Will they or won't they?: Lack of frontcourt depth spells doom

There’s no doubt about it: the 2010-11 Blue Devils will be one of Mike Krzyzewski’s most prolific scoring teams ever. Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith are back for another year, Seth Curry and Kyrie Irving are here to replace Jon Scheyer, and Andre Dawkins and Mason Plumlee­ have their up-and-down freshman years behind them.

All the pieces seem to be in place for another banner in Cameron.

Duke’s fans certainly feel that way. Excitement for 2011 was palpable just minutes after leaving Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis last April—supporters shouted farewells to each other in the darkness, each ending with, “Same time next year!” and “We’ll meet you in Houston!”

Then all of the sudden they realized Brian Zoubek was just another 7-foot stiff, Scheyer was a poor man’s J.J. Redick and Lance Thomas was simply a filler player with an awkward jumper. The performance of the seniors was reevaluated, and people forgot the qualities the 2010 team possessed that made them champions—traits like experience, efficiency and rebounding.

Why won’t the 2011 team be the same? The lack of an imposing inside presence. Duke has never won a title without strong fourtcourt players, and the Blue Devils will simply not have the size or strength this season to compete in March. Every one of Duke’s national championship teams has had a significant post presence: Christian Laettner in ’91 and ’92, Carlos Boozer in ’01 and Brian Zoubek in ’10. True, Zoubek only became a high-quality player with a few weeks remaining in his career, but he was invaluable down the stretch.

In this upcoming season, however, there will only be three true power forward/centers on the roster, all with varying levels of immaturity and raw talent. Miles Plumlee has the most in-game experience by default, but a career average of 16.4 minutes per game does not make a veteran. And while he is much more athletic than Zoubek, Plumlee has yet to learn the intricacies of the game that made opponents “Fear the Beard.” Mason Plumlee has even more athleticism and raw talent than his brother, but so far his game hasn’t matured for college basketball. He has no finesse around the rim and instead tries to dunk over anyone in his path.

Both brothers also need to vastly improve their interior defense. Last year, they seemed more interested in blocking shots—and often fouling in the process—than altering them.

Even if both Plumlees make strides, there remains the issue of not enough bodies to bang down low; Duke fans may soon realize that they took last year’s frontcourt for granted. Zoubek and Lance Thomas were a highly effective tandem for about 25 minutes a game, but they couldn’t have sustained that level of play for 35 minutes per game. That just might be what Coach K asks of the Plumlees.

The most obvious solution to the numbers problem would be a move by Kyle Singler back to power forward, but I can’t imagine he would have returned for his senior year if he wasn’t going to be playing at small forward—his future NBA position. That leaves only two equally cringe-worthy options.

The first is to play the Plumlees 30-plus minutes a game with Josh Hairston coming off the bench. This would represent a huge increase in minutes for the Plumlees—one they haven’t proved they deserve—and dependence on a freshman, something Coach K is rarely willing to do. This option would help the Blue Devils keep up on the glass, but Duke would have to pray for refs who hold the whistle, as well as no Plumlee injuries to keep the wins coming.

The second, more likely solution, is to alternate the Plumlees and Hairston on the inside and play three shooters, with Singler on the perimeter around them. This would create space for the drive-and-kick offense that the core of this team has embraced, but it would cost Duke on the boards. With the rebounding battle lost, the Blue Devils would be especially susceptible to a loss in the one-and-done NCAA Tournament format, where a jump shot-first team can be eliminated quickly by a cold performance.

So there you have it. All the pieces look great from a distance, but after a closer look there are too many question marks for Duke to expect another NCAA title. Cancel your reservations at the Motel 6 in Houston and tone down the trash talk, Blue Devil fans. This won’t be the year.


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