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No. 4 Duke: Can Blue Devils avoid another disappointing season?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 4 Duke.


Duke, once again, is going to enter a college basketball season with the best recruiting class in the sport.

The difference this year is that not only will the Blue Devils bring in the best crop of freshmen, they bring in the best freshmen — four of the top 15 prospects in 247 Sports’ composite rankings will suit up for Coach K this season, including three of the top five and the No. 1 and 2 players in the nation. There are some outlets that rank R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson and Cam Reddish as the three best recruits in the class, and there’s a chance that those three could end up being the top three picks in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Let’s ignore the how for now.

(The FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball has told us that everyone breaks NCAA rules, but the best players in the country turn down hundreds of thousands of dollars and jobs for family members of the prestige of spending nine months on Duke’s campus?)

The issue here has been the product on the court.

Duke has been a disappointment relative to expectation more or less every year since Coach K made the decision to go all-in on one-and-done prospects. The obvious exception was in 2015, when the Blue Devils figured out how to defend in late February and wound up winning the national title. The same happened last season, but Duke was bounced in the Elite 8 when a Grayson Allen floater spent six seconds on the rim before falling off.

It hasn’t been a total disaster, but it is clear that Duke is nowhere near as consistently dominant now as they have been in the past. The Blue Devils haven’t won an ACC regular season title since 2010. They’ve won just one ACC tournament title since 2011. They’ve reached the second weekend of the tournament just three times in the last eight years.

The biggest issue has been on the defensive end of the floor. It got to the point last season where Duke had no choice but to play zone full-time.

I don’t think that will be the issue this year. Duke, on paper, looks like a team that should be able to guard.

But this team still has some warts that Coach K is going to have to work out.

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DUKE WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

The amount of talent on this roster makes it nearly impossible for the Blue Devils to fail.

Let’s start with R.J. Barrett. The 6-foot-7 point forward is the overwhelming favorite at this point in the calendar to be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and rightfully so. He needs to continue to develop his jumpshot, but he has everything that you’re looking for in an NBA player in the modern NBA. He’s athletic, he’s big enough to be defensively versatile, he’s skilled enough to operate in ball-screens, he can get a bucket, he has impressive court-vision. As far as I’m concerned, all you need to know about Barrett is that, as a 17-year old, he put up 38 points, 13 boards and six assists for Canada in an upset of the United States — who were coached by John Calipari — en route to a gold medal in the U19 World Cup.

I don’t think Barrett is quite as good of a prospect as some of the elite prospects in past seasons, but I do think that it is clear he is the best player in this class.

R.J. Barrett, Reagan Lunn/@DukeMBB

I said ‘player’ and not ‘prospect’ because there are some people that believe Reddish, and not Barrett, actually has a higher ceiling. At 6-foot-8, Reddish is more of a scorer at this point in his development, although he has played as a ball-handler at the high school and AAU level. He’s probably the best shooter out of Duke’s freshmen as well, and has the tools to be a really good defender.

I haven’t even gotten to Zion Williamson yet. The most famous player in college basketball in years, Williamson became a social media sensation thanks to his otherworldly athleticism. He is 6-foot-7 and 280 pounds, yet he dunks from the free throw line like a normal human being claps backboard on a layup and he set Duke’s school record for vertical leap. He’s quick, he’s fast, he has impressive footwork and he’s skilled enough — he’ll be the most dangerous grab-and-go big in the history of college basketball — to be able to handle the ball. He’s even a better shooter and a (much) better passer than he gets credit for.

Throw in Tre Jones, the younger brother of Tyus and the first true point guard Duke has had since the elder Jones finished cutting down the net in Indianapolis in 2015, and we don’t need to discuss anyone else on the roster to justify ranking the Blue Devils in the top five.

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BUT DUKE IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

While I love all of the pieces in this freshmen class in a vacuum, I think there is reason to be concerned about how they all fit together.

Duke is going to try and play small this season. That’s not exactly breaking news here. Not only has Duke done this time and again in the past — Jabari Parker, Justise Winslow, Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum all played the for four the Blue Devils — but this group has three guys that can fill that role. In fact, this roster is the best-suited to playing that style. The ideal roster build for any team in this era of pace and space is having a point guard, a mobile five-man and three wings that can defend more than one position. That’s precisely what we see here.

It gets even more interesting when we start to think about the possibility of Zion Williamson playing the five a la Draymond Green.

The issue is the ability for the players on Duke to impact a game when they don’t have the ball in their hands.

What makes Golden State special in the NBA and what made Villanova so damn good in the college ranks last season is the same thing: The ability to shoot at every spot on the floor. Jalen Brunson was able to post-up and operate in ball-screens and beat a man one-on-one, but he was also a lethal catch-and-shoot guy. The same can be said for all of his teammates that played meaningful minutes, including center Omari Spellman, who scored 17 points and made four threes for the Atlanta Hawks this weekend.

Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, Reagan Lunn/@DukeMBB

The same thing is true with Golden State. Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala are the glue-guys on that team, but both of them cannot be left open from the three-point line. Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are two of the best isolation players in the NBA, but if you leave them open you will pay. Klay Thompson is one of the best three-point shooters in the history of the game.

Duke?

They have four freshmen that are all super-talented but that need to ball in their hands to be effective. Neither Zion nor Barrett are good enough from beyond the arc to force a defender to close out long on them. Reddish can make threes, but he’s known more as a scorer than a shooter at this point in his development than anything else. Jones is fine, but he’s more of a driver and playmaker than he is a shooter.

Without guys to space the floor, without someone willing to accept a role, running offense that doesn’t devolve into players going one-on-one into a crowded lane is difficult.

THE X-FACTOR

For me, the key here is going to be Reddish.

He has something of a reputation from the high school and AAU ranks as a talented kid that played on teams that lost far more games than they should have lost. He’s also going to be the guy that will likely end up having to make the most sacrifices for the good of the team.

Think about it like this: Jones is going to be the natural point guard on this team, and Barrett is going to be the guy that handles secondary ball-handling duties. Zion will be a grab-and-go threat and could lead the country in fast break buckets. In the halfcourt, his role will be pretty clearly defined — he’s going to be the guy attacking the glass and the player that gets isolated against slower and/or smaller defenders.

Reddish is the odd man out.

For a player that has spent his entire life as a lead guard, how will he take to being asked to play on a wing as something of a 3-and-D specialist?

2018-19 OUTLOOK

Duke’s outlook this season is no different than their outlook for the past four or five years.

They have as much raw talent as anyone in the sport of college basketball. They will enter the season as a consensus top four team that some folks are going to rank No. 1 overall. They are going to be the odds-on favorite to win the ACC regular season title, a favorite to get to the Final Four and one of the few true national title contenders in college basketball.

And there enough question marks about the talent, the youth, how the pieces fit and whether or not the pieces truly fit and how well Coach K is going to handle dealing with this much roster turnover to keep us from going all in on the Blue Devils.

Anything short of the Final Four will be yet another disappointment from this group.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 5 Villanova
No. 6 Nevada
No. 7 Tennessee
No. 8 Virginia
No. 9 North Carolina
No. 10 Auburn
No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.