In an often told anecdote from after Duke’s 109-66 blowout loss to Virginia in the 1st round of the 1983 ACC Tournament, a member of the Duke staff raised a glass and toasted, “here’s to forgetting tonight.” Coach K responded with a toast of his own, “here’s to NEVER forgetting tonight.” While that loss remains Duke’s largest margin of defeat under Coach K, the one to Lehigh at the end of last season has certainly not been forgotten.
The team’s ability to put that game (and last season) behind them will determine whether they can navigate a tough early schedule without too many lasting scars. Duke enters this year ranked in the AP Top 10 poll (their 94th straight week there) due largely to the talented experience they return in the frontcourt. Coach K has put the weight of the world on Mason Plumlee, but Krzyzewski feels his senior center is ready for it.
Whether Plumlee is able to produce is nowhere near Duke’s biggest question mark heading into this season. Against Thomas Robinson, Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller last year, 3 All-Americans, Plumlee shot 53.4% from the field for 14.5 ppg and 9.5 rpg. Quinn Cook’s ability to take over the lead guard role, who locks down the small forward spot and who steps up into a leadership role are much more glaring unknowns that need to be figured out before this team can live up to its lofty preseason ranking.
One of Duke’s biggest deficiencies in 2012 was their inability to pressure the perimeter on the defensive end and struggles to find a flow to their offense. The root cause of both of these issues was a rotating cast of shooting guards playing out of position and freshman Quinn Cook battling a season-long knee injury.
Cook, now healthy for the first time since the summer of 2010, is charged with manning the point guard spot for Duke this year along with Tyler Thornton. As crucial as Mason Plumlee is to the Blue Devils’ fortunes this season, Cook’s ability to feed him in the post may be even more important. If the Virginia native is able to regain the form that led him to be the top ranked point guard in high school at one point, Duke’s season should go a lot more smoothly than it did last year.
In the offseason, Seth Curry was an unquestioned starter but a lingering shin injury forced Curry to miss the team’s first exhibition game. While he did play against Winston-Salem State in the team’s final tuneup before the regular season, it was the first time he had played in almost two months. According to Coach K, the injury will bother Curry throughout the year and “he will not be completely well.” Curry’s limited play has reared its head early in this season, with Duke shooting 7-31 behind the arc for a paltry 22.5%.
Thornton will spell Cook at point guard and provide the same steady hand and intangibles that he has for the last two seasons. Joining him in coming off the bench will be 6’8” small forward Alex Murphy. Coming in to this year, Murphy was looked at as a potential starter at the 3-spot, but it appears that Sulaimon’s strong play has pushed him to the bench. This could be a matchup issue that will change based on the opponent’s roster, so that’s something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
Mason Plumlee will anchor Duke’s interior play this year, and his importance to the team’s success was noted above. However, we saw how important Ryan Kelly was to the Duke offense last year in the postseason. Kelly has seemingly recovered from the injury that kept him sidelined into the summer, and the Blue Devils better hope he stays that way as Marshall Plumlee is sidelined with a toe injury at least until December. Krzyzewski has made it a point that the offense is going to run through the post this year more often than not, so the trio of Plumlee, Kelly, Plumlee will need to be ready heading in to conference play.
They will be backed up by junior Josh Hairston, who is noticeably bulked up this year and freshman Amile Jefferson. Both in the 6’8” range, the two players’ versatility will prove vital as Duke looks to shuffle lineups around while Marshall Plumlee heals. Jefferson, in particular, has shown an intense energy in the two preseason game that Duke was definitely lacking last year.
Duke hits the ground running this year with a tough schedule. Facing Kentucky in their second game in the Champions Classic just four games in to the season, the Blue Devils will have to shake off the fact that one of their key post players is out with a toe injury and one of their projected starters is injured, at best. Over the first 15 days of the season, Duke will play at the least three teams ranked 31 or higher in the kenpom.com preseason rankings and possibly four if they make it to the finals. Kentucky (#1), Minnesota (#26), Memphis (#16) or Virginia Commonwealth (#31) and Louisville (#8) or Missouri (#29) are all potential opponents for Duke in November.
There are a lot of questions for Duke to answer from last year, but I think this is a completely different team. As long as Cook can get a grasp on the point guard position and Mason Plumlee plays like he’s capable of, the Blue Devils should have a successful year. I see two losses early in the year that will provide teaching lessons for Coach K and staff. This will cause the team to regain their focus and win the ACC Regular Season with a 28-6 (14-4 ACC) record. Losing in the ACC semi-finals to a motivated Miami team, Duke will again regain focus and make it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Gonzaga on a last second tip-in by Prezemek Karnowski.
Mike Krzyzewski has made it clear that Mason Plumlee will be the focus of the offense this season. Plumlee has long been a low risk fantasy basketball performer because he rebounds and blocks shots. The question in his senior season is he ready to be an elite performer by taking his offensive production north of 15 points per game.