After Duke beat Kentucky earlier this month all the talk seemed to be about the vanquished Wildcats and how much better they were going to get.
There wasn’t a lot of talk about the Blue Devils perhaps because we’ve all seen this movie before, and as recently as last year. We’ve
seen the seasons where Duke has started out like gangbusters. They’ve gone out beaten a few good teams early and won their early season tournament only to fade down the stretch.
But before we attempt to lump this group of Blue Devils into that trend we all need to realize this is a much different team, They are a team that is clearly better than last year’s team; older, more mature, and certainly with room to grow.
Duke peeked early last season after they won the Maui Invitational Title but never again reached that level of play the rest of the season. They went on to suffer a humiliating loss to Ohio State and squeaked out one to many games against teams you would have expected them to dominate.
They failed to win the ACC Regular Season Title or the ACC Tournament Championship and wound up being knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in their first game. The Blue Devils would finish the season 27-7, hardly an awful year, but by Duke standards it was an unacceptable outcome.
So far this year you could say there are some comparisons only as far as Duke has taken care of business early against some very good teams. But I get the sense from watching this team that they have areas that can get better and can still get better unlike last year after the midway part of the year you just didn’t see the improvements coming.
The Blue Devils have been solid on defense so far, an area that was uncharacteristically weak last season, but they still can be better. They have a solid perimeter defender in freshman Rasheed Sulaimon and Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly have been solid anchors down low.
Amile Jefferson also has the potential to be a long and rangy defender that can play smaller, quick players and present a defensive nightmare. He isn’t there yet and has a lot left to learn but the potential is certainly there. So where Duke had a weakness and not much room for growth, that isn’t the case as much this year.
Offensively Duke is benefiting from having a solid to very good point guard in Quinn Cook. Cook was limited due to injury last season and didn’t play much. He showed glimpses but never materialized into a guy that could starter. This year he appears to have turned the corner, yet he still needs to be better.
Cook was the MVP of the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament and that is great for his confidence but occasionally he played out of control and committed far too many turnovers. If he can begin to channel his enthusiasm and play within himself more and not always try to make the spectacular play then Duke has a point guard that they can count on.
The biggest issue I see with Cook is maintaining composure when things go wrong and if he can do that the Blue Devils will be the better for it.
Duke has developed some solid balance in the scoring department from the starters but the bench production in terms of points has essentially been non existent.
As is often the case Mike Krzyzewski’s team the bench often shortens and significantly during tight games and crunch time. And typically you usually see less of a rotation once the season gets going. So far in most games, Duke has played all of its eligible players save Todd Zafirvoski.
But those individuals aren’t always playing tons of minute or contributing much of anything in terms of stats and breathers for the starters. But some of that is going to need to change and it can.
Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston have logged the most minutes given Duke’s depth issues at guard and in the post. Thornton has spelled Seth Curry and or Cook while Hairston has played for Mason Plumlee or Ryan Kelly. Jefferson has also played some in place of both of those two as well but not nearly as many minutes.
Marshall Plumlee who is expected to be brother Mason’s primary backup has been hurt and Duke is still waiting to integrate him into the mix.
At some point you have to think Jefferson will need to play some additional minutes especially if they can be productive minutes. He doesn’t need to score but in the event that Duke has foul trouble or injury they need someone off the bench who can put the ball in the basket. The obvious choice to potentially fill that void is redshirt freshman Alex Murphy but Murphy’s situation seems tenuous at best.
He is talented and has shown in limited glimpses that he has some ability, but those opportunities have been extremely limited. There are many rumors swirling about that he may transfer after the first semester but it would be hard to see him go knowing what he could offer this Duke team.
He could be the scoring punch off the bench Duke will need and Krzyzewski has indicated that he feels that Murphy could provide. Still he has to play and whatever the reason he isn’t is still only known between he and his coach.
It is clear to anyone who has watched this Duke team that they aren’t a great team but they are superior than they were last season and it isn’t even close. If they can continue to improve and work on the things they certainly can work on then the ceiling is high for this team.
The Battle 4 Atlantis thus could end up being a sign of more things to come or the pinnacle of Duke’s season. My gut tells me there is more to come but that is why they play the games and only time will tell.
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