With No. 5 Duke opening ACC play Saturday at Virginia Tech, The Chronicle’s men’s basketball beat writers break down some of the biggest storylines of the Blue Devils’ nonconference slate.
The Blue Devils came into this season as the top-ranked team in the nation. Through nonconference play, has Duke met the expectations you set for the team to begin the season?
Amrith Ramkumar: From a record standpoint, yes, the Blue Devils are about where I expected at 12-1 heading into conference play. But from a quality of play standpoint, Duke has fallen short, particularly lately as freshmen big men Harry Giles and Marques Bolden have struggled to get comfortable in their first few games of the year. Their slow starts are completely understandable given the extensive time away from the court, but I expected the Blue Devils to have the flexibility to play dynamic small and big lineups, and so far only the small-ball lineup with Jayson Tatum and Amile Jefferson up front seems to be living up to the hype.
Injuries have also slowed guards Frank Jackson and Grayson Allen after pretty strong starts to the year, and Allen’s indefinite suspension probably puts the team at a bit worse than preseason expectations in my book. It’s pretty tough for me to say that given how spectacular Luke Kennard and Amile Jefferson have been, but right now I would have to say Duke has fallen a bit short of the astronomical preseason expectations.
Brian Pollack: Although Duke has put together a 12-1 record despite injuries and underperformance from Grayson Allen, I don't think there is any question the Blue Devils have underachieved relative to the preseason hype that surrounded them. Remember, this was the consensus No. 1 team in the country and there was talk of Duke going undefeated—both of which are far in the rearview mirror at this point. Three of the Blue Devils' five-star freshmen were slowed by injuries to start the year, but even once they returned, only Jayson Tatum has come close to living up to his billing.
Depth was supposed to be a strength of this team—and something that would separate it from recent Duke squads—but that has been compromised, and Krzyzewski has still found himself relying on just six players in most games. None of this is to say the Blue Devils are a bad team—they're still ranked No. 5 and finally have a fully healthy roster—but thus far, they have not come close to the high bar that was set for them before the season.
Sameer Pandhare: It’s pretty clear that Duke’s play has not been as dominant as many expected to start the year. But I also think preseason expectations should be thrown out the window considering the injuries the Blue Devils have dealt with. Duke was expected to have Giles, Bolden and Tatum in action to begin the year rather than get the trio fully healthy towards the end of December.
It’s important to consider how the Blue Devils have played in their three games against ranked opponents this season. Duke nearly beat a very talented and experienced Kansas team in the opening week of the year, despite being ravaged by injuries and playing with a limited rotation. The Blue Devils also have a pair of 10-point wins against Rhode Island and Florida at neutral sites.
Yes, Duke hasn’t met the lofty expectations that come with being ranked No. 1 to begin the season. But the Blue Devils have still shown the ability to rise to the occasion and play with any team in the country and that’s all you can really ask for during the regular season.
Hank Tucker: Duke has not met the unreasonable expectations the general public set for the team entering the season, but the Blue Devils have performed up to my expectations and will be just fine in conference play. They aren’t going to go undefeated and they aren’t one of the best teams ever, but I didn’t expect them to be before the season started.
All 12 of Duke’s wins have come by at least nine points, and its only loss came against the No. 3 team in the nation with three of its five-star freshmen on the bench in street clothes. Sure, Giles and Bolden have been underwhelming since their debuts, but Tatum has lived up to expectations and could have made a difference against the Jayhawks. Everybody starting to panic that Duke is in some trouble needs to relax.
I agree with Sameer that the Blue Devils can take a lot of positives out of nonconference play. It won’t be a cakewalk to the national championship come March, but it was laughable to think it would be easy before the season anyway.
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What aspect of Duke's rotation, when fully healthy, has caught your attention the most this season?
AR: I would have to say the dichotomy between how the Blue Devils are using their core veterans and freshman stars has caught my eye. Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen, Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson have all averaged at least 30 minutes per game to start the year, with many logging at least 35 minutes in meaningful contests and having to play through injuries and fatigue. On the other hand, the freshman trio of Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Marques Bolden has not been rushed at all in returning to the floor and getting back in the swing of things later in nonconference play, and even guard Frank Jackson has seen his role diminish of late due to a sore foot.
The result is that Duke’s veteran core will seemingly be leading the team through the rest of the year as freshmen like Giles and Bolden are forced to prove themselves to earn minutes, which is not a scenario many envisioned coming into the season.
BP: It's hard to really analyze Duke's rotation because the team is only just reaching full health, but I think I've been most surprised by Marques Bolden's usage. While fellow rookie Jayson Tatum—who debuted the same game as Bolden—has taken off as a focal point of the offense, Bolden has looked downright lost in the little bit of playing time he's received. Despite playing on a team without a true center and only one reliable post player, Bolden has logged only 36 minutes in five games—an astonishingly little amount of playing time for someone as highly-touted as he was.
In the few minutes he has played, Bolden has often looked awkward on the court, and he clearly has not caught up to the speed of the college game yet. For someone with his commanding size, he's looked very timid on both ends of the court, and it's not hard to see why Krzyzewski is hesitant to trust him with a more significant role. Still, easy wins like the UNLV game should provide an low-risk opportunity to try and get Bolden's some experience—or at the very least, build up his confidence and stamina. The fact that he hasn't played more even in non-crucial situations really makes me wonder what role, if any, Bolden will have moving forward.
SP: I’m a little bit surprised how much Krzyzewski has relied on his core group of veterans to be honest. Kennard and Jones are both averaging more than 34 minutes per game and even Jefferson has been on the court more than I expected. Although fatigue has not been a problem through a pretty generous nonconference slate, I’m not sure the heavy minutes for the trio will be the best route for Duke during conference play, especially considering the physicality and talent across the league.
If the goal is truly to peak in March, I find it interesting that Coach K has had such a short leash with his bench. Although Giles and Bolden are working themselves back from injuries, sophomore Chase Jeter has gotten the short end of the stick and is averaging less than 10 minutes per game in his last four contests. Like Brian and Amrith mentioned, Duke’s depth was expected to be a major positive coming into the year, but so far it doesn’t appear that Krzyzewski plans to use more than a six-man rotation in the second half of games.
HT: I’m with Amrith and Sameer that Krzyzewski’s reliance on his veterans has stood out to me, and Jones’ heavy usage in particular has surprised me. The senior captain does not bring much to the table on offense. He is averaging just 3.5 points in his last six games and is just 3-of-21 from beyond the arc in that span, but the Blue Devils still seem to play better when he is on the court.
Jones has been Duke’s most reliable perimeter defender this year and most notably shut down Michigan State freshman Miles Bridges Nov. 29, and Krzyzewski has as much trust in him as he does in anybody on the team. Jones’ impact does not show up in the box score often, but all of the Blue Devils’ most effective lineups have included him, and I wouldn’t expect his role to diminish anytime soon.
Freshmen Harry Giles and Marques Bolden have yet to get their legs under them and Frank Jackson has been inconsistent to start the year. Which freshman are you most interested in seeing during conference play?
AR: I’m most interested to see how Bolden fares against ACC big men because he could add an element Duke simply does not have right now. Between Amile Jefferson’s rebounding and Jayson Tatum’s versatility and scoring, I think the Blue Devils can get enough production from the traditional power forward spot that Giles would most likely fill. Assuming Grayson Allen returns from his suspension without a hiccup, he and Luke Kennard should anchor the backcourt, though like Giles, Jackson would of course add depth and potentially more explosiveness off the bench.
But against bigger teams down low like North Carolina and Louisville, the Blue Devils could need strong play from a traditional center to match opponents’ physicality and rebounding. That is where Bolden could make a major impact if he can get comfortable in the coming weeks, and I am very interested to see whether the DeSoto, Texas, native can avoid mimicking Chase Jeter’s disappointing freshman campaign from a year ago.
BP: For me, Giles is still the rookie I'm most intrigued by. The former No. 1 recruit only played a total of 10 minutes in two games since finally making his debut, and given that he missed all of his senior year in high school, there's still plenty of room for him to develop once he gets accustomed to game speed again. Without him and Bolden in the frontcourt for much of nonconference play, Duke has had to rely almost exclusively on Amile Jefferson for a frontcourt presence—but with a healthy Giles, Krzyzewski could opt to play multiple bigs and go with a stacked frontcourt of Jefferson, Giles and Tatum.
If Giles gets himself back into game shape quickly, the Winston-Salem, N.C., native is mobile enough to allow the Blue Devils to still play an up-tempo pace and spread the floor while giving them a better offensive weapon in the post. A healthy and effective Giles could add another element to this team that his other classmates cannot, and it will be interesting to see how quickly he returns to form.
SP: Bolden’s size is certainly crucial and Giles’ potential is tantalizing, but I’ll go with Jackson here. The freshman hit a big shot against Kansas in Duke’s only loss and ignited a game-changing run in the Blue Devils’ win against Michigan State. Since that game, Jackson has not scored in double digits and has been relegated to more of a bench role. The freshman was reportedly dealing with a lower leg injury of his own at points during nonconference play, but considering the extended break Duke has had, I’d expect him to be at full strength for the conference opener.
What makes Jackson so interesting to me is the spark he can bring off the bench with his activity on both ends of the floor. The freshman has a lightning-quick handle that allows him to explode to the hoop and get looks at the basket almost at will. Defensively, the guard is physical and really suits Krzyzewski’s desire to defend the entire court this season. Although the top teams in the conference will have starting units capable of matching up with the Blue Devils, Jackson can be a game-changer in his 15-20 minutes on the court.
HT: I also think it will be very interesting to see whether Jackson can coexist with his new classmates during conference play. The Alpine, Utah, native thrived as a starter for most of November in a four-guard lineup, scoring in double figures and playing at least 25 minutes in each of Duke’s first eight games. But his production has fallen off a cliff since Tatum has returned to take over his starting spot, and Jackson has not been the same sparkplug off the bench in December that he was in the first weekend of the season.
The 6-foot-3 freshman has shied away from the spotlight in his last four contests since sitting out the game against Maine Dec. 3 with a sore foot, but the Blue Devils will need him to be the fearless, confident weapon on both sides of the court in big games like he was against the Jayhawks and Spartans in November. Even in those games, it took him until the second half to really get going and start playing well. Now that his minutes are starting to diminish and I doubt Coach K will favor him at guard instead of Kennard, Jones and Allen in crunch time, he needs to learn to make the most of just a few minutes at a time and bring the energy Duke needs from him from the minute he steps on the floor.
What is the biggest storyline surrounding the Blue Devils heading into ACC play?
AR: This is a tough question, but I would still say the preseason No. 1 team in the country being well behind schedule is the biggest storyline. Coach K has said his team is in October mode in December, and between the numerous injuries, decision to bring the freshmen back slowly and now Allen’s suspension, Duke has had to cope with a great deal of adversity. Whether or not the Blue Devils have the cohesion and fortitude to get through those difficult moments will likely define their season, and they make for a number of fascinating storylines to follow as Duke’s schedule gets tougher in the coming weeks.
BP: It feels like the entire season so far has been a game of waiting on the freshmen—first to be healthy, then to be productive—but the suspension of Grayson Allen after the Elon game changed all that. Allen passed up a chance at the NBA to return for his junior season and was tabbed a captain by Krzyzewski, but instead of leading this team, his latest antics have created a huge distraction. Allen's indefinite suspension following his tripping of Steven Santa Ana casts an even bigger shadow over what his role will be moving forward—both on the floor and in the locker room.
Even before the tripping incident, the Jacksonville, Fla., native has looked like a shell of the player he was last year. A preseason All-American, Allen was expected to again be one of Duke's primary offensive weapons, but his numbers are down across the board from last season and he looks very uncomfortable in flow of the Blue Devil offense. Sometime early in conference play, he will be back on the court—but which version of Allen shows up for the remainder of the season is the real question that needs to be answered.
SP: I’m really interested to see how Kennard plays during the second half of the season. Count me as one of the many surprised by the huge jump the guard has taken this season. At this point, the Franklin, Ohio, native is certainly in the mix for national Player of the Year, which is something I didn’t think would be remotely possible.
The most interesting thing about Kennard’s play going forward is how it may change with Tatum beginning to really find himself on offense. Although Tatum has shown the ability to find open teammates in transition, the freshman has the tendency to pound the ball and play hero-ball at times in the half court. One positive is that Kennard is much more adept at playing off the ball than Tatum, which should allow the sophomore to get shots no matter what Duke does on offense.
It’ll also be intriguing to see how the guard can adjust with ACC teams game-planning for him. Scoring 35 points against Maine is one thing, but going on the road and doing it against Louisville or North Carolina is another. But if Kennard can sustain his level of play, look for the guard’s national Player of the Year candidacy to take some of the eyes off of how Duke is playing collectively.
HT: I’ll combine Brian and Sameer’s answers here and say the most compelling storyline the rest of the way is how well Allen and Kennard play together when Allen returns from his suspension. Kennard has been consistently good with the ball in his hands thus far, stealing the spotlight from Allen, who has had to force some shots on offense and been inefficient from the floor. When Allen finally broke through and scored 34 points against UNLV, Kennard took somewhat of a backseat in that game. I’m still waiting for both guards to have great games at the same time, but I don’t know if that is possible for two similar, ball-dominant players.
After the Elon game when Allen tripped a player for the third time in his career, Kennard—who led the way with 21 points last Wednesday—said the team was “very, very selfish” in the first half and challenged his teammates to get “consumed in winning.” He didn’t name names or point fingers and it’s not my place to speculate about the off-the-court relationships on this team, but it’s clear Kennard and Allen haven’t been able to develop much on-court chemistry so far this season.
Coming into the season, you four picked Duke to finish atop the regular-season ACC standings. Do you still believe the Blue Devils will claim the ACC regular-season crown and if not, who is the biggest threat to their chances?
AR: Based on how limited Giles and Bolden have been so far, I would probably pick North Carolina or Louisville to win the ACC regular-season title at this moment. Although both teams have had their own nonconference hiccups, they seem far more cohesive and like they have defined identities at this point in the season. I also really like the versatility both teams can play with if necessary to match up with different opponents, but my pick would change if Giles and/or Bolden take a big step forward to start ACC play.
Right now, I would probably lean toward the Tar Heels capturing another ACC regular-season championship, with Duke, Louisville and Virginia not far behind and definitely in the mix.
BP: Even though the Blue Devils are not as dominant as many anticipated, I still think they're the favorites for the ACC regular-season crown. Luke Kennard and Amile Jefferson are quietly having outstanding seasons, and they're the two biggest reasons Duke is still sitting on its 12-1 record.
I have a lot of faith in those two veterans to guide the Blue Devils through the inevitable ups and downs of conference play, and Jefferson's presence on the defensive end should prove tremendously valuable. As the freshmen start to get more comfortable, I think some of them will become key contributors, and that can help balance the load for Duke as it tries to navigate another tough ACC slate.
To me, the biggest threat is Louisville, which just pulled out a huge rivalry win against Kentucky and is playing its typical physical, suffocating defense. North Carolina probably has the deepest and most talented roster of any ACC challenger, but the Tar Heels don't quite look like they've put everything together yet. The Cardinals always worry me a bit because they have a tendency to slip into prolonged offensive funks, but they look to have enough scorers this year that I think they can make a real run at the Blue Devils.
SP: I’d be hesitant to go as far as Amrith considering the talent level on Duke’s roster. The Blue Devils are still 12-1—with a last-second loss to the No. 4 team in the country—and too talented and well-coached not to get into a rhythm at some point. Giles and Bolden’s play can only improve from this point and when it does, Duke will have the weapons to match up with.
North Carolina still doesn’t seem interested in playing defense and it’s shown in their two losses this season. Virginia has finished with the best regular season record in two of the last three years, but their offense excites just about no one outside of Charlottesville and often struggles to reach 60 points. Louisville has really caught my eye to start the year, but consistency is always a concern with them. Whether they claim the regular-season crown or not, the Cardinals have the look of a Final Four team if guard Quentin Snider can carry the team’s offense.
A dark horse that we’ll find out a lot about early in ACC play will be Florida State. The Seminoles have a mix of both experience with guards Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes and youth with freshman Jonathan Isaac. With five of their first seven conference games against ranked opponents, Florida State could make an early statement or plummet down the standings by mid-January.
HT: The Blue Devils are still the most talented team in the ACC, and I expect them to win the conference with a record around 16-2 or 15-3. Duke will be tested in the next few weeks at Virginia Tech, Louisville and Florida State, but I would be surprised if the Blue Devils lose before facing Virginia and North Carolina in February.
Unlike my three colleagues here, I’d point to the Cavaliers as the most dangerous threat to take the crown from Duke. Senior point guard London Perrantes knows how to win with a 45-9 career ACC record, two regular-season titles and a conference tournament championship under his belt, and he has a deep supporting cast around him including freshman Kyle Guy and juniors Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson. I expect Virginia to make a statement with a win in its conference opener at Louisville Wednesday, and I could easily see it take an undefeated ACC record into February.
Virginia could also benefit from its schedule once again. The Cavaliers have the good fortune of only playing the Blue Devils at home this year, which gives them a good chance of holding a head-to-head tiebreaker if both teams finish with the same record atop the conference standings.