There is plenty of buzz surrounding the Duke basketball program after Mike Krzyzewski landed an incredible recruiting class this offseason.
However, the Blue Devils still have to win the actual games on the basketball court in order for that recruiting effort to pay off. Between the ACC and the typically loaded nonconference portion of the slate, the schedule is almost always difficult in Durham.
The 2014-15 campaign will be no different.
With that in mind, let’s take an early look at a few of the top games on Duke’s schedule that fans should circle on their calendars.
The Big Ten/ACC Challenge is always one of the premier events in any college basketball year, and Duke is participating in what could be the headliner game.
The Blue Devils have to travel to the rowdy Kohl Center and take on Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin Badgers in what will likely be a showdown between two top 10 teams.
The Badgers are consistently one of the best teams in the country on a year-to-year basis, but there is reason to expect them to be Final Four contenders again in 2014-15.
After all, they lost a heartbreaker to Kentucky in the most recent Final Four, as Bleacher Report captured, and return the vast majority of their contributors:
Between Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin will be absolutely loaded. Kaminsky, Dekker and Jackson were all double-digit scorers, and Hayes and Gasser made timely contributions in the scoring and rebounding departments as well.
Ryan rarely ever loses at home, and Wisconsin will be the much more experienced team in this early-season showdown.
Duke and Michigan State will battle in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis on Nov. 18 in what could be something of another road game for Duke because it is much closer to Michigan State and right in the heart of Big Ten country.
Both the Spartans and Blue Devils lost a ton of talent from last year, including Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling. That would be a national championship worthy starting five right there.
However, Duke reloaded in the recruiting arena, and Tom Izzo still brings back Branden Dawson, Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine, Kenny Kaminski and Matt Costello. All five of those players have serious experience and championship pedigrees, but Dawson should be the leader, especially if he improves in the offseason.
Dawson discussed as much, via Joe Rexrode of USA Today:
This last year, I made some big improvements in my game as I've worked on my shooting and ball handling. I know that with another offseason of hard work that I can make even more improvement and become more consistent. I'm ready to put in another summer of work and excited to see the results. I think I played some of the best basketball of my career over the last month, and I can't wait to do that every game next season.
The fact that this contest takes place so early in the season with so many Duke freshmen still settling in will certainly play a role. Remember, an experienced Michigan State squad beat a freshmen-oriented Kentucky team last year around the same time in the schedule.
Of course, the battles with archrival North Carolina are always the headlining games every season. Some would argue that the season would be a success if the Blue Devils swept the Tar Heels and didn’t win a single other game on the slate.
Which opponent will be the most difficult for Duke?
Marcus Paige is back, and he may be the best point guard in the entire country. He will contend for ACC Player of the Year and First-Team All American honors if he stays healthy and reaches his potential, so it will be a serious test for Duke’s revamped perimeter defense.
It will be interesting to see if Krzyzewski puts his point guard combination of Tyus Jones, Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook on Paige or if he sticks the lengthy and athletic Justise Winslow on Paige in an effort to shut North Carolina's ball-handler down LeBron James style.
The Tar Heels lost James Michael McAdoo to the NBA draft, but they will be much more than just Paige. Roy Williams landed a loaded recruiting class as well that includes Justin Jackson, Joel Berry and Theo Pinson.
The clashes on Tobacco Road will be something of freshmen battle royales in 2014-15.
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