With the Blue Devils' season about a week from getting started against Marist, The Chronicle's men's basketball beat writers made their predictions for the team's record and what to expect from its star players.
Regular-season and ACC record
Amrith Ramkumar: 27-4, 15-3 in the ACC—This is one of the most complete teams I have seen since I started covering college basketball a few years ago, but that does not mean the Blue Devils will just be able to coast through the regular season. Duke has a few challenging nonconference games, but for me the ACC slate will almost certainly deal the Blue Devils a couple of setbacks, as it did in 2014-15 when Miami, N.C. State and Notre Dame knocked off Duke early in conference play. The 15-team conference offers very few guaranteed wins, and with the health of freshman Harry Giles in question, I think the Blue Devils will focus on peaking late in the season and might have a few slip-ups during the year.
Brian Pollack: 28-3, 16-2 in the ACC—This team is an extremely talented one, but the schedule does Duke little favors. The Blue Devils have a huge early matchup with No. 3 Kansas Nov. 15, and with Jayson Tatum potentially still hampered or inactive due to his foot sprain, I think Duke will suffer its first loss there at Madison Square Garden. To me, the Blue Devils have the best roster in the ACC, but a tough road slate—highlighted by games at North Carolina, Virginia, Syracuse, Louisville and Notre Dame—will lead to a pair of losses in conference play.
Sameer Pandhare: 30-1, 17-1 in the ACC—The Blue Devils enter the season with one of the most talented teams in college basketball history because of more than just their talented freshman. Returners Amile Jefferson, Grayson Allen and Matt Jones will stabilize Duke and serve as leaders in the locker room as the Blue Devils go through inevitable growing pains. The Blue Devils will be challenged with a neutral-site contest against Kansas and matchups against all of the other top ACC contenders on the road. Going undefeated will certainly be difficult given Duke’s schedule, but at the end of the day, this Blue Devil roster—when healthy—simply has too many weapons to lose more than a game or two.
Hank Tucker: 28-3, 15-3 in the ACC—I think Duke will get a signature win against Kansas in the Champions Classic and benefit from a weaker than normal nonconference schedule to be undefeated entering 2017. But the ACC is too deep at the top this year for the Blue Devils to make it through the conference schedule unblemished. With road games against North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville, Syracuse and Notre Dame, Duke is bound to have a few slipups. A 15-3 conference record will probably be enough to win the conference outright, but the ACC race might come down to the last game of the regular season when the Blue Devils visit Chapel Hill March 4.
AR: At Virginia—One of the main reasons I think this will be Duke's biggest win of the year simply has to do with the game's timing. The Blue Devils travel to Charlottesville Feb. 15 in the heart of their ACC slate after they will have already faced a few tough conference road games and hosted North Carolina. Following the game against the Cavaliers, Duke will still have to travel to take on the Tar Heels and Syracuse. But despite a brutal stretch of games, I think the Blue Devils use their athleticism to overcome Virginia's vaunted pack-line defense and spark a late-season run to their first outright ACC regular-season title since 2006.
BP: At North Carolina—Duke has dominated the Tobacco Road rivalry in recent seasons, winning four of its last five against the Tar Heels. Last year, the Blue Devils marched into the Dean E. Smith Center and stole a win despite playing most of the game with just five players following Jones’ injury. This year’s road game is the regular-season finale, and Duke should be peaking at that point, finishing with a big win at North Carolina.
SP: Kansas—Duke will face its first major test with freshman Giles’ status uncertain and Jayson Tatum still trying to work his way back into the fold with his new teammates. On the opposite bench, the Jayhawks return an experienced backcourt and added a freshman phenom of their own in Josh Jackson. Considering how little time the Blue Devils will have spent with their complete team, Duke may struggle to find a rhythm on offense against a stingy Kansas defense. But squeezing out a victory here could propel the Blue Devils to a likely undefeated mark in the nonconference portion of their schedule.
HT: At Virginia—Duke’s dramatic win in Charlottesville, Va., in 2015 fueled its late-season run to the program’s fifth national championship, and another road win against the Cavaliers could have a similar effect this year. Jackson will smother preseason first-team All-ACC guard London Perrantes on the perimeter, and Virginia may struggle to match up with the Blue Devils’ athletes and score consistently. The Cavaliers will be disciplined on defense, as always, but Duke’s talent advantage will prevail in a hostile environment.
Potential upset no one will see coming
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AR: At Florida State—The Seminoles have been inconsistent recently despite boasting NBA talent up and down their roster, and even if Florida State struggles at times this year, I expect this to be a closer game than many expect. The Seminoles are one of the few teams that have the versatility and athleticism with players like Dwayne Bacon and Johnathan Isaac to match Duke's playmaking. Add in the streaky Xavier Rathan-Mayers and a few shot blockers, and Florida State has all of the tools to push the Blue Devils, who will face a road test at Louisville after traveling to Tallahassee.
BP: At Virginia Tech—The Blue Devils’ ACC opener is a tricky game for many reasons, including its odd placement on New Year’s Eve. Virginia Tech surprised many people with a 10-8 record in ACC play last season and is a dangerous team that returns its top three scorers. I would still pick Duke to win this one, but the first taste of conference play could give the Blue Devil freshmen some trouble, and I would not be shocked if the Hokies put up a very good fight.
SP: At Virginia Tech—The last time Duke visited Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils needed overtime heroics by Jahlil Okafor to come away with a victory. This Hokies team is much improved from that one, and head coach Buzz Williams has continued to bolster his roster entering his third year at the helm. The New Year’s Eve matchup between these two teams will be the conference opener for both, and Virginia Tech could catch Duke off guard if the Blue Devils are not prepared for the added intensity of ACC basketball.
HT: At Florida State—Duke has always struggled in the Donald L. Tucker Center, and Florida State may have the athleticism to compete with the Blue Devils in front of its home crowd. Bacon led the team last year with 15.8 points per game as a five-star freshman and will be one of the most dangerous scorers in the ACC this year, and Rathan-Mayes can also get hot from the perimeter. Duke usually drops one or two games on the road early in the ACC schedule against inferior teams, and the Seminoles could be the culprits for this season’s trap game.
AR: Jayson Tatum—I take MVP to mean best player, which makes this one pretty easy for me. Although Allen is the preseason favorite for National Player of the Year, I think Tatum—assuming he is healthy soon—is an even bigger matchup problem for almost any team and is poised for a huge year. The 6-foot-8 swingman has a sweet shooting stroke and should get plenty of open looks in the Blue Devils' offense this year against both man-to-man and zone defenses. With games on the line, I would expect the ball to find Tatum so the St. Louis native can use his offensive gifts with plenty of space in crunch time.
BP: Frank Jackson—Although Jackson is not the Blue Devils’ best player—that title goes to either Allen or freshman Jayson Tatum at this point—he is the one that can unlock their full offensive potential. If he develops his vision as a point guard, Duke will have a ball-handler who can set up teammates but also score explosively on his own. Jackson’s athleticism also makes him an excellent defender, allowing head coach Mike Krzyzewski to tinker with different lineups and defensive schemes depending on the opponent.
SP: Jayson Tatum—Barring further setbacks with his sprained foot, Tatum is going to be a special player in likely his only season at Duke. The forward is versatile enough to score in multiple ways and will be a matchup nightmare for teams all season. Some of the keys for the freshman will be finding consistency with his perimeter jumper and adjusting to the physicality of the college game. Although Allen may put up bigger stats and take more shots, Tatum will stand out as the player that makes the Blue Devil offense tick.
HT: Jayson Tatum—Allen is getting most of the hype as the preseason ACC Player of the Year, but I think Tatum will wind up being Duke’s leading scorer and best player. The 6-foot-8 freshman will present a matchup problem for every opposing defense with his length and shooting ability, and he appeared to be ready for the college game already with 18 points at Countdown to Craziness two weeks ago. Although he is currently out with a foot sprain, the injury shouldn’t keep him out for long, and he may be ready for the start of the regular season next Friday.
Over/Under: Harry Giles plays 20 regular-season games
AR: Under—I was at ACC media day last week when Krzyzewski said there is no timetable for Giles' return, and more and more it seems like the Blue Devils are going to be extremely cautious with the No. 1 recruit. Many forget that Giles never even started practicing with contact before his knee scope in early October. As Krzyzewski pointed out, he has no body of work with his teammates, and it will take him a while to get back in the swing of things even with his immense talent. When I consider all of these factors together and Giles' pro prospects, it does not seem likely that the Winston-Salem, N.C., native sees major court time until late in the year.
BP: Over—The initial six-week time frame following his knee scope in October would put Giles back on the floor in mid-to-late November, but the team has yet to set a timetable on his specific return, so that feels a bit optimistic. I think Krzyzewski will want to hold him out of the big nonconference games—Kansas Nov. 15 and Michigan State Nov. 29—and work him in gradually against weaker opponents in December before cutting him loose in ACC play. Assuming he does not re-injure himself after that—not the safest assumption, admittedly—that puts Giles at about 20-25 games before postseason play.
SP: Over—I may not be a doctor, but it’s hard not to see Giles suiting up for at least 20 games. The freshman has already been injured for more than a year, but if no structural damage is present in Giles’ knees, there is no sense in keeping him on the bench. Whether the forward gets as many minutes as people expect is still to be determined, but Giles should be ready to participate in basketball activities sooner rather than later.
HT: Under—Giles hasn’t played any basketball in almost a year and has proven to be too injury prone for me to feel confident that he will be on the floor consistently this season. There is no timetable for his return from his arthroscopic surgery, and when he does return, there is no guarantee he will stay healthy for the rest of the season. I think Duke will be abundantly cautious with using Giles this year, and a setback or aggravation if he returns too early could hurt his NBA draft prospects.
Over/Under: Jayson Tatum averages 17 points per game
AR: Over—I have Tatum barely clearing this mark. I think it will be close given the team's numerous offensive options, but Tatum is such a natural scorer that it seems like he will get enough chances within the flow of the offense to still put up big numbers. Krzyzewski has been adamant that the players who are performing best will see the most minutes even with a deep roster, and I think Tatum will consistently be in that group and demand the basketball throughout the year.
BP: Under—This is not a reflection on Tatum’s ability to score, but rather a testament to Duke’s offensive depth. I do think Tatum will eventually emerge as the primary scoring option, but Allen, Jackson and sophomore guard Luke Kennard could easily average double digits as well. Jones and Jefferson will get their points, and freshman center Marques Bolden could emerge as a double-figure scorer down in the post. I just don’t think there are enough touches for Tatum to put up monster numbers on this team.
SP: Over—Duke is going to score a lot of points, and Tatum will be a big reason why. Although opposing teams will throw their best defender at him, the freshman is simply too good to be completely shut down. Even if Tatum is not the primary option for the Blue Devils, the freshman should be able to bully smaller defenders in the post or shoot over them. On the rare occasion that the forward struggles with the physicality of defenders, Tatum should be able to contribute by spotting up on the perimeter.
HT: Over—I think Tatum is already a more polished scorer than Brandon Ingram was as a versatile swingman at the end of last year, and the St. Louis native will approach 20 points per game and contend for ACC Freshman of the Year. Tatum is a strong 3-point shooter and can also finish off the dribble, shooting over smaller defenders other teams will throw at him. It will be tough to stand out as a prolific scorer with the amount of talented players Duke has this year, but Tatum has the potential to do it.
End-of-season lineup in crunch time
AR: Frank Jackson, Grayson Allen, Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Amile Jefferson—I think Giles will still be healthy enough to play some meaningful minutes late in the year, and his talent makes it hard to see him sitting on the bench if healthy. Leaving Kennard and Jones out of this group is difficult, but I see Krzyzewski using both players and Jackson when late-game situations call for specific skillsets. As an effective shooter who can also be a tenacious defender, Jackson gets the nod for me even though he is a freshman. Allen, Tatum and Jefferson seem like locks to be in this group barring unforeseen matchups or injuries.
BP: Frank Jackson, Grayson Allen, Jayson Tatum, Amile Jefferson, Harry Giles—If Giles recovers and plays near his potential, I don’t think there is any question that these are the Blue Devils’ five best players. There is plenty of size and scoring threats—both inside and out—that will make this a very tough lineup for opponents to match up against. I could see Krzyzewski putting in Jones if Duke is ahead and looking for defense, but with Jackson and Jefferson as two of the Blue Devils’ best defenders, this lineup is not an easy one to score on, either.
SP: Frank Jackson, Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, Jayson Tatum, Amile Jefferson—Although I believe Giles will play in more than 20 games, the freshman will likely be on a strict minutes restriction to begin the year. With Krzyzewski forced to monitor Giles’ playing time, the Blue Devils will need to find a group that works for them in early-season tests against Kansas and Michigan State. Expect Kennard to be in that group, as his perimeter shooting helps space the floor for Allen and Tatum’s penetration and puts yet another weapon on the court for the Blue Devils.
HT: Frank Jackson, Grayson Allen, Jayson Tatum, Amile Jefferson, Harry Giles—If Giles is healthy, this lineup would challenge opponents with its length on the defensive end and be able to get stops in crunch time. Jefferson and Allen would be mature veterans alongside a skilled trio of freshman, and everybody in this lineup has the potential to create his own shot driving into the lane. Kennard would also be an enticing option if Duke needs a spark from the perimeter to get back into a game, potentially subbing out for Jackson when the Blue Devils are on defense.
Number of Blue Devils taken in the lottery of the 2017 NBA Draft
AR: Two—I think the Blue Devils have at least three players worthy of being taken in the lottery, but the hype surrounding this draft class makes me question whether more than two Duke players can impress scouts enough to stay in the top 14. Tatum, Giles and Bolden all have the talent to be lottery picks. However, I think there are enough other talented big men like California's Ivan Rabb or Kentucky's Bam Adebayo that either Giles or Bolden might slip depending on how Giles' knee situation ends up and how many touches Bolden gets down low this year.
BP: Three—At this point, it seems like a near certainty that Tatum will be gone after one season and headed to the NBA as a lottery pick. Giles was projected as a potential No. 1 overall pick before injuries have caused his stock to tumble a bit, but he still has plenty of upside and is also a safe bet to be chosen in the top 14. Bolden and Allen are the other Blue Devils who could potentially be chosen there—with Bolden currently more likely than Allen, though I think their stocks may flip as the year progresses. I’m not convinced that either of them individually will make it to the lottery, but it’s likely that one of them will be chosen, so I’ll go with three in total.
SP: Three—There’s really no scenario where Tatum and Giles fall out of the lottery. Even if both are unfortunate enough to suffer injuries, the freshmen are simply too talented and have too much potential to pass up. I believe Bolden has the potential to join the duo among the first 14 picks in the NBA Draft. Bolden will have a season with Krzyzewski to refine his back-to-the-basket game and already possesses the frame to compete at the next level. If the freshman can continue to impact the game defensively, he stands a good chance at hearing his name called early on draft night.
HT: Three—Tatum and Giles are both virtual locks to be lottery selections next year. They were two of the top three recruits in the nation last year and have skillsets that translate well to the NBA game. I also think one more Blue Devil will sneak into the lottery. If Bolden has a good season and decides to go pro, he could easily be a lottery pick, and the same goes for Jackson. I don’t think Allen will do enough this year to sneak into the lottery, though he could get picked later in the first round.