The Duke Blue Devils won 27 games last year, were as high as No. 3 in the AP, beat heated-rival North Carolina with an epic comeback and buzzer-beater, took a No. 2 seed into the NCAA tourney and finished second in the ACC. And the season was still seen as a major disappointment.
Ahh, the hardships of being Duke.
Mike Krzyzewski's squad was impressive throughout the regular season, but its now famous loss to No. 15 Lehigh in the second round—but really the first round—of the NCAA Tournament made everyone forget about that. Because of that painful end to the season, Blue Devil fans have been waiting for the start of a new season to cure their woes.
And by all indications, cured they shall be.
Duke lost two players to the NBA, and Andre Dawkins is taking an unexpected redshirt, but the infuse of young talent mixed with important veteran leadership has expectations high for the No. 8 team in the nation.
Let's take a look at what the season has in store for the Blue Devils.
SG Rasheed Sulaimon (Freshman)
F Amile Jefferson (Freshman)
F Alex Murphy (Redshirt Freshman)
F Marshall Plumlee (Redshirt Freshman)
This year's recruiting class certainly isn't Mike Krzyzewski's deepest (just two freshmen recruits), but it's not short on talent.
Sulaimon, a 5-star guard from Houston, has to be the most important newcomer. He's a high-energy player who can score from pretty much anywhere on the floor, but the Blue Devils will likely be able to score with or without him.
His true, underrated impact will come on the defensive end. At 6'3", 175 pounds, Sulaimon isn't the strongest guard around, but his athleticism and aggressiveness make him a terrific perimeter defender whenever he really zeroes in on his man. For a team that struggled so much to defend opposing guards last season (Hi, C.J. McCollum!), Sulaimon will be a welcome sight.
Jefferson brings athleticism to, um, whatever position he wants. He has the skills of a post player, but his size (6'7", 190 pounds) gives him the potential to play small forward, as well.
Plumlee and Murphy, meanwhile, are two former top recruits who somewhat surprisingly redshirted last season. It shouldn't be long before they are making solid impacts. Murphy, who would have been a Top 10 true freshman this season if not for reclassifying, could even start from day one.
PG/SG Austin Rivers (Draft)
PF/C Miles Plumlee (Draft)
SF Michael Gbinije (Transfer)
SG Andre Dawkins (Redshirt)
The Blue Devils will survive.
No one on this team can score quite like Austin Rivers could, but the talented guard often played out of position and was inconsistent with his shot.
It will be hard to replace Plumlee, especially his combination of size and athleticism, but his brothers will shoulder the load just fine. Add in Josh Hairston, Ryan Kelly and Amile Jefferson, and the depth down won't suffer.
Finally, the surprising redshirt for Andre Dawkins shouldn't hurt, as Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon will have no problem replacing his inconsistency and struggles on defense.
Duke's starting lineup is still a large unknown, and there's a good chance that it could change from week to week as Coach K finds the perfect rotation, but there's no question that he'll have options.
As of now, I've projected the first five as Quinn Cook, Seth Curry, Alex Murphy, Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee, but there are plenty of ways it could could go differently.
Defensive-minded Tyler Thornton could easily start over the more talented Cook at the 1, as could Rasheed Sulaimon, who has a good handle and a high basketball IQ.
At the 2, the senior Seth Curry should get the start, but Sulaimon will earn a lot of minutes there, as well.
Alex Murphy is lightly penciled in as small forward, while seniors Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee are basically locks to find the starting lineup.
Amile Jefferson is hard to figure out. His offensive game, which lacks a consistent jump shot, screams power forward. But his body screams small forward. As the youngster continues to develop a handle and learns how to guard perimeter players, I think he'll sub for all three forwards.
Whatever happens, expect to see a lot of different looks on the floor in Durham this season.
|Point Guard||Quinn Cook||Tyler Thornton|
|Shooting Guard||Seth Curry||Rasheed Sulaimon (sixth man)|
|Small Forward||Alex Murphy||Amile Jefferson|
|Power Forward||Ryan Kelly||Josh Hairston/Amile Jefferson|
|Center||Mason Plumleee||Marshall Plumlee (currently injured)
The Blue Devils are going to be able to put the ball in the basket, so that's good.
Because of the lineup versatility, Coach K's squad will be able to match up with any kind of team. If he needs to go big, he can move sharpshooting big man Ryan Kelly to small forward and roll with Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon as the guards.
If he wants speed and athleticism, he can put Amile Jefferson and Alex Murphy at the forward positions and Rasheed Sulaimon at the two.
There are endless lineups Krzyzewski can create, and as long as the basketball genius plays the matchups right, and he undoubtedly will, the Blue Devils, who ranked 11th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency last year, will score with ease.
Another strength resides in the veteran leadership.
The Blue Devils will lean on Sulaimon and the newcomers, but three of the five projected starters—Curry, Kelly, Mason Plumlee—are seniors. That's an important attribute come March.
For the first time in so long, the Blue Devils couldn't stop anyone on the defensive side of the ball last season. Rasheed Sulaimon is going to help, as will the extra athleticism at the forward positions, but for the most part, Coach K is dealing with the exact same pieces on the perimeter.
If opposing guards are going to continue to drive the lane with ease, shooters will be left open and the big men will undoubtedly be forced to rack up fouls.
That leads to Duke's second weakness: lack of frontcourt depth.
With Marshall Plumlee out for an extended period of time, Mason Plumlee, Josh Hairston, Ryan Kelly, Emile Jefferson and Alex Murphy remain as the other frontcourt players. On the surface, that looks like solid depth. But for the most part, three of them will be on the court at the same time, and Josh Hairston isn't quite consistent enough to be relied on.
Assuming Jefferson and Murphy live up to their potential, that leaves just one reliable big man on the bench. It's good enough while the young Plumlee recovers, but foul trouble could end up hurting this team, which only has one true center in Mason Plumlee.
Point Guard Battle
Of all the position battles going on in Durham, the most intriguing has to be at the point.
Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton both started at times last season, but neither was consistently effective.
Thornton was, at times, an absolute lock-down defender, but he displayed no offensive game to keep opponents honest at the other end of the court. Cook, on the other hand, has more raw talent but has struggled with injuries and the ability to shoot the ball with any type of efficiency.
Can the Blue Devils Advance Deep in the Tourney?
Mostly as a habit, Duke is just one of the first schools always named as a legitimate Final Four contender. But with the exception of the 2010 Title, the Blue Devils have quietly failed to make it past the Sweet 16 in the last seven NCAA tournaments.
What's more shocking is that in most of those seasons, Duke has often had one of the best teams in the nation and a very high seed. Throw in last year's loss to No. 15 Lehigh, and Coach K's squad is slowly garnering the label as choke artists in March.
Of course, that could also just be the unfortunate effect of high expectations.
This year, the Blue Devils have the talent to be one of the best teams in the country once again, and it will be interesting to see if they put it together when it matters most.
This team can win the National Championship, and there's no doubt about it.
They have the necessary senior core pieces in Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry. We know what we're getting from them.
Plumlee is going to bring athleticism. He'll dunk over people, rebound, dunk over a couple more people and rebound some more. Kelly, who continues to improve his outside shot, will serve as a unique big man who teams will have problems dealing with while providing solid defense and rebounding on the inside. Seth Curry can be electric as a spot-up shooter moving off the ball.
But then you have the wild cards.
What will Duke get from its point guards? How will all the newcomers perform?
If Quinn Cook establishes himself as an ideal drive-and-kick option, if Tyler Thornton brings energy and defense off the bench and if Rasheed Sulaimon, Alex Murphy and Amile Jefferson live up to their immense potential, this team is going to be incredibly tough to beat.
It's a lot of "ifs," but none of them are huge stretches of the imagination.
Honestly, even in a worst-case scenario, I still don't see this team failing to be one of the best in the nation in offensive efficiency. I also don't see it failing to make the Big Dance.
Don't get too comfortable, though, Blue Devil fans.
There are still question marks on the defensive side of the ball, and it's a real possibility that the Blue Devils run into a hot offensive team like Lehigh early in the tournament and find themselves in a shootout.
Should that happen, an early exit in March isn't out of the question.
25-6 (13-5 ACC), Third in ACC
The Blue Devils don't have an easy pre-conference schedule. They play Kentucky in Georgia. The Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas will pit them against Minnesota, then Memphis or VCU and then potentially Louisville or Missouri. Finally, they get Ohio State at home.
Still, Mike Krzyzewski's teams always play well out of conference. It wouldn't be surprising if Duke wins the Battle 4 Atlantis and enters the ACC with just one loss on its resume.
The ACC, however, is still an elite conference.
North Carolina State is a legitimate contender for the national title, North Carolina has reloaded with tons of young talent and Florida State and Miami are both seriously talented.
Combine a talented conference with Duke's lack of a consistent point guard and expected reliance, at times, of youngsters, and five ACC losses seems like a good guess for the Blue Devils.