Looking Ahead…Way Too Soon


It’s kind of funny…before the confetti even hit the floor of Lucas Oil Field, everyone already started asking about the big ‘R’…repeat. Click on the Duke Report and you’ll already find a dozen articles or blog posts about the subject. Of course I know you’re all asking, what does Balls think?

Can the Duke Blue Devils win the title again next year?

I’ll be honest, I’m getting out of the prediction business. If I was a gambling man, I’d have to sell my first-born just to pay off my debts. Yet, that doesn’t mean I won’t share my thoughts with you.

Looking ahead, some people already have Duke penciled in as the preseason number one. Like so many of Tim Burton’s movie remakes, I think it’s a mistake.

Do I think next year’s Duke team can win the title? Sure, why not? If the Tar Heels can almost win the N.I.T., than anything can happen. I just wouldn’t declare them the favorite.

Now I know what you’re saying, “Hey Balls, why you always down on your Devils? You said this year’s team couldn’t win the title and like most decisions you’ve made in your life, you were wrong. Now you’re giving no love to next year’s squad. Why are you such a douche bag?”

All fair questions…let’s dive right into this and start with all the things that I like about next year’s group of kids.

The one big thing I’m excited about (and I mean ‘stripper on my birthday’ excited) for next season is the pure talent that will be on display next season. This will be the most athletic team to play on Coach K’s floor in a long, long time.

Let’s take a look at the roster, shall we?

At point guard, welcome incoming freshman (6’2) Kyrie Irving. I’m not saying the New Jersey native is the next John Wall, but he’s certainly reminds me of Jason Williams. He’s super quick, smart and an excellent passer. He’ll take it to the rim one possession and launch a three on the next. You can wrap Irving up and slap a bow on him. The kids gifted.

At shooting guard, (6’2) Nolan Smith returns after an awesome junior season. Look for his numbers to improve even more. Most importantly, he should get more rest next season as Duke is suddenly deep at the perimeter (that’s what she said). He should be a serious candidate for 1st-team All-ACC.

Let’s skip the SF spot and move down low. Gone are seniors Zoubek and Thomas and in are the Plumlee brothers. At center, Miles Plumlee enters year three. This is when things typically start to click for college players.

Without a doubt, Miles can be a bigger offensive force than either Zoubek or Thomas. Late this season, he would occasionally flash the ability to create his own shot with his back to the basket. He’ll need to do this while still not giving up the boards on either ends of the floor.

At power forward, Mason Plumlee will get the start. He’s the kid with the most raw talent (excluding Irving). This past season, he demonstrated some brilliant moves, but struggled to just finish plays. That’s what was lost when he broke his wrist and that will come in time. He’s also the one player who will benefit the most from Irving’s abilities since he won’t be needed as much as a screener, thus freeing him up to do his thing.

For Duke to be successful, both Plumlee brothers need to take solid leaps forward though. Duke fans have been dying to having a scoring option inside ever since Sheldon Williams left and married Candace Parker (I still can’t figure how he landed her. If I was Coach K, I’d be using that marriage as a recruiting tool).  Anyhow, both these guys are athletic enough to be solid scorers inside. The question will be, how will they be on the defensive end.

The reason why Zoubek and Thomas eventually got the start, despite the lack of scoring, was the simple fact that they played good defense. Meanwhile the Plumlee’s struggled for stretches, especially when dealing with rotating and helping.

Now let’s talk about the small forward spot. This is the X-factor. Does Kyle Singler come back or does he head to the pros? At this point, no one knows the answer, but I’m sticking with my guess.

I suspect Singler will declare, but not take an agent. But like Henderson before him, I predict he will go pro. I think the final factor will be where in the first-round he is projected. If he is a late-first rounder, then he could come back. If he moves up to the late teens, just outside the lottery, he will probably go.

The big problem is the uncertainty with the labor agreement between the NBA and its players. There is talk of a lockout in 2011 and that would be bad news for any rookie heading to the pros that year.

If Kyle were to come back though, then yes, I think Duke is one of the top five teams in the land (along with Michigan State, Purdue, Butler and Villanova).

A starting lineup of Irving, Smith, Singler, Mason and Miles is as good as any other team out there, assuming the Plumlee brothers improve as much as I think they can.

The big question is, what happens if Singler does go?

First, let me shutter at the thought. Second, let’s recover from the shuttering and look at our options. Who’s left on the bench?

– Tyler Thornton. He’s a pass-happy point guard. In fact, he gives Duke a much-needed depth at the point. At best, Irving is a two-and-done player. This gives Thornton time to develop his shot, with a legit chance at the starting spot his junior year.
– Seth Curry. Little brother of Steven Curry. At 6’1, he has the size to play point, but he’s a scoring machine (averaged 20ppg for Liberty as a freshman).
– Andre Dawkins. You saw what he could do this season. His one advantage over Curry and Thorton…he’s played one season of ACC basketball.
– Ryan Kelly. In ACC play, he never played 10 minutes in a game and often only saw the court in mop up duty. Of course everyone knew this was going to happen. He still needs to bulk up to be effective in the paint.
– Josh Hairston. The (6’8) incoming freshman likes to play facing the basket and can pull up from mid-range.
– Carrick Felix. The first Juco transfer for Coach K and Duke. Don’t be fooled by the Juco label. He was a low-rated sleeper out of high school, but he decided to go to junior college to bulk up and get better. It paid off. He’s now on Duke.

So who gets that SF spot if Singler doesn’t come back? In an idea world, Duke lands either Harrison Barnes or Roscoe Smith. Obviously we know how that worked out. Duke still has (SF) Trey Zeigler on its list, but that’s not going to happen.

So someone will have to step up and fill a role.

Obviously you can discount Thornton. He’s a point guard. Inside, Hairston and Kelly are the only big men coming off the bench, so don’t look for Coach K to go big and slide either one into the small forward spot.

This leaves Curry, Dawkins and Felix.

These three should battle for that opening spot (again, assuming Singler goes pro). If I had to put money on it, I’d say Curry beats out Dawkins at the start of the season. This of course means Duke runs with three guards…three small guards (none taller than 6’2) to go along with the 6’10 and 6’11 Plumlee brothers.

Offensively this could be great. Duke could be the quickest, most high-flying team in college basketball (when was the last time you saw that sentence?), throwing up threes like the two-point shot was banned. Yet, what would Duke do if faced with a bigger team, especially a team with a 6’6 or taller SF?

Dawkins is bigger at 6’4 and could counter the size. If his three is falling and he can improve his defense, then you’re looking at a solid starting five.

However, the X-Factor has to be Carrick Felix. It’s kind of hard to judge how good he will be. I’ve seen some highlights and I’ve done a ton of reading, but I just don’t know.

The best comparison I’ve seen compares him to former Dukie, Dahntay Jones. This would be fantastic. I can certainly see Felix getting the starting SF nod once ACC play kicks in.

The fact is, with Irving, Smith and the Plumlee brothers, there are enough scorers. Felix could be that uber-athletic wing man who will be asked to guard every opponent’s best player and help on the glass. You know what, let’s just say it…Felix’s job will be to shut down Harrison Barnes. There, I said it.

No matter who ends up where, no matter who grabs that SF spot, two things are very clear.

First, you can wave goodbye to the motion offense. Gone. Led by Irving at the point, Duke is loaded with quick athletic players. There is no doubt that Coach K won’t install a high-octane, up-tempo offense. It’s going to look a lot like the 2001 championship team…force a miss, grab that board, kick it out quickly and run baby, run.

You’re going to see a much more exciting brand of offense next season. You’ll also see a return to the old-style of Duke defense of pressing the guards and running into the passing lanes.

Now it’s time to talk about the second thing…and you’re not going to like this.

The reason why I won’t pick Duke to be the favorite next year, isn’t because of the talent, it’s because of the experience…or lack of.

The one thing I always believed in with this year’s club was their experience. You cannot overlook the fact that Duke started three seniors and two juniors. With so many of the best players heading to the pros after one or two seasons and with the rise of the mid-majors, upperclassmen is what wins titles now.

This is why it’s so important that Kyle Singler returns. Without him, Duke’s core 10-man rotation will consist of…
1 senior (Smith)
1 junior (Mi. Plumlee)
5 sophomores (Ma. Plumlee, Dawkins, Curry, Felix, Kelly)
3 freshman (Irving, Hairston, Thornton)

I’m not saying Duke can’t win the title with only two upperclassmen, I’m just saying don’t bet anything valuable on it.

Like I said before, If Singler comes back, then the picture changes and Duke is one of the top teams in the nation. Without him, they’re still one of the better teams, just not the favorite.

I will say this though, I suspect another down year for the ACC. Look for Carolina to rebound, while Florida State and Virginia Tech will both be teams that can compete for the ACC crown. But that’s it. Nobody else really bothers me. Whether Singler returns or not, Duke should be the favorite to win the ACC, with another shot at a No 1 seed in the tournament.