As Duke prepares for the Battle 4 Atlantis, the grueling schedule of three games in three days will prove to be anything but vacation-style fun in the sun.
Duke has won 19 straight regular-season tournament games, but its potential opponents all pose a serious threat to a continuation of that success. And after Duke’s toppling of defending champs Kentucky, the Blue Devils are going to get everyone’s best shot.
If the Blue Devils are to continue riding high from their undefeated start to the season and marquee win versus Kentucky, these five keys to success will prove to be instrumental.
All preseason the presumption was that Quinn Cook would be Duke’s starting point guard. After two subpar performances in the exhibition games, however, the Blue Devils opened the season with Tyler Thornton at the point.
But after losing his starting spot and playing less minutes than Thornton in the opener against Georgia State, Quinn Cook has been pulling himself up the depth chart.
Against Kentucky, Thornton got the start over Cook, but Cook ended up playing more minutes overall. Then against Florida Gulf Coast, Cook was once again in the starting five and was on the court longer than Thornton.
This early in the season, Quinn Cook has far from solidified his spot in the starting lineup. While he wowed fans with nine assists against Florida Gulf Coast, he stumbled to five turnovers in that game. For the season, which I’ll grant you is only three games old, Cook is averaging 4.7 assists and three turnovers. Thornton isn’t faring much better with three assists per game to 2.7 turnovers (via ESPN).
To win in the Bahamas, Duke will need one of these two players to step up and solidify their spot as a point guard who can control the offense and control the ball. Turnovers were one of the things that killed Duke against Lehigh, and if they don’t rectify this point guard situation, it may well cause its downfall in this tournament as well.
I wrote an entire article about how bad Duke’s defense was last season and how they needed to improve on it this year. While the Blue Devils have looked much better defensively this season, one of the problems that persists from last year is their trouble guarding small forwards.
Like last year, it seems that Duke wants to go with a three guard starting five. While Rasheed Sulaimon has certainly proven himself worthy of a starting spot, his 6’4", 185-pound frame provides a mismatch for an opposing team’s small forward.
Sulaimon is a feisty defender and thus far this season has been impressive on the defensive end. However, Minnesota features Rodney Williams on the wing, and Memphis has Adonis Thomas at small forward. Both those players are 6’7" and regarded as NBA prospects.
Asking the undersized Sulaimon to stop them is, pardon the pun, a tall order. A small forward player like Josh Hairston, Amile Jefferson or Alex Murphy stepping up defensively would greatly benefit Duke’s chances in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
So far this season Ryan Kelly is averaging 10.7 points per game. On the face of it that doesn’t look too bad.
But when you realize that Kelly is currently shooting 40 percent from the floor and 27 percent from three, both of which are far worse than his shooting percentages from his previous two seasons, there is some cause for concern.
In the three games Duke has played this season, Kelly has made only one three-pointer in each contest. And until the game against Florida Gulf Coast, he hadn’t shot better than 36 percent in a game.
To be fair, the season is still young and Kelly might just be having a bad stretch. Unfortunately, the tough competition at the Battle 4 Atlantis won’t give Kelly much time to wait for the law of averages to sort out his shooting.
In a tournament setting, a team needs scoring from a variety of sources, and so far Kelly hasn’t really carried his weight in terms of point production. For Duke to win this tournament, Kelly will have to show more efficient shooting than he has thus far.
If Duke makes it as far as the title game, it will probably end up facing either Louisville or Missouri.
While Louisville boasts a bevy of great guards and wing players, the Cardinals lack much of post presence. Likewise, Missouri prefers a Nolan Richardson 40 minutes of Hell style of play.
Against Louisville, Duke would have to take advantage of its superior post play. The Blue Devils would heavily depend on Mason Plumlee exploiting Louisville’s lack of size.
Against Missouri, Duke would need to slow the pace, which would mean running half-court offensive sets that relied heavily on Plumlee scoring inside and defending the paint against a Tigers team that loves to drive into the lane.
Strong post play would also include an increased output from players like Ryan Kelly, Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson. The more contributors Duke can count on for easy points in the paint, the less susceptible the Blue Devils will be to poor outside shooting nights.
A tournament where you play day-in and day-out for three straight days against quality competition will take a physical and mental toll on any team.
So far this season, Duke has shown a propensity to go with an eight-man rotation. In that rotation, Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston are averaging only 10 and 11 minutes respectively, and that number factors in their increased minutes in two blowout games.
The perplexing Alex Murphy, meanwhile, is averaging a measly four minutes and has yet to score this season.
If for no other reason than to keep the starters fresh, these bench players will probably have to play more minutes. If these role players can make the most of their increased minutes, all the better.
Foul trouble, weary legs and off nights are bound to affect players in a condensed tournament schedule. A stable of players who can be counted on for quality minutes is, therefore, essential to success. For Duke to return from the Bahamas tournament winners, one of the bench players is going to have to step up his game.