Not that many Blue Devil fans out there are ready to have this conversation.
The 2019-2020 Duke men's basketball team will find more success than it did last year.
I know, I know, they don’t have Zion Williamson. Or R.J. Barrett. Or Cam Reddish. They don’t have a freak of nature, they don’t have a dominant scorer like Barrett, and again, I already mentioned that they no longer have Zion.
I won't attempt to deny the greatness of the 2018-19 Blue Devils though, as the college basketball world witnessed countless high-flying, rim shattering, crowd deafening dunks put on by some of the nation’s best. That team won the ACC tournament championship, and though they looked shaky at times, Duke made a run to the Elite Eight, where they lost to a team that now enters this season ranked No. 1, returning most of their important pieces, including Cassius Winston.
This may have been, on paper, one of the most talented college basketball teams ever assembled, and I certainly will not argue that this year's team is more talented. If I did, I would have respected you, the reader, for closing your browser right then and there. What I will say, however, is that this team is set up to contend for a national title, more so than last year.
Why? Very simply, they play a more well-rounded game and are deeper as a team.
Tre Jones will return a year wiser and will look to keep dishing the ball at a high rate, but has also had all summer to work on improving his scoring touch from last year. A huge problem that the team faced last season, especially in the moments when Jordan Goldwire saw action, is that opposing teams could sag off on defense, guarding the paint and preparing for strong drives by Barrett and Williamson. Those two had the ability to score through those tough defenses, but imagine if opponents now have to respect the Blue Devils' three point shooting. Vernon Carey Jr. proved at Countdown to Craziness that he will score at will down low, and defenses will have to pick their poison.
Speaking of perimeter threats, Duke has plenty of them this year. Last year's team shot just 30.8 percent beyond the arc on the season with defenses willing to let almost anyone on the team take an outside shot over a drive to the basket. This year, the addition of Matthew Hurt, the self proclaimed “matchup nightmare”, will utilize his elite shooting touch while scoring from anywhere on the floor. Alex O’Connell and Jack White have another summer of shooting under their belts, and they should see more time on the floor as Duke looks to move to a rotation that features more than eight players, unlike the previous campaign.
This team is less prone to injury, too. One shoe casualty turned into a host of problems for the Blue Devils last year, forcing a cast of unexperienced Blue Devils to shoulder Williamson's minutes. This year, if—god forbid— Carey were to go down with injury for a few weeks, there would be at least three well-seasoned players who can fill his shoes during his absence. Even if positions have to be shifted around a bit, with nine or ten players likely to get time, one can go down without the team suffering a crippling blow.
The half court offense will also be better and far more controlled. There is no questioning that the transition game of the 2018-19 squad was dazzling, shocking, and awe-inspiring, but facing solid defenses down the stretch, the offense often turned toward a “give R.J. and Zion the ball and see what they do with it” system when in the half-court. To some extent, this worked, but as evidenced by the Gonzaga game in the Maui Invitational, we know that this isn't an optimal offense.
This team will get the ball across half-court and into the hoop with more equitable ball distribution. Jones can look to any one of Carey, Wendell Moore, Hurt, or even Cassius Stanley for a bucket, and the offense has the ability to score from all three levels. Duke Basketball fans shouldn’t expect a more explosive offense, but should be prepared to be less frustrated with poor half-court efforts.
I could be wrong. I could be another wishful thinker, covering up the pain of the NBA season starting and taking some of my favorite players to watch with it.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
But what if I’m not?
Maybe a more effective system is less exciting than the flashy dunks and superstar talent, but it could make for a better team. If that's true? Then the Blue Devils could be looking at Michigan State again in March— only this time, for the national championship.