Devils reload, launch another title quest
Duke is used to being the top story in college hoops, but last season was on a different level, with LeBron James and former President Barack Obama among those who sat courtside to watch the high-flying Blue Devils.
Despite the fanfare, the flawed Blue Devils came up short of the Final Four for the fourth straight season, and RJ Barrett, Marques Bolden, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson all moved on to the NBA.
How do you rebound after losing that much talent?
If you’re Duke, you sign another star-studded recruiting class, pair it with one of the nation’s best point guards and begin yet another season with a brand new cast and the same Final Four expectations.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Mike Krzyzewski
2018-19 RECORD (ACC): 32-6 (16-4)
2018-19 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Michigan State 68-67 in the Elite Eight
F RJ Barrett (22.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg)
C Marques Bolden (5.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg)
F Cam Reddish (13.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg)
F Zion Williamson (22.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg)
Duke reloads in the post with 6'10", 270-pound freshman Vernon Carey Jr., son of a former NFL offensive lineman and one of the top freshmen in the Class of 2019. While the big man uses his soft touch to score with his back to the basket, he’s surprisingly light on his feet and can face up from the high post and even knock down 3-pointers.
Carey will be the featured big man, but expect to see plenty of Javin DeLaurier, who played the best basketball of his career in March, and Jack White. Both seniors are excellent leaders who play hard, rebound and don’t demand shots.
Still, the most important big could be 6'9" freshman Matthew Hurt, who gives the Blue Devils the shooter they’ve desperately needed lately. A classic stretch-4, Hurt will help space the floor for a talented group of guards and has the handles and IQ to score in the lane.
Tre Jones will be Duke’s first point guard to start in back-to-back seasons since Quin Cook led the Blue Devils from 2013-15.
Continuity has been rare, and Mike Krzyzewski hit the jackpot in bringing back a player who will be his unquestioned leader. In addition to intangibles, it certainly doesn’t hurt that Jones had a 3.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season and will be a strong candidate to win ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors.
It’s hard to overstate what Jones means to Duke, as his on-ball pressure will pay dividends for freshmen Cassius Stanley and Wendell Moore, who both project as good defenders capable of excelling in Duke’s aggressive pressure and denial on the wings, quickly turning defense into buckets.
Stanley, a freak athlete, and Moore, a crafty, big-bodied swingman, should have no trouble scoring in transition, and although neither is a great 3-point shooter, they’re both capable of keeping defenders honest beyond the arc.
Alex O’Connell again figures to be the first guard off the bench, offering shooting and energy, but his minutes will ultimately be determined by his defense.
Jordan Goldwire, who emerged in February, will again offer valuable minutes as a defensive pest, while Joey Baker remains a mystery after playing 18 total minutes last season.
It’s no coincidence that the Blue Devils posted their best defensive efficiency rating since 2015 en route to their most consistent season and fewest losses since that title run.
Defense is where it starts for Duke — and Krzyzewski might have his best defensive team of the past decade with Jones as the ringleader, two promising freshmen alongside him and a couple of big men with great length in the lane.
As with any team that features several freshmen in major roles, there will be bumps in the road. But for the first time in several years, Duke is equipped with the experience to weather the storm. While this team won’t be nearly as flashy as last year’s, it has the same national title aspirations thanks to great balance, better floor spacing, unusual experience and a passion for defense.
Postseason Prediction: National Runner-Up
ACC Prediction: 1st