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ChronChat: Predicting the 2018-19 Duke men's basketball season

Our men's basketball beat writers Hank Tucker, Michael Model, Mitchell Gladstone and Winston Lindqwister make their predictions for the Blue Devils' 2018-19 campaign ahead of the season opener Tuesday night in the Champions Classic against No. 2 Kentucky:

Hank Tucker

Regular season record: 24-7

ACC record: 13-5

I’m expecting Duke to hit a couple of roadblocks early in nonconference play with such a young team facing challenging games right off the bat against Kentucky and at the Maui Invitational, but the Blue Devils should settle in to finish near the top of the ACC once again with a second straight 13-5 record in conference play. I’ll say Duke splits home-and-home matchups with Virginia and North Carolina and loses three other random conference games, as usual.

Team MVP: R.J. Barrett

I would have said Zion Williamson after the Canada tour in August and Countdown to Craziness, but Barrett has won me over with his effortless ability to score from anywhere on the floor during Duke’s two exhibition games. He’s tough to stop in dribble penetration, and he can also knock down a 3-pointer if teams sag off of him. By the end of the season, I don’t think he’ll just be Duke’s MVP—he’ll be the ACC Player of the Year.

Breakout player: Javin DeLaurier

I predicted DeLaurier to break out last year, and though he had a few impressive moments, he never really put it all together consistently as he battled hamstring injuries. He’ll get more chances to show what he can do this season as a potential fifth starter alongside four freshmen, and if he’s healthy, this can truly be his year to break out. Mike Krzyzewski has entrusted DeLaurier as a team captain this year, and his on-court performance will rise to the occasion as well.

Best win: vs. Virginia

I still think Virginia is the best team in the ACC, but Duke will avenge its two-point loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium last season with a home victory against the Cavaliers. Virginia’s pack-line defense will struggle to match up with athletes like Barrett and Williamson, and the Blue Devils will take advantage of a few buckets in transition before the Cavaliers can force them to run a halfcourt set while riding the wave of the Cameron Crazies on an electric Saturday in Durham.

Go-to lineup: Jones, Reddish, Barrett, Williamson, DeLaurier

These are the five best players on Duke’s roster, and their skillsets have a chance to blend well together. For the second straight season, the Blue Devils will trot out four freshmen alongside a veteran upperclassman, and Coach K is hoping DeLaurier will talk enough on defense that it will spread to the newcomers and create a formidable man-to-man unit.

Will Duke win the ACC?: No

Duke has an extremely difficult conference schedule with two games each against the other two best teams in the conference—Virginia and North Carolina. The Blue Devils’ freshmen will succumb to the pressure in a couple of hostile environments like they always do early in ACC play, and they won’t be able to catch the Cavaliers’ well-oiled machine led by Tony Bennett as Virginia rolls to its second straight conference regular-season and tournament titles. 

Michael Model

Regular season record: 24-7

ACC record: 13-5

Duke will face a tough challenge in a relatively experienced Kentucky team, but will cruise into conference play with the lone loss after recovering to win the Maui Invitational. With the depth of the ACC, a young Blue Devil team will struggle on the road, dropping games at Florida State, back-to-back contests at Virginia and Louisville, and two more losses between at North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Syracuse. Unfortunately for Duke I think St. John’s could snap the Blue Devils’ nonconference home winning streak with a top-five backcourt with Shamorie Ponds—who’s had a knack for the big stage—and Auburn-transfer Mustapha Heron.

Team MVP: R.J. Barrett

Barrett has been the spark offensively for the Blue Devils, dominating in both first halves during Duke’s preseason slate. Barrett brings the ability to attack in a variety of ways with his ability to shoot, drive and distribute the ball to fellow weapons Williamson and Reddish. To me, the difference with Barrett is his defensive ability. Duke’s young teams of the past have struggled defending, but the length of Barrett will fit right in the Blue Devils’ man-to-man scheme. He’ll also likely draw the opponents’ best shooters as the stopper of the freshmen.

Breakout player: Jack White

White has taken advantage of guarding some of the team’s former top scorers in Jayson Tatum, Grayson Allen and Williamson during practice, and has become a defensive leader. The junior captain has gained some weight during the offseason and looked physical on the boards during the Canada tour and preseason play. The key for White will be his shooting, however, as this year’s squad will be more offensively challenged than previous teams and White’s ability to knock down open triples off the bench will be the key to his expanded role this season. 

Best win: vs. Gonzaga

While the Bulldogs will not be the best team Duke will beat this season, the Blue Devils will gain their first signature win of the season against a veteran Gonzaga team currently ranked No. 3 in the preseason AP Top 25. The victory would not only be Duke’s third win in three days, but it would make the statement that this Blue Devil squad is elite. Duke’s ability to outrun the Bulldogs and play positionless basketball will be too much for Gonzaga to overcome in Maui 

Go-to lineup: Jones, Reddish, Barrett, White, Williamson

Defense should be a strength for this year’s Blue Devil team and in few months the freshmen will be able to carry their own weight. The difference for me with White is his shooting ability. While DeLaurier has allowed defenses to play 5-on-4, the opposition will have to respect White’s ability to convert from downtown will stretch the floor and allow Williamson to go to work on the interior. The Australia, native, also has become a strong, physical defender, which is why the 6-foot-8 forward will get the nod in crunch time.

Will Duke win the ACC?: No 

This Blue Devil team does not have the experience to steal the amount of tough road games necessary to take home the title. Virginia returns its entire team from last season and their experience will be too much to overcome in the conference. Duke will finish second—just ahead of Tobacco Road rival North Carolina—and will be a force to be reckoned with come March.

Mitchell Gladstone

Regular season record: 26-5

ACC record: 14-4

There is a possibility that the Blue Devils’ nonconference home winning streak goes down this year—Indiana and St. John’s will be tough games at Cameron Indoor. But I think Duke’s lone nonconference loss comes somewhere else along the way, probably in Indianapolis next week vs. Kentucky, but maybe later this month in Maui. Other than that, the Blue Devils will be just fine when ACC play gets underway. I see two losses in the four games against North Carolina and Virginia, and then your standard ACC upsets will happen, but not enough to knock Duke out of the double-bye come conference tournament time.

Team MVP: Zion Williamson

R.J. Barrett will probably be the No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA Draft. He can do it all and very much reminds me of Jayson Tatum with the fluidity that makes his game silky smooth. All that said, Williamson is an absolute freak of nature and he’ll find his own way to take over games. Williamson is the type of player—like Marvin Bagley III or Jahlil Okafor—that is going to dominate against most college guys, and I think that, with time, he’ll develop some finesse to go along with his power and become an even better player than he is now.

Breakout player: Marques Bolden

I am all aboard the hype train here. I know that exhibition games are against inferior opponents and that only makes it easier for Bolden to take charge in the paint. Yet, I see Bolden in the best shape he’s been since getting to Duke and Coach K trusts him enough to put him in the starting lineup. That’s enough reason for me to believe in ‘Ques.

Best win: at Virginia

Okay, so let’s imagine the scenario: The Blue Devils are trailing by double digits in the second half in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers are one of the best teams in country and Duke is just behind them in the rankings. Sound familiar? Yeah, this one ends the same way as the 2015 matchup, except it’s Tre Jones hitting the dagger—a final triple to seal a 69-63 Blue Devil win.

Go-to lineup: Jones, Reddish, Barrett, Williamson, DeLaurier

The four freshmen will start every game this season, assuming there are no injuries. That leaves one spot, and although I believe in Bolden, he’s not going to be the guy down the stretch. Duke has options, but DeLaurier is the guy that’s going to make the Blue Devils’ five-out motion really tough to stop.

Will Duke win the ACC?: No

If I had to bet, I’d pick Virginia to win the league—they have basically the same team as last year and might be even better than the group that lost just one ACC game. North Carolina could also contend and there’s no reason why Duke can’t win the ACC, I just don’t think it will.

Winston Lindqwister

Regular season record: 25-6

ACC record: 14-4

Compared to last year’s non conference slate, the Blue Devils have their work cut out for them. With matchups against Kentucky, St. John’s and Indiana in the mix as well as potential contests with Gonzaga and Xavier, I wouldn’t be surprised if this young Duke squad dropped a few games along the way. And that’s not even considering the gauntlet the Blue Devils will face come ACC play. Two games against Virginia, North Carolina and Syracuse as well as road matchups against Florida State and Virginia Tech are all dangerous for Duke, and I don’t see this squad coming out unscathed. Although the Blue Devils have the talent to win a majority of their schedule, Duke is in for some humbling experiences this season.

Team MVP: R.J. Barrett

If MVP titles were measured by highlight reel clips, Williamson would lead by a mile. However, Barrett’s scoring ability and motor will set him apart as unquestionably the most important member of Duke’s squad. The Canadian Blue Devil has shown to be relentless, cutting through double-teams and finishing at the basket with ease. Barrett has also shown to have a competent outside shot through Duke’s preseason, something the Blue Devils are sorely in need of. Although Duke has talent up and down its roster, Barrett will undoubtedly set himself apart as one of the most defining component of the Blue Devils’ season.

Breakout player: Alex O’Connell

Arguably the biggest weakness Duke will face this season is troubles from long range. The most obvious fix to this issue? Alex O’Connell. Although it’s unclear where O’Connell will fit in the rotation, I can see the sophomore shooting guard growing into a larger role as the season progresses, making a name for himself as Duke’s go-to scorer from downtown.

Best win: vs. Gonzaga

Although I still think this matchup is a bit of a toss-up, the loss of Killian Tillie—one of the Bulldogs’ most accurate three point shooters—is a major blow to Gonzaga. Don’t get me wrong, this will no doubt be a battle to the final minute of play and Duke will need its freshmen to play a stellar game against a veteran squad. However, if the Blue Devils end up playing the Bulldogs in Maui, I’d put Duke out on top.

Go-to lineup: Jones, Reddish, Barrett, Williamson, Bolden

It’s a no brainer that the Blue Devils’ top four freshmen will start every game this season. With just one slot left, I have a feeling that Bolden will end up slotting in for the start. Although the junior center looked lost in Canada, a few months back on campus have seemingly gotten Bolden’s head back in the game. Against Ferris State, the DeSoto, Tx., native showed confidence in hist shot and a level of energy in the paint that had been sorely needed in past seasons. Although the battle for the fifth slot will be stiff, I’m confident Bolden will ultimately win out.

Will Duke win the ACC?: No

With such a young squad, Duke will inevitably find itself making costly mistakes at exactly the wrong time. With one of the toughest conference schedules in the ACC, the Blue Devils already have the deck stacked against them. Although I think Duke will undoubtedly be a strong tournament team from talent alone, don’t expect a perfect season from the Blue Devils.

Michael Model

Digital Strategy Director for Vol. 115, Michael was previously Sports Editor for Vol. 114 and Assistant Blue Zone Editor for Vol. 113.  Michael is a senior majoring in Statistical Science and is interested in data analytics and using data to make insights.

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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