Duke typically returns the majority of its roster every year, but each season the Blue Devils find a way to take on a new personality. Whether it meant building an offense around a star player or making adjustments following midseason injuries, Duke has always found a way to adapt to its personnel.
The Blue Devils will reinvent themselves again for the 2013-14 season, when the squad looks for creative solutions to fill the voids left by its three graduating seniors—Ryan Kelly, Mason Plumlee and Seth Curry. Plumlee and Kelly’s absences will likely be the most noticable, as it leaves the team without a proven low-post threat.
“What you try to do is you put your five best players out on the floor,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “If your five best players are 6-foot-1, then you’re in trouble. But if your five best players that are compatible to one another are 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9 and 6-foot-6, in college basketball especially, you can win.”
With Quinn Cook at the point, Rasheed Sulaimon at shooting guard and newcomers Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker on the wings, the Blue Devils’ athletic foursome already gives them one of the most potent lineups in the country. But a gaping hole in the middle remains Duke’s biggest question mark.
Whether it’s 6-foot-11 Marshall Plumlee who steps up to fill the void, or if Duke would be forced to rely on an undersized option like Amile Jefferson or Josh Hairston to round out the starting five, one thing is certain—Duke will have to rely on a less experienced player to play with a conventional lineup.
Krzyzewski said he sees striking similarities between the makeup of next year’s Blue Devils and the 2012 Olympic team he coached to a gold medal in London. With just one traditional center on the roster, 7-foot-1 Tyson Chandler, Team USA had to rely on its athletic wings to spread the floor and cause matchup problems.
Even at the 2010 FIBA World Championship, Krzyzewski’s U.S. squad often had to rely on the likes of Kevin Durant, Rudy Gay and Lamar Odom in its frontcourt.
“In London, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony had to play the four and the five in crunchtime. Kevin Durant would play the three, four or five at times,” Krzyzewski said. “I think it becomes more of a matchup problem for the other team than it does for you.”
The Americans at the Olympics were swift, they were athletic and they could score from anywhere on the floor at all five positions—a deadly combination for opposing defenses.
Krzyzewski will rely on a bevy of athletic wings of his own next year. Hood and Parker will be backed up by one of the deepest Duke benches in years, featuring fifth-year senior Andre Dawkins, who could also crack the starting lineup should the Blue Devils embrace playing small, freshman Semi Ojeleye and redshirt sophomore Alex Murphy, who will provide fresh legs for the Blue Devils’ run-and-gun offense.
Where most would see limitations, Krzyzewski prefers to see possibilities. The winningest coach in college basketball history said he would build next year’s lineup around the pieces he has, rather than the pieces he does not.
“We have really good athletes, we have excellent depth, good quickness, a great spirit and outstanding camaraderie,” Krzyzewski said. “Working with USA Basketball has helped a great deal because you get used to working with guys who can play multiple positions.”
As the Blue Devils begin preparations for next season, they see the possibilities as well. Knowing that Krzyzewski had so much success at the international level utilizing unconventional lineups serves as a comfort.
“It’s definitely exciting, knowing he’s coached guys like that, and had teams where there’s no traditional big,” Jefferson said. “It’s going to be fun. We’re going to do a lot of different things that we couldn’t do last year.”
Despite being undersized down low, Duke will be a big team on the perimeter. Cook and Tyler Thornton will be the only two players on next year’s roster smaller than 6-foot-4.
Associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski said that even playing with an undersized lineup, next year’s Duke squad could be a better rebounding team than it was last year, when the Blue Devils struggled on the glass for most of the year.
As the season inches closer and Duke’s lineup continues to take shape—albeit an unconventional one—Krzyzewski said he is only concerned with the system that fits his team the best.
“It’s better to try to do those things than to try to play somebody in a box and say this is all that you can do,” Krzyzewski said. “I’d rather have them not think that they’re a position.”