Duke is 7–2 and coming off an impressive win over Michigan. On the other hand, Duke has lost marquee games to Arizona and Kansas. Plus, some of Duke’s wins—like the one over Vermont—were narrow escapes that highlighted many of the problem areas for this Blue Devils team.
So it’s relevant to ask, should Duke fans be worried or not?
There are both causes for concern and reasons to be confident. Laying them out should give an indication as to whether Duke will have fans rejoicing as the season moves forward or have them pulling out their hair.
In recent history, Duke has been fantastic during the opening weeks of the season. Last year, the Blue Devils beat Kentucky, VCU, Minnesota, Louisville and Ohio State in the month of November.
The problem was that while Duke was head and shoulders above everyone in November, by March, other teams had caught up.
When Duke met Louisville in the NCAA tournament, a healthy and much improved Cardinals team was too much for Duke to handle. While Coach K’s preparation gives the Blue Devils’ a head start on the season, by the end of the year, teams with more talent have reached their potential and simply power past Duke.
This season Duke has as much—if not more—talent as anyone else. Thus, the team should get better as the season progresses. By March, as the current problems facing the squad are fixed, this could be one of Duke’s strongest teams.
There are many ways in which players on Duke’s roster can improve. Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely than any of them will get taller during the course of the season.
In fact, Alex Murphy’s decision to transfer just made Duke smaller. Though Murphy hasn’t been a big contributor to Duke this season—which is why he is transferring—Murphy did give the Blue Devils another option in the post.
At 6’9”, Murphy was at least a big body that could be inserted into the post. Worst case, he could spell Jefferson or the other forwards. At best, he could’ve played a stretch 4 position that would’ve spread defenses.
Whatever Murphy’s potential might have been, the Blue Devils are left with fewer options in the paint. Other than Jabari Parker, Duke’s only viable post players are Amile Jefferson, Josh Hairston, Semi Ojeleye and Marshall Plumlee.
Unless one of those players raises their game considerably, the issue of size will continue to hamper Duke’s rebounding and defensive issues.
After an enigmatic start, Cook has emerged as Duke’s third scorer to go alongside Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker. In all but one game, Cook has scored double-digit points, and he’s averaging 6.3 assists per game (game log via ESPN).
Cook’s play over the last five games has been particularly impressive. In New York, Cook had 17 points versus Alabama and then contributed 13 points against Arizona. Back in Durham, Cook led the Blue Devils with 24 points in a win over Michigan. Additionally, over those three games, Cook shot a combined 18-of-24.
Unlike Rasheed Sulaimon, Cook has clearly found his offensive role. Better still, he’s been efficient with his scoring. By reducing bad shot attempts, providing reliable scoring, not turning the ball over and doling out assists, Cook is running Duke’s offense at a high level.
With consistency at the point guard position, the rest of Duke’s offense should fall in line and ultimately reach its potential.
He’s been excellent offensively, but Cook’s defense has been absolutely abysmal. Against guards with any sort of quickness, Cook has struggled to stay in front of his defensive assignment. Over and over, he has allowed penetration that forces his teammates to provide help defense.
Aside from being a defensive liability, Cook’s offensive rebirth is somewhat misleading.
Take for instance, Cook’s impressive game against Michigan. Though he led Duke in scoring with 24 points, Cook continued to take—and miss—unnecessary threes. In that game, Cook was 2-of-7 from three. Those five missed three-pointers were actually the only shots he missed all game.
Overall, Cook is shooting 36.6 percent from three. And yet he continues to jack up three-pointers with reckless abandon. Cook has taken 41 three-pointers so far this season. That not only leads the Blue Devils, it’s 11 more three-point attempts than the next highest Blue Devil (via ESPN).
To be sure, Duke needs a third scorer. Cook has shown the potential to fill that role. However, his tendency to take bad three-pointers and his inability to prevent penetration on defense are problematic. In games where Cook’s virtues outweigh his vices, Duke will win. If, on the other hand, his vices overshadow his virtues, Duke is in serious trouble.
Sulaimon’s early season woes have certainly been frustrating. In that regard, it could be a reason to worry. However, Sulaimon has enough of a body of work to support the idea that he’s better than what he’s shown thus far.
As a freshman, Sulaimon averaged 11.6 points and looked particularly good at the end of his first season. This year, Sulaimon is averaging just 7.1 points and was a healthy scratch against Michigan. Beyond that, his defense has been poor and Sulaimon has struggled to find his place inside the offense.
The reason this early season swoon isn’t a reason to worry is simple: Rasheed Sulalimon isn’t this bad.
Sulaimon has previously shown himself to be a good perimeter defender. He’s also shown an ability to drive to the basket. We’ve seen him do these things. So it stands to reason that Sulaimon can return to form.
Even if Sulaimon improves just a little, his additional contributions will strengthen Duke’s title chances. Given his physical tools, the adjustment that needs to be made is mental. Sulaimon should make the necessary changes and that will add yet another threat to an already dangerous Blue Devils team.
Prior to the season, it looked as if there were about five elite teams and everyone else was substantially worse. Duke was among this small group of teams thought to be head and shoulders better than everyone else. Unfortunately, it’s turned out that the Blue Devils and the other supposedly elite teams aren’t as untouchable as initially thought.
Kentucky hasn’t meshed as a team despite a historically good recruiting class. Michigan State boasts a number of seasoned veterans, but the Spartans have suffered from some miscues. Louisville looked very poor versus North Carolina, Duke beat Michigan and Kansas hasn’t impressed since beating Duke.
In short, the national rankings have been far more fluid than anyone anticipated. On the one hand, it means that the rest of the country’s good teams are having similar problems to the Blue Devils. While that is good news, the troubling aspect of this parity is that any team is capable of upsetting any other team.
Vermont and East Carolina certainly banged that point home for Duke. Going forward, the Blue Devils will face a better-than-expected Tarheels team, a Syracuse squad that’s similar to Arizona and a Pitt team that’s playing well. That adds up to a lot of potential pitfalls for Duke.
While parity might make for an exciting season and tournament, it increases the amount of uncertainty for even the nation’s most talented teams. Initially, Duke appeared to be a team that would dominate lesser opponents. Now it’s evident that Duke—like every other top team—is susceptible to upsets.
That should make for some frustrating regular season games and a nerve-racking NCAA tournament. Even if Duke improves—and they should improve—the Blue Devils will need to be wary of the fact that any opposing team can derail their title hopes.