Duke basketball: Bully-ball might be back for Blue Devils

Duke basketball (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
Duke basketball (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images) /
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The Future is Now: Why the 2021-22 Duke basketball team could be so good

Defense, defense, and some more defense. This Duke basketball team should have the capability to be one of the best defensive teams in the country. These Blue Devils are long, tall, and very solid. Wendell Moore, Trevor Keels, Paolo Banchero, Theo John, AJ Griffin, and Mark Williams are all at least 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds with agility, speed, and athleticism.

They all, with the exception of Williams, seem to have a bit of a nasty streak that appears to heighten their collective competitiveness and will likely manifest itself in quite a few staredowns this season. This team could remind us of that team from 2018-19 when the Blue Devils were first in blocks, fifth in steals, and a top 17 team in the country defending the two and the 3-point line.

It’s actually in the small snippet of film from Villanova basketball that we can see how terrifying this Duke basketball team can be. Even though these were the Wildcats’ highlights, the video shows them driving into the lane on multiple occasions to be met by a wall of Duke defenders. Many times the smaller ‘Cats seemed to run into trouble and fake or pivot looking for a way out.

It’s not too hard to imagine having nowhere to go in the paint as Williams and Banchero are closing in with Keels, Griffin, Moore, and Jeremy Roach rotating quickly to cover the outlet passes.

Like the Duke basketball team of a few years ago, this team should be able to switch almost anything, as Williams has shown to be more nimble than his size would suggest while Roach is the perfect fill-in for Tre Jones’ relentless on-ball pressure. This team is built to get the turnovers that lead to transition buckets, which that 2018-19 group used to demoralize opponents, although Zion usually did that no matter where he was on the floor.

Offensively, this team resembles the 1998-99 Blue Devil bunch, although they aren’t as lethally capable as that one. It’s in the more defined roles, whereas Zion, RJ, or Cam could easily slot over and run the offense for stretches.

Banchero as Brand isn’t a stretch, although Paolo’s game allows him to stretch the floor more than Elton did. Griffin could be dead-on as Corey Maggette off the bench with his power, athleticism, and bounce, even though he’s not as pure a scorer.

Keels takes over Langdon’s spot and, hopefully, can approach the proficiency with which the Alaskan Assassin put the ball in the basket. His all-around play and points will be needed to keep teams from loading up to stop Banchero.

Offensively, it will interesting to see how Mark Williams fits with Banchero, who will undoubtedly be the focal point for Duke basketball this season.

Although the sightings were rare, the first sequence of Duke’s Saturday highlights with Williams at the top of the key show how he might be effective. He has shown to be a solid and unselfish passer. And being able to survey the court from the top of the key allows him to pass or crash the boards for second-chance opportunities. If he can hit some threes, as he did at Countdown to Craziness, Duke basketball would present a whole new set of challenges for everyone.

I would also expect to see Williams in a few high-ball screens and in some high-low, two-man game. This team should also be a beast on the glass on both ends and finish with a top 15 ranking for total rebounds, just as the program’s previous two Duke basketball bullies did.

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Though comparisons to previous teams are always difficult, the 2021-22 Blue Devils look to be taking some inspiration from two of Duke basketball’s most fearsome squads. They have the strength and length while looking rough, tough, and ready to do what those teams did: take Duke basketball to the precipice of glory. They just want to close the deal on that bully-ball playbook for good with the national title that those teams deserved.