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Duke Basketball Season Preview

Mike Krzyzewski’s 2012-13 Duke Basketball team, his 33rd as the Blue Devils’ head coach, was the 2nd-most experienced roster he’s mentored since 2007 and the most since his national championship team in 2010. Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry were all in their fourth years under the tutelage of Krzyzewski, Steve Wojciechowski, Chris Collins, Jeff Capel and Nate James. That consistent experience allowed a roster which lost Kelly for 13 games due to a right foot injury and had Curry for only a couple of practices as he dealt with a right shin injury to win 30 games and lose to eventual national champion Louisville in the Elite Eight. After a first round loss to Lehigh the year before, Krzyzewski tabbed Kelly and Plumlee as captains in late April -- an unconventional move intended to provide some direction and stability to an otherwise rudderless ship. Curry would be added to that captains group on January 1st, halfway through the season.

And we don't care about the young folks

When those three departed with diplomas in hand, a rare sight for college basketball players destined to play professionally these days, they took with them not just 47.5 points and 17.8 rebounds per game but also their combined 12 years of experience. The Duke coaching staff did what they always do in the offseason, adding a top 10 recruiting class highlighted by forwards Jabari Parker and Semi Ojeleye and wing Matt Jones. The roster also gets a boost from transfer Rodney Hood, whose time spent sitting out last year was enough for the Duke coaching staff to select him as captain with senior Tyler Thornton for this upcoming season.

It’s an unusual situation in Durham, as the team’s best players (Hood and Parker) haven’t played a regular season minute in a Duke uniform. The senior Blue Devils this year (Tyler Thornton, Josh Hairston and Andre Dawkins*) combined for 6.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game last season. Normally, Thornton and Hairston would be captains by default due to their years in the system but Hairston^ was not voted to a leadership role by his teammates and coaches. Thornton was, and although his nature may lend to someone his younger teammates can look up to, his lack of playing time will likely result in some periods of time on the floor when everyone is looking around for someone to lead them and the people designated to do just that will be on the bench.

*Dawkins sat out last year for personal reasons
^After writing this, Hairston was picked as a third captain by Coach K.

To say there’s a youth movement in the Bull City would be somewhat disingenuous seeing as junior point guard Quinn Cook will be the leader of the team due to his position, but the talent level and expectations are slanted towards the younger players on the roster. Coach Mike Krzyzewski told the media in the preseason that he would “blend” the team around Hood and Parker, penciling in Cook and sophomore Amile Jefferson as starters alongside them. Sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon will command heavy minutes as the expected fifth starter, but freshman Matt Jones is expected to play a big role there as well.

Superfast Jellyfish

There are 351 teams in Division One college basketball. Duke’s adjusted tempo of 67.6 possessions per game came in at 96th in the country last year. The fastest team in the country played over five possessions faster, with Nebraska-Omaha blazing down the court at 72.8. That may not seem like a whole lot, but seeing as there were 95 teams between those two and 10 possessions per game between Duke at 96 and the 347th team, it’s a big gap relatively speaking. Duke played the same adjusted tempo, 67.6, in 2012 after playing faster in 2011 (69.3) and much slower (65.5) in 2010. Much of the talk this preseason from the Duke coaching staff has been about an increased tempo, but just how fast should this team be expected to play?

Looking at the last decade, could this be the fastest Duke team ever?

DUKE BASKETBALL

Adjusted Tempo (possessions per game adjusted by the pace at which opponents usually play)
- 2013 67.6
- 2012 67.6
- 2011 69.3
- 2010 65.5
- 2009 67.4
- 2008 73
- 2007 65.9
- 2006 71.4
- 2005 69
- 2004 69.8
- 2003 71.8

If Krzyzewski has anything to say about it they probably would be. With no true center down low, Duke will look to exploit its size advantage at the small forward spot with the 6’8” Hood and 6’8” Alex Murphy, its athleticism advantage at the power forward spot with versatile Jabari Parker and an uptempo offensive system designed to take the ball out of the opponent's primary ballhandler’s hands and keep the other team out of rebounding position. Quinn Cook’s style of play suits a running team well as he looks just as comfortable finding a rim running big as he does slashing to the lane himself with the ball on the break.

Can’t hold us

One potential roadblock for Duke’s desires to play the fastest they have in years are the new rules changes (which are incidentally designed to help offenses). Handchecks and changes to make it more difficult to draw a charge are two officiating guidelines that were voted in as rules. The changes to handchecking are as follows

- Placing and keeping a hand/forearm on opponent.
- Putting two hands on opponent.
- Continually jabbing by placing hand or forearm on opponent.
- Using an arm bar to impede the progress of the dribbler.

While for charges, defenders used to be required to be in a legal guarding position before the player with the ball left his feet. Now, when a player begins his upward motion to pass or shoot, the defender must be in legal guarding position. These changes were designed to enhance freedom of movement principles and a smoother game flow, but coaches are already prepping for the possibility that it will do just the opposite.

Check your head

Coach K said recently that this could be the toughest schedule his team will face in years. While he was referring to the inclusion of Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame in the ACC that’s quite the statement a year after facing the #3 (Kentucky), #2 (Louisville) and #4 (Ohio State) ranked teams before December of last year. This season, the Blue Devils will get tested early and often again, facing preseason #5 (Kansas), #7 (Michigan), #22 (UCLA) and potentially #6 (Arizona) all before exams in mid-December.

With a team built around a freshman in Parker and Hood, who’s playing his first game as a Blue Devil, there is reason to believe this year’s team won’t be able to make it through such a tough stretch unphased like last year’s veteran team did. Leadership, along with interior play, will be this team’s biggest question marks heading into a year with a lot of high expectations.

The season doesn’t get any easier when the nonconference slate is up. Trips to Notre Dame, Syracuse, Boston College and UNC are sandwiched in between hosting Maryland, Syracuse, Virginia and UNC.

Quality Control, Part 2

Without being around the team on a daily basis, it’s hard for an outside observer to make claims on what kind of leadership exists. But the decision to make Tyler Thornton one of the team’s captains does arise questions as he’s never averaged more than 22 minutes per game in his career. Granted, he was voted on by the players and coaches so they must see something that myself as an outsider doesn’t, but what happens if Hood is fouled out and Duke is getting worked on the court? Does Coach K insert Thornton into the lineup just to provide some leadership on the floor? Will another player have the personality to step up and take control of the team? Who steps up to shut down internal turmoil if it starts to boil up as the season progresses?

Of any questions facing this edition of the Duke Blue Devils, this is the most glaring to me without an answer. In 2012, after Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler graduated, there was something of a leadership vacuum. I can see the same thing happening this season unless it is addressed early and often. Parker, and to a greater extent Quinn Cook, will need to prove that they can take control of things if Hood is on the bench and Thornton isn’t a good fit on the court as I see those two playing the majority of the minutes.

Coach K tabbed Josh Hairston as a captain just days before the season would start. Hairston said that Krzyzewski stated that he had earned the captain’s role through his habits. While he will likely not get much time on the court like Thornton, Hairston is known as a vocal player and his leadership style will allow Hood to continue to lead by example and not take him out of his comfort zone too much.

Down Low (Nobody has to know)

Amile Jefferson is 6’9” tall and a generous 210 pounds. That’s great size for a college power forward but undersized at the center spot. Just looking at physical numbers, Jabari Parker is probably a better fit at the 5 than Jefferson heading into the year. Looking at style of play though, Amile is a more appropriate defender of college centers than the versatile Parker. While Coach Mike Krzyzewski has maintained the axiom that Duke doesn’t play positions for sometime now, and it may not be more true than it is with this year’s squad. Somebody has to guard the other team’s biggest guy. For the majority of the game, Jefferson will be called on to utilize his 7-foot wingspan and above average athleticism to negate any deficiencies he has in bulk.

The aforementioned desire to increase the tempo will aid in that proposition but opposing teams will seek to slow the game down, especially those with less athleticism than Duke boasts or with greater post depth. Just looking down the road at the schedule, UCLA, Virginia, Syracuse, North Carolina and Maryland could all accomplish just that. If Amile is forced to play in a halfcourt set against guys like Kennedy Meeks, we’ll likely be looking at Marshall Plumlee down low at times. Newly minted captain Josh Hairston will provide depth at both post positions, as he did last year, and could certainly be called on to play center if needed. He performed well matched up against the much taller lottery pick Nerlens Noel in last year’s game against Kentucky.

While Parker is sure to play over 30 minutes a game, his versatility will allow him to fill roles from the small forward, power forward or center role in any lineup. Redshirt sophomore Alex Murphy and Semi Ojeleye provide the same versatility, although none of the three is expected to play major minutes.

It will be an island of misfit toys down low, with the coaching staff striving to make the pieces work throughout the year. Duke’s ability to enforce their style of play and tempo will go a long way to determining Amile Jefferson’s effectiveness in the post.

Rotation

Coach K, like many other college coaches, is known to tighten up his rotation as the schedule gets tougher. While anywhere from nine to ten players might get heavy minutes early on in the season, in conference play two or three guys inevitably see more bench time than floor time. However, much of the talk this preseason has been about Duke’s uptempo style forcing Krzyzewski to go deeper into his rotation than in recent memory.

With that in mind, just how deep should the bench be expected to go and what players will see the floor in crunch time?

In his first media appearance, Coach K pegged four guys as starters -- Quinn Cook, Rodney Hood, Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson. It would be hard to imagine any of Cook, Hood or Jabari averaging less than 28-30 minutes per game and depending on how the other post players play aside from Jefferson, he’ll probably be right in that 25-28 mpg range as well. Assuming the big three play around 30 minutes each and Jefferson plays 25. That leaves 10 minutes per game at the 1, 3 and 4, 15 minutes per game at the 5 and 40 minutes per game at the 2. Taking those numbers into account, this is how I see the team’s minutes breaking down:

33 - Parker
32 - Hood
31 - Cook
26 - Jefferson
20 - Sulaimon
12 - Thornton
10 - Jones
10 - Hairston
10 - Murphy
8 - Dawkins
4 - Ojeleye
4 - Plumlee

Summer Grind: Jabari Parker

Parker’s Life

When Jabari was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as "the best high school basketball player since Lebron James", he hadn’t even started his junior season at Simeon Career Academy High School. It was undue, unnecessary and ultimately unfair to Parker, who would fracture his right foot two months later playing for Team USA in the FIBA U17 World Championship tournament in Lithuania. Being put on a pedestal that early on in his career, Parker had nowhere to go but down. And when Canadian phenom Andrew Wiggins reclassified into Parker’s class and Parker struggled while recovering from his foot injury, he slid backwards in the high school rankings.

The article linked above points out Parker already had a heavy dose of humility instilled in him by his parents, but having to sit out multiple games during the July evaluation period certainly increased that aspect of his personality. Despite all the accolades before he’s even stepped foot on a college court, Parker said that he wasn’t concerned about the speculative recognition -- that he wanted to be an all-time great. It’s unusual for a teenager his age to have that kind of foresight, especially one who’s been lauded for years as already having achieved his most precious of dreams.

It will be impossible for Parker to live up to the hype, as he’s already dismissed it. The only recognition that matters to him will come when his professional basketball career is finished. Get back to him in 2015.

Victory Dance

This young squad has only begun to scratch the surface of just how good they’ll be. Unlike the last two (and probably three) Duke Basketball teams, where the foundation had already been laid and pieces (Sulaimon last year, Rivers before that, Irving the year before), this year’s team is building a brand new house, just about from scratch. Even the returning players, Cook and Jefferson, will be asked to play different roles this season.

Since Duke will be looking to push the ball with whoever grabs the defensive rebound, Cook is being asked to play more of an off the ball role in the transition offense. Of course, he’ll still bring the ball up the court in the traditional offense (off made baskets and BLOB plays), but look for him to maximize his shooting abilities by flashing out off his defender on shots to be ready for the outlet pass.
Jefferson, like Cook, will see a different role in front of him. On a team of versatile forwards and guards he will be asked to play as a big man, at least on the defensive side of the floor. His ability to run the floor will fit this team’s offense extremely well while his long wingspan and legs will allow him to pick up nearly any player on defense. He, like Lance Thomas, could be asked to guard anyone from the 2-5.

Traditionally, all college basketball teams will only go as far as their point guard takes them. Since Duke will have a few different “point guards” on this team depending on how they end up with the ball, I’d say their year depends on just how well Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood adjust to the being Duke Basketball players and just how consistent Quinn Cook can be this year.

The talent is certainly there to win the national title from the 1-4 positions on the court, but I think their (lack of depth) at the center spot and a still to be determined leadership hierarchy in the locker room could ultimately doom them if they end up down double digits in the NCAA Tournament. Arizona in 2011, Lehigh in 2012 and Louisville in 2013 all showed that even the most talented Duke teams can be taken down on any given night. This team is just as susceptible, and will need strong voices on the team to prevent that from happening.

On to the next one

November 12th vs Kansas in the Champions Classic (Chicago, Illinois)

November 29th vs potentially Arizona in the Preseason NIT Championship (New York, NY)

December 3rd vs Michigan in the ACC/B1G Challenge (Cameron Indoor)

December 19th vs UCLA in the Carquest Auto Parts Classic (New York, NY)

January 4th at Notre Dame (South Bend) -- 1st ACC game and 1st time K has faced a former assistant in the conference regular season at Duke

January 13th vs Virginia (Cameron Indoor) -- Virginia is the type of team that can slow Duke down and has the athletic talent to stay with them even if they do get out and run

February 1st at Syracuse (Syracuse, NY) -- K’s first game against Boeheim in the ACC. This game sold out in minutes and is a highly anticipated battle between two of the top 10 teams in the country. Also showcases the two winningest coaches in the sport. Kryzewksi will likely be going for win #975 right around then.

February 8th at Boston College (Chestnut Hill, Mass) -- This team is going to be better than people think and will be the only matchup between the two squads. It’s also in the midst of a hellish two weeks for Duke that will see them going to Syracuse a week before on 2/1, hosting Wake Forest on 2/4, traveling to BC on 2/8, going to UNC on 2/12 and then hosting Maryland on 2/15 (for the last time).

February 12th at UNC (Chapel Hill) -- Whether or not PJ is back for this game, it’s always a battle. Parker and McAdoo will be a truly delightful matchup to see.

February 22nd vs Syracuse (Cameron Indoor) -- Boeheim’s first trip to Cameron. Let’s hope he finds Durham’s dining scene adequate.

March 8th vs UNC (Cameron Indoor) -- Senior Night for Andre Dawkins, Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston. Will likely be very important for seeding purposes in both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments. Duke has won four of the last five matchups in the rivalry and seven of the last nine. If Duke picks up the win in Chapel Hill in February, this one could be an exclamation point on a period of recent domination.

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