As noted in the first three parts of our Duke preview, Duke has a bit of an imbalance on this roster, with just one senior, one junior who hasn't played much yet, four sophomores who also haven’t played a lot and a whole bunch of talented freshmen who haven’t played a lick.
And even though the senior is Grayson Allen, remember he ended up coming off the bench last year.
So what should we expect to see this season?
Well four starters seem pretty much set, at least for now: Trevon Duval and a healthy and rejuvenated Allen will handle the backcourt while Wendell Carter and Marvin Bagley will start in the frontcourt.
That leaves a position open but don’t be too sure about who will ultimately fill it just yet.
A lot of people have penciled freshman Gary Trent into the starting lineup and that could well be. He’s going to play a lot whether he starts or not.
But we remember a story we heard several years ago and it says a lot about how things work at Duke.
Coach K stopped practice and said that that particular team was missing something and that there was a role for someone if they wanted it. He needed a guy who would rebound and play defense. That’s what that particular team needed at that particular time.
The question is going to be what this team needs and how the pieces fit together and it’s hard to answer that without some competitively induced stress.
Take the Michigan State game on November 14th. Duke got a glimpse of Miles Bridges last season. He’s 6-7, quick and powerful. Last year, Duke had Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones and Jayson Tatum to deal with guys like that (although Tatum didn’t play in the Michigan State game; Duke was in the midst of an epic wave of injuries and only used six players).
This year? Coach K has already said both big guys will start and that will result in Duke playing more zone-oriented defense. Don’t expect to see Bolden, Carter and Bagley chase smaller guys like Bridges around the court.
He also said that while Duke will be less perimeter oriented than usual that he hopes to make up the difference in transition.
He thinks the big guys can handle the running and certainly we think Bagley can. Carter is a big guy but he seems to be in great shape and moves well, so he probably can too.
So you can reasonably expect Coach K to do what it usually does, which is to experiment with different guys doing different things. We’ll get some looks at Trent at the open spot, and probably Jordan Tucker.
At some point we’ll see Javin DeLaurier get a look and Jack White may get a shot too. It’s possible too that the 6-5 Allen could end up in the frontcourt if he can do certain things with a group better than anyone else can and you could see someone else start at guard, in that scenario, likely Trent.
What you should keep an eye on is whatever Bagley and Carter aren’t doing well. Both guys are talented and both are likely to be drafted next summer, but neither has played a minute of college ball and we just don’t know what their weaknesses are.
Whatever their flaws or shortcomings end up being - and everyone has some - other guys will have to compensate.
Fortunately, fitting the pieces of a team together is one of Krzyzewski’s greatest talents. But even when he’s found the best possible way to put this group together, Duke has some other concerns. Chief among these are experience and three point shooting.
There’s just not much you can do about experience other than keep playing. Duke will win a lot of games because the Blue Devils are more talented but there will be games other, less talented teams win simply because they know what to do and Duke may or may not.
And even if the Devils do, they may not have the confidence to execute correctly under stress.
So back to that Michigan State game as a prime example: there’s an excellent chance Duke will lose simply because the Spartans are older and tougher. It happens to young teams.
As for three point shooting, Allen had a tough year last year between his injuries and his other issues, but no one doubts that a healthy Grayson Allen can pop from outside.
But can Duval? How will Trent and Tucker adapt to the college game? It wasn’t just Matt Jones who had trouble adapting. Remember what a tough freshman year Gerald Henderson had? Remember how Jabari Parker struggled on defense?
We’ll just have to wait and see who becomes reliable on the perimeter.
Another significant concern is point guard play.
Trevon Duval is expected to take care of that and he probably will. If for any reason he can’t though, where does Duke turn? Allen again? Goldwire? Could Buckmire pull off a latter day Bruce Bell? (Bell was a walk-on in the late ‘70s who was forced to play point guard when Duke ran out of options and stepped up magnificently).
Realistically, it’s going to be Duval. He’s universally seen as a one-and-done and he’s a tremendous athlete.
However, while it’s great to have an athletic point guard, it’s better to have a point guard who knows what he’s doing. From all accounts Duval does.
If he struggles though, Duke’s options are limited.
Let’s assume that Coach K will, as he usually does, whittle things down to an eight-man rotation. This is likely to be the primary eight, in no particular order, barring a role which is seized by one of the other guys.
That leaves, again in no particular order:
- O’ Connell
What are the odds that one of those guys could break through and seize a primary role?
White is strong and tough and he can shoot. It’s conceivable that that combination could push him past Trent and Tucker if Krzyzewski feels Duke needs a stronger defender and/or more outside shooting.
O’ Connell is still quite thin but he’s already shown he can shoot, although under minimal scrimmage pressure. It’s possible that he could emerge as a lethal weapon for Duke somewhat like Luke Kennard was at his best as a freshman.
We don’t see Vrankovic having a huge role on the court but we could see him having an enormous role in practice. One of his teammates tweeted this week that Vrankovic was “the best teammate ever” which is a cool thing to say and speaks volumes about the guy.
He got some minutes last year when everyone else was hurt and held his own. Our guess is that if he’s needed he could come through for Duke. And he has solid instincts.
Goldwire probably isn’t ready but you never know. Robinson and Buckmire were both recruited walk-ons (Robinson has since earned a scholarship). Neither would seem likely to play much this year but their character could help them - and Duke - a lot if they’re called on.
Barring injuries or surprising developments, we expect the rotation players to be the eight listed above.
A lot of people have already conceded a Final Four spot to Duke and some expect the Blue Devils to win it all.
That’s a mistake in our view. It’s a mistake to expect anyone to win it because the odds are against everyone.
And if you look back to 2010, almost all the national champions were teams with great experience.
Duke beat Butler in 2010 behind starters Kyle Singler, Lance Thomas, Nolan Smith, Brian Zoubek and Jon Scheyer - all juniors and seniors.
In 2013, Louisville had eight upperclassmen.
In 2016, Villanova won with a highly experienced team as UNC did last year.
UConn won in 2011 with just four upperclassmen but the Huskies defeated an offensively deficient Butler which managed just 41 points.
The only meaningful exceptions to this were Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015 and both teams had highly unusual freshmen stars.
Kentucky had Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist while Duke had Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and to a lesser extent Jahlil Okafor.
For Kentucky, Kidd-Gilchrist was a superb leader while for Duke, Jones was an absolutely brilliant point guard who almost always managed to do the right thing at the right time.
For the most part though, experience wins in the end. Duke has enormous talent and will win a lot of games. There’s no way to predict how a young team will respond to the bright lights of April though and to assume that talent alone will do it is foolish. It almost never works that way.
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