Duke Basketball: Things to Worry About for 2015 Season
For diehard fans of any sport, the time leading up to the start of a season is often filled with optimism. There is plenty of excitement as the season starts: Fans are hoping for improvement from returning players and stardom from new ones.
This is especially true in the culture of college basketball, where the best freshmen are often the best players on a team and veterans often make large strides in the offseason.
For fans of elite teams like Duke basketball, the optimism is multiplied. We have seen our teams easily handle roster turnover and players come into their own so many times we usually just assume our team’s top returning players will be All-Americans.
But as Duke fans know all too well, you really have no idea how a season will unfold until it starts.
In 2009 Duke was expected to have a solid team but not a vintage one. When the season started, Jon Scheyer turned into an All-American, Nolan Smith became a scoring machine, and Brian Zoubek became the enforcer the team needed on the way to the national championship.
The following year Duke returned Smith and Kyle Singler and brought in stud Kyrie Irving, the Devils were No. 1 in the preseason polls and there was even speculation about the team going undefeated. Unfortunately, Irving went down after just eight games, and the team failed to adjust to his return in the NCAA tournament, losing to Arizona in the Sweet 16.
This year Duke will likely enter the season with a lofty ranking and championship aspirations from team members and fans alike. However, for all the strengths this team may have, there are also reasons for caution.
Here are the top things Duke fans should worry about in advance of the 2014 season.
Relying Heavily on Freshmen
Duke miraculously dethroned Kentucky for the No. 1 recruiting class last year, per 247 Sports. The team will almost definitely start two freshmen in Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones. Justise Winslow is a potential starter, and Grayson Allen could also see minutes.
Freshmen have become the most hyped part of the game in the one-and-done era, but veteran teams still usually win out in March.
The only team to win a championship that featured key one-and-done players was Kentucky in 2012, and it had Anthony Davis, who was one of the most dominant forces college basketball has seen in years. Recent champions Louisville, Duke, and Connecticut (twice) all had veteran-heavy rosters.
Duke has really struggled in March when featuring one-and-done players. Three times in the past five years Duke has had a one-and-done lottery pick on the team: Irving, Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker. Irving lost in the Sweet 16, and both Parker and Rivers were upset in their first NCAA tournament games. In the two years Duke did not have a one-and-done player, it won the championship and went to the Elite Eight.
Fans love to get excited for hotshot freshmen, but Duke’s group will have to buck a lot of history if they want their fans happy (or at least holding their heads up) in March.
Less Shooting Than Normal
Duke has embraced the three-point shot more than many other program recently, and outside shooting has come to define the program.
Whether it is J.J. Redick, Scheyer, Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins or others, Duke always boasts multiple players capable of filling it up from deep. This season may be different, and Duke is a little short on long-range gunners.
Rasheed Sulaimon shot 41 percent from deep last year, but he is the only proven shooter Duke has coming into the season. Quinn Cook is inconsistent from deep, Semi Ojeleye took only seven treys last year, Tyus Jones is projected as a capable shooter but more of a playmaker, and shooting is the one weakness in Winslow’s well-rounded skill set.
None of Duke’s frontcourt players have the ability to stretch the floor, so Duke could be facing a spacing problem this year as the offense revolves around Okafor in the post.
The player who could most help Duke from outside is sophomore Matt Jones. Jones was touted as a shooter in high school but shot just 3-of-21 on triples during his freshman year. Interestingly, the player known for his shooting proved to be a rugged and smart defender.
His feistiness will earn him some playing time this year, and if he returns to his prep form Duke’s offense could be much more wide-open.
Last season Duke had a roster full of talented players, but Coach K struggled to lock down a consistent rotation. A lot of players had inconsistent seasons, and the team never really got on a roll. Cook, Sulaimon, Jones, and Marshall Plumlee all saw their playing time juggled throughout the season.
Duke will have a lot of talent again this year, and the team is better rounded on paper, but it will need to establish well-defined roles for each player.
Last year Coach K experimented with a deep 10-man rotation at the beginning of ACC play. The Devils would use five-man substitutions at times and started playing their best ball of the year, but they ditched that strategy for the first Syracuse game and never went back to it.
The team could benefit from a similar substitution style this year, as the team has plenty of guards who could provide constant pressure if they had enough energy. Not only would the players be fresh, but everyone would gain good experience, leaving the team more capable of handling an injury or foul trouble.
Tough Early Season Schedule
Duke often plays a tough early season schedule, and this year is no different. The team will play Michigan State, Connecticut and Wisconsin all before Christmas.
Playing marquee games early is a good way to prepare a team for March and a good way to gain some early season confidence, but there can also be a big downside.
Last year Duke lost to Kansas in the team’s second game and Arizona in just its fourth. In both games Duke looked competitive for most of the game but gave up big runs down the stretch. Instead of learning from the early losses, Duke never corrected its mistakes and lost a number of games in a similar fashion.
If Duke struggles in some of their early games this time around, fans will likely begin to worry that it will be another season of unfulfilled promise.