It’s finally here.
After an up-and-down nonconference slate that saw the Duke Blue Devils drop games to Kansas and Arizona and defeat Michigan and UCLA, they will kick off ACC play Jan. 4 against Notre Dame.
While rebounding is still a crippling concern for Mike Krzyzewski’s squad, the defense has played more consistently the past month thanks to a handful of changes in the overall rotation. Expect more of the same during league play.
Let’s dig into a few more ACC predictions for the Blue Devils.
It’s not much of a leap to say Jabari Parker is going to win ACC Player of the Year, but there is a reason he is the overwhelming favorite to take home this award as a freshman. He is on the short list for contenders for the National Player of the Year as well.
The stretch forward is averaging 21.4 points and eight rebounds a game behind 52.8 percent shooting from the field and a 45.5 percent clip from behind the three-point arc. He has also been solid on defense despite some issues on that end of the floor, with better than a steal and block a game.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that Parker is only a freshman, but he should only improve as the season continues. He will be the focal point of the Blue Devils offense throughout ACC play, and there is no reason to expect his eye-popping production to tail off at all.
Those types of statistics at a place like Duke make you almost a shoo-in to take home the conference’s MVP award.
No single player on Duke’s roster was as scrutinized as Rasheed Sulaimon during nonconference play.
The presumed third wheel in the Blue Devils’ offense has struggled to establish himself in an offense that focuses so predominantly on Parker and Rodney Hood with Quinn Cook running the point. He never even saw the floor against Michigan and has played limited minutes in many other games this season.
However, Sulaimon was productive against UCLA, Eastern Michigan and Elon the last three times out, which is an encouraging sign for Duke fans. The talent is still there, and if his confidence grows with more playing time and production, he will return to the player he was last year.
Look for Sulaimon to win the Blue Devils a game at some point during ACC play. With defenses so focused on Parker and Hood, Sulaimon will have an open opportunity down the stretch of a tightly contested game and deliver.
Predicting Duke to drop an unexpected game against a lesser foe during the ACC slate isn’t as much a knock on the Blue Devils as it is a comment on the parity of college basketball as a whole.
Every season, there are upsets within conference ranks from teams that are so intimately familiar with each other. Don’t be surprised when the top teams in every major conference fall on the road against middle-of-the-pack squads.
Duke will not be immune to the upset bug. The Blue Devils’ issues with rebounding and defense will rear their ugly heads in a game, and the offense simply won’t be enough to make up for it. With trips to Notre Dame, Clemson, Miami, Pittsburgh, Boston College, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, someone is bound to knock the Blue Devils off.
Not to mention the fact that Duke always gets the best out of an opponent simply based on the letters across the front of its jersey.
If you follow college basketball, you have undoubtedly heard the comparisons to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when discussing North Carolina.
The Tar Heels have knocked off the likes of Kentucky, Michigan State and Louisville but have also lost to Belmont and UAB, making them the most confusing team in the country after nonconference play. Marcus Paige has been great, and James Michael McAdoo has been better, but this team will miss P.J. Hairston in the long run.
Look for Duke’s superior athleticism and better overall talent level to prevail in these rivalry matchups. North Carolina won’t have an answer to the trio of Parker, Hood and Cook, and the Blue Devils will ultimately outscore the Tar Heels.
Furthermore, North Carolina doesn’t have the elite rebounders down low to take advantage of Duke’s biggest weakness.
Duke’s strength is its offense, but Syracuse’s 2-3 defense will be stifling enough to lead the Orange to an ACC crown.
Syracuse’s length will give the Blue Devils problems down low, and the foursome of C.J. Fair, Trevor Cooney, Jerami Grant and Tyler Ennis will provide enough offense to knock of Coach K’s squad this year.
Ultimately, Duke has too many concerns with its defense and abysmal rebounding game to win the ACC title. That’s not to say the Blue Devils won’t beat Syracuse head-to-head, but the Orange’s consistency over the long run of the schedule will give them a better record come March.
Look for the Blue Devils to seize a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament as the ACC runners-up.
Follow and interact with college basketball writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.