After falling one game short of the Final Four in March and an offseason that saw some critical additions, the Duke basketball team has high expectations heading into the 2013-14 campaign.
Among the notable roster changes were the losses of Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly and the additions of uber-talented prospect Jabari Parker and transfer Rodney Hood. Coach K will have some rotation decisions to make as the Blue Devils contend with a loaded ACC.
While attention will be given to who makes the cut in the starting lineup, especially in the early season, it is more important which five players will be on the floor during crunch time. After all, Duke plays Michigan, Kansas, UCLA and possibly Arizona in the nonconference portion of its schedule and will battle the likes of North Carolina and Syracuse in league play.
With those types of marquee contests littering the schedule, there will be plenty of tense moments that could define the regular season. And that’s not even talking about the ACC and NCAA tournaments, which always include games that come down to the wire.
So what five Blue Devils should be on the floor in the final moments?
Obviously, the rotation can and likely will change on a game-to-game basis depending on who has the hot hand, who is struggling and who is in foul trouble, but all things equal Coach K will look to maximize his chances at winning by balancing consistency and overall talent level down the stretch.
The two locks to be on the floor are also the two newcomers. Parker and Hood may not have much experience (Hood played a year in the SEC), but nobody on the Duke roster can match them on a talent basis. Their solid mix of athleticism, passing prowess and length will allow the Blue Devils to create mismatches on important possessions, which will lead to open looks if the defense collapses.
Outside of Parker and Hood, it would seem logical on the surface that Quinn Cook was on the floor to push the tempo and operate the offense. However, Tyler Thornton is probably the better defender of the two lead guards, and defense comes at a premium in tightly contested games.
Mike Krzyzewski will likely give Cook the nod, thanks to his higher ceiling and offensive explosiveness, but if it’s a nail-biter and Cook is struggling on defense or with turnovers, we could see Thornton in at crunch time.
Speaking of someone with a high ceiling talent-wise who struggled a bit with inconsistency last season, look for Rasheed Sulaimon to establish himself as one of the five in at crunch time this year as well. He could be the best three-point shooter on the team if he maximizes his potential and improves his shot selection, which would give Duke an elite scoring threat on the wing.
With a rotation of Parker, Hood, Sulaimon and Cook (or Thornton if Cook is struggling defensively), Duke has a dynamic and versatile lineup but also one that lacks an overpowering presence and size on the inside. For that reason alone, Marshall Plumlee could be the fifth man out there in crunch time.
Rebounding is certainly critical in the closing moments of tight games, and Plumlee can provide that. Nevertheless, Josh Hairston also gives the Blue Devils excellent rebounding and more experience than Plumlee, and Amile Jefferson has a higher ceiling than both, especially on the offensive end of the floor.
He may have to establish a level of trust early in the season with Krzyzewski, but by ACC play, Jefferson will be that fifth man on the court in the closing moments. While there isn’t one towering big man in a lineup consisting of Parker, Hood, Cook, Sulaimon and Jefferson, there is enough length to still make an impact on the glass and down low on defense.
Parker, Hood and Jefferson can handle bigger opponents and will create mismatches on the offensive end. It will be difficult for any opponent to match the potential explosiveness and athleticism of this group.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.
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