While the new-look ACC is loaded this season, league favorite Duke will have to prove its mettle in the nonconference portion of the schedule before facing off with the likes of North Carolina, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh.
These nonconference games are particularly important for the Blue Devils considering what they are trying to accomplish this year. There are only a handful of elite teams that have a realistic chance at earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and one way to separate yourself from the pack is by racking up marquee wins before league play heats up.
Furthermore, Duke is breaking in a completely new rotation that features two newcomers as arguably the most talented players on the roster. Mike Krzyzewski will use these contests as a chance to see what he has in Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood and how each fits with the returning starters.
So how will Duke fare in the nonconference portion of the schedule, most notably in its biggest showdowns against elite competition?
There are a number of games that the Blue Devils can simply show up for and roll the basketballs out and come away with a victory. Contests with the likes of Florida Atlantic, UNC-Asheville, Gardner-Webb, Eastern Michigan and Elon would certainly fit under this category.
There are also some games that Duke will be significant favorites in but will still have to play a solid game in order to win. Contests with Davidson and Vermont come to mind. Basically, the Blue Devils would only be in danger if they brought their F-game to the arena on those nights.
Finally, let's get to the meat of the nonconference schedule. For now, we will ignore potential later-round matchups in the Preseason NIT since they aren't technically official until Duke wins enough to get there, although a potential championship bout with Arizona looms.
Three games in particular jump off the page before ACC play begins—showdowns with Kansas, Michigan and UCLA. You don't have to be a Cameron Crazy to get excited about these contests, as all college basketball fans will be in for a treat.
Coach K and company get the Jayhawks at the perfect time as part of the Champions Classic on Nov. 12. (Michigan State and Kentucky will also face off at the event in what will be a March-like night of basketball.) Kansas is immensely talented (perhaps you have heard of Andrew Wiggins), but it is replacing five starters and the showdown with Duke is the second game of the season.
Wiggins and company will be formidable all season, but with so many young and inexperienced players, they probably will not hit their stride until the second half of the year. The March version of Kansas will be one of (if not the) best squads in the country, but it will be vulnerable against elite competition so early in the campaign.
Duke's athleticism and uptempo pace will be too much for the Jayhawks to handle. Duke will come away with a tightly fought victory, giving Parker early bragging rights against Wiggins.
The game against Michigan headlines the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Blue Devils were 213th in the country in rebounding last year, which could be a problem against Mitch McGary down low. The Wolverines big man hit his stride in the NCAA tournament and could exploit Duke's potentially suspect interior play.
However, this contest is at Duke, and Michigan is particularly young on the perimeter after the departures of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. The combination of the Blue Devils’ pressure and the Cameron Crazies will force the young Wolverine guards to cough the ball up too many times. Duke wins on the back of forced turnovers.
The final marquee showdown of the nonconference schedule comes against UCLA at Madison Square Garden. The Bruins are talented this year, but they aren't quite ready to compete on Duke’s level. Parker and company will exploit their numerous advantages on the perimeter and ultimately win this game rather easily. Expect a 10-to-15 point victory.
That means Coach K will lead his squad to an undefeated nonconference run before ACC play begins. That is unless Arizona has something to say about it in the potential Preseason NIT championship game matchup.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.
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