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Chron Chat: Previewing Duke men's basketball's opening month

With the Blue Devils set to play their first regular season game as defending national champions Friday against Siena, The Chronicle's men's basketball beat writers take a look at some of the big questions facing the team in its first month of the season.

After losing three freshmen to the NBA draft and Quinn Cook to graduation, Duke's roster has its fair share of unknowns heading into the season. What is the biggest question mark facing the Blue Devils as they get set to start the regular season?

Jack Dolgin: The point guard situation, if you want to give anyone a specific guard label. Freshman Derryck Thornton has had only one strong showing so far and he did not play with the team over the summer. Losing Tyus Jones was huge, and though Thornton has a high offensive ceiling, he is still unproven. Until he does prove himself, expect a number of different guards to take the ball up the court.

Amrith Ramkumar: Assuming Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson are going to be healthy—the duo practiced Monday—for me the biggest question mark is where Duke goes when it needs a bucket in the halfcourt. Last season, the Blue Devils had the luxury of dumping it down to Jahlil Okafor or putting Tyus Jones in high pick-and-roll situations, but I'm curious to see what kind of sets head coach Mike Krzyzewski and company employ in pressure situations. It would make sense for swingman Brandon Ingram to get those touches, but it's unclear how Duke will utilize his unique skill set and unclear whether or not the Blue Devils are content employing more isolations this season.

Meredith Cash: If you had asked me a few days ago, I would've said leadership, because both Jones and Jefferson were nursing injuries. Since it looks as though both of them will be back for the games this weekend, I would say the role each freshman will play is the biggest unknown heading into the season. Since this year's squad is so young, each of them will have to find a niche as the season progresses in order to best help the team as a whole.

Brian Pollack: I agree with Jack that it will be how the backcourt will play out. Last year, Duke was fortunate to have a great pair of guards in Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook who played extremely well together and possessed complementary skill-sets. The picture is not quite as clear this time around, with Thornton, Matt Jones, Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen all expected to handle the ball in some capacity. How Krzyzewski divvies up both playing time and point guard duties among his quartet of guards is going to be critical for the Blue Devils' offense this season.

Ryan Hoerger: It may not be biggest, but one key question facing the Blue Devils is how Ingram will be deployed. The Kinston, N.C., native has the skills to both handle the ball and shoot from anywhere on the floor—luxuries in the college game for a 6-foot-9 freshman—but I'm interested to see whether Krzyzewski utilizes him more at the three or the four early in the season. My gut tells me Ingram starts at the three, but I'm curious to see whether the 23 pounds of muscle he added this summer are enough to allow him to score effectively inside. It worked for the bulkier Justise Winslow when he moved to the four midway through last season, and if Duke's backcourt turns out to be as loaded as it looks on paper, then putting Ingram inside could make the Blue Devils even scarier on the offensive end. At the same time, there may still be possessions where the play call is essentially to give Ingram the ball and watch him go to work.

Sameer Pandhare: Unlike everybody else, I actually think the Blue Devils' biggest weakness lies in the frontcourt, where Jefferson and graduate student Marshall Plumlee are set to man positions in the starting lineup. Neither has shown much of a consistent punch offensively and it remains to be seen whether either can consistently rebound for Duke. Behind them are even bigger unknowns as freshman Chase Jeter is inexperienced and neither redshirt sophomore Sean Obi nor freshman Antonio Vrankovic is likely to get much playing time. Given the talented array of big men the Blue Devils will face this season, I wouldn't be surprised if Duke has trouble defending opponents in the paint. 

Duke's roster features predominantly freshmen and sophomores who have yet to display their talents on the collegiate level. Who is a player flying under the radar that fans should keep an eye out for?

JD: I expect Kennard to have a strong season. The backcourt is a little less established than it was last year, and Allen still has much to prove. Expect Kennard to play at a similar level to Allen, as the Franklin, Ohio, native is a major 3-point threat and has also proven he can take the rock up the court. For what it's worth, he's also looked like one of the most poised freshmen off the court.

AR: Thornton, Allen, Kennard and Ingram have received a lot of the attention this preseason, and rightfully so, but I think fans should keep an eye on how Plumlee plays to start the season. If the 7-footer can stay on the court for big minutes and Ingram can stay on the perimeter, the Blue Devils should be one of the best defensive teams in the country with their length. On the other hand, if a lineup with Plumlee and Jefferson can't generate enough offense, especially in the paint, Duke might have to give Jeter or Ingram big minutes down low to get better floor spacing. The second scenario seems risky, especially early in the season. All indications are that Plumlee is ready to be Duke's starting center in his fifth year in the program, but fans should definitely keep an eye on how he performs early in the season.

MC: I'm with Jack on this one. Obviously Kennard showed off his scoring ability in the exhibition game against Livingstone, but whether that translates to the regular season remains to be seen. Although he draws comparisons to Allen all the time, Kennard seems more comfortable in his role than Allen was this time last year, so I think Kennard will have a major impact on the floor pretty early on.

BP: Plumlee. The Warsaw, Ind., native has been almost exclusively a role player thus far in his time at Duke, but will likely start at center for this young squad. Jeter isn't quite as polished as Okafor was last year—then again, almost nobody is—and Obi hasn't yet made the strides forward to earn himself major minutes in the frontcourt. Plumlee has always been a great communicator and defender for the Blue Devils, but he's going to have to avoid the foul troubles that have plagued him in the past—because this team needs him to be a consistent presence down low.

RH: I'm high on both Kennard and Thornton, but I think those two guys are already in the conversation heading into the season. To me, Jeter is a potential plug-and-play guy that can be a key reserve for the Blue Devils off the bench. Jeter may not be the explosive scorer in the low post that Duke had last year in Okafor, and he won't get the shot volume of Ingram or Allen, but I think he has an opportunity to be an efficient scorer. The Las Vegas product quietly turned in a double-double in Duke's exhibition finale against Livingstone after Jefferson went down with an ankle injury, and finding a way to generate production in however many minutes he gets could loom large. The Blue Devils aren't going to fully replace Okafor's impact on the offensive end, but an active, aggressive Jeter certainly helps.

SP: I'm seeing a big season from Jeter as well and it seems that many have forgotten how highly regarded the big man was coming out of high school. Although he is not as polished as Okafor was on the block, Jeter can excel in transition and could be a much-needed spark for the team off the bench. As the year goes on, I expect Jeter's offensive repertoire to slowly expand and don't be surprised if the freshman is a game-changer for the Blue Devils in conference play. 

The Blue Devils play five games in the next two weeks, including a matchup against No. 2 Kentucky and two more tournament teams from a year ago. Where do you think Duke will stand after this opening stretch of games?

JD: I think the Blue Devils go undefeated heading into 2016. Kentucky, potential opponent and defending national runner-up Wisconsin and Duke have all lost key players from last season. But the Blue Devils have replenished with the top-ranked recruiting class, and for the series at Madison Square Garden, the upperclassmen have experience playing in New York. Expect all of the games to be fun to watch, but for Duke to find a way to come out unscathed. 

AR: I like Duke to be 4-1 after its first five games of the season given the challenging early-season schedule and the team's youth. Kentucky has one of the best backcourts in the country with Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe—all five-star guards—not to mention projected No. 1 draft pick Skal Labissiere up front, which makes it tough to pick the Blue Devils to prevail next Tuesday. I think Duke will manage to win the 2K Classic by knocking off Virginia Commonwealth and either Wisconsin or Georgetown, but would also not be too shocked to see a close game in the second contest. Led by explosive guard D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown brings back a lot of talent, and Bo Ryan's Badgers are never an easy out.

MC: Like I said before, Duke is a very young team this year, and the freshmen are not coming in with the same level of chemistry that last year's roster had. I think the Blue Devils will have to use these early challenges to really get comfortable with one another. The talent is definitely there, but the familiarity may not be. I don't think Duke's guards will be able to overcome some issues with cohesion in time for a matchup against Kentucky's supremely-talented backcourt. 

BP: Five games in 10 days is a grueling stretch to the season, and I expect Duke to take its fair share of lumps. This team is very, very young and it's going to take a solid chunk of the season before everyone starts to gel and figure out what their roles are. Until that happens, the Blue Devils will be a team with elite talent, but not necessarily one that plays together as an elite unit. After going up against a stacked Kentucky squad, a gritty Virginia Commonwealth team and another quality opponent in either Georgetown or Wisconsin, I think 3-2 is a pretty realistic place for Duke to be after this opening stretch.

RH: The beauty of this early-season gauntlet is that it forces Duke's freshmen to get up to speed incredibly quickly—it's essentially sink or swim. Last year, facing the same busy stretch, the Blue Devils went 5-0 with wins against a talented Stanford squad and Final Four-bound Michigan State. This year's slate is much harder, though, and I see at least one hiccup along the way, most likely in the form of No. 2 Kentucky. It's going to take some time for this Duke team to gel and grow, so an early defeat could almost be a positive, because the freshmen will learn much more from a loss than the continued success they've enjoyed up to this point in their basketball careers.

SP: I could very well see the Blue Devils starting the season off well and replicating the success in the nonconference slate that the team had last year. Big-time players have a knack for making big-time plays and I don't expect Thornton or Ingram to be tentative at all to start the season. I'll say Duke finishes 4-1 with a tight loss to second-ranked Kentucky because of their inability to matchup up with the Wildcats' backcourt. In the end, the opening stretch of five games in 10 days will do nothing but good for the Blue Devils as they will emerge a stronger team from it. 


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