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ACC Preview #15 - Duke

Duke is going to be very good but no team is perfect - or unbeatable.

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NCAA Basketball Tournament - West Regional - Duke v Oregon

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 24: Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts in the first half while taking on the Oregon Ducks in the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament West Regional at the Honda Center on March 24, 2016 in Anaheim, California.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

As you’ve seen the polls are starting to come out and the only two we follow closely are the coaches poll and KenPom.

The coaches obviously know more than anyone else does so they are worth listening to.

Still, KenPom is interesting. He ranks the ACC teams this way: UNC #5, Virginia #7, Louisville #9, Syracuse #12, Clemson #23, Miami right behind at #24, NC State at #36, Virginia Tech at #39, FSU just one back at #40, Notre Dame at #50, Pitt one back at #51 (that’s the third time ACC teams are separated by just one spot in case you’re counting), Wake Forest checks in at #76, Georgia Tech at #107 and BC bringing up the rear at #154.

So that leaves us one short...oh yeah! Duke is #1.

And that’s a good place to pick up our 15th ACC preview because we always save the best for last.

Duke has an interesting roster this year. It has experience with Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones, Grayson Allen, Sean Obi, who is in his third year in the program now although he’s been slowed by injuries to date, Chase Jeter and Luke Kennard.

There are the developing players Coach K likes to have in this new age of basketball, Antonio Vrankovic and Justin Robinson, both redshirt freshmen.

Then there are the freshmen, and what a class it is.

Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Frank Jackson, Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier and Aussie Jack White.

Where to begin?

Let’s start thematically. As you may know, Coach K has three systems: offense, defense and communication.

Duke has tremendous potential on offense. The three point shooting is ridiculous: Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, Matt Jones, Frank Jackson and Jayson Tatum can all shoot it.

Driving? Allen loves it; in fact at times he’s positively reckless about it. Kennard is a sneaky penetrator. Frank Jackson can do it as well. We haven’t seen Tatum do it a lot but we expect he’ll get his share too. Jefferson has spent most of his career near the basket and while we expect he’ll expand his game this year, he’s good in the lane. White, who has reportedly been pretty fearless in practice, might get his share.

And around the basket? It was a problem at times for Duke after Jefferson’s December injury but he's back. Bolden is quite good in the paint. Harry Giles has been a dominant player in every way when healthy and we think that DeLaurier will make his living in the paint for a while too. And over the summer Jeter, who got pushed around a lot as a freshman, clearly toughened up. So there are lots of potential scorers inside.

When you look down the roster, you probably wouldn’t want Obi handling the ball a lot and that might be true for Jeter too. Otherwise though everyone other than Vrankovic can be trusted to handle the ball.

This will probably mitigate the biggest concern this team has which is at point guard.

Frank Jackson is expected to take over. It might have been Derryck Thornton, had he been more patient and open to what Duke needed from him but he decamped to Southern Cal so Jackson is the most likely candidate.

Jones did it last year though and Allen has worked on his ball handling.

Jackson is plenty talented enough but the good news is that If he can’t pick it up, Duke has a lot of guys who can pitch in.

Duke’s offense should be really good. You can expect teams to target Jackson and to try to rattle the freshman. That’ll be the best way to attack Duke until he shows that it’s not.

It’d be great if he turned out to have a natural instinct at point guard - it’s too early to tell - but given Duke’s talent level and the unselfishness of the players, if necessary, this can be overcome.

More on that later.

Defensively, this could be Duke’s best team in a while. The 2010 national championship team was pretty sturdy defensively but more in a half-court game. This group has the potential to get really intense on defense. For an interesting comparison, not that they’re identical, consider the 1999 team.

As you’ll remember, that group had Trajan Langdon, Chris Carrawell, Nate James, Taymon Domzalski, Elton Brand, Shane Battier, William Avery, Chris Burgess and Corey Maggette.

At times, that team could just about go Mike Tyson on people, scaring them before the game even began.

This team has some similarities, something that will be more obvious when Giles debuts.

A sensational young player who has been compared to former Michigan star Chris Webber only with more common sense and character, he’s a terrific defender. When you put him next to Jefferson and maybe Jones at the wing and add Allen and Jackson in the backcourt, your defense is potentially suffocating.

We’re just talking about defense now; we realize that that lineup would leave Tatum out.

We also expect that DeLaurier will be an important factor on defense. He’ll have a chance to make his mark as a rebounder and defender, at least early on.

So both offense and defense could be superb.

And the third system, communication?

It should be good as well.

The biggest thing is that Jefferson is back. When he went out last year, Coach K said he was the team’s best talker. Other guys stepped up - Jones certainly and most notably Marshall Plumlee, who emerged as a tough-as-nails leader.

Jefferson’s absence hurt though. No getting around that.

He’s going to be a tremendous leader in his final season. It reminds us a bit of Lance Thomas.

He started for most of his career at Duke but had a fairly quiet game. Then when Duke played at Clemson, and struggled, we saw how he took control of his team emotionally. He pushed and cajoled and got everyone going.

Jefferson has that potential.

Jones will also be key. As a freshman, Coach K said he never had a bad practice which is extraordinary. He’s a mature and seasoned captain. He played hurt for a lot of last season but this season, like Jefferson, he’s healthy and should be much better.

And Allen will also be a leader. He’s a quiet player and he’s had to learn to be vocal but he’s certainly improved. And this year much is expected of him. He’ll step up and all three guys will lead by example as well.

We expect others will step up as well. This appears to be a group with exceptional character. Kennard is ready to step up a notch as is Jeter. And guys like Giles, Tatum and White could take on big emotional roles with this group.

So for that matter might a guy like Robinson.

Last year he had a subtle but important impact on Plumlee. Here’s what he said at the banquet about his young teammate who, remember, redshirted last year:

"We had just lost to Notre Dame, and I had played the worst game of my career. The entire team was counting on me, and I let them down. Feelings-wise, I was probably at my absolute lowest. After the loss, I went back to my room, I grabbed enough food to last me a few days so I wouldn’t have to leave, and I turned on the TV. I wanted to disappear.

"And it was at that moment that Justin Robinson—J-Rob swag—walked into my room. And this son of a gun, for lack of a better word—I had to write son of a gun so I didn’t use the expletive I wanted to use. This son of a gun—I shot him the meanest look. Every part of my body language was saying get the hell out of my room. A blind person could have seen that I didn’t want anyone in the room. But this guy ignored it all and came and sat next to me and watched TV for hours.

"He didn’t want me to be alone. He didn’t want me to wallow in my self-pity. He cared enough to not do what I wanted, but to do what I needed."

That’s a significant impact for a guy who didn’t play a minute.

So as far as communication goes, we think Duke should be in good shape overall.

What are the weaknesses?

Everyone is pointing to point guard and that may well be one.

You could make an argument that Duke isn’t as athletic as some teams may be.

Well, maybe. Remember though that Duke is still without its best talent in Giles.

We might go with a slightly different take.

Duke’s best teams have always had one or two 6-5 to 6-8 players who get used sort of as shock troops. You might call them Swiss Army Knives because they can be used in multiple ways.

Think Justise Winslow, Corey Maggette, or even, in his better moments, Rasheed Sulaimon.

One guy who went really unappreciated in this role was Dave McClure. He was unbelievably effective and Duke got better nearly every time he came on the court.

It’s a long tradition at Duke, as key as the stretch four. There’s Robert Brickey, Thomas Hill, Lance Thomas, Dahntay Jones, Reggie Love, Chris Carrawell, Nate James, Robert Brickey and David Henderson.

Duke has traditionally traded height for speed and flexibility.

That’s not as much the case this year: Duke has seven guys 6-9 or taller.

Giles is a spectacular athlete. Allen is a superb talent as well. Jackson is high end.

One of the consistent criticisms of Tatum though is that he’s not an elite athlete, which reminds us of what Abraham Lincoln said when he was asked how long the ideal soldier’s legs should be: long enough to reach the ground. He’s a wonderful player.

The rest of the team is athletic enough but not at the very high end of the scale and Jones is the closest guy Duke has to the traditional Swiss Army Knife player. Allen could cover some of that role but he’s critical in other areas so won’t be used that way.

That goes for Tatum too whose primary value is offensive.

So there’s a chance that a guy like White or DeLaurier - a bit big for that at 6-10 though - or maybe White or even Robinson - might build a role like that.

It doesn’t always work out of course. Sulaimon didn’t accept his role as a junior and was ultimately kicked off the team.

And when Ricky Price returned after his academic probation, his role changed. He could have been a really key player for Duke as a defensive stopper. You may remember that in the NCAA tournament, Kentucky isolated Steve Wojciechowski and drove him to the basket over and over at the end of the second half.

Price would have had a moment of real glory had he been able to claim that role.

There may come a time this season when Duke could really use a guy like that. NC State has Dennis Smith. Louisville has Donovan Mitchell, Deng Adel and VJ King. Clemson has Jaron Blossomgame and Wake Forest has Keyshawn Woods and Bryant Crawford. Virginia will have Austin Nichols.

There are a lot of guys around the ACC that at times will need special attention. Duke has outstanding defenders but there’s not really a Winslow or Carrawell in this group and at some point that could hurt.

Overall though Duke’s concerns could certainly be worse.

As we’ve said previously, the odds are always against any particular team winning a national title. That’s true, but so is this: the odds are much, much longer for all but a few teams.

Look at last year. The upsets, as always, are concentrated in the first weekend. By the time the field was down to 16, look who was left: Kansas, Maryland, Miami, Villanova, Oregon, Duke, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, UNC, Indiana, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Virginia, Iowa State, Gonzaga and Syracuse.

That breaks down to:

  • ACC - 6
  • Big 12 - 4
  • Big Ten -3
  • Big East - 1
  • West Coast Conference - 1
  • PAC-12 - 1

The closest thing to an underdog left was Gonzaga and that’s a program that usually gets criticized for not making it as far as the Sweet Sixteen.

The rest of the field is really playing for a weekend of glory, two at the most.

So getting back to Pomeroy, where we started, realistically the tournament winner will come from the Top 20 and probably the Top 15 (not the preseason but as it is when the tournament starts). To round it off, let’s say the Top 16.

If it were today, that would mean one of the following:

  • Duke
  • Villanova
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • UNC
  • Oregon
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin
  • Louisville
  • Arizona
  • Xavier
  • Syracuse
  • Ohio State
  • Michigan State
  • Purdue
  • Indiana.

Some of these teams will be upset but if it were today, we’d bet that three of these teams will be in the Final Four.

Last year it was Villanova, Oklahoma, UNC and Syracuse. The year before it was Kentucky, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Duke. And the year before that it was Florida, UConn, Wisconsin and Kentucky.

Wichita State made it in 2013 Butler made a pair of Final Fours in 2010 and 2011, but basically it’s about major programs and major conferences.

There are no guarantees of anything in the NCAA tournament other than a high entertainment value, but If Duke remains healthy and things go well, they’ll be in this elite group and one of the perceived favorites, if not the favorite outright.

That’s as much as anyone can reasonably expect in October.