Even for an absurdly talented Duke team, the road to an ACC regular season title and tournament win will be tough. Maryland is around for one more year and newcomers Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Syracuse are staunch opponents.
Whether it’s just a head-to-head matchup or a threat to Duke’s chances at winning the conference, there are at least five teams that should worry the Blue Devils.
While those five most obvious threats are probably the best teams in the conference alongside Duke, even the mid-tier teams can’t be overlooked. Pitt won’t be a pushover and both Georgia Tech and Boston College should be much improved.
So what follows is a list of the biggest threats to Duke, but even the teams not mentioned constitute their own challenges.
The rivalry games with North Carolina is always intense. This year will be no different.
Last year the Tar Heels struggled until Roy Williams went to a smaller lineup. By inserting PJ Hairston, North Carolina finally had their five best players on the court at the same time. That small lineup played the fast pace tempo synonymous with UNC basketball.
What wasn’t so typical of Tar Heels basketball was how many three-pointers they shot. They took 694 threes and made 37.3 percent of them (via ESPN). Game by game, North Carolina sank or swam depending on whether or not those three-pointers were going in.
Unfortunately for Duke fans, North Carolina won’t be so one-dimensional this year. Reggie Bullock, who proved to be the Tar Heels’ best player last season, left for the NBA and senior Dexter Strickland graduated. Hairston and McAdoo opted to return to Chapel Hill and will be joined by prized recruit Isaiah Hicks.
Hicks is a power forward who’ll add an athletic inside presence that’ll pair nicely with McAdoo. If McAdoo finally becomes the player he’s been built up to be and if Marcus Paige is less jittery running the point and increases his stamina so that he can actually make shots in the second half, then North Carolina has a real shot at an ACC title.
If Bullock had returned, then the Tar Heels would’ve been one of the best team in the ACC and a tremendous threat to Duke. As it is, North Carolina won’t be an easy matchup for the Blue Devils but the Tar Heels’ hopes rest upon whether or not last season’s underperforming highly touted players can live up to their hype.
In Maryland’s farewell tour of the ACC, the Terps only tangle with Duke once and the game is in Durham. Even at home, it’ll prove to be a tough game.
Mark Turgeon’s imprint on the program is beginning to take shape and Maryland is on the rise just as they’re departing the conference. The inconsistent Pe’Shon Howard is gone, but will be replaced by incoming freshman Roddy Peters.
Peters projects to be star point guard who combines size with athleticism. He’ll be running a team that boasts Charles Mitchell and Shaquille Cleare in the paint. That core group should be enough to make Maryland awkward customers for even a talented Duke team.
As usual, the Terps will be physical and show a preference toward inside scoring through post-ups and penetration. That’s traditionally been a weakness for Duke and this season it’ll be exacerbated by the Blue Devils’ lack of size.
In their last season as an ACC team the Terps will have plenty of motivation in their game against Duke. They’ll also present a matchup problem for the Blue Devils. This season Maryland probably doesn’t have enough to challenge for an ACC title, but when Duke plays the Terps in Cameron, the Blue Devils will need to bring their “A” game if Duke expects to escape with a win.
Like Maryland, Duke only plays Virginia once and the game is at home. After losing in Charlottesville, the Blue Devils will be looking for revenge in Cameron. However, that will be no easy task.
The Cavaliers really only lost Jontel Evans. While the point guard was a key member of the team, he was mostly a defensive asset. What Virginia returns is a roster full of offensive firepower…relatively speaking.
The slow-down style of Tony Bennett will still be in effect, but points might not be so hard to come by this season. Joe Harris will be one of, if not, the best player in the ACC. He’ll be joined by Akil Mitchell who provides an inside presence on offense and defense. If that one-two punch weren’t enough, Evan Nolte had a good freshman season in which he proved he has a deadly three-point stroke.
In all, Virginia has a lot of pieces that will fit together nicely in Bennett’s system. Last season Duke didn’t do well in games played at a snail’s pace. This season should be similar as Duke’s abundance of wing players better fits an up-tempo style.
The Cavaliers have the best chance they’ve had in a long time to contend for an ACC title. Not only could Virginia beat Duke in Cameron, the Cavaliers could put pressure on the Blue Devils in the ACC standings.
Coach K can’t be happy about having to face his former assistant Mike Brey. He also won’t be thrilled to have to go to South Bend to take on the Irish.
Notre Dame has made a habit of pulling off home upsets, including last season’s multiple overtime thriller versus Louisville. The crowd in South Bend would love to add Duke to the list of teams that fell on the four leaf clover emblazoned court.
Notre Dame also has the sort of backcourt that gives Duke trouble. Jerian Grant will be a senior leader and is dribble-oriented player. He can take just about any defender off the bounce. Running mate Eric Atkins is also adept at creating penetration off the dribble, but also has a 41 percent three-point shooting stroke.
Add into that mix a well-regarded point guard recruit in the form of Demetrius Jackson and you’ve got potentially one of the best backcourts in the country.
Fortunately for the Blue Devils, Notre Dame has a weakness. How the Irish will replace Jack Cooley is a big question mark. Whether or not one of last year’s role players can fill the void in the post is what’ll determine just how good Notre Dame can be.
Of course another question to ask is whether or not Duke will be able to exploit Notre Dame’s weak frontcourt. If Duke can contain Mike Brey’s great guards and take advantage of the Irish in the paint, then the Blue Devils could leave South Bend with a win. If Notre Dame finds a viable option in the post then not only could they upset Duke, they could capture the conference crown.
The Orange are sure to be a tough team to beat, but it’s difficult to know the specifics of why.
Syracuse will of course play a 2-3 matchup zone and the Orange have enough length to cause serious problems for outside shooters. Length has always been a problem for even Duke’s greatest guards. JJ Redick was probably the best shooter in Duke history, but when LSU put a taller defender on him the Tigers ran the Blue Devils right out of the NCAA tournament.
So that’s an obvious concern for Duke. But what’s less obvious is who Syracuse will put on the floor.
Gone are James Southerland, Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams. That trio was pretty much the core of last year’s team. What the Orange retained was a lot of post players. What they’ve got coming in is a strong recruiting class. How that roster will mesh together is anyone’s guess.
With Jim Boeheim coaching the team, it’s fair to assume that he’ll find a mix of players that will cause problems for Duke and every other ACC team. The Blue Devils play Syracuse both home and away. Those will be two huge games between the two winningest college basketball coaches of all-time.
If the highly ranked recruits Syracuse brought in shake out into elite college players, then this will be an extremely difficult team to beat. Moreover, ACC teams will have to adapt to the 2-3 matchup zone that the Big East teams had grown accustomed too. That gimmick combined with a talented squad would make Syracuse a serious threat to win the ACC regular season and tournament. And that should have Duke fans worried.