Duke, once again, has had an impressive season this year despite its lack of bench depth. The Blue Devils received the No. 2 seed in the Midwest region of the NCAA tournament by finishing 27-5, including 14-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Duke’s stars like Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly make the Blue Devils a scary squad to face, even without any prominent bench players. This doesn’t mean, however, that the reserves will be insignificant to Duke’s success in the tournament.
Throughout this season, Rasheed Sulaimon looked like a potential ACC Freshman of the Year, despite his slightly up-and-down play. The freshman guard exploded for 25 points in a win over Maryland and then followed up with only six points against a weak Wake Forest team.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski had to live with these performances because Kelly’s foot injury left him no choice. The final stretch of games, however, saw horrible play from Sulaimon, including a 2-of-10 shooting performance with four fouls and three turnovers against Virginia. This put him on the bench, where he finally flourished in the last game of the season against Maryland with 16 points.
Apparently, this restored Coach K’s confidence in him as he will be in the starting lineup against Albany on Friday.
But if Sulaimon struggles in the tournament, Duke will have no problem substituting potential scoring for solid guard play. Junior guard Tyler Thornton has been the bench player with the most minutes this year with 22.1 per game. He only averages 3.3 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists but brings veteran leadership off the bench when the team needs it.
Thornton is much less likely than Sulaimon to lose his composure and will look for an open teammate over a bad shot any day. In March Madness, even the best teams can find themselves in a compromising position when the momentum just isn’t in their favor. Thornton won’t be that prolific scorer to come off the bench, but he will help bring stability to the offense if things get too hectic.
With No. 3 Michigan State looming in the Sweet 16, Duke could be in for a rough, hard-fought tournament. Coach Tom Izzo’s genius usually includes attacking one of the opponent’s better players to force them into foul trouble. If this is the case, then Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston will have to step up and play some minutes at forward.
The two forwards average a combined six points and 5.2 rebounds per game. These aren’t impressive numbers, but they won’t be asked to score. They’ll be asked not to mess up and to play solid defense. For Duke’s success in the tourney, Jefferson and Hairston don’t need to impress—they just need to avoid big mistakes.
Duke’s bench is far from deep, but it will play a factor if the Blue Devils look to advance in the tournament.