Could Duke be an ACC contender with Mason Plumlee back?

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Duke got a huge piece of news on Tuesday when Mason Plumlee officially announced that he would be returning for his senior season.

(Before we go any further, I’d like to make the official clarification that this decision will not be final until the NBA’s April 29th deadline to declare passes.)

Even with the loss of Austin Rivers, the Blue Devils should have plenty of talent in their back court. Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins both return, as does defensive stalwart Tyler Thornton. Quinn Cook will be a sophomore and should be ready to take over the offense. Throw in talented freshman Rasheen Sulaimon, and Coach K will have plenty of options.

Alex Murphy and Michael Gbinje are wing forwards that will be entering their second season in the Duke program and should be ready to contribute major minutes. With Ryan Kelly back to spread the floor at the four spot, the center spot was the only position where Duke had significant question marks.

Mason’s younger brother Marshall was a highly-regarded recruit coming out of high school, but it would be difficult to rely on a redshirt freshmen as the only low-post threat on the roster.

That’s what makes this decision from Mason such a big deal. Regardless of how you feel about the middle Plumlee as a player, the fact of the matter is that he is a potential first round pick and an athletic, 6-foot-11 center that averaged 10.9 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks as a junior. He may not anchor the post for the Blue Devils, but he will get some rebounds and he will block some shots.

And if Duke’s perimeter can continue to improve — if Cook ends up being as good as he was expected to be and Sulaimon lives up to the lofty expectations he had coming it — the Blue Devils may not need much more than that from Mason.

Duke’s roster has many of the same flaws that cost them this season. They aren’t going to be very good defensively on their perimeter and they aren’t going to be all that big or all that physical along their front line. But with Plumlee’s return, Duke no longer has a hole in their lineup.

That matters.

A lot.

(Ironically, it also may have hurt Duke, as Plumlee’s decision to return coincided with Alex Oriakhi removing Duke from his list of potential transfer destinations.)

Enough that Duke could be considered a favorite to win what looks to be a down ACC this season.

Even with James Michael McAdoo back in the mix, UNC is going to have a lot of work in front of them. While saying they are rebuilding isn’t quite accurate, it will take a while for the Heels to fully reload as the majority of their roster adapts either to new roles or a new level of basketball. NC State is still waiting on CJ Leslie to decide whether or not he will leave school for the NBA. If he returns, NC State will be a potential top ten team. If he leave, however, the Wolfpack will be losing the guy that is hands-down their best front court option.

After getting bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament by a No. 15 seed, could Duke really end up being a preseason favorite to win the ACC?

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