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The Chronicle's predictions: Can Duke make it back to the Final Four?

<p>Can Trevon Duval be a distributor for the No. 1 Blue Devils and take them to the Final Four?&nbsp;</p>

Can Trevon Duval be a distributor for the No. 1 Blue Devils and take them to the Final Four? 

After finishing tied for fifth in the ACC and exiting in round of 32 Duke has another No. 1 recruiting class and preseason No. 1 ranking. Can Duke make it back to the Final Four? The Chronicle's men's basketball beat writers answer those questions, and more: 

Mitchell Gladstone

Overall regular-season record: 26-5

ACC record: 14-4

This Duke team may be young, but it won’t slow the Blue Devils down from opening the season with at least six straight wins. The only real place in the nonconference schedule that could be a problem is three games in six days in late November—Duke may have to face a scrappy and experienced Butler side before a PK80 final matchup against either Florida or Gonzaga, both who made the Elite 8 last year. And just three days later, the Blue Devils will step foot in the hallowed Assembly Hall. Still I’m only projecting one loss between those three tough games.

The ACC, however, is a completely different animal. Size and length will make Duke a tough guard for most of the conference, but with a young point guard in Trevon Duval, the Blue Devils are poised for a few slip-ups. I think it’s fair to foresee them splitting the season series with rival North Carolina and losing once at home to either Notre Dame or Louisville. Then add in a defeat at Miami plus another road upset along the way (maybe at either Georgia Tech or Virginia Tech), and you get a 14-4 conference mark that keeps Duke from its first outright ACC title since 2005-06.

Team MVP: Grayson Allen

I don’t think much has to be said here. Allen is undoubtedly the leader and lifeblood of this unit, and they truly will go as far as he carries them. The senior will be in the running for both ACC and National Player of the Year honors by season’s end as Allen should return to something close to his sophomore-year form. Now, do I think he matches his 21.6 points per game? Probably not. But if Allen averages 18 points with four assists and four rebounds a night, he’ll get more than enough help from the talent around him to make the Blue Devils as dangerous they were when Duke won it all his freshman year.

Breakout player: Jordan Goldwire

It is hard to say that anyone saw this coming when Goldwire committed to the Blue Devils in early May. He was unranked by both ESPN and 247Sports, but Goldwire has shown thus far that he is a competent reserve point guard who can spell Duval when his classmate needs a breather.

Goldwire is not going to put up gaudy numbers by any stretch of the imagination—in fact, he might not play much more than five to seven minutes per game. But those stats would be similar to a former diminutive backup ball-handler for Duke, Tyler Thornton, who played less than 10 minutes a night in his first season and took just 29 shots all year as he played behind Kyrie Irving and Nolan Smith. Allen, Duval and Trent should carry the load in this Blue Devil backcourt—as Goldwire gains confidence and experience, though, look for him to play in quick but critical bursts at the point guard spot.

Best win: vs. Michigan State

Like I said earlier, inexperience will not slow Duke down early. As always, the Blue Devils first test comes at the Champions Classic in what very well may be a battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2 as well as the top two contenders for National Player of the Year in Allen and Miles Bridges. But Tom Izzo’s Spartans are not all that much older than Duke—the bulk of their talent comes from four sophomores and freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. 

Mike Krzyzewski has gotten the best of Izzo in 10 of their 11 meetings, including a comfortable 78-69 home victory last season. The Blue Devils stick to their usual script against Michigan State, Javin DeLaurier keeps Bridges in check on the offensive end and Duke pulls out a narrow win in Chicago.

Go-to-lineup: Allen, Trent Jr., DeLaurier, Bagley III, Carter Jr.

Allen, Bagley and Trent all feel like pretty solid locks here. And at the low-post position, I really have not yet seen any growth from Marques Bolden that makes me confident he is ready for an increased role this season. 

So why DeLaurier instead of Duval? The answer is defense. The Blue Devils are not going to be the same type of offensive team that they have been in years past—less shooting, more size and rebounding. Neither DeLaurier or Duval is known particularly as a strong shooter, but the sophomore is experienced and will relentlessly crash the glass. Duval’s ball-screen defense looked particularly weak against Northwest Missouri State in the opening exhibition and I think with Allen running the point, Krzyzewski can ultimately have the ball in his best player’s hands come crunch time.

Will Duke make the Final Four?: Yes

I’m very torn on this. Duke has had plenty of young talent the last three seasons but just one Final Four appearance in 2015. Still, I just think there are not many teams that will be able to match up with the Blue Devils. 

Duke can go small—think Duval, Allen, Trent, Bagley and Carter/DeLaurier—and it can go big—think Allen/Duval, Trent, Bagley, Carter and Bolden. The Blue Devils will rebound, run the floor and press you, even if they utilize just a seven-man rotation. Sure, there are threats like the Spartans, Kansas, Kentucky, Villanova and North Carolina, among others, but how many of them would Duke actually face on the road to San Antonio? Probably only one. And by late March, what is now a young team will be one that is battle-tested and ready to take the Blue Devils back to college hoops’ grandest stage.

Ben Leonard

Overall regular-season record: 27-4

ACC record: 15-3

Duke is far too inexperienced to come out unscathed vs. No. 2 Michigan State so early in the season, but the rest of the conference schedule is light enough for it to win out. This team will take a little bit to come together, but when it finally jells—the rest of the country is going to be on watch. It has what could be a lethal combination of a true point guard in Trevon Duval, athletic bigs in Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III, and senior leadership in Grayson Allen. 

As usual, the ACC will be tough, which will set the Blue Devils back a few games, but a relatively favorable schedule and top-heavy conference gives them a good chance to win the regular season crown. Duke plays just two of its toughest ACC games on the road—enough to put them comfortably over the top, or close to it. 

Team MVP: Grayson Allen

As the only senior on this team, Allen will be tasked with leading one of the youngest teams in Mike Krzyzewski’s time in Durham. After a long time to reflect on last season, he’ll be ready to do that. After never being truly health last season, all indications are that Allen is 100 percent and ready to return to being one of the best players in college basketball. As the only one with significant time adjusting to the speed of the college game, he’ll be steady all season long on a team full of talented, but still-developing youngsters. 

Breakout player: Jordan Tucker

Outside of Allen, Duke is short on pure 3-point shooters. Although he didn’t play much in the Blue Devils’ first exhibition game against Northwest Missouri State, as the season goes on, he’ll fill a much-needed void beyond the arc  for Duke off the bench. While he won’t crack the starting lineup, he’ll work his way into a key rotation role that could leave the Blue Devils without a true weakness. 

Best win: vs. North Carolina

The best team on the Blue Devils’ schedule, Michigan State comes too early on the schedule for Duke to pull out a win, but the Tar Heels will go down for a second straight year at Cameron Indoor Stadium. On Senior Night, Allen will have enough fire to push the Blue Devils past their archrivals, which won’t be strong enough on the glass to stop Bagley and Carter from wreaking havoc. 

Go-to-lineup: Trevon Duval, Grayson Allen, Gary Trent Jr., Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr. 

Krzyzewski trotted out this lineup against Northwest Missouri State, and it’s hard to see any other lineup being his No. 1 group going forward. This group gives Duke the best combination of athleticism and size it has seen in a long time. Duval will fill in as the distributor for what will once again be a lethal offensive group, with Allen being the fire that melds them all together. Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier, Jordan Tucker, and perhaps Alex O’Connell or Jordan Goldwire will get some meaningful minutes, but come ACC play, this lineup of four freshman and Allen will reign supreme. 

Will Duke make the Final Four?: Yes

Duke always has an elite offense—this year will be no different—but its defense has always been the true indicator of how far it will go. This year, with a stacked frontcourt of Bagley, Carter, DeLaurier, and even Antonio Vrankovic, the Blue Devils have the athleticism in the post to bring their defense to the next level. Come tournament time, this team will be cohesive and strong enough on defense to withstand upsets and make a deep tournament run—and have a good chance at winning its sixth title. 

Hank Tucker

Overall regular-season record: 25-6

ACC record: 14-4

The Blue Devils seem too young to make it through November without a blemish, and I expect their first loss to come in the first week in the season against No. 2 Michigan State in the Champions Classic. I think Duke can probably expect to have another nonconference slip-up against a ranked opponent like Florida in the PK80 in Portland, Ore., Thanksgiving weekend, but I see the Blue Devils settling down for their best ACC record since they won the national championship in 2015.

Although the ACC has a few strong teams at the top, Duke only has to face two of them on the road in conference play, there isn’t as much depth beyond the top five teams in the conference as there has been in the past. The Blue Devils won’t be perfect, but they’ll be in the conversation for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament come March.

Team MVP: Grayson Allen

I believe Duke’s players and staff when they say Allen looks healthy entering the season and has fully recovered from the bumps and bruises that held him back on the court as a junior. The senior captain sure looked like the Blue Devils’ best player in their first exhibition game against Northwest Missouri State, and he will get plenty of early chances to prove that the ball belongs in his hands in crunch time.

Breakout player: Javin DeLaurier

Krzyzewski has raved about the jump DeLaurier has made from his freshman season to preseason practices this year, and though Duke’s frontcourt is deep, DeLaurier will find his way onto the court with his sheer athleticism. I think the 6-foot-11 sophomore could even surpass Marques Bolden in the rotation as the first player off the bench by the time the season gets going, and he has a versatile game with 3-point range on his jumper that will make him a tough matchup for almost any team.

Best win: vs. North Carolina

On Allen’s emotional Senior Day, he will score at least 30 points, lead the Blue Devils to a narrow victory against the defending national champions and walk off the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the last time a hero. Allen’s pinpoint 3-point shooting last season helped Duke beat the Tar Heels in Cameron, and this year will bring more of the same. The Blue Devils’ big men will also control the glass against a North Carolina team finally thin in the frontcourt for once.

Go-to-lineup: Duval, Allen, Trent Jr., Bagley III, Carter Jr.

All five players in this lineup can score the basketball, and though I have my doubts about its defensive ability, Krzyzewski will have to rely on this group to get stops. It’s hard to see how Krzyzewski would keep Allen, Bagley or Duval off the court in a critical spot, and Trent and Carter are both more dangerous offensive threats than some of their more experienced teammates. When it comes time to close out a game, I think Krzyzewski realizes, however unusual it feels, that his best chance will be with four freshman on the floor.

Will Duke make the Final Four?: No

I would answer no to this question for every Division I team this season, and I would be right on all but four. It’s too hard to predict how a group of mostly freshmen will come together and there are too many variables that can go wrong along the way, as we saw last year. Duke will probably be good, but it also probably will not quite be good enough and lucky enough to be playing in San Antonio in April. College basketball is as wide open as ever, and experience has reigned supreme when it counts for the last two seasons.

Sameer Pandhare 

Overall regular season record: 26-5

ACC record: 14-4

Although the Blue Devils are inexperienced, so are the majority of contenders in college basketball this season. If it can avoid a slew of injuries, Duke will have a chance to build much better chemistry early in the season than a year ago and it should pay off come ACC play. Having the services of a true point guard in Duval will also help Allen slide back to his natural position and gives the team its best floor general since it won the national title behind Tyus Jones. 

The Blue Devils have more talent than any team in the conference—and arguably the country—but their size down low could make them special. The combination of 6-foot-11 Bagley, 6-foot-11 Bolden and 6-10 Carter should make Duke much more dangerous on the glass and help the team defend at the rim. With a healthy Allen and the silky smooth Trent Jr. on the perimeter, the Blue Devils look like a well-rounded team on its way to another strong season. 

Team MVP: Marvin Bagley III 

Allen may be the common choice, but the sheer athleticism of Bagley is going to be hard for teams to contend with this season. His shot and handle are still works in progress, but expect the freshman to play much more out of the paint than on the wings. Duke will certainly feed its prized recruit and Bagley has shown the outlines of a post game that could make him an option for the Blue Devils late in game. Add in his ability to soar in transition and Duke’s willingness to push the ball and you can expect Bagley to throw down his share of monstrous dunks this season. 

Breakout player: Gary Trent Jr. 

Although it’s only been one exhibition game, Trent looks so controlled and at ease on the court. The guard has shown the ability to create space to get his jumper off and is lethal in the mid-range. The combination of Duval and Allen in the backcourt should help lighten some of the burden on Trent, but the freshman looks more than capable of putting up points when Duke needs them. It’s hard to call a top-10 recruit a breakout player, but people seem to be sleeping on Trent heading into the season. 

Best win: vs. Michigan State 

Krzyzewski has always seemed to get the better of Izzo in their matchups and the Blue Devils have the size to control the paint against the Spartans. Playing a neutral-site game with such a young team is never easy, but the leadership of Allen should help Duke navigate the opening jitters against a top-five opponent. If the Blue Devils choose to push the ball up the court, Duke could have a big advantage against a more methodical, half-court oriented Michigan State team. 

Go-to-lineup: Duval, Allen, Trent Jr, Carter Jr, Bagley III 

From what we’ve seen so far, this looks like the group that will start for Krzyzewski. The presence of Duval gives the Blue Devils a true point guard—a luxury against aggressive pressure defenses. With the size of Bagley and Carter, Duke has the ability to crash the glass late in games and play two big guys with good lateral quickness against opposing pick-and-rolls. As long as Allen stays healthy, expect the senior to have the ball in his hands late in games. 

Will Duke make the Final Four? No

The Blue Devils will certainly have their share of success in the regular season. But the challenges of winning with a young team have been proven time and time again. Duke’s size will help them take care of opponents in the regular season, but I’m still troubled by the Blue Devils lack of perimeter shooting. Duval has yet to develop a reliable shot and Bagley looks much more likely to play down low than on the wing. At times, the NCAA tournament can simply come down to what team is shooting better on a particular day and I fear that one poor shooting night could doom Duke. 


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