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A New Season - Al Featherston

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It's hard to remember a season opening with so many imponderables - not only regarding this Duke team, but also looking at the ACC and the national scene.

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It's a wide open year, both in the ACC and nationally.

The question is whether Duke is poised to do what it did in 2010, find the right combination of veterans, emerging stars and newcomers to snatch a national title? Or will it be a year like 2007, when the pieces never quite fit together and the Devils had to endure what was for them a disappointing season?

I wish I could provide a definitive answer to that question. Earlier, I was very optimistic about the chances of this Duke team being better than advertised, but the nagging injury to Seth Curry - a mysterious injury (leg? foot? ankle?) that Mike Krzyzewski said is going to be a concern all season - is worrisome. And the early season absence of Marshall Plumlee - a player Duke coaches thought was going to be a major surprise contributor - is going to slow the team's development.

That doesn't mean that optimism has given way to pessimism. It's merely made me a bit more cautious about the pace of Duke's development and its early performance.

The two exhibition games have provided plenty of positives, but also a few not-so-positive moments. Before I explore those, allow me to interject a few words about Krzyzewski's scheduling genius -as it applies to the two exhibition games.

Several years ago, he began the practice of scheduling the defending Division II national champion as a preseason exhibition.

"It has worked out extremely well," Krzyzewski said. "You always end up playing a team that believes they can win. They are extremely well coached. They are together. Their kids are fearless and they're strong. And if they return a lot of their people they are going to be good again."

Western Washington returns four starters and five of the seven top players off last year's national champs. Winston-Salem State, Duke's second exhibition opponent, returns the bulk of the team that won the CIAA title a year ago (the Rams are favored again this season).

Duke needs the strong preseason tests this year more than most. Because of the injuries that have prevented Curry and Marshall Plumlee from practicing, Coach K is down to eight scholarship players. Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood, a stud who will be eligible next season, provides a ninth body for practice and Todd Zafirovski, a veteran walk-on in a 10th.

But that's the bare minimum needed to scrimmage. It limits what Krzyzewski and his staff can do in practice. They are still scrambling to figure out a rotation and to understand how best to use newcomers Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson. They're still trying to find the strengths and weaknesses of redshirt freshman Alex Murphy, while all the players are trying to figure out how to play with soph Quinn Cook at point guard.

It's a very different situation than a year ago, when Duke had its China/Dubai tour - and the 10 days of extra practice that went with it - to prepare for the season. The Blue Devils entered 2011-12 play a month ahead of everybody else. That may have contributed to the team's fast start and early season wins over the likes of Michigan State, Michigan and Kansas.

That won't be the case when Duke opens this season - technically Friday night against Georgia State, but really next Tuesday night in Atlanta, when Duke takes on No. 3 Kentucky.

After an easy home game with Florida Gulf Coast comes the deluge - a Nov. 22 game in the Bahamas against a solid Minnesota team (the 30th most votes in the preseason AP poll), followed by a probable semifinal game against No. 17 Memphis and a possible championship game test the next night against No. 2 Louisville. Then Duke returns home on Nov. 28 to meet No. 4 Ohio State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

That's at least two and potentially three top five matchups before December!

Duke has the toughest schedule of any national contender - and without question the toughest November slate.

Will the Devils be ready for that?

I believe Krzyzewski's two exhibition games provided his team with the best chance to prepare for the schedule's killer start.

It's not only that Western Washington and Winston-Salem State were tough, veteran, well-coached winning teams … but the key fact is that the two Division II opponents play such distinctly different styles that Duke was tested in all phases of the game.

Western Washington is a great - at its level - offensive team. They run a fast tempo and they try to outscore teams. Duke not only matched that - they exploited it. The Blue Devils played a superb offensive game - even without the sidelined Curry. Duke hit 57.6 percent from the floor, almost 43 percent from 3-point range and scored 105 points.

Winston-Salem State is a team that is defensive oriented team.

"I know we can play defense," WS State coach Bobby Collins said. "When we score, we are a very, very good team."

But Duke didn't let the Rams do that - limiting them to 45 points on 29 percent shooting. The visitors managed just 13 first-half points.

"They did a good job of defending us, taking away our offensive sets," Collins said. "That is something we take a lot of pride in executing and they were taking that away from us today. They are Duke. They are long, athletic and they are strong. It showed when we were trying to execute our plays."

Where Western Washington played a quick tempo, Winston-Salem State did it's best to slow things down and make the Devils work for 30 seconds or so on each defensive possession. The second game wasn't nearly as much fun to watch, but proved to be a perfect complement to the first exhibition.

One great offensive showing and one great defensive showing.

Now the question is - can Duke put those two aspects together? That's something they'll have to do to beat a Kentucky or a Louisville or an Ohio State.

I honestly don't know if it comes together quickly enough. But let me list a few random observations from the first two exhibitions (plus the Blue-White scrimmage and the public Fort Bragg workout):

(1) The defense is coming.

A year ago, Duke struggled defensively - worse than at any time since the program's brief blip in the mid-1990s. According to Ken Pomeroy, who tracks such things, the Devils ranked 70th nationally in defensive efficiency. That's the first time Duke has not finished in the top 20 defensively since he's been doing the rankings.

While Coach K argued that the 2012 Devils did improve defensively as the season went on, he vowed to re-focus the team on defense going into the season. He suggested that some personnel changes ought to help.

So far, they have.

A year ago, Duke had plenty of good big men and quite a few good little men and almost nothing in between. Now, 6-8 redshirt freshman Alex Murphy and 6-8 true freshman Amile Jefferson bring a lot of length to the wing forward spot - a position usually filled by a 6-4 guard last season. Actually 6-2 Tyler Thornton, technically playing the point on offense, often ended up defending the opposing No. 3 man.

Murphy and Jefferson each have some issues (more on that later), but defensively, they've both been impressive so far. The coaches expected Murphy, who spent much of last season defending Austin Rivers and Ryan Kelly in practice, to be an effective inside-outside defender. But Jefferson, who is still an inside player offensively, has shown the ability to defend on the perimeter. In fact, he may be better at that than he will be defending big power forwards who are strong enough to overpower his still-frail frame.

If nothing else, it raises the possibility of Murphy and Jefferson playing together - while reversing their roles on the opposite ends of the floor. Murphy, more comfortable on the perimeter offensively, would be the 3 on offense, but can defend in the post. Jefferson needs to play in the post offensively, but he can defend on the wing - where his 7-foot wingspan makes him a very effective defender.

In addition, 6-3 freshman Rasheed Sulaimon brings a lot more length to the perimeter. Although an inch shorter than Rivers or Andre Dawkins, who played on the wing a year ago, Sulaimon had a 6-8 wing-span and much more lateral quickness than the two players he replaces.

More importantly, he has already demonstrated an enthusiasm for defense that might be more important than physical gifts. Just think back to last year, when freshman Michael Gbinije might have been the mid-size wing defender that Duke needed so badly. He had all the physical skills to do it … he just lacked the defensive motivation.

Sulaimon already has that.

Now, that's not to say that Duke is a finished defensive product. Against Winston-Salem State, the Devils displayed one glaring defensive flaw:

"We didn't finish the play," Krzyzewski said. "That means we gave up too many offensive rebounds. Our initial defense was very, very good, but you have to finish it by getting the defensive rebound. Too often, we didn't do that."

Most of the breakdowns came on long rebounds. Mason Plumlee has averaged 10.5 rebounds in the two exhibitions. Kelly has averaged 7.0 rebounds. Murphy and Jefferson, splitting the small forward spot, have averaged 8.5 rebounds between them. Those are decent numbers from the frontcourt.

The problem against Winston-Salem State was that the Rams' guards were consistently beating Duke's guards to long rebounds. The 6-3 WyKevin Bazemore (his first name is not a misprint) ran down 17 rebounds (although, to be fair, he was playing small forward, not guard).

At this point, that's more a problem to be corrected than a serious flaw - but it is something to watch.

(2) The Quinn Cook experiment.

I've written about how Cook was once regarded as the best point guard in his class - better than a number of contemporaries who have gone on to be first-round NBA draft picks. We all know how his career was derailed by a knee injury before his senior year at Oak Hill Academy and how his freshman season was basically wasted as he struggled to recover - mentally and physically - from that injury.

Cook told me that his strong summer - both in the North Carolina Pro-Am at North Carolina Central and in the Four Nations Cup in Estonia - had restored his confidence. He also worked out all summer with former Duke guard Nolan Smith, who cited his own experience as a slow-starter who emerged as a star, to mentor Cook.

Through the two exhibition games, Cook gives every indication that his physical problems are behind him. He's quick, strong and he pushes the ball up the court at a pace that rivals Kyrie Irving or Bobby Hurley.

I think it's significant that he's installed as Duke's point guard ahead of Tyler Thornton, who played the position most of last year. In 2012, Thornton played 717 minutes and started 19 games for Duke …Cook started four games and played 387 minutes.

Now, Thornton hasn't regressed. He's still a steady, effective player. He doesn't create, but he protects the ball. He's a good defender. And he's proven the ability to make the clutch shot.

I bring him up because he's a benchmark for Cook's progress. A year ago, Thornton was a significantly better player than Cook. Today … well, it's Cook's team to run.

He's better defensively on the ball and he's been much more aggressive looking for his own shot.

The one thing that is a bit disquieting is his lack of assists. A year ago in his limited duty, that was the one thing Cook did very well - he passed out 63 assists and had just 18 turnovers. So far in the two exhibitions, he has four assists and nine turnovers.

Those aren't good numbers for a point guard.

Of course, his numbers are a bit skewered by the Western Washington game, when Cook had at least half a dozen "assists" that led to free throws for his teammates (such plays aren't counted in the stats). And you'd expect the turnover rate to be high as Cook and his teammates learn how to play with each other.

Again, not a problem … just another area where development is required.

(3) The freshmen … aka, The Kids are Alright.

The one bright spot in Seth Curry's situation is that it's given Rasheed Sulaimon a chance to establish himself at wing guard.

"With Seth being out for practice Rasheed's been able to play like a starting position," Krzyzewski said. "That's helped him. I think it's moved him along further. The limited numbers have helped our young guys move forward more. I just wish we had more numbers. I wish we were healthy."

Through one scrimmage and two exhibition games, it's possible that Sulaimon has been Duke's second best player. His defense, as noted above, is exciting. He's able to score on the drive and (in the Western Washington game at least) from long range. His handles the ball well and, so far, has made good decisions.

"Sulaimon's going to be a real good player," Krzyzewski said. "He's 6-4, can defend the ball. He can defend off the ball. He can drive it. He's right now a little bit of a streaky outside shooter but as soon as he gets that part of his game … He is going to be a really good player. Not a good one, a really good one. He is already a good player, and it is just a matter of getting more experience."

Most observers had expected Sulaimon to be an impact player. But many expected Amile Jefferson to face some adjustment problems. After all, he was a slender - almost skinny - post player who clearly needs to add weight and strength to battle the grown ups he'll face in the post in the ACC. Can you envision him bouncing off Reggie Johnson or trying to move Richard Howell off the blocks?

But Jefferson has made any early statement. Perhaps the most important thing he's proved is that he can effectively guard perimeter players - something he rarely had to do in high school. He's proved to be an effective offensive player inside. He doesn't really have a signature move. He's not a great shooter. And he can't really power inside.

Yet, somehow he keeps coming up with the ball in close and so far this season, he's converted his opportunities better than anyone on the team.

"Amile is that guy who doesn't have a position," Krzyzewski said. "He plays the big, the perimeter, but you know - you are watching the game. When he comes in, the life meter goes up. He is more enthusiastic than the crowd. He is not watching the game, he is playing the game, and he is playing the game with gusto, so those two kids have been terrific."

Jefferson DOES have some development ahead of him. He definitely needs to get stronger and he could improve his handle. At some point, if would be nice if he added a mid-range jump shot.

But make no mistake - the kid can help this Duke team immediately.

Oddly, the most experienced freshman - redshirt Alex Murphy - has struggled the most.

He has done some really good things - so far he's been the team's second-best rebounder (behind Mason Plumlee) and has defended well. He runs the court beautifully, even if he doesn't have a lot to show for it.

Unfortunately, he looks very shaky at the offensive end and he hasn't always been making good decisions with the ball. Against Winston-Salem State, he came up with the ball in transition and started to push it up the court in traffic. He got past one defender with a dazzling behind-the-back move, but moments later, he tried the same maneuver again and lost the ball.

Murphy is reputed to be a good 3-point shooter. He did hit a couple of 3s in the Blue Devil scrimmage, but he didn't attempt one against Western Washington and he missed two badly against Winston-Salem State. To be fair, so did everybody else in that game.

We have a very small sample size for Murphy's offensive skill-set. His defense and his rebounding can earn him playing time. But he needs to find an offensive role.

The fourth freshman - Marshall Plumlee - is still weeks away from joining his teammates on the court. The good news is that he shed his crutches between the first and second exhibition games. But as of last Thursday night, he was still wearing a protective boot.

(4) 1 for 17.

There's no way to pretty that up. And after Duke missed 16 of 17 3-point shots against Winston-Salem State, Coach K could only laugh about it.

"I don't know if we broke a record here for lowest percentage - 1-for-17?" he said.

It probably would be a record if it happened in an official game. It is a disquieting sign for a team that usually exploits the 3-pointer effectively. More than anything, it shows how much Curry's problems hurt - healthy, he is clearly one of the top 3-point shooters in the ACC. He's had 64 3-pointers in each of the last two seasons - both times ranking in the top 10 of the ACC. He's hit almost 41 percent for his career.

But even though Duke lost two of its top three 3-point shooters last season (Andre Dawkins was first; Austin Rivers third), the Devils should still have some decent 3-point weapons beyond Curry. Ryan Kelly made 40 3-pointers a year ago and shot 40.8 percent of his long-range shots. Rasheed Sulaimon won the 3-point shooting contest before the McDonald's All-American game. Alex Murphy was a deadly 3-point shooter playing for the Finnish National team this summer. Chris Collins told me last summer that shooting is a strength of Quinn Cook's game (although he - like Murphy - still has to prove it). And don't forget Tyler Thornton, who made 27 3s a year ago - often at the most crucial moments.

Whatever the 3-point potential of this team, Duke might be better off if the Devils don't build their offense around the shot. It's been a frequent criticism of Coach K's recent teams that they live by the 3 and die by the 3. There is some truth in that, especially last year when the Devils shot well from 3 in almost all their big wins and poorly in the losses that hurt (6-of-26 against Lehigh).

The 1-for-17 number reminded me of a season where Duke did NOT depend on the 3-point shot.

The 2010 Blue Devils were a lot like last year's team in the sense that they sometimes shot the three well and sometimes shot it poorly. The 2010 team averaged 7.6 3's a game and hit 38.5 percent of its attempts. The 2012 team averaged eight 3s a game and hit 37.1 percent - not that much different.

The difference was that the 2010 Blue Devils often won on nights when the 3 wasn't falling. And that's where the 17 3-point attempts struck a chord of memory. No, the 2010 Devils never went 1-for-17, but they did go 3-for-17 in an impressive victory over Pac 10 champ California in the NCAA Tournament. They went a mediocre 5-of-17 in several key wins - over St. John's, over Boston College in Chesnut Hills, over Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game and, oh yes, over Butler in the national championship game.

There were some wins where the 3-pointer played a big part, especially the South Regional championship victory over Baylor (11-for-23) and the NCAA semifinal victory over West Virginia (13-of-25). But there was also a 1-for-12 victory over Boston College in Durham; a 4-of-18 win over Arizona State in Madison Square Garden, a 4-of-13 rout of Wake Forest (BTW: both Wake and BC were pretty talented in 2010) and a 4-of-13 win at Clemson.

My point is that the 2010 Blue Devils could use the 3-point shot as a weapon, but they found other ways to win. Down the stretch, Duke played great defense and turned out to be the best rebounding team in the country.

I'm not saying that the 2012-13 Blue Devils will develop along the same path as the 2010 champs. I'm merely suggesting that if this Duke team is going to make a title run, it needs to develop its own strengths - and while I think 3-point shooting will be one of those strengths, I expect the Devils to develop other weapons. Right now, I'd like to see Cook work harder to get Mason Plumlee the ball down low. I'd like to see a healthy Curry and a consistent Sulaimon spot up to take the inside-out pass from Duke's good-passing big man. I want to see this team run.

Most of all, I want see Duke beat one of the superpowers it's going to face early on a night when the team is not shooting the 3-pointer well.

Anyway, I may be reading way too much into a small sample size. I don't know. I do think that by the end of this month, we'll have a pretty good idea of how much potential this Duke team really has.