This column is part of our dueling columnists series in our men's basketball season preview. The counterpoint can be found here.
Earlier this offseason, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino compared this Blue Devil team to his 1996 Kentucky team that finished 34-2 and won the national championship.
Although those Wildcats were one of the most dominant teams in history with an average margin of victory of more than 20 points and nine players that played in the NBA, it’s possible that Pitino’s praise may not have gone far enough.
Duke has a legitimate chance to go undefeated.
With one look at the Blue Devil roster, it becomes immediately clear that this is not just some talking-head argument looking to get attention. Duke has assembled a team with six former five-star recruits and three four-star prospects.
Along with just pure talent, the Blue Devils also have three captains—graduate student Amile Jefferson, senior Matt Jones and junior Grayson Allen—that have already climbed the mountaintop and claimed a national championship for the program. Add in a year of development for sophomores Luke Kennard and Chase Jeter, and it’s evident that Duke has more experience than people think.
The biggest argument against the Blue Devils making a run similar to that of Kentucky in 2014-15 is their schedule. Whereas the Wildcats faced a soft schedule in the SEC—to say the least—Duke plays in a conference that is widely respected as the nation’s best and could earn as many as 10 bids in the NCAA tournament this spring.
But a closer look shows that the Blue Devil schedule may not be as daunting as it initially appears.
Arguably the biggest challenge for Duke will come in just two weeks when they take on Kansas in the Champions Classic. With freshmen Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles still working their way back from injuries, the Blue Devils may be short-handed against a Jayhawk team that made the Elite Eight a season ago and brought in Josh Jackson—the second-ranked recruit in the country.
But Kansas has won just once in its five appearances in the premier early-season event and is generally a more dangerous team to face once the conference schedule comes around, so I am confident Duke can navigate past the Jayhawks.
The Blue Devils should then breeze through the rest of their nonconference slate with the only other neutral site games coming against Penn State and either Cincinnati or Rhode Island in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off event before Thanksgiving, Florida in Madison Square Garden—almost Duke’s second home— for the Jimmy V Classic and UNLV for the opening of T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
And don’t expect the Blue Devils to have much trouble at home during the nonconference portion of their schedule—Duke rides a 125-game nonconference home game winning streak into this season.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
And then comes the dreaded ACC.
But many forget that the Blue Devils are no strangers to the challenges they will face this upcoming season.
Duke beat a significantly more talented Virginia team a season ago and Miami—which has beaten the Blue Devils two consecutive times—lost the majority of its top scorers. Although Duke killer Bonzie Colson still suits up for Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish don’t seem anywhere close to competing at the the top of the conference without Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste.
People worried about Duke’s chances of winning on the road against North Carolina may want to consider that Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams still struggles to manage late-game situations and that the Blue Devils have won four of their last five visits to the Dean Dome.
Of course, every road conference game turns out to be a test and Duke will surely face a few of them this season. But when the Blue Devils are in tight battles with the likes of Syracuse, N.C. State and Louisville, Duke will have the fortitude of Allen and Jefferson or the talent of one of the team’s many freshmen to turn to. With almost every lineup, the Blue Devils should have at least two of the three most talented players on the court.
One key for Duke to really solidify its chance to run the table will be to get significant contributions from the highly-touted Giles.
The 6-foot-10 power forward was the crown jewel of Duke’s recruiting class and comes with tantalizing potential after being compared to the likes of Kevin Garnett in high school. Giles would add just another big man to head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s arsenal and immediately shore up any deficiencies the Blue Devils may have with rebounding or defense.
Without Giles, Duke is a step ahead of the rest of the college basketball world. With him, the Blue Devils are a dominant force that could truly turn in one of the most memorable seasons in college basketball history.
Pitino will get to watch Duke firsthand when the Blue Devils take on Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center in January. But time will tell whether the praise he heaped on the Blue Devils is still relevant—my bet is it will be.