Top 25 Countdown: No. 16 Duke Blue Devils

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 27-7, 13-3 ACC (2nd)

Head Coach: Mike Krzyzewski

Key Losses: Austin Rivers, Miles Plumlee, Andre Dawkins

Newcomers: Rasheed Sulaimon, Amile Jefferson, Alex Murphy

Projected Lineup:

G: Quinn Cook, So.
G: Seth Curry, Sr.
F: Alex Murphy, Fr.
F: Ryan Kelly, Sr.
C: Mason Plumlee, Sr.
Bench: Rasheed Suilamon, Fr.; Amile Jefferson, Fr.; Marshall Plumlee, Fr.; Tyler Thornton, Jr.; Josh Hairston, Jr.

Outlook: This Duke team is really quite intriguing to me, and I think there is some merit to the line of thinking that the Blue Devils — and not UNC or NC State — are actually the favorite to win the ACC. I know what your reaction to that will be: ‘Duke always is hyped up in the preseason and never performs’. Fair, but keep in mind that we have them ranked 16th nationally. I’m not exactly predicting a Final Four here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the fact that there was some potential on this roster.

The way I see it, there are three keys to Duke’s season:

  • Mason Plumlee: Like both of his brothers, Mason Plumlee has the kind of physical tools that can make him a star. He’s 6-foot-11 with long arms, broad shoulders and athleticism. On paper, he’s a lottery pick. The problem is that he’s never made that jump as a player from elite potential to elite production. He can score on the block and he can finish around, and above, the rim, but he’s never been considered a go-to scoring option or a guy that you can feed in the post and allow to operate. He blocks shots and he rebounds, but he’s never consistently dominated the paint. In other words, you build a game-plan for Mason Plumlee. You build a game-plan around Jeff Withey. There’s a difference. Plumlee needs to make a leap in that direction.
  • Alex Murphy: Murphy was originally in the Class of 2012, but when he committed to Duke in February of 2011, he made the decision to speed up his enrollment. Instead of spending last season as a fifth-year high school student, Murphy redshirted at Duke, spending a full season practicing, working out and getting better in the program. Before he reclassified, Murphy was a top 15 recruit nationally. Murphy is very skilled and quite athletic in the open floor. At 6-foot-8, he can shoot from beyond the arc, makes plays with the pass and handle the ball. Is he ready to be an impact player for the Blue Devils, or does he still need another year or two to develop?
  • Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon: Duke had two major issues in their back court last season: they didn’t have anyone that could penetrate a defense and create other than Austin Rivers, and they didn’t have anyone outside of Tyler Thornton who wanted to play any defense. Cook should end up being the answer at the point. He’s a very talented play maker and a willing passer that finally had a healthy summer to work out and improve. I’m expecting a big season out of him.Sulaimon, a top 15 recruit, enters the program with quite a bit of hype as a perimeter scorer, and that will certainly help offset the loss of Rivers, who, despite the bad press, did do some good things for Duke last year. But at an athletic 6-foot-4, where Sulaimon’s most important contribution may end up being is on the defensive side of the ball. Duke needs a perimeter stopper, a guy they can put on a go-to scorer and trust that he’ll make getting open looks difficult.

    The other issue to think about here is Seth Curry. I can see a situation arising where Duke’s best lineup is without him on the floor. The same thing happened to Greg Paulus his senior season, when Nolan Smith proved to be a better player, and Paulus took the demotion in stride. Will Curry be willing to do the same?

Duke has other pieces as well. I’m not the biggest fan of Ryan Kelly, but he is a stretch-four that is very capable at spreading the floor. He averaged 11.8 points and shot 40.8% from three last season. When Kelly’s outclassed athletically, Coach K will be able to bring in guys like Marshall Plumlee, Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston. Duke does have pieces this season, but there are a lot of things that have to fall into place for those pieces to truly end up fitting together.

Predictions?: The ACC may end up being the most entertaining conference race to watch unfold. The way I see it right now, NC State is the favorite, followed by Duke and then UNC. But all three of those programs have question marks and youth at key positions. I think the baseline expectation for Duke fans should be 14 or 15 league wins and a trip to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, but if everything breaks the right way, the Blue Devils could end up being a top two seed in the Big Dance.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.