Duke will tip off the official Battle for Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas on Thanksgiving Day against the Minnesota Golden Gophers in what can only be described as a stacked tournament.
The Blue Devils enter the tournament riding a high after starting the season 3-0 and defeating the then No. 3 team in the country in Kentucky. Still Duke still has a lot of work to do to get better and show the country what it really can do.
This tournament is arguably one of the toughest of the early season tournaments featuring not only No. 5 Duke, but No. 19 Memphis, No. 14 Missouri and No. 2 Louisville. If the Blue Devils manage to come out of it unscathed it will continue their amazing success in preseason tournaments.
But in order for that to happen several things are going to have to happen so here is a look at five of them.
Mason Plumlee Continues to Dominate
So far the Duke senior captain has begun to live up to the hype. Plumlee is leading the team in points per game (21.7) rebounds (8.7 per game) and blocks (2.7 per game). He has also improved his ability to shoot free throws and after hitting 10 of 11 in the last game against Florida Gulf Coast, Plumlee is shooting 77 percent from the charity stripe.
Obviously if Plumlee is going to get fouled he has to make free throws and so far he has improved in that area by leaps and bounds. He is also showing improved footwork and a knack for finishing near the basket. He has his momentary lapses from time to time but overall he has shown the ability to dominate down low.
He more than held his own against Kentucky’s younger and more touted front court and has become a vocal leader according to Mike Krzyzewski, something Duke lacked last year. Against Florida Gulf Coast, Plumlee did not commit a personal foul, also a major improvement even from the Kentucky game where he committed at least two silly fouls and fouled out of the game.
If Plumlee can continue to show the kind of aggression without committing silly foulds as well as show the accuracy he has in the early going Duke can very well win in Atlantis.
Quinn Cook Claims Starter Role
In a bit of a shock Quinn Cook, the projected starter at point guard did not start either of the Blue Devils first two games. After Mike Krzyzewski had announced that Cook would be the starter most expected him to be the guy but it was Tyler Thornton that got the start in Duke’s first two games including the show down with Kentucky.
But in that game Cook provided a spark off the bench and by the Blue Devils last game he was back in the starting lineup and he made the most of it.
Cook scored 8 points but more importantly he dished out 9 assists and applied solid ball pressure. If that is something he can continue to do as well as cut down on turnovers Duke will be all the better for it. This team could very well go from being good to very good based on how effective Cook can be running the point.
Seth Curry provides meaningful minutes
There was a lot of concern expressed over a lower leg injury that has limited Seth Curry’s ability to practice and at the beginning of the year Krzyzewski expressed concerns about pain management and hoping that the injury didn’t worsen.
So far, that has not hurt Curry’s performance as the senior is playing just under 30 minutes per game and scoring 16 points as the Blue Devils second leading scorer. His 23 point performance was key in Duke’s victory over Kentucky and his steady shooting (47 percent for the season) is a nice improvement from last seasons.
Expect Curry, as long as he is healthy to be on the floor in crunch time and even if he isn’t always scoring his presence is huge for this team and takes pressure off some of Duke’s other shooters. As long as Curry can stay in those close games you have to like Duke’s chances of coming out of Atlantis with the title.
Duke Defense continues to Improve
One things that is an obvious difference between last year’s Duke team and this year’s team in the Blue Devils ability to defend more effectively on the perimeter.
It may not have looked like it at times against Florida Gulf Coast who shot relatively well from the floor, but Duke is doing a better job on the perimeter and making opponents work hard for good shots. Part of that success has been the addition of Rasheed Sulaimon who is probably Duke’s best perimeter defender.
Quinn Cooks’ performance though putting pressure on the ball has also helped and while teams are still shooting relatively well against Duke things aren’t necessarily coming as easy as they did last season. And if Duke can continue to improve in that respect they will be a touch team in this tournament.
Bench continues to develop
The biggest news of the season for Duke so far has been the fact that redshirt freshman Alex Murphy has not played a lot, and that has prompted talk that he may be considering transferring. He didn’t play in Duke’s first game and only played two minutes against Kentucky.
Against Florida Gulf Coast though, Murphy did get in the game for six minutes and looked good. He mde two separate appearances in the game and at one point got a fist bump out of Mike Krzyzewski. He hustled and made a couple of nice moves though he did not score.
If Murphy can continue to see his minutes increase Duke will certainly benefit from it since he is arguably the most talented player not starting for Duke. And if he plays more that talk about transferring will die down.
But Murphy isn’t the only guy contributing off the bench. Josh Hairston has provided solid minutes and the aforementioned Tyler Thornton is playing quality minutes and providing some defensive intensity and some heady play. Freshman Amile Jefferson also brings a spark of energy off the bench and has a lot of potential to develop into a solid player.
All of that solid bench play isn’t necessarily translating into stats but it is giving the starters a rest and Marshall Plumlee, generally expect to be Mason’s number one replacement, hasn’t even played as he recovers from a broken bone in his foot. If he is able to play at all in Atlantis that can only mean good things for Duke.
Look for how much Murphy plays and if Marshall Plumlee gets in any of the games in this tournament.
Even if Duke doesn’t win the Battle for Atlantis, but can show improvements in these five areas expect for the Blue Devils to be a better team coming out of the tournament than going in. However, if they can see improvements in all of these areas during the tournament don’t be surprised them to win it all.