After more than half a year of anticipation following its fifth national championship, Duke will finally begin the 2015-16 campaign facing the same expectations despite sporting a drastically different roster.
The No. 5 Blue Devils will take on Siena at Cameron Indoor Stadium Friday at 7 p.m. before hosting Bryant Saturday at 8 p.m. in a rare back-to-back as part of the 2K Classic benefitting Wounded Warriors Project. Although this season’s team has the same end goal as every Duke squad that has come before it, this young group is starting with the basics—getting comfortable on the court and establishing team chemistry as it heads into the regular season.
“I can relate more than anyone to what the freshmen are going through in terms of learning how to slow down and how to think through things,” graduate student Marshall Plumlee said. “It can be a frustrating way to play when you’re going too fast and you’re not producing anything for the amount of energy and effort you’re going through. Sometimes you’re trying to run through a wall and you should just take the door, as Coach says.”
After losing its top four scorers and 71.4 percent of its offense from last season, the Blue Devils clearly have some rebuilding to do. Adding the No. 1 recruiting class—headlined by four top-25 prospects—certainly helps, but restoring last year’s team chemistry will be a much more difficult feat.
The freshmen have put their potential on full display through a cumulative 80 minutes of exhibition play. Luke Kennard and Brandon Ingram combined for 30 points in Duke’s first contest against Florida Southern Oct. 30, and Derryck Thornton—who had the most catching-up to do after reclassifying from the Class of 2016 to join the Blue Devils and arriving later in the summer than his classmates—led all scorers with 22 points in 29 minutes. In Duke’s 119-54 rout of Livingstone Nov. 4, Kennard notched 25 points after draining six shots from beyond the arc and Ingram followed suit with 24 points and five steals of his own. Chase Jeter recorded his first double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
“One of the good things about the freshmen is that the effort is there for them every day," sophomore Grayson Allen said. "They are going really hard. A lot of times they’re not going too hard, but just too fast, a little bit out of control, and at this level you have to stop and think sometimes. They’re getting a lot better at that, where it just flows smoothly."
Although several of the newcomers are expected to be key scorers, the four returning Blue Devils—Plumlee, Allen, Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson—must take on bigger roles than they played during last year's title run. Jones and Jefferson both started in roughly half of last year’s contests. Although Allen did not start a single game during his rookie season, the Jacksonville, Fla., native added 16 critical points in the national championship game against Wisconsin to bring the banner back to Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The Blue Devils were tested early in exhibition play when both Jones and Jefferson sat out of Duke’s contest against Livingstone with injuries. Jones hurt his groin in the Blue Devils’ first tune-up game, and Jefferson left early in the second after tweaking an ankle. Although both are now practicing again, the Blue Devils were forced to consider a scenario in which four freshmen were regularly taking the floor at the same time. Despite the abundance of talent evident in Duke’s freshman class, adapting to the speed and rigor of the college game will take time, but the young Blue Devils will have veterans to guide them.
“It’s exciting to see how much better we can get over the course of the year,” Plumlee said. “I think we can get a little sharper, but it’s early in the season and we’re going to keep on working and taking a step forward every day.”
Duke's biggest challenge in taking on the Saints Friday night will be containing freshman guard Nico Clareth, who is coming off a 24-point showing Monday night in Siena's contest against 2015 Division II runner up Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Clareth was one of four Saints to record double-digit scoring in the win, but Siena committed 16 turnovers and was out-rebounded on the offensive boards, which could prove to be a problem come Friday night.
Bryant will open its season Saturday night in Durham after losing two of last season's three leading scorers in Dynami Starks and Joe O'Shea. Now, head coach Tim O'Shea will look to junior Dan Garvin to improve on his 10.9 points per game from last year to lead the Bulldogs. Bryant made headlines this offseason after assistant coach Chris Burns became the first openly gay coach in Division I men's basketball. Burns will find a familiar face at Cameron Indoor Stadium, as Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski called to congratulate him after he came out in October.
The Blue Devils will take these home games against Siena and Bryant as opportunities to get some regular season experience under their belts and to further establish their roles before a tough matchup against No. 2 Kentucky Tuesday night in the State Farm Champions Classic in Chicago. Starting Friday, the Blue Devils will play five games in 10 days, meaning they must overcome their preseason jitters quickly if they hope to start their season on a strong note.
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