Duke's upcoming season took a promising turn on Monday as Kyle Singler announced his intention to return for his senior season. This gives Duke a very potent front line to add to their promising perimeter game.
It also returns two of the big three. Duke obviously loses seniors Jon Scheyer, Lance Thomas, and Brian Zoubek, but keeping Singler changes things.
In the backcourt, Duke will return Nolan Smith and Andre Dawkins. Seth Curry will be eligible and star recruit Kyrie Irving is slated to take over at point guard. Freshman Tyler Thornton, a highly regarded defender, also joins the team
Up front, Singler will be joined by Miles and Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly, and also junior-college transfer Carrick Felix and freshman Josh Hairston.
From Singler's point of view, there are enough players on this team of differing skills to potentially allow him to play to his strengths. During his career, his versatility has allowed him to move from the post to power forward and finally to the perimeter. With the size up front and the strength in the backcourt, Duke can use his versatility not just where it's needed but where it is most valuable. They can use him in constant mismatches. They can put him at three, conceivably four positions.
In other words, rather than simply using him to fill needs, they can use him aggressively, like the queen in chess.
Still, there are many questions to answer. One of the characteristics of Duke basketball is that guys who maybe didn't seem that great as sophomores often seem irreplaceable when they do leave -- yet they do get replaced. Think of Gerald Henderson last year, Scheyer, Thomas, and Zoubek this year.
Before the season, not many people would've seen Thomas and Zoubek as irreplaceable. By February, a team with a different identity will have emerged. Singler and Smith will provide senior leadership, the Plumlees will continue to improve, and the perimeter players will have established a rotation. Younger guys like Hairston, Kelly, and Thornton will start taking on different roles. For all we know, Kelly may come back as a sophomore looking like Nick Horvath, who memorably transformed his body from a skinny freshman to a powerfully muscled inside presence as a senior. We have no idea at this point what Felix or Hairston will offer in their first years, but if you look at Felix and think Dahntay Jones, and see a potential defensive wrecking force, things are looking good.
Even with Singler back, it won't be fair to compare next year's team to this one. Losing three seniors, all of whom are tremendous leaders and guys who refused mediocrity on any daily basis, won't be easy. Think about 2002. That team was probably more talented than the 2001 championship team. However, there was no replacing Shane Battier and Nate James, both of whom were superb leaders.
No matter. Duke will be pursuing the title again. They will be favored although perhaps Michigan State, with two straight trips to the Final Four and tons of experience, has a strong argument.
But the Blue Devils will have a shot and really, since the odds are against everyone, all you can ask for is a chance. Duke's chances just got a lot better.
Kyle Singler is currently the #18 all-time scorer at Duke with 1,767 points and if he matches his output as a junior, should finish at around 2,474 for his career and thus pass Christian Laettner for third place all-time. It's worth pointing out that the top five players on that list all have their jerseys retired.
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