The Blue Devils will ring in the 2014-15 season with their sixth annual Countdown to Craziness Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Doors open at 6 p.m., with player introductions for the women's and men's teams scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. Following the fanfare, head coach Mike Krzyzewski's squad will take the floor for a 24-minute scrimmage, fans' first opportunity to see Duke's highly-touted recruiting class in action. The evening concludes with a dunk contest at around 9:30 p.m.
The Chronicle's men's basketball beat writers get your countdown to Countdown started with a Q&A:
Who will have the best introduction?
Daniel Carp: Justise Winslow. He’s a freshman who is quick to crack a smile and has been entertaining Duke fans with his larger-than-life Twitter persona since before he committed to the Blue Devils. I have high expectations for the entrance to his first Countdown—his Twitter game has considerable swag, and my guess is his dance moves will too.
Bobby Colton: Marshall Plumlee. It has to be. The fan favorite has wowed the crowd with his dance moves in the past and there is no doubt he’s been planning his big introduction all offseason. He’s one you don’t want to miss.
Ryan Hoerger: Sean Kelly. I don’t know that it’ll be the most memorable of the introductions, but he’s likely to receive one of the warmest welcomes from the crowd on hand at Cameron. As a senior walk-on, he’s got big shoes to fill—those left by crowd favorite Todd Zafirovski—but Kelly’s already got a pedigree that will ingratiate him with the Crazies—he's related to former Blue Devil standout Ryan Kelly and already dropped 20 points on North Carolina (albeit in a manager’s game)—what’s not to like?
Amrith Ramkumar: Quinn Cook. I think being a senior about to participate in his last Countdown will bring out something special, much like it did for Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston a year ago. Cook definitely remembers the reception those guys got last year and will come up with something unique to try and top it.
Who is the MVP of the scrimmage?
DC: Probably the most valuable player for Duke’s entire season—point guard Tyus Jones. The Blue Devils have an incredible talent in center Jahlil Okafor, but the play of the freshman floor general from Minnesota is what really stood out to me watching a closed scrimmage earlier this week. Players switched teams every quarter during the scrimmage, and whichever team Jones played for had the upper hand.
BC: Okafor is the easy answer, but I don’t like easy answers. I’m going to go with Rasheed Sulaimon. Without Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood to dominate the ball, Sulaimon becomes Duke’s most capable scoring guard. With savvy distributors in Jones and Quinn Cook creating opportunities for him, look for Sulaimon to not just be the star of the scrimmage, but possibly Duke’s best player period this season.
RH: Okafor is the key to the season’s success, but I think Cook will snag MVP honors Saturday. He’s the lone senior on the roster, tasked with acclimating four promising freshmen to the pressures of playing in a filled Cameron Indoor. Look for him to navigate through traffic throughout the scrimmage and find open teammates, as well as call his own number with some well-timed 3-pointers.
AR: All eyes will be on Okafor, but I think Marshall Plumlee has gone against him too much to allow the Chicago native to dominate an up-and-down pickup game like this one. I like Justise Winslow here. At 6-foot-6, he is an athletic nightmare on the perimeter who can do it all on the court. I like him to get after it on both ends of the court Saturday night and benefit from the attention given to the other stars on the roster. A fast-paced style with not a whole lot of defense should be up the Houston native’s alley—he excels in transition and is a highlight reel waiting to happen.
Who's a darkhorse or player to keep an eye on?
DC: Justise Winslow. Duke has had plenty of talent on the wing in years past, but this guy is cut from a different mold. He’s a ferocious on-ball defender with an improving perimeter game on the offensive end. But Winslow’s biggest asset may be his versatility—standing at 6-foot-6, he can play shooting guard or either forward position, depending on the lineup. He will play a key role on a team that struggled defensively a year ago.
BC: Grayson Allen. The athletic freak of nature has drawn rave reviews ever since committing early to Duke, and fans will finally get to see his talent shine through at Countdown to Craziness. Having now seen him in person, he won’t disappoint the Crazies. Minutes will be hard to find for Allen in the regular season, but Countdown is the perfect place for him to showcase his talents.
RH: Tyus Jones. Duke’s chances this season may hinge on the ability of Jones and Quinn Cook to play together effectively in the backcourt. Offensively, this shouldn’t be a problem; both are great passers who can finish craftily in the lane and knock down shots from deep range. But given their collective lack of size, Jones and Cook together on the defensive side of the ball could be an invitation for larger guards to play bully-ball. Watch Jones on the offensive end to see what his connection with Okafor looks like, but pay attention to how he fares guarding larger teammates like Allen, Matt Jones and Rasheed Sulaimon.
AR: Matt Jones. Krzyzewski said at practice Tuesday that if he had to pick the starting lineup that day, Jones would have a spot. The sophomore has a lot to prove after struggling with his jump shot last season, but is still Duke’s best on-ball defender, making him a contender for a starting spot. He's the classic glue guy that every great Blue Devil squad needs. I think Jones has been waiting for this moment for a long time and is ready to show that although Duke has uber-talented freshmen on its roster, he is ready to step up and become a reliable contributor this season. If Jones is able to get some rotation on his shot and get in a rhythm early, he could have a big night.
Who plays better—the starters or the reserves?
DC: If the reserves were going to play better than the starters, they would start. Duke is definitely a deeper team this year than it has been in a long time, so the reserves have considerable firepower at their disposal and will put up a fight. But ultimately, Tyus Jones’ distributing ability coupled with the interior presence of Jahlil Okafor and Amile Jefferson will be too much to handle.
BC: Depends on who starts. If Jones, Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon all start, then the starters win. If any of the trio is with the second unit, the reserves will topple the starters. One of the team’s three distributors paired with athletic specimens in Grayson Allen and Semi Ojeleye, a lockdown defender and potential 3-point threat in Matt Jones, and the perpetual motion machine that is Marshall Plumlee will give the veteran starting unit fits.
RH: Starter, reserve, walk-on, it may not really matter—whoever is on the floor with Okafor will likely play better than the other side. He commands attention from all five defenders, which will only make life easier on his teammates. Spot-up shooters are going to love playing with him because their defenders will converge into the post, opening them up for open looks, and Okafor has already drawn praise from his teammates for his court awareness and willingness to share the ball.
AR: Regardless of who is in the backcourt, assuming the starters have Jefferson and Okafor up front, I think the starters play better. Okafor gets so much attention and is such a game-changer on the defensive end that the starters will have a much easier time transitioning from getting defensive stops to getting out on the break, and on the offensive end Jefferson will be able to wreak havoc because of all of the attention his fellow post will now draw.
Do Duke’s defense and rebounding show improvement?
DC: Defense will be improved. Until they see this year’s team, people won’t understand how much of a defensive liability Jabari Parker was last year. Rebounding is a different story—and a puzzling one. Duke didn’t have a true center last year. Now they have arguably the best big man to enter college basketball since Tim Duncan. Theoretically, rebounding shouldn’t be an issue, but it's still a team responsibility, and Krzyzewski said as much Tuesday. It’s so easy to say your 7-foot center will haul in every loose ball, but there are five guys on the floor for a reason. The Blue Devils finally have a prolific rebounder, but are still on a quest to become a good rebounding team. That starts with the their wings’ willingness to crash the boards.
BC: Not in a pickup game. But there are certain things to look for. How do Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones play against the opposing two guards? Can Amile Jefferson be a rebounding force playing next to a player of Okafor's gravity? Will Marshall Plumlee be able to battle Okafor for boards? Is Justise Winslow the lockdown defender some have pegged him to be? The second half should tell more of the story when the starters and reserves are mixed, but there should be enough action to give fans some idea of what Duke’s defense and rebounding will look like in the regular season.
RH: I don’t think you’ll see a whole lot of improvement Saturday, but that isn’t to say that Duke won’t be a better defensive team once the regular season rolls around. Countdown is all about hyping up the season and putting on a good show for the fans. Boxing out and crashing the boards hard aren't the flashiest things you can do on a basketball court, as much as the coaching staff would like to see them become unbreakable habits, and you probably won't see a lot of charges being taken—a Duke staple. Okafor will get plenty of practice warring with Plumlee down low, and that’ll be great preparation for some of the frontcourts he’s going to see this year (Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin and Montrezl Harrell from Louisville come to mind).
AR: I still think the early signs of improvement and baby steps will show Saturday. Throughout offseason workouts and preseason practices, players have cited defense as a primary focus, and the fast-paced scrimmage will likely result in lots of steals and aggressive man-to-man defense that Duke fans haven’t seen in awhile. With assistant coaches Jon Scheyer and Nate James and associate head coach Jeff Capel coaching up their respective squads, I still expect a few wrinkles, and guys will battle so they don’t end up on the wrong end of a SportsCenter Top 10 dunk.
Who wins the dunk contest?
DC: Grayson Allen takes the crown—hands down. I first watched this kid play at a summer tournament when he was 16 and was astounded at what he could do in the air. We’ve all seen the video of him jumping over Okafor by now...it’s crazy. Semi Ojeleye is probably more athletic than Allen, but probably doesn’t care about the dunk contest as much. Get your popcorn read, Cameron Crazies—Allen is going to put on a show.
BC: The toughest question in the bunch. Ojeleye may be the most athletic player I’ve ever seen, but he didn’t put on the show we expected at this event last year. Plus, I think he’s not quite as creative as his counterparts. Therefore, the uber-bouncy Allen will take the title. Marshall Plumlee will likely compete, but he doesn’t stand a chance against the likes of Ojeleye and Allen. Justise Winslow is the darkhorse here.
RH: I’m going to take Winslow. There’s something about the way he carries himself on the court—calm, collected and under control—that doesn’t seem to match his explosiveness and aggressive drives to the basket. I think the dunk contest is where we see him come out of that shell a little bit and embrace some of the showmanship that a dunk contest requires.AR: he can throw down some monster jams
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