Duke Basketball: Breaking Down Blue Devils' 2014-15 Nonconference Schedule
For an elite college basketball program like Duke, compiling its nonconference schedule is a delicate dance.
The team wants to entertain its home fans with games against easily beatable opponents, but it's best if those victims are solid enough to also help the RPI come March. There are the games at popular "neutral" venues designed for maximum TV exposure against quality opposition.
True road games—especially against teams that can actually defeat the Blue Devils—are to be avoided at all costs, unless contractually mandated. Whose cockamamie idea was this Big Ten/ACC Challenge, anyway?
This year's Duke schedule has a similar look to last season's, which ranked 90th in the nation—but second in the ACC—per Ken Pomeroy. The biggest hitters on the slate could assemble strong seasons, but they could also struggle. There are major-conference opponents that could turn out underrated, as well as a couple of intriguing mid-major foes.
And then there are some total fruit carts, but we'll come to them in due time. Read on to examine Duke's non-ACC schedule in three self-explanatory categories.
A "Don't Miss" game should trump all other potential social occasions up to and including a wedding. If your own is scheduled up against one of these matchups, it's time to ponder how well you and your intended really know each other after all.
A "Don't Sleep" game could turn from a blowout to a plucky underdog story. Considering it's Duke and Duke is never the plucky underdog, Blue Devil fans certainly hope there's no intrigue here, but they should probably watch just to make sure.
Finally, there are the "Don't Bother" games. If you're at the edge of your seat during one of these, it's probably because you fell asleep and are slumping to the floor.
Presbyterian, Nov. 14
Good news: The Blue Hose return seven of eight rotation players from last season. Bad news: Last season's team went 6-26. PC shooting guard Jordan Downing could go for 30, but Duke fans will be more interested in seeing their own walk-ons—Nick Pagliuca and Sean Kelly, in case they're not listed in your program—get on the scoreboard.
Fairfield, Nov. 15
No, those aren't typos. Duke is actually playing on back-to-back days.
Fairfield was a much better defensive team than Presbyterian last season, but it only translated to one more win, and the Stags must also replace last year's leading scorer. One or the other of these games will look closer than it really is, as coach Mike Krzyzewski will be careful not to tire out his stars in games that will prove totally meaningless.
Furman, Nov. 26
Two weeks and there are three games against opponents with single-digit 2013-14 win totals and RPI rankings greater than 280. Like Presbyterian, Furman has a dangerous top scorer, but point guard Stephen Croone struggled against major competition last year—see nine points and nine turnovers against Clemson.
Elon, Dec. 15
Last year, the Phoenix lost to Duke 86-48 in Greensboro. This year, they come to Cameron Indoor Stadium missing four of last year's five top scorers. If Duke institutes a free-food-for-100-points promotion, that may be all that's left to root for after halftime.
Wofford, Dec. 31
Wofford was an NCAA tournament team this past March, albeit one that sneaked in after minnows devoured the Southern Conference's big sharks. The Terriers do, however, return their top seven scorers and top eight minute-earners.
Wofford isn't likely to threaten the Blue Devils—although didn't we say that last year about Vermont, too? Still, as a SoCon favorite, the Terriers could represent a solid win on what's been a cake-filled schedule so far.
Temple, Nov. 21 (Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, Brooklyn)
Owls coach Fran Dunphy hasn't been able to rediscover the sturdy defense that Temple sported during the Lavoy Allen era. From 2008-09 to 2010-11, the Owls ranked among Pomeroy's top 50 defenses (subscription required). There were always enough solid scorers, however, to keep Temple afloat and get it to the NCAA tournament.
That is until last season.
Top scorer Dalton Pepper and top rebounder Anthony Lee (now at Ohio State) will be hard to replace, but Dunphy does bring in Texas transfer Jaylen Bond to help on the glass and Clemson export Devin Coleman (eligible second semester) to provide some perimeter punch. Freshman Obi Enechionyia can provide some defensive grit inside.
It's still not likely enough to beat Duke, but the score could be closer than expected if the Blue Devils are still wobbly from what should be a physical game with Michigan State three days prior.
Army, Nov. 30
Coach K's alma mater, quiet as it's kept, is having a mini-renaissance under current coach Zach Spiker. The Black Knights have gone .500 over the past two seasons, the first time that's happened at Army since Krzyzewski himself was coaching there in the late '70s.
Army suits up a lot of bodies, and it's willing to run. Wing Kyle Wilson led the Patriot League in scoring by a full three points per game and shot 43 percent from the arc. There's potential for a good game out of him, but it's more likely that Wilson could get swallowed up by marauding defensive menace Justise Winslow. The biggest danger is looking ahead to a trip to Wisconsin three days later.
Toledo, Dec. 29
The Rockets were 12-0 starting last season and gave Kansas a good first half before falling behind at Allen Fieldhouse. A day short of one year later, they'll travel to Cameron for what will probably be a similar result.
Star point guard Julius Brown (14.9 PPG, 6.0 APG) returns along with two other double-figure scorers. Coach Tod Kowalczyk brings back seven of his nine rotation players overall, but the Rockets will need more perimeter shooting from the likes of Brown and forward J.D. Weatherspoon to seriously make Duke sweat.
vs. St. John's, Jan. 25 (Madison Square Garden)
It's considered a St. John's home game, but Duke fans need no excuse to pack The World's Most Famous Arena. The Red Storm still haven't made the NCAA tournament behind a 2011 recruiting class that was ranked among the nation's top 15, according to 247Sports.
In fact, that group—which would have included Orlando Magic forward Moe Harkless and San Diego State's Dwayne Polee II had everyone stayed—now carries only a 50-48 record over its three seasons.
St. John's was a very solid defensive team the last two seasons, but it has been almost uniformly terrible at putting the ball in the basket since the end of the Mike Jarvis era. SJU will seek to win a slugfest and hope center Chris Obekpa can get plenty of swats on Duke's big men, especially Jahlil Okafor.
Don't Miss: vs. Michigan State, Nov. 18 (Champions Classic, Indianapolis)
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo may not appear to have his usual array of talent at his disposal this season, but any Michigan State fan—or opponent, for that matter—will testify that the most important talent in East Lansing is Izzo himself.
The Spartans have been a program that prides itself on defense, and this season's nucleus is well-versed. Forward Branden Dawson, wing Denzel Valentine and center Matt Costello were three of the team's four leaders in defensive rating, according to Sports-Reference.com.
Costello is a dangerous shot-blocking threat, while Valentine, Dawson and point guard Travis Trice are threats to get their hands on any careless pass or dribble that the Blue Devils may let slip. Although Dawson's only 6'6", he could be difficult for Amile Jefferson to keep off the glass and scoreboard.
The Spartans will have to have unproven hands such as sophomore Alvin Ellis and freshmen Javon Bess, Marvin Clark and Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn hit the ground running, because depth and perimeter shooting both appear short in supply as of now. Forward Kenny Kaminski's dismissal hurt on both of those levels.
Nairn is an intriguing prospect. A native of Jamaica with a largely track-centric background, his pure speed is a dangerous weapon, even given his lack of a jump shot and his 5'10" stature. Minnesota got a great first year out of a similar point guard in DeAndre Mathieu, albeit one who'd had a couple of years of JUCO seasoning. Izzo can field some creative lineups if Nairn establishes himself as a disruptor early.
Valentine and Dawson don't have the leading-man experience or perceived NBA potential that last year's stars, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne, possessed. But they've been pivotal pieces for multiple seasons, and they're this season's co-captains. Izzo doesn't name weak-willed scrubs his captains, so the Spartans will be ready to battle when Duke pulls into Indianapolis.
Don't Miss: vs. Stanford or UNLV, Nov. 22 (Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, Brooklyn)
Stanford coach/ex-Duke point guard Johnny Dawkins was in danger of unemployment at this time last season. An NCAA tournament bid and subsequent Sweet 16 trip saved his job just in time for a potential meeting with former mentor Krzyzewski. But first, he and the Cardinal likely have to get past UNLV at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic—unless, of course, you fancy Temple to spring the upset on Duke.
UNLV is in an awkward rebuilding stage, with last year's entire starting lineup gone. Stanford has similar issues, with its most productive post players gone. Cardinal point guard Chasson Randle and wing Anthony Brown are both seniors who've been through the wars before, and they're the most experienced hands either team could throw at the Blue Devils.
Both teams add talented freshman classes, but while Stanford's may get time to study behind the veterans, UNLV's will be thrown in the fire early. Shooting guard Rashad Vaughn, forward Dwayne Morgan and center Goodluck Okonoboh are all among 247Sports' top 30 prospects, and all will be essential to getting the Rebels into the tournament—perhaps saving coach Dave Rice's job in the process.
If one of the Cardinal's new faces can make an impact against Duke, it's 6'8", 240-pound Minnesota native Reid Travis. The former pocket quarterback gave up football to focus on hoops, a sport in which he's still considered a burly, muscular specimen. He'll attack the glass with a vengeance, making life rough for post duo Jahlil Okafor and Amile Jefferson.
Don't Miss: at Wisconsin, Dec. 3 (ACC/Big Ten Challenge)
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan's sensational run reached a new zenith last season, with his 13th straight NCAA tournament culminating in his first Division I Final Four. The scary part for the Big Ten is that the Badgers may have arrived a year early, with all but one key contributor back for another shot at the 2015 title.
Center Frank Kaminsky is the exact kind of big man who can make life difficult for Duke's super freshman Jahlil Okafor. Okafor's largest weakness is his athletic ability; he's the kind of player who would rather remain in the post all evening, and that's not Kaminsky's game. "Frank the Tank" can pull him out to the arc and shoot in his eye or beat Okafor off the dribble.
While Okafor can make up for it by pushing Kaminsky around under his basket, this is a matchup that the Badgers may seek to exploit. Look for the more athletic Jefferson to spend some possessions guarding Kaminsky as well.
Justise Winslow's task will likely be to slow down junior Sam Dekker. The former 5-star freshman, per 247Sports, didn't improve as he'd hoped in his sophomore year, but he's projected for a breakout season after growing both height- and weight-wise in the offseason. He's now measured at 6'9" and 229 pounds, and he can still be a threat both inside and out.
The Badgers have shooters, rebounders and defenders to match up well with Duke. Even more importantly, however, UW's nucleus has played together for a full season. Duke's freshmen—and even some of its sophomores—have very little experience together, and the rookies will be in their first truly hostile environment against a bona fide national title contender.
This game should be the truest highlight the Big Ten/ACC Challenge has to offer.
Don't Miss: vs. UConn, Dec. 18 (at Izod Center, New Jersey)
The Connecticut team that Duke will encounter just before Christmas won't bear much resemblance to the one that hoisted this big trophy, but it could still be dangerous nonetheless.
Guard Ryan Boatright gets a shot to prove he can run a team after spending a couple of seasons in the shadow of superstar/pro-snack activist Shabazz Napier. He'll be surrounded by a gang of talent in the Husky backcourt, perhaps none more important than a pair of newcomers.
NC State transfer Rodney Purvis and freshman Daniel Hamilton both have the potential to score anywhere from 10-15 points per game immediately if Boatright's willing to simply run the offense and supply them the ball. Sophomore Terrence Samuel was a dangerous defender during the NCAA tournament, one who could make life very difficult for the Tyus Jones-Quinn Cook point guard platoon.
Up front, UConn lacks offensive punch, but Amida Brimah proved himself a capable rim protector and rebounder as a freshman. Kentan Facey was supposed to see more minutes as a rookie, but he could never find minutes in the Huskies' smaller, quicker lineup. He and Phillip Nolan need to provide quality minutes against Okafor if UConn is to keep the game close.
Keep an eye on freshman Rakim Lubin, a 6'8" 250-pounder who could make trouble for the slender Jefferson on the boards.
This Husky team may not be as good as the one that won the title, but it'll still be a favorite in the new-look American and should still be a factor in March.