My colleague, Matthew Travis, previewed Duke’s season earlier this week. I love his optimism for the season. While I agree on several levels, my concerns are a little greater than Matthew’s and I don’t expect a 37-2 season. Here are my thoughts on the starting lineup, key questions, and final predictions for the season:
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG: Trevon Duval
The 6’3″ freshman will start immediately for Duke. Despite the Marvin Bagley signing, Duval remains Duke’s most important newcomer. The last two years Duke has struggled without a true point guard. Duval should immediately fix that. He is well regarded for his play-making ability along with his astounding athleticism. The only knock on Duval is jump shot; however, surrounded by an incredibly talented team, Duval should thrive as a distributor and slasher.
SG: Grayson Allen
We know all about Allen’s abilities – a deadly shooter, a fearless driver, and a fiery competitor. We also all know about Allen’s liabilities – prone to the occasional, if harmless, trips and maybe too competitive. Which Allen will show up this year? The leader this team badly needs or the distraction that nearly wrecked the 2016-2017 team? This team’s season will turn on the answer.
SG: Gary Trent, Jr.
Trent enters his first year at Duke known for his ability to score at all three levels. While he will never be the focus on the likely prolific offense, Trent’s ability to put the ball in the bucket will help Duke get tough points verse stout defenses. The biggest criticism of Trent is that he can be a ball stopper. This is unlikely to be a problem after a few months under Coach K’s tutelage and surrounded by the most talented team in college.
PF: Wendell Carter, Jr.
Amazingly, Carter seems to be overlooked on this team. The buzz throughout the offseason has been on Allen, Duval, and Bagley. Meanwhile, Carter, who was a consensus top 5 recruit, enters Duke nearly unheralded. This is a mistake. Carter looks like a monster in the paint and will remain a man against boys even in the college game. The only concern is how he co-exists with another dominant big man….
C: Marvin Bagley, III
Bagley’s reclassification and commitment to Duke in August vaulted Duke to the top of pre-season polls. But how good is Bagley? I’ve heard he is the best high school recruit since Lebron James, that he is a mix between Anthony Davis and Chris Bosh and that he more developed than Davis and Bosh at his age. I want everyone to pump the brakes. It surely sounds like Bagley is an exceptional talent. Exceptional enough to lead Duke to a National Title. However, he has not played a game of college basketball yet. Please, let’s watch him play at least a few games before we anoint him Michael Jordan or, even, the best player in college.
This team is undoubtedly talented – like last year’s team. Unfortunately, injuries to Coach K and nearly every player, a mid-season distraction, and a difficult NCAA Tournament draw (South Carolina in South Carolina) left Duke fans wanting at the end of the season. Will this season turn out differently? If Duke finds positive answers to the following questions, they will have an excellent shot at claiming the Blue Devils sixth banner.
Can Duke’s Talent Overcome Its Incredible Youth?
I challenge you to find another Duke team this young. Duke returns only one significant contributor from last year – Grayson Allen. Marques Bolden and Antonio Vrankovic each had brief moments of contribution but bring very little on court experience. Duke is likely to be starting 4(!) freshman and 5 or 6 freshman will likely play significant minutes.
For most teams, this extreme youth would present problems. For a team with championship aspirations, its a huge problem.
Fortunately, Coach K has done this before. In 2015, Coach K, with only one senior leader (Quinn Cook), led Duke to the National Title behind three dynamic freshman – Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor, and Justise Winslow. Can Coach K do it again?
Is Grayson Allen ready to be a leader?
I do not want to re-hash Allen’s tripping incidents and meltdowns of the last two years. But is he finally over it? Allen said all the right things last year and then lost control again. Allen’s maturity is a huge question for this team. This is particularly true given that Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones are no longer there to step in for him.
Allen needs to do more than just stop tripping players. He needs to show these freshman the commitment it takes to win on the road in the ACC, how to control their emotions in a tight game against UNC, and how to navigate the single elimination format of the NCAA Tournament. If he fails, Duke fails.
Can Duke avoid injuries?
Duke was ravaged by injuries last year. The only time the team was fully healthy was at the end of the season when Duke won 4 games in 4 days in route to the ACC Tournament Championship. There isn’t much to say about this. It is imperative that Duke stays healthy to develop as individuals and as a team.
This article is already too long to predict every game. I probably lost you after the projected starting lineup so I’ll only look at a few key games and give you my predictions for ACC Regular Season, ACC Tourney, and the NCAA Tourney.
Michigan State in the third game of the season will present a huge challenge. This is one of the most interesting games of the year. On one hand, Duke’s inexperience will likely be on full display against the talented and experienced Spartans. On the other hand, Coach K owns Tom Izzo. I was unable to definitively verify this but I believe Coach K is 10-1 against Izzo. Regardless, its not even close. However, I think it will be just a little too early for Duke and I expect the Blue Devils to lose their first game of the season here.
The PK80 Tourney will provide Duke fans with some entertaining games early in the season. Butler or Texas will both make an interesting semi-final opponent. And Florida or Gonzaga will await Duke, if they make it, in the finals. I expect Duke to add quality wins against Butler and Florida in route to this early season championship.
The ACC schedule will again present a daunting gauntlet of games. Duke will be challenged with away games against Miami, UNC, Virginia Tech, and Clemson and home games against Virginia, Louisville, Notre Dame, and UNC. I expect Duke to drop 4 or 5 of these games. Its asking too much of such a young team to navigate the ACC without taking a few losses.
Regular Season Record: 26 – 5 (ACC Regular Season Champs)
ACC Tournament Result: A loss in the finals to Notre Dame.
NCAA Tournament: A win in the finals over Michigan State.
Honestly, I feel this is optimistic. I severely doubt that a team starting 4 freshman can win it all. But, hey, I am an eternal optimist and I like the symmetry of Duke avenging its early season loss to Michigan State in the finals. Go Duke!