The college basketball season is finally back, and the Duke Blue Devils are on the short list of national title contenders.
Coach K has a solid mix of returning impact players and newcomers loaded with potential. If the Blue Devils can find the right mix early in the season against the likes of Michigan, Kansas and UCLA in non-conference play, they will be ready to contend with Syracuse and North Carolina in the new look ACC.
Read on to see a season preview for Duke.
Andrew Wiggins was on the receiving end of the majority of the hype for the class of 2013, but Jabari Parker was the one on the cover of Sports Illustrated during his high school days.
Parker is the most talented player on the Duke roster, and much of the offense will run through him. He can score from the outside, attack the lane off the dribble and will make an impact with his length and athleticism on the defensive end.
While Parker will be the go-to guy in the Blue Devils’ offense, transfer Rodney Hood is also immensely talented and has been overlooked for much of the summer.
Hood is a similar size to Parker and will score in many of the same ways. If defenders focus too much on Parker, Hood can hit from long or mid-range and take advantage of open looks. He can also attack off the dribble and finish through contact.
Duke’s two main newcomers are also the two most talented players on the squad.
There are a number of returning players who can and will have an impact on Duke’s 2013-14 season, but two in particular stand out given the Blue Devils’ up-tempo style of play they will utilize.
Quinn Cook will run the point in Coach K’s system, and whether he can tap into his explosive potential and limit the turnovers will be critical to Duke’s success. Slightly improved defense would also be welcomed by the Cameron Crazies, but Cook’s season will be defined by his offense. If he scores and finds his talented teammates open looks, Duke will win plenty of games.
Cook’s backcourt mate Rasheed Sulaimon will also need to tap into his potential if the Blue Devils want to reach the Final Four. He has the chance to become the best three-point shooter on the team, and his penetration and finishing ability are underrated.
If Cook and Sulaimon consistently find the basket alongside Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, the Blue Devils will win the ACC.
Duke’s full roster can be found here and below:
The projected starting lineup is Cook at point guard, Sulaimon at shooting guard, Hood at forward, Parker at forward and Jefferson at center. Plumlee and Hairston will both see serious minutes down low in the rotation, especially if Duke struggles with rebounding, and Thornton and Dawkins will see time in the backcourt.
Murphy, Jones and Ojeleye should also see action and how much will depend on which one has the hot hand in a given game.
For any college basketball team that has national title aspirations, the season often comes down to a handful of X-factors breaking the right way. Duke has two X-factors that immediately jump to mind.
Rebounding and interior play was a serious concern in the 2012-13 campaign and that was with Mason Plumlee on the roster. This season, Plumlee’s brother Marshall will be asked to grab some boards, but Amile Jefferson is the X-factor on the post.
Jefferson has a higher ceiling than Plumlee on the offensive end, but whether he lives up to his potential or not will play a major role in a number of tightly contested games. Few teams, if any, can match the Blue Devils’ athleticism on the outside, but if Jefferson doesn’t have a successful season, there could be some squads that beat them down low.
The perimeter X-factor will be Rasheed Sulaimon. Sulaimon was terrific for much of the early going last year but struggled down the stretch. If Sulaimon plays as well as he is capable consistently throughout the season, he will become an elite scorer on the wing, especially with defenses focusing on Jabari Parker.
In theory, the best case scenario for every team in college basketball is to win the national title, but only a few squads can legitimately say they have a chance to accomplish that.
Duke is one of those squads.
The Blue Devils have an enticing mix of young and raw talent and players who have been in critical moments before. Jabari Parker can be the best freshman this side of Andrew Wiggins, Rodney Hood could prove to be the most underrated player in the ACC, Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook could provide consistency as third and fourth options and the rotation of big guys could hold their own against elite opponents.
Assuming good health, the Blue Devils’ worst case scenario is still better than many teams’ best cases.
There is no way Coach K doesn’t make the NCAA tournament with all of this talent, but an early upset isn’t out of the question. If Duke was to run into a team loaded with overpowering big men in its second postseason game, it could find itself on the losing end of a physical battle. After all, the Devils were 213th in the country in rebounding last year, and if that rears its ugly head in March, we could see an early exit.
Duke’s 2013-14 season will turn out much more like its projected best case scenario than its worst one.
There are only a small handful of teams in the entire country that can match the Blue Devils from a talent standpoint. When someone with a ceiling as high as Rasheed Sulaimon could possibly be a fifth option, you know big things are in store for the upcoming year.
Look for Coach K to lead his squad to an ACC championship over the likes of Syracuse and archrival North Carolina. With the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, the Blue Devils will take advantage of favorable matchups and add another title banner to the rafters.
That leaves the NCAA tournament. Duke will be a No. 1 seed on the strength of its schedule and two league titles but a national title will prove elusive. Interior play will come back to haunt Coach K and company in the Elite Eight, marking the second straight season the Devils were a game short of the Final Four.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.