Duke basketball mid-year predictions

With Duke basketball's nonconference schedule in the books, The Chronicle's men's basketball beat writers took the time to update their predictions and provide current analysis of this year's team.

Team MVP:

Bobby Colton: It has to be Jabari Parker. The Chicago product has emerged as not only the top freshman in a loaded class, but perhaps the best player in the entire NCAA.

Daniel Carp
: Jabari Parker. There's really nobody else you could justify as more valuable to this year's Duke team than the freshman phenom from Chicago. Parker wasted no time elevating himself from the discussion of the best freshman in the country to the best player in the country, and the Blue Devils will go as far as he goes in 2014. Although the supporting cast will need to continue to step up to help this team knock off top opponents, Parker is Duke's guy—there's no question about that.

Andrew Beaton
: Jabari Parker. Rodney Hood has been fantastic too, but is there really any debating this?

Ryan Hoerger
: Before the season started, I took Quinn Cook. The point guard has been sensational this far, scoring and distributing at a high level. But the MVP of this team has been Jabari Parker, no contest. His scoring, rebounding, and rim protection have carried the Blue Devils at times, and he's quite the willing passer as well.

Biggest surprise:

BC: Andre Dawkins. We knew Andre could shoot. We knew he could be a key rotation player. But he has emerged as a legitimate game-changer. Hopes for 'Dre were tempered after he played just two minutes against Davidson and failed to leave the bench against Kansas, but that's in the past now. He's not always on his game—see the games against Alabama, Arizona and UCLA—but he redefines instant offense. He's a heat-check guy that needs a chance to get hot every game. If he's not, Rasheed Sulaimon and Matt Jones are more than capable enough to fill 'Dre's minutes, but when Dawkins is on it's very difficult to take him off the court.

DC: Duke's depth at the shooting guard position. Tyler Thornton, Andre Dawkins, Matt Jones and Rasheed Sulaimon have all played key roles in Blue Devil wins this season, and recently Duke has come to expect a decent performance from one member of that group every night. For a team that was supposed to emphasize wing play as much as it has, Duke's productivity at two-guard has been a pleasant surprise.

AB
: 'Sheed's struggles. He was supposed to build off a freshman year in which he started almost every game and led the team in some big games. Instead, he's struggled to adjust to the different feel of the offense led by Parker and Hood. He appears to finding his groove in the past few games, but the degree to which he struggled was a big shock in the early going.

RH
: Team defense. It has improved significantly from where it was in November, but the ease with which East Carolina and Vermont carved up the Blue Devil defense—especially given the preseason emphasis on pressuring the ball and generating turnovers—was disconcerting to say the least.

Biggest disappointment:

BC: Josh Hairston. Not that we had the highest hopes for the senior, but as a starter we were hoping for something more out of him. Hairston is a vocal presence on the team and provides good leadership, but that can be provided from the second unit while Amile Jefferson and his rebounding prowess starts next to Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood in the front court. Hairston is a foul machine, averages just 1.8 rebounds per game, and is posting his lowest point output since his freshman year. Hairston either needs to be more productive or spend more time riding the pine.

DC
: Duke's supposed full-court pressure defense. Everybody was talking all summer about how this team was athletic enough to press, and they are—but a few games into the season the Blue Devils changed their tune thanks to the NCAA's new handcheck rules getting them into a ton of foul trouble. Duke is finally putting it together on the defensive end of the floor, but I was really looking forward to seeing this group of athletes in the full-court press.

AB
: Murph transferring. He'll be missed.

RH
: Amile Jefferson. It's easy to pile on Rasheed Sulaimon, but Jefferson, who opened the season as a starter, is only averaging 16.5 minutes per game. His 5.8 rebounds a game needs to improve in conference play if the undersized Blue Devils are to compete on the glass.

Pressing concern:

BC
: Who is Rasheed Sulaimon? Is he the budding star we saw last season against Creighton and this season against Davidson? Is he the guy who went a combined 2-for-14 against Vermont, Alabama and Arizona? Or is he something in between? Sulaimon has been lauded as the best driver on the team, and he showed that strength against Eastern Michigan, going to the stripe 11 times. If he is able to play the strong defense we have seen at times and gets to the free throw line for easy points, he can be a potent part of the Duke attack both offensively and defensively.

DC
: Duke still has a ways to go on the defensive end of the floor. The Blue Devils' recent run of play has been encouraging, but ACC games are a completely different level of intensity. Duke needs to bring its defensive intensity every night if it wants a shot at a conference title.

AB
: Will Amile Jefferson build off a few good games? He has way more upside than Josh Hairston down low, and he needs to be playing more for this team to reach its potential.

RH:
Over-reliance on Jabari. Over the latter half of non-conference play, Rodney Hood's offensive production has stalled—he hasn't scored more than 20 points in a game in a month. He last eclipsed that mark when he scored 21 against Arizona. Parker's supporting cast has fluctuated from game to game—Hood, Cook, and Dawkins have all had their moments—but will need to develop some consistency to help the freshman navigate the Blue Devils through the ACC.

Game you are looking forward to:

BC: Syracuse. Top two teams in the ACC. The return of Michael Gbinije. Krzyzewski vs. Boeheim. There's just so much to love here. Not to mention, the prospect of Andre Dawkins' sweet stroke against the Syracuse zone is very exciting.

DC
: The same game I have had circled on my calendar since the beginning of the season. Feb. 1—Duke at Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. Not only will this be the first installment of one of the best new rivalries in the ACC in an electric atmosphere, it will be a fantastic barometer for how the new and improved Blue Devils can play against the nation's top competition. I can't wait to make that trip up to Syracuse.

AB
: Syracuse. The Orange in the ACC still doesn't feel right, but Krzyzewski-Boeheim... where's the popcorn?

RH
: Syracuse on the road. As usual, Duke didn't travel to a particularly hostile road arena before ACC play, and they don't come much rougher than the Carrier Dome. Plus, Jim Boeheim's squad has looked awfully strong so far this season.

Revised NCAA Tournament prediction:

BC: I'm not as confident as I was before the season, but I'm not ready to back off of my Final Four prediction. That being said, it wouldn't be terribly shocking to see the Blue Devils blow a game early in the NCAA Tournament. Jabari Parker is possibly the best player in the nation, Rodney Hood is as good a second option as anyone and Quinn Cook is becoming one of college basketball's best point guards. The talent and depth are certainly there to propel Duke to North Texas.

DC
: Earlier I said they would get to the Final Four and I didn't know after that—now I'm comfortable saying I like this Duke team to win it all. I really like the direction they've been going in during the last month of nonconference play. If the Blue Devils can keep it together on the defensive end, this team looks as dangerous as any in the country right now.

AB
: Still saying national champs. This team can do it, especially with how Dawkins has looked.

RH
: Elite Eight. Parker's roughest outing this year came against Arizona, the best team Duke has faced so far, and his teammates weren't able to make enough plays to make up the difference. Against another elite team, Duke may not be able to overcome another mortal performance by the freshman phenom.

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