The Duke Blue Devils are ACC royalty, but the road map to maintaining their typical dominance will be much more difficult in the coming years.
With this season’s additions of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, along with the fact that the league is welcoming defending national champion Louisville next year, Duke and North Carolina will have some elite company. However, before the Blue Devils begin their highly anticipated conference schedule, there is plenty to prove in nonconference play.
The renewed strength of the league didn’t stop Coach K and Duke from assembling a challenging nonconference schedule. Showdowns with Michigan, Kansas and UCLA are sprinkled throughout a slate that also includes games with Davidson and UNC-Asheville.
Clearly, winning is the most important goal for Duke during any portion of the schedule, but what other things are on Coach K’s checklist before league play?
For one, the newcomers have to prove that they are ready for the prime-time stage that is Duke basketball and everything that comes with it. They will be televised nationally in seemingly every game, Cameron Indoor Stadium and the Crazies can be an overwhelming experience early on and they will even have to acclimate to the vitriol that the Blue Devils elicit across the nation.
Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood may be the two best players on the roster talent-wise, and the Blue Devils need them to not only contribute, but control games from the get-go. Fortunately, Parker has been in the spotlight since his early high school days, and Hood played a year at Mississippi State, meaning games against Kentucky and Florida have already broken him into the notion of prime-time college hoops.
Outside of getting the fresh faces up to speed, Duke has to prove in nonconference play that there is a legitimate enough post presence to challenge for an ACC title and potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Showdowns with Mitch McGary and the Wolverines and the always physical Jayhawks will be something of a baptism by fire for the likes of Marshall Plumlee and company.
If anything, the fact that Bowie State outrebounded the Devils 17-15 in the first half of a recent exhibition proves that there is still work to be done down low.
Elsewhere, point guard Quinn Cook has to show he won’t be turnover prone in marquee games as an upperclassman this year. Last year, he coughed it up five times against Florida Gulf Coast, four times against Minnesota, four times against Louisville, three times against Ohio State, four times against NC State, five times against North Carolina, five times against Maryland and three times against Michigan State.
Backcourt mate Rasheed Sulaimon has an opportunity to establish early consistency that will last the whole year in nonconference play. He struggled down the stretch after a scorching start last year and needs to reach and maximize his potential this season in a featured role.
Coach K would also like to see his team prove that it will have a legitimate three-point threat this year. The departed Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly were the only Duke players who shot better than 40 percent from downtown last season, meaning that Sulaimon, Cook, Tyler Thornton and even Hood and Parker will have to fill the void.
Ultimately, the handful of marquee games before the ACC heats up is Duke’s opportunity to prove to the selection committee that it can rack up some impressive nonconference victories. There will be a number of elite teams in contention for top seeds (possibly including Kansas and Michigan), so premier nonconference wins will be at a premium and help the Blue Devils stand out among the crowd.
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