It’s a testament to the impossibly high standards that Duke basketball has set for itself that a 4-1 start led by one of the nation’s premier players is somewhat disappointing.
The Blue Devils dominated lesser competition for three games, lost a heartbreaker to Andrew Wiggins and the Kansas Jayhawks and barely squeaked by East Carolina from the Conference USA in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
With nonconference showdowns looming against Michigan, UCLA and (probably) Arizona, Mike Krzyzewski’s squad will need to continue to improve before ACC play begins.
While there have been far more positive signs (Jabari Parker’s total dominance, Rodney Hood’s emergence as a superstar and not just a sidekick and Rodney Hood’s assist-to-turnover ratio come to mind), there are some early concerns for Duke.
Let’s dig into some of the biggest ones.
Lack of Dominant Inside Presence
In today’s college basketball game, teams survive and even thrive without a dominant big man in the middle. The amount of versatile and athletic stretch forwards (such as Parker) who make their presence felt on both ends of the floor certainly allows it.
That being said, a big man protecting the rim on defense and throwing his weight around on offense is still a luxury that any coach would want to have.
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, Coach K does not have that luxury, at least not yet.
That was apparent to anyone who tuned in for the narrow victory over East Carolina. The Pirates had far too many easy paths to the rim in the midst of its second-half comeback, which is the primary reason they were able to cut the lead to a single point with only a few minutes remaining. Whenever the East Carolina ball-handlers got any penetration at all, there were layups waiting for them.
Outside of Parker, the Blue Devils haven’t had any help defense to challenge drives and shots at the rim. The lack of minutes for Amile Jefferson (16.4 a game), Josh Hairston (10.6 a game) and Marshall Plumlee (5.3 a game) highlights Krzyzewski’s trouble in trusting anyone in his stable of big men.
Parker is amazing, but he can’t be expected to be the primary offensive playmaker, a difference maker on the perimeter on defense and the enforcer down low all season. Someone else needs to step up.
Lack of Rebounding
Duke’s rebounding issues go hand-in-hand with its lack of a dominant inside presence, but it is still a red flag in the early season.
The Blue Devils rank 273rd in the nation in rebounding per game (33.6), but more concerning than the actual rating is the fact that it is either Parker or bust at this point on the boards. Outside of Parker’s 8.8 rebounds a game, only Hood is grabbing even close to five a night (4.8).
It is both a testament to Parker’s brilliance and a statement on the Blue Devils’ big man situation that Parker is such a force in the rebounding game. But if there was ever an important moment when he was in foul trouble (which will certainly happen at some point this year with the new rules), Duke would be in serious trouble down low.
Thus far, the Blue Devils have been out-rebounded in three of their five games, and it isn’t clear which is more concerning—that teams like Davidson and East Carolina out-rebounded Duke or that the one elite team the Blue Devils have played crushed them on the boards (39-24 for Kansas).
Help for the Stars
While the lack of a strong inside presence and the rebounding issues are legitimate concerns, receiving help for two superstars is one of those problems that every college basketball team wished it had.
Parker and Hood formulate arguably one of the best one-two punches in all of college basketball, but there hasn’t been much scoring outside of these two. Parker is scoring 22.4 points a night, while Hood is pouring in 21.8, but the dropoff from Hood to Rasheed Sulaimon (9.2) could be an issue.
It is worth mentioning that Cook is scoring at an impressive clip (12.6 a game), but his assist totals (and lack of turnovers) are the more important for the Duke offense. Ideally, Sulaimon or even someone like Jefferson or Andre Dawkins will step up their scoring in the near future.
This is not a crippling issue (after all, how many college teams have two superstars?), but something to keep an eye on if Parker and/or Hood struggles at all in an important game.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.