Duke Basketball: 11 Toughest Games on the Blue Devils' Schedule in 2011-12
Even though its top three scorers are gone from last season, the Duke Blue Devils are expected to contend for a national title, and coach Mike Krzyzewski has scheduled many games that will challenge this unproven squad.
Gone are seniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith, along with fabulous freshman Kyrie Irving. Their losses can't be over-stated, but since we're talking about Duke, they've reloaded once again.
In is one of the top players from the 2011 class, guard Austin Rivers, along with a few other highly regarded recruits, including the third Plumlee brother, Marshall.
Regular contributors from the past couple seasons are back, as guards Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry will form a dynamic backcourt with Rivers. Up front, the two other Plumlee brothers, Mason and Miles, along with Ryan Kelly, will be counted on to bang against the big men the Devils will be running into.
The ACC conference schedule is brutal enough with their rivals, but the non-conference games that have been scheduled for this young group is pretty daunting.
Let's take a look at the 11 most difficult games the Dukies will be facing in the coming months.
11/15 vs. Michigan State
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One of the first games for the Blue Devils comes against traditional power Michigan State and the Fighting Izzos in Madison Square Garden.
Like Duke, Michigan State lost quite a bit from last season, but return a talented squad. Draymond Green is one of the most versatile players in the country and will be handful for the post players. Keith Appling is the Spartans' new floor general and isn't too big of a dip in talent from Kalin Lucas.
Because this game is so early, the Dukies will probably still be learning how to play together. There's also the fact that playing at such a storied place as MSG, some of the younger players may not be as focused as they should.
I think Duke wins this game because of their clear advantage in the backcourt, but it should be a tight one. As a friend of mine told me, never count out Tom Izzo's team.
11/21 vs. Tennessee
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A week later, Duke travels to Hawaii and takes part in the Maui Invitational. First up is Tennessee, a team in obvious rebuilding mode after the debacle surrounding former coach Bruce Pearl.
So, why is this a tough game? The location of it being across the country in gorgeous Hawaii can always be problematic. Then there's the fact that the players (not coaches) may not take the Volunteers seriously because of all they've lost.
Tennessee will have a matchup problem in 6'7" swingman Cameron Tatum. If there's one thing in the backcourt Duke lacks, it's any size, as Dawkins, Curry and Rivers are all small guards. Tatum will probably be the top offensive option, so containing him could be an issue.
Again, I expect Duke to prevail simply because of the talent disparity, but I wouldn't be shocked if this game was closer than others think.
11/22 vs. Memphis/Michigan
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After the game against Tennessee, the Blue Devils will go up against either Michigan or Memphis, two teams that are potential Sweet 16 candidates.
Michigan showed that it could hang with Duke last year in the NCAA Tournament, as they almost pulled off the second-round upset. Yes, they lost Darius Morris to the NBA, but they still have plenty of talent led by guard Tim Hardaway Jr. He's another player who could give the smaller Duke guards fits.
Michigan also relies on three-point shooting, so if they're hot, Duke could be in trouble.
Memphis, on the other hand, is a young team on the rise. Talent-wise, they probably have more than Michigan. Sophomore guards Will Barton and Joe Jackson were keys in the Tigers dominating the C-USA last year. This year, they could be one of the best backcourt tandems in the country.
Then there's the highly touted 6'7" small forward Adonis Thomas, a McDonald's All-American, who will be playing for his hometown school this season. He's a highlight reel waiting to happen.
Up to this point, a game against either school will be the Devils' toughest test, but not for long.
11/29 at Ohio State
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As part of the Big Ten/ACC challenge, the Blue Devils travel to Columbus to take on Ohio State and their dominant big man, Jared Sullinger.
Make no mistake, Sullinger will be the best big man Duke faces all year, so to say the frontcourt will have their hands full for this game is a gross understatement.
Then there's the talented backcourt of sophomore Aaron Craft and senior William Buford, two guys who rarely make mistakes and who can shoot from long range. Buford is one of the most versatile scorers in the country.
Oh, and did I mention that the Buckeyes have a couple McDonald's All-Americans coming in, with guard Shannon Scott and center Amir Williams? Yes, there's a reason why the Buckeyes are a projected top five team.
Because this game is in Columbus, and I don't see the frontcourt being able to stop Sullinger, I have to give the edge to OSU. They will certainly be favored.
12/10 vs. Washington
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The month of December looks to be pretty easy for Duke, with only four games, all of them at home.
The Washington Huskies will pose a threat, though. They did lose their top two scorers in Isaiah Thomas and Matthew Bryan-Amaning, but coach Lorenzo Romar returns a team that will probably be a top three team in the Pac-12.
Taking the role of go-to scorer for the Huskies will probably be sophomore Terrence Ross. Ross came off the bench last season, but grew into a solid player throughout the year. Junior guard Abdul Gaddy will also be returning from injury after a solid start last season.
Arguably the best recruit coming in to the Pac-12 will be Washington point guard Tony Wroten, Jr., and he's expected to be their starting point guard. If he's able to effectively replace Thomas, the Huskies could pull off a major upset.
I'm not calling it, however. Playing in Cameron is a huge advantage, especially against a team traveling across the country.
1/4 at Temple
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The Devils' last non-conference test comes in the form of the Temple Owls, a traditionally good team out of the Atlantic 10. The Owls are expected to once again be one of the top "mid-major" teams this season because of their guard play.
The duo of seniors Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez might be the best mid-major tandem in the country, as both would probably start for many of the best teams.
Because Temple has few chances to really impress the NCAA committee members, this game will be crucial for the Owls, far more than it will be for Duke.
A win over the mighty Dukies will probably mean an automatic NCAA tourney bid barring a poor conference showing. A loss, and the Owls may be forced to win the regular-season or conference tournament title to make it into March Madness.
I think this game will be close for the first half, but I ultimately see Duke winning by double-digits assuming their frontcourt can out play Temple's, which shouldn't be too difficult.
1/15 at Clemson
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Entering ACC play, the first game that jumps out is the trip south to Clemson. The Tigers are usually a solid team, and particularly good at home. This year should be no different.
Sure, they lost their top two scorers, but they return three starters in guard Andre Young and forwards Milton Jennings and Devin Booker. They should be an NCAA Tournament caliber squad, so going to their place and scraping out a win will be no easy task.
That being said, Duke should win this game.
1/25 at Maryland
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For whatever reason, Maryland has been a tough team for Duke for over the last decade, no matter what kind of players either team has.
This year will be different, as legendary coach Gary Williams retired in the offseason and turned the reins over to former Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon. Turgeon will have a bit of a rebuilding project ahead of him, as he lost big man Jordan Williams to the NBA as well as a few seniors.
Regardless, this will probably be the biggest game in Maryland's season, and I'm sure Turgeon realizes this. Simply because of this rivalry, Duke should be careful underestimating the Terps.
2/8 at North Carolina
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Want to know the toughest game on the Blue Devils schedule? Look no further than their Feb. 8 encounter with none other than North Carolina, in Chapel Hill.
It's the best rivalry in basketball for a reason, and this season will be no different.
For those who have no idea about what's going on at UNC, here's the short version: They are absolutely, positively, loaded. They bring back virtually everyone from a team that was arguably the most talented team last year. Now, they have all five starters, plus another top recruiting class that contains two McDonald's All-Americans.
The biggest matchup nightmare will be Harrison Barnes. As versatile as anyone in the country, the 6'8" small forward is too big for the Duke guards and too quick for the bigs. Coach K will need to figure out some game plan to contain this future top five NBA pick.
2/23 at Florida State
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Probably the third best team in the ACC last year was the Seminoles of Florida State. They reached the Sweet 16 before losing to Virginia Commonwealth in overtime.
Defensively, this team will not be nearly as dominant, as they lose one of the best defenders in the country in Chris Singleton to the NBA.
Offensively, it's a different story. Last season, this team struggled to score almost every game. Now, they have the shooters and scorers to put up points with ease. Guards Michael Snaer and Ian Miller will be a quality duo.
I'm not sure if the Seminoles will be the third best team in the ACC for again, but they'll give quite a few top teams a scare, and Duke will probably be one of them.
3/3 vs. North Carolina
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Last game of the season. Biggest home game of the season. Potential ACC regular season championship on the line. The Cameron Crazies doing what they do best. Need I say more?