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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
– 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.