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Point-counterpoint: Indianapolis or bust?

Archith Ramkumar writes that "after three years of Duke Basketball, whenever I hear the word versatile, hybrid, or guard-forward combo, I cringe."
Archith Ramkumar writes that "after three years of Duke Basketball, whenever I hear the word versatile, hybrid, or guard-forward combo, I cringe."

Gabe Starosta: Duke regressed much less than the rest

Duke isn’t as talented as it was last year. Ain’t no question about that. And how could the Blue Devils be? They lost Gerald Henderson, the best Duke player I’ve seen in person, as well as Elliot Williams, who transferred suddenly in the summer.

So let’s say Duke got worse. But the other top teams in the country—the Blue Devils’ competition to get past the Sweet 16—regressed much more than Duke did.

In the ACC, Carolina lost Hansbrough, Lawson, Ellington and Green. Yikes. Wake Forest returned to mediocrity when Jeff Teague left for the NBA, Tyrese Rice is gone at Boston College and Clemson lost its two scoring guards. Those teams represent all five of Duke’s conference losses in 2009.

Nationally, the trend is the same, as Oklahoma and UConn got much worse. Only Kansas and Kentucky significantly improved, and I must say, they did so without even pretending their players are student-athletes.

Duke won’t be as exciting as it was last year, but there’s no denying this team is good. Jon Scheyer might not be a natural point guard, yet with him at the helm, the Blue Devils went 10-2 last year. Those losses came against North Carolina and Villanova, maybe the teams with the best backcourts in the country. I’ll take Scheyer at the point, thank you very much.

Depth at guard is a separate issue that doesn’t look likely to resolve itself, but Duke fans should thank their lucky stars Andre Dawkins got here a year early. We haven’t seen him play much yet, but the early indication is that he and Nolan Smith could be great together.

The frontcourt could be great or just OK, but it’s hard to ignore the depth at forward the Blue Devils finally have. Duke’s got six players 6-foot-8 or taller, including Kyle Singler, quite possibly the best player in the country. Are Lance Thomas, Brian Zoubek, Ryan Kelly and the Plumlee brothers good enough to carry Duke to a Final Four? Well, that’s the wrong question to ask. Those guys don’t have to carry Duke—Singler and Scheyer can handle that responsibility. What the Blue Devils need from their post players is smart defense, solid rebounding and quality finishing when easy layups present themselves, and that’s going to happen a lot with Singler flying at the rim or drawing defenders to the perimeter.

A thin set of guards could ultimately haunt Duke, but I think its frontcourt is more than sturdy enough. Players like North Carolina’s Ed Davis might put up 20 and 10 against the Blue Devils in March, but he won’t throw down 40 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks like Tim Duncan does against NBA opponents when it matters most. College post players just don’t have that in them yet.

And so by hiding their (relative) weaknesses and emphasizing their strengths— great rebounding, mismatches galore and Kyle Singler—the Blue Devils can expect to compete for a Final Four berth in Indianapolis a few short months from now.

Archith Ramkumar: Blue Devils lack “real size”

Before I came to Duke, whenever I heard that an athlete was versatile, I usually thought that was a good thing.

After three years of Duke Basketball, whenever I hear the word versatile, hybrid, or guard-forward combo, I cringe. The Blue Devils’ overreliance on European-style big men means that Duke has about as much of a chance to make it past the Sweet 16 as Darius Heyward-Bey has of making it to the Pro Bowl this year.

Three glaring problems face the Blue Devils: a lack of a true point guard (still), a scarcity of backcourt depth and no real size.

The first of these is self-explanatory. Duke still lacks a proven point guard who plays only at that position. Jon Scheyer is a converted shooting guard who is adequate, but not someone who does a lot of creative passing for teammates. Nolan Smith remains a question mark because of his inability to deal with ball pressure, And the only other guard expected to get big minutes, Andre Dawkins, is more of a shooting guard.

Which brings us to the second fundamental problem: The Blue Devils have only three high-quality guards. In the NCAA Tournament, depth is essential because teams play grueling games separated by a day in the first two weekends. Duke’s guards will wear down in the Tournament purely out of exhaustion.

 The final point I brought up might cause most people to label me as crazy, though. After all, we’re so tall right? If we’re this tall, how can we not have real size?

The answer, unfortunately, is that tall and skinny does not add up to effective in the paint. And when you’re evaluating if this team has real size, ask yourself one question: Could any of our “post” players guard Ed Davis one-on-one?

The Plumlee brothers are skilled in a lot of ways, but there’s no way they can be expected to bang with real centers, especially in the Round of 16. The only true center on the Blue Devil roster is Brian Zoubek, who struggled mightily in the Blue-White scrimmage. It all adds up to the same thing. This team does not have actual size.

Some people will say Duke will get past the Sweet 16 because of experience. While experience is usually necessary to get past the Sweet 16, it is not sufficient. In other words, the experience must be supplemented with…well, a point guard and real size, for starters. Experience on its own will only get a team so far.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Duke will have a great regular season. The Blue Devils will probably only lose five or six games, and have that one game where they shoot 80 percent from three and seem unstoppable.

But in March, this team has a ceiling. And a squad with this many serious deficiencies will not make it past the Sweet 16.

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