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The New Season

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Appalachian State v Duke
DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 26: Javin DeLaurier #12 of the Duke Blue Devils puylls down a rebound against the Appalachian State Mountaineers during the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on November 26, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The 113th season of Duke Basketball will open Friday night when the Blue Devils take on Elon in venerable Cameron Indoor Stadium.

As long as we’re counting, I should point out that it’s also the 38th season for Mike Krzyzewski, who is unquestionably the greatest coach in Duke history.

It’s also the 59th season since I started following the Devils as an 11-year-old in 1960.

All new seasons have much in common, especially the aura of the unknown. Even when optimism reigns – as it does now – the new season offers endless possibilities.

This year will be defined by two factors:

-- This is the youngest Duke team in history, one that will start four freshmen. The first two players off the bench will be sophomores who saw little action last season.

-- This may be the most talented team in Duke history. It would not be a surprise if all five starters end up as first round draft picks next season. And sixth/seventh man Marques Bolden is not out of the question as a first round pick.

But how do those two factors translate to the season ahead?

The youth is not as big a drawback in this age of one-and-done, but it’s still something that must be overcome. Experience is great, but talent is better.

Duke will start the season as the nation’s preseason No. 1 team in both major polls.

That’s the ninth time that the Blue Devils have been the preseason No. 1 pick – but just one of the previous eight No. 1 picks won the title (1992).

Duke’s first preseason No. 1 team was in 1978-79.

The Blue Devils had lost a heartbreaker to Kentucky in the 1978 NCAA championship game with what was – up to that time – the youngest team to ever make the Final Four. Bill Foster’s youthful team started two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior in ’78. Everybody off that team – including the big three of Mike Gminski, Jim Spanarkel and Gene Banks – returned to take the final step to a title. Adding prep All-American Vince Taylor seemed the insurance the ’79 Devils needed.

It didn’t work out that way.

Duke struggled with some chemistry issues early, largely stemming from the awkward transition from John Harrell to Bob Bender at point guard. There was a disastrous weekend in New York, where Duke blew big leads in back-to-back losses to Ohio State and St. John’s. There was a stunning home loss to Pitt and a late-season blowout loss at Clemson.

Still, Duke beat UNC in the 7-0 “Air Ball” game to claim a share of the ACC regular season title. The Blue Devils were ranked No. 5 nationally as they prepared to meet UNC in the ACC championship game.

That’s when it really began to go wrong.

First, Bender was rushed to the hospital with a case of appendicitis, lost for the ACC title game and the NCAA Tournament. Then starting forward Kenny Dennard, involved in a (drunken?) late-night pickup game with a number of football players, suffered a sprained ankle and was lost for the NCAA opener.

Finally, on game day, All-American center Mike Gminski suffered a bout of food poisoning and had to leave the game several times to upchuck on the bench. Even with all that, Duke lost by just two to St. John’s on what became known as Black Sunday in the ACC.

Healthy, that Duke team could have won it all as predicted in preseason.

But how often have we said that over the years?

Give the ’66 team a healthy Bob Verga in the Final Four and Vic Bubas probably wins a national title. Health issues have hit Duke especially hard in the last decade with the 2011, 2012, 2013, 2016 teams all enduring major issues.

Then there was last season.

Duke was the preseason No. 1 team going into the 2016-17 season and seemed to have an overpowering combination of young talent (four top 15 freshmen prospects) and veteran leadership (three key members of the 2015 national champs, plus rising soph Luke Kennard).

We all know what happened. Harry Giles never really recovered from the knee injury he suffered before his senior year of high school. Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden each missed most of preseason and the first eight games of the regular season with injuries.

Less noted, but even more important – Grayson Allen suffered a series of injuries, starting with a pulled groin in preseason and was never 100 percent healthy. And defensive anchor Amile Jefferson, who was a double-double machine for the first 15 games, hurt his foot in the first half of a win over Boston College and was never the same player when he returned.

In many ways, the 2017 Blue Devils had some impressive successes. The team started 12-1 in preseason, losing only a two-point heartbreaker against Kansas … and that was with Tatum, Giles and Bolden out and Allen hobbled.

There were some rough spots early in the ACC season, but the team did rally to win the ACC Tournament in Brooklyn in impressive fashion. The team had two wins in three games with eventual NCAA champ UNC and also beat Florida’s Final Four team on a neutral court.

If not for the pigheaded North Carolina legislature – its HB2 legislation forced the switch of the NCAA Tournament from Greensboro to Greenville, S.C. (almost a home court for South Carolina), the 2017 Blue Devils might have fulfilled their promise – even with all the injuries.

We’ll never know.

What we do know if that the 2017-18 Blue Devils will need to stay reasonably healthy to live up to preseason expectations. There might be a little room for maneuver up front, where Duke has an abundance of quality big men, but there is no room for any injuries at all on the perimeter, where Coach K has just three superior talents – then a big dropoff.

But nobody – not coach, not player and certainly not fans – has any control over injuries. We’ll have to watch the season unfold and hope for the best.

The first few weeks of the season should offer a very good clue as to how the season will shape up. It starts with the Elon opener – the Phoenix return intact a team that gave Duke fits a year ago in Greensboro, losing just 72-61 in the game that saw Grayson Allen’s trip and meltdown.

On Saturday night, Duke is home again for a game with Utah Valley. That contest should be memorable as Coach K goes for his 1,000th win at Duke. Technically, he’ll be the first coach to get to that milestone at one school, although Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim actually did it about four years ago – but slipped back below the line when the NCAA vacated more than 100 of his career wins. Interestingly, Boeheim will get to 1,000 again later this season – the second time he’s crossed the milestone.

Of course, the first real test for this team will come next week, when Duke meets No. 2 Michigan State in Chicago.

Tom Izzo has a slightly more experienced team – it’s largely sophomore dominated. There’s also the little matter of K’s long-term dominance of the Spartans – he’s 10-1 head-to-head with Izzo, including a 78-69 victory in Cameron last November.

After a couple of more gimmies, Duke flies across country to participate in its half of the two-tournament Phil Knight Invitational in Portland. The Blue Devils open with what should be a gimmie against Portland State, then it gets interesting. Duke will meet either Butler or Texas in the second round – personally, I’m hoping for Texas because I’d love to see Duke’s bevy of big men challenged by Mo Bamba, a prep star who picked the Longhorns over Duke and Kentucky.

The final game in Portland will against Gonzaga, Florida, Stanford or Ohio State. Either of the first two would be a major test.

And as soon as the PKI is over. Duke has to travel to Bloomington, Ind., to take on Archie Miller’s Indiana Hoosiers in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Indiana might be rebuilding this season, but Bloomington is a tough place to play – just ask UNC which lost there a year ago with a team that would win the national title.

There will still be two more gimmies before Duke opens conference play at Boston College in early December, but by the time the team flies back from Indiana, we should have a pretty good idea of what the 2018 Blue Devils look like.


A year ago, Duke played the toughest possible ACC schedule – having to face every one of the ACC challengers on the road. This year’s unbalanced schedule looks easier – the strongest challengers all come to Cameron.

Of course, that’s just speculation at this point. Just as Duke remains an unknown, so do the Devils’ potential challengers.

There’s no bigger unknown than Louisville.

Before Marvin Bagley made his late commitment to Duke, many observers (including me) rated the Cards as ACC favorites. Bagley changed that, but Louisville remained a viable contender with a solid core of veterans (including a senior point guard) and a nice collection of freshmen, headlined by 6-9 wing Bruce Bowen.

That was before the FBI stepped in and alleged that adidas and a Louisville assistant coach had funneled over $100,000 to people in Bowen’s camp. The school responded by firing Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, AD Tom Jurich, most of Pitino’s staff and ruling Bowen ineligible.

What does all that do to Louisville’s hopes for the season?

Personally, I think they are still the second-most talented team in the ACC. They are big, deep and experienced. But how will they respond to all the chaos around them? Sometimes that destroys a team. Sometimes a team will bond together and take out their frustrations on the world.

There is also a chance that Bowen will rejoin the team. The FBI has cleared him and the young star has applied for NCAA clearance. I’m told that his chances of playing are small, but not impossible.

North Carolina is another preseason contender with issues – especially the broken hand that will sideline senior point guard Joel Berry for most of November. Frankly, I don’t consider the graduation-ravaged Tar Heels a strong contender anyway, but without Berry, they don’t have a chance. Of course, even if he’s out now, he should be back at full speed by the time conference play opens.

Miami is also dealing with a major injury as celebrated freshman guard Lonnie Walker struggles with a preseason knee injury. Virginia Tech suffered a major blow when sharpshooter Ty Outlaw was lost for the season.. Georgia Tech is dealing with some serious NCAA issues with Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson.

Still, Miami, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech have potential to contend for the upper third of the ACC. Syracuse, Wake Forest and Florida State all have some strong points – enough to be spoilers, but not contenders. It will be interesting to see how N.C. State performs under new coach Kevin Keatts.

Virginia is also a dark horse contender. All Tony Bennett teams are expected to play good defense and as Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome get more and more playing time, the offense should improve.

The team I’m most interested to see is Notre Dame. The Irish have the best proven inside/outside combo un the league with seniors Bonzie Colson (deservedly the ACC preseason player of the year) and Matt Farrell (who had better numbers last year in almost every category than UNC’s more touted Joel Berry). I just want to see who Mike Brey uses to surround and support that duo – look for freshman D.J. Harvey to play a bigger role than most Notre Dame freshmen.

Notre Dame is my pick to finish second in the ACC. But ask me again at the end of November when I (and everybody else) can make a more informed decision.

Right now, we have nothing but speculation. That’s the beauty of a new season.


-- I was just noticing an amazing measure of Coach K’s consistency over the last two decades.

Duke has finished in the final AP Top 10 in 19 of the last 21 seasons. No school can match that run of consistency -- ever. And it’s not close. Even Kansas, which has been the next most consistent program in that time, has just 14 top 10 finishes since 1997. UCLA’s best 21 year run under John Wooden included just 11 top finishes.

The two misses for Krzyzewski over the last two decades came in 2007 (a team that spent seven weeks in the top 10) and 2016 (a team that spent seven weeks in the top 10 and finished No. 19). Both of those teams made the NCAA field and the 2016 team reached the Sweet 16.

-- I noticed an odd thing while checking Coach K’s record against various opponents.

His most wins – 56 – have come versus Georgia Tech, but it’s close – K has 55 wins over Clemson, Virginia, N.C. State and Maryland. Then it drops to 49 wins over Wake Forest and 45 over UNC.

He has a good record versus most of the other super powers – 5-2 over Kentucky, 7-4 over Kansas, 11-1 over Michigan State (one win before Izzo), 8-1 over UCLA and 5-3 over Indiana. His worst record against a super power is his 4-4 mark against UConn.

Well, I take that back – K is just 4-6 vs. ACC foe Louisville.

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