive end. There will be ups and downs this season for a player like Jackson, but the obvious sentiment is that Bill Self needs him fully locked in come March.
  2. Stopping Duke on offense is already a headache. The hype around NPOY candidate Grayson Allen is warranted, but the Blue Devils have five legitimate scoring threats and the lineup versatility to match almost any team even without their heralded freshmen. Sophomore Luke Kennard is capable of playing a stretch four role, but Duke can also go big by playing senior Amile Jefferson alongside the shot blocking center Chase Jeter. The Jeter/Kennard toggle provides Coach K with the ability to choose between offense and defense without having to drastically alter his lineups. Given the team’s current inside-outside dynamic, expect Duke to capitalize regardless of how teams choose to defend them.
  3. The concerns around Kansas’ defense are overstated. It’s not that the Jayhawks cannot defend — rather, it’s that their early results are simply a combination of playing two of the country’s best offenses. Strong individual defenders such as Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham are known quantities, but team defenses take time to develop and this is especially true for a team that lost two key cogs in Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis. Josh Jackson has the tools to become an exceptional perimeter defender and Udoba Azubuike has a 7’5″ wingspan who and will develop better defensive instincts over time.

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RTC Gametime: Key Questions in Duke vs. Kansas

Posted by Chris Stone & Brad Jenkins on November 15th, 2016

College basketball got underway with a pair of hotly contested Top 25 match-ups on Friday night. The heat will rise tonight as the ESPN Tip-off Marathon reaches its climax with the Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden. Because we’re so excited about what tonight’s headliner has to offer, we’ve gotten the ACC and Big 12 microsites together to preview the event’s evening contest between Duke and Kansas. Questions and answers were provided by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) and Chris Stone (@cstonehoops).

Questions for Kansas

Frank Mason looks like Bill Self's man at point guard. (USATSI)

Bill Self and Frank Mason against a talented Duke team? Sign us up. (USATSI)

The Blue Devils look vulnerable in the paint given all their current injuries. Bill Self teams have traditionally been dominant in the post, but is Kansas equipped to take advantage of Duke’s depleted frontcourt?

Unless something surprising happens, probably not. This game should ultimately be a battle of the backcourts. Although the Jayhawks have historically feasted on the interior by utilizing Self’s high-low offense to find open looks near the rim, Kansas doesn’t have the frontcourt players required to do that this season. Big men accounted for just 19.7 percent of Kansas’ total field goal attempts against Indiana last week, even as starters Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg shot a combined 9-of-11 from the field. Don’t expect that pair to suddenly become high usage players tonight. Lucas is fundamentally sound and more than capable of sealing off defenders for easy looks, but he lacks the post game necessary to be a go-to option. Bragg’s repertoire of post moves is considerably more complete, but his best offense is still played in the mid-range. With a full complement of talented perimeter players, look for Self to base his offense tonight around the likes of Frank Mason and Devonte Graham rather than Lucas and Bragg. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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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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ACC Weekend Review: 02.08.16 Edition

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

After Friday afternoon’s bombshell announcement that Louisville was self-imposing a postseason ban, the attention returned to the play on the floor for fourteen ACC schools this weekend. In a rarity, five league road teams were favored in the seven matchups, but only three managed to extract victories. In the marquee contest, Notre Dame continued its recent run of superiority over the ACC’s two most storied programs, as the Irish rallied for a big upset win in South Bend over North Carolina in ESPN’s prime time game on Saturday night. Earlier in the day, Virginia Tech also pulled off a mild surprise as the Hokies edged Clemson in Blacksburg, significantly damaging the Tigers’ postseason hopes in the process. In other action, the ACC’s two leading scorers dueled in Durham, with Grayson Allen and Anthony ‘Cat’ Barber putting on a show as Duke defeated N.C. State for the second time this year. Here are some of the highlights from a busy weekend around the ACC.

Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste celebrate Notre Dame's upset win over North Carolina. (Getty Images)

Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste celebrate Notre Dame’s upset win over North Carolina. (Getty Images)

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