It took the 2010 Duke Blue Devils 40 games to prove just how good they were. Though they were preseason favorites to win the ACC and ranked in the Top 10 nationally for the majority of the season, Duke didn’t seem to get much respect.
Frankly, I don’t think analysts and fans owed them any.
With just a single appearance in the Final Four since 2004, and a notorious habit of tournament play ill-befitting seeding, Duke wasn’t really considered a heavy favorite to contend for a national title.
But its mettle was tested and proven in the Big Dance. After winning it all in 2010, the team is now in position to do defend the title in 2011.
Here are the major reasons why I believe Duke can contend again in 2011.
Duke was experienced this year and that was reflected in the way they played.
Their offense was perhaps the most efficient in the nation, and they played a disciplined and stingy brand of defense. They were fluid, polished, and precise.
The list of significant departures is highlighted by co-captain Jon Scheyer. Equally adept at either the point or shooting guard position, Scheyer’s leadership, poise, and perimeter shooting will be missed.
Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek, though unheralded during their tenures at Duke, played a critical role in the title run, crashing the offensive glass and playing gritty post defense.
The crown jewel of Coach K’s recruiting efforts is blue chip point guard Kyrie Irving. Other talented newcomers include power forward Joshua Hairston, and Duke’s first ever junior college recruit in Carrick Felix.
Liberty transfer Seth Curry will also add depth. He is capable of playing either the one or two position.
Provided Kyle Singler returns, Duke’s starting lineup is likely to feature as many as four players with NCAA experience.
The youthful exuberance and high-energy play that the incoming crop of freshman will provide should complement each other nicely.
Experience will be crucial if Duke is to make a run at defending the title.
This is an area that Duke has nearly always excelled in, and next year will be no exception.
Duke was consistent from distance all year long. Nolan Smith made great improvements to his release over the summer and evolved into a reliable three-point shooter.
Kyle Singler has outstanding range, and his ability to dial in from beyond the arc was also vital in Duke’s strong tournament.
The name Stephen Curry is immortalized in NCAA tournament lore. His younger brother, Seth, a Liberty transfer, led all freshman in scoring during the 2008-2009 season. His wonderfully smooth release, combined with his quickness, give him the ability to excel either in catch-and-shoot scenarios or pulling up off the dribble.
Curry should thrive in K’s motion offense.
Duke will not be the most athletic team in the nation—maybe not even in the ACC—but the Devils will be more athletic than they were this year.
Kyrie Irving is lightening quick with or without the basketball. He is a true point guard, something that has eluded the Blue Devils for quite some time.
Though perhaps slightly undersized, Irving seems capable of producing in half-court sets and torching opponents for easy scores in the open floor.
JuCo recruit Carrick Felix is an effective slasher, something the Devils lost when the ultra-athletic Gerald Henderson opted for the NBA draft.
At 6’5", Felix might be able to contribute a similar brand of raw athleticism.
Incoming power forward Joshua Hairston can play an effective face-up game that Duke big men have struggled to do in the past.
Seth Curry provides the range and feathery touch of a traditional Duke shooting guard, but is considerably more athletic than past Blue Devils like Jon Scheyer or J.J. Redick.
Plus, the Plumlee brothers will be a year older and a year stronger.
The Duke backcourt should be as talented as any in the nation next year.
They will be able to both penetrate opposing defenses and shoot at an efficient clip from outside.
This makes them a threat against both zones and man –to-man defenses.
But a common knock against Duke has been their lack of inside presence. Not since Shelden Williams has Duke possessed a big man who can command touches and score from the low post.
This year, they masked their deficiencies in that department by generating second-chance opportunities.
Next year, that might not be possible.
The Plumlee brothers appear poised to breakout next season, but their overall games remain very raw. Ryan Kelly needs bulk to become a formidable post presence and Joshua Hairston though talented will need time to acclimate to NCAA play.
With very little experience at the forward and center position, Duke will rely heavily on superior guard play.