Duke Basketball: 6 Questions for the Blue Devils' Next 6 Games

Dantzler SmithContributor IIINovember 29, 2012

Duke Basketball: 6 Questions for the Blue Devils' Next 6 Games

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    A diet of cupcakes isn’t particularly healthy, but for a basketball team, cupcakes offer a great opportunity to experiment and evaluate without sacrificing the game’s outcome.

    After a wildly successful November that included wins over Top Five teams Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State as well as quality wins over Minnesota and VCU, Duke has a comparatively easy stretch of games.

    To say their next six opponents, all against nonconference foes, are cupcakes would be an overstatement but Duke will be a heavy favorite in each contest. Despite some feisty mid-major opponents, Duke should have an opportunity to work out some tangential issues and give players a chance to prove their worth before the conference season starts.

    So let’s take a look at six questions to consider over Duke’s next six games as the Blue Devils take a break from Top 25 opponents (although Santa Clara and Temple could work their way into the national rankings).

How Will Duke Handle Success?

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    After passing early season tests against a bevy of great teams, Duke is staring at a less than stellar crop of opponents (schedule via ESPN).

    The Blue Devils’ next six games are against Delaware, Temple (neutral location), Cornell, Elon, Santa Clara State and Davidson (neutral location).

    Delaware, Cornell and Elon are the closest thing to gimmes, but Duke would do well to not overlook any of their upcoming opponents. Temple and Santa Clara State, while lacking the national prestige of Kentucky, Louisville or Ohio State, are dangerous teams and Davidson has a nasty habit of playing Duke close.

    It has been a while since Duke was a nationally feared team that garnered an abundance of accolades from the national press. I’m confident a team full of upperclassmen won’t let such praise go to their heads, but it would be easy for them to relax and take a night off after having spent November being forced to their limits by fellow National Title contenders.

    In these upcoming games, Duke has an opportunity to show that each and every game the players are going to give their best 40 minutes.

    In recent seasons Duke has fallen prey to mid-major programs, particularly in the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils, therefore, would do well to take care of business and send the message that no team is going to sneak up on them.

How Hurt is Seth Curry?

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    Despite a nagging leg injury, Seth Curry has looked great for the Blue Devils. When he’s been needed, Curry has stepped up and delivered. In a tight game against Kentucky, Curry came up big with 23 points and proved himself to be a true team leader.

    But some signs of Seth Curry playing at less than a hundred percent started to show up in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament. In those three games, played on consecutive days, Curry’s shooting percentage and scoring got progressively worse (game log via ESPN).

    In the opening round he went 8 of 11 to the tune of 25 points. The following round Curry was 3-of-9 for 15 points. And in the championship game Curry only shot three of 11 for 14 points.

    In the game against Ohio State, Curry’s tough shooting continued. He was 1-of-6 against the Buckeyes and finished with just four points (ESPN box score). Curry also rolled his ankle in the Ohio State game and although he returned to action, his already limited mobility took another hit.

    This stretch of six games should allow Seth Curry to recuperate a little. During this run, Duke fans will be playing doctor as they try to assess just how hurt the senior guard is. If Curry’s health deteriorates over the season to the point that he is unable to play or extremely limited, Duke is in serious trouble.

    So during this last run of non-conference games, Seth Curry’s health will be something to keep an eye on.

Can Mason Plumlee Cement his Legacy?

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    If you had told me last year that Mason Plumlee would make a case for having his jersey retired, I would have laughed right in your face.

    But as it stands seven games into the season, Mason Plumlee is on course to have an epic senior year. Duke’s center is sending in dunks and snagging rebounds to the tune of 19.9 points per game and 11 rebounds per game. What’s more is that he’s cut down on his fouls and turnovers. He’s been the best player on a team beating top flight teams.

    In all, Mason Plumlee has established himself as a serious Naismith Player of the Year candidate.

    The key to having his jersey immortalized is either a second National Championship (he played limited minutes as a freshman on the 2010 team) or some kind of personal accolade. And the key to Duke’s success and to getting individual honors is Mason Plumlee’s double-double potential.

    Coming into the season, Cody Zeller was the favorite to win the Naismith Award because he is a post player that can score, rebound and run the floor. Well what is Mason Plumlee if not a post player that can score, rebound and run the floor?

    While I’m sure Mason Plumlee has the team’s interests ahead of his own, if he can use these games against lesser opponents to pad his stats and solidify a double-double average for the season, then Mason Plumlee has a real shot at winning the Naismith Award.

    That award would establish Plumlee’s lore in the pantheon of great Duke players. And if you still doubt the merits of Plumlee’s ascension, why not compare him to Sheldon Williams? Williams, who had his jersey retired, averaged a double-double as a junior and senior while stockpiling blocks (stats via GoDuke).

    If Mason Plumlee can average a double-double this season while serving as the team’s leading scorer, something Williams never had to do because he played with JJ Redick, then Plumlee will certainly cement himself as one of Duke’s best post players.

    The big thing that separates Sheldon Williams from Mason Plumlee is that “The Landlord” garnered two defensive player of the year awards while Plumlee’s trophy case lacks individual awards.

    If Plumlee can add an individual honor to his resume or deliver Duke another championship (or preferably both), then it’s not so crazy that the No. 5 could be hanging from the rafters.

How Good is Alex Murphy?

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    I think the best way to describe Alex Murphy thus far is enigmatic. The redshirt freshman was reputed to be a Kyle Singler protégé, but has found himself at the end of the bench. In a nine man rotation, Murphy is clearly the No. 9 option.

    This wouldn’t be such shock, after all he is a freshman, except that Murphy started both the exhibition games. After not playing particularly well in the exhibitions, but by no means playing poorly, Murphy found his regular season role greatly reduced.

    Murphy has only played in five of Duke's seven games so far this season and is averaging only 2.8 minutes.

    The question is why did he fall so far on the depth chart? Outside of speculating about some argument or off the court situation that displeased the coaching staff, it stands to reason that Murphy showed enough talent in practice to merit the idea of him as a starter.

    So for this next slate of games, Murphy must prove to the coaches and fans that he does indeed have the potential to be a future starter. The hope is that during these upcoming games there is a blowout or healthy enough lead to allow Murphy more substantial minutes.

    However much time he sees, Murphy needs to make the most of his opportunities. How he plays in these next six games will be something Duke fans hoping for added bench depth this season and looking ahead to future seasons will want to take notice of.

Can Josh Hairston Score?

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    Some games, Josh Hairston looks like he’s found his place in the team. The junior plays the role of the Blue Devils’ brute; he rebounds and isn’t afraid to take on bigger players in the paint.

    Other games, Hairston looks a little lost. He wanders out from the basket, tries to force himself into the offense and commits bad fouls.

    All Duke needs from the junior forward is off the bench toughness from a player who can spell Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee. But bench points for Duke have been somewhat absent thus far this season.

    While the Blue Devils aren’t looking for scoring outside of their starting five, it would be nice if someone like Josh Hairston could find another way to contribute. And after all, Hairston did spend the summer working out with Kyrie Irving.

    Hairston has shown himself to be a capable rebounder, so even if his points came from hustle plays, like offensive rebounds, that would be highly beneficial to Duke.

    Hairston also habitually shoots from the elbow or wings. Making that shot consistently would go a long way in forcing the opposition to consider Hairston to be an offensive threat, which would cause teams to extend their defense.

    It’s possible, and maybe even probable, that Josh Hairston has reached his ceiling as a player. But over the next set of fixtures, it is worth watching to see if Hairston can prove himself to be capable of contributing in more ways than just serving as a taller incarnation of Tyler Thornton (who also worked out with Kyrie Irving).

How Does Amile Jefferson Fit In?

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    In limited minutes Jefferson has shown himself to be an excellent post player in the making. The skinny, freshman forward knifes around opponents to snatch offensive rebounds and uses his length to play pretty hounding defense.

    While the other true freshman, Rasheed Sulaimon, has found himself in the starting lineup and is already making himself a star, Jefferson is coming off the bench and battling with Alex Murphy and Josh Hairston for playing time in the post.

    This season Duke has favored a three-guard lineup and while that has proven highly successful, it wouldn’t hurt to have a player like Amile Jefferson available to come in and play the small forward/wing spot.

    Duke’s depth is somewhat questionable. In the games against Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State, the starters were out on the floor for most of the game (unless injured or in foul trouble). While that has worked thus far for the Blue Devils, it would be nice to see if someone as talented as Amile Jefferson might be an option going forward.

    Ideally, Jefferson could come off the bench and give Duke the ability to play a more traditional lineup with two guards, two forwards and a center. A different look to Duke’s lineup would give opposing teams yet another thing to prepare for and would offer Duke an alternative in case of an injury, foul trouble or poor shooting night.

    Therefore, it will be interesting to see how much the freshman gets to play in these next six games and how exactly he is used by Coach K.