Duke Blue Devils Basketball, 1st Quarter Grade: A

Coach K never stops re-loading. Losing Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood to last year’s first round of the NBA draft did nothing but free up valuable roster spots for players who just might wind up out-producing them. A nice luxury if you can afford it, and as college basketball and ACC royalty, the Devils most certainly can.

Sneaky stat: Since 2000-2001, the Blue Devils have made every single tournament, save for the upset-laden 2010 NCAA tournament that saw them narrowly defeat Butler and now-departed for the NBA head coach Brad Stevens, Coach K and his team has only advanced beyond the Sweet 16 once (Elite Eight in 2013). That’s going to be 14 years this Spring, and just twice reaching a regional final despite numerous top seeds.

Far be it from me to be critical of such a consistently excellent program, who never has issues off the playing surface like their rivals down Tobacco Road, but with the wealth of talent that Duke has at it’s disposal, shouldn’t they pretty much always be in the regional semis?

As a long-time admirer/hater of Duke basketball, I tend to think that the drive-and-kick offense that Coach K adopted back with the Jason Williams/Carlos Boozer teams has been the chief culprit. The team has gone cold shooting in neutral locations, and hasn’t had the ability to manufacture the points on the block and the line that could help abort cold streaks that will do a team in during the tournament.

That 2001 group which also featured Mike Dunleavy Jr, and Shane Battier, among other decent contributors and shooters, was preternaturally gifted from the former 19’9″ arc. Subsequent groups have featured great shooters, but not in such high volume, usually just one or two designated long-ball threats. The mentality adopted by Coach K was in response to the loss of big man Elton Brand to the NBA draft. If you look at Duke rosters since Brand, there hasn’t been quite the emphasis on post play. This is largely why I feel that this Duke team has a chance at not only being the best Duke team since 2001 (all due respect to the 2011 group, yawn); because they have a serious post presence.  Without further ado, let’s take a look at the first quarter.

Note: First quarter only deals with the regular season schedule. We’ll call the postseason overtime when we arrive there this Spring.

Why an A (and not an A+)?

I know Duke, always looking for extra credit assignment you overachievers! (Sickening right UNC?) They get an A because I am a glass half empty guy who awards minuses, but no pluses, get over it.  They deserve as high a grade as they could have earned. It’s a shame Michigan State (RPI 61) isn’t their usual selves. But that win at Wisconsin (11) in the B1G challenge is as good a win as any team in the country can boast to this point. Wisconsin loses games at home under Bo Ryan about as often as the Feds lose a case they take to trial, which is to say very rarely.

 

How Can They Improve Their RPI Before Conference Play?

When you’re RPI #4, there’s not much upward mobility to speak of.  I’d watch out for a neutral site game vs. a scuffling UCONN team in NJ the week before Christmas. And that’s just because Coach K seems to be snake-bit by UCONN ever since Christian Laettner hit the first of his NCAA buzzer-beaters (1990), having lost pretty much every high-profile game vs UCONN in the last 20 years including a pair of times in the Final Four.  The annual mid-season tilt is at St. Johns, which just handled Syracuse with ease, so perhaps that game won’t detract from their standing as it has in the past (in terms of net impact on RPI).

What Does Duke Do Well?

I can’t just put everything here can I? The Devils excel across the board, and this year’s Freshman class is reminiscent of their class with Elton Brand, Shane Battier, and William Avery that was so successful in their brief time in Durham. With Tyus Jones, Jalil Okafor, and Justise Winslow all contributing early, the team is less reliant on Rasheed Sulaiman and Amile Jefferson, two solid veterans who haven’t “panned out”.  The only question is whether this trio will all remain in school for next season when they could add their group’s answer to Corey Maggette who arrived a year after Brand, Battier, Avery.

Here are a few of the areas where they truly excel, and just so you know I graded Duke on a curve. If other ACC member schools were in the top 25 in a category, I made mention of it. With Duke, only top 10s.

  • To start with, Duke is scoring 89.1 ppg (good for #3 nationally).  I might overvalue early offensive cohesiveness, but with Duke it is only a sign of better things to come. In a year where Ken Pomeroy has stated that pace factor is likely to decline once again, a team that regularly puts up 90 points a game is a breath of fresh air.
  • They play D too. Their scoring margin is second only to Kentucky’s at 28.6 ppg. Barely allowing 60 points almost puts you in the bottom half of the “crawl-ball” ACC team defense category (TIC), but as I said Duke’s pace trumps everyone else’s.
  • In order to score the ball, Duke is shooting 53.9%, which is 3rd in the nation, but only second in the ACC? Notre Dame where did you come from? Oh, Jerian Grant, that’s right. Carry on.
  • Freshman Tyus Jones is doing his best Tyler Ennis (Syracuse one-and-done) by leading Duke to the number one Assist-Turnover ratio. As you can see, the Orange miss his staid approach and careful playmaking this year, so this cannot be emphasized enough. Between Jones and veteran Quin Cook, and the backup Sulaiman Duke has plenty of on the ball experience to draw upon. Critical in games decided by a possession or two.
  • 40 ppg out of 3 Freshmen. Balance across the roster, with another product of the Plumlee Family backing up Okafor and providing valuable fouls and rebounds in reserve.
  • 10 guys who currently average double digit minutes, though I expect Grayson Allen (the least impressive of the Freshmen so far) to possibly find his minutes to be purely matchup based, as opposed to rotation based.

Where Can Duke Improve?

  • Admittedly not too much here. But one thing that stands out, that you’d like to see more of, especially with a team that can stretch the floor, is Free Throw attempts. Duke ranks just 71st. And we all know that this inflated due to the number of Coach K-induced whistles. As his constant whining and needling often leads to early one and ones in the 2nd half.  Duke needs to focus on interior offense first, even if 3s are worth more. This year they have the tools to do that.
  • Duke does allow 40% from the field, and we can all expect this to tighten up some, particularly during the familiarity of conference play. Personally, it looks like Coach K knows he can outscore teams so he doesn’t stress over the occasional lapses in getting out on shooters. Also, with big leads, it’s tough to tell if those teams were shooting just 30% before the blowout picked up steam. Either way, it’s really one of their only mediocre to concerning stats. They’re still top 20%. It’s just if they tightened up, I wonder what the complete game looks like.

Outlook

They are a lock for the tournament, assuming health is no issue. And even then it might take an Ebola outbreak, as Duke could probably afford to lose any one player right now and still win 20+ games. But this team has a chance to be remembered as special to Duke fans. The blade looks sharp right now, but we all know that grinding out ACC wins can dull even the sharpest blade. Ultimately, hardware on the first Monday in April is what this team should and will be shooting for. Nothing in the first quarter of the season has changed that.

The Week Ahead

Duke is off through the 15th, likely due to exams. Or maybe Coach K is having his batteries replaced. The official press release never tells the true tale does it? Machines shouldn’t have ice water dumped on them, let that be a lesson to you kids.

Please stay tuned as I run down each of the ACC teams first quarter marks as we rev up our coverage on Inside The ACC. Please air any grievances below in the comments! You might be just in time for feats of strength!

Have a great week all, and check back in as I am going to be posting these until I am exhausted (at least a few a day until complete).  Follow me on Twitter (@insidetheacc)

 

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