Duke will open the 2019-20 season Tuesday night against a familiar and unfriendly foe, matching up with a Kansas team that has beaten the Blue Devils in the teams' last three meetings.
The Blue Devils will be in pursuit of their first win against Kansas since the 2011 Maui Invitational championship game at this year's Champions Classic, hoping to avenge a pair of heartbreaking losses to the Jayhawks in the teams’ last two matchups.
No. 4 Duke will face a tough challenge in knocking off the third-ranked Jayhawks, who are looking to get back to an elite level after struggling through a 10-loss campaign in 2018-19. Here are five things to watch for when the Blue Devils open the 2019-20 season at Madison Square Garden.
Carey’s biggest test yet
Centers often have the hardest time adjusting to the collegiate game due to a lack of experience battling people their own size. Duke freshman Vernon Carey Jr. will have to learn on the fly battling arguably the nation’s most dominant force on the interior in Kansas center Udoka Azubuike.
Azubuike had his 2018-19 campaign cut to just nine games due to an injury, but the 7-foot, 270-pound center should be back at full strength for the season opener. During his sophomore season, Azubuike had a nation-best 77.0 field goal percentage. Azubuike also averaged 13 points per game, pulled down 7.0 rebounds per contest and recorded 1.7 blocks per contest.
The Nigeria native has not been perfect, however, and has averaged merely 21 minutes per game in his career. This has partly been due to foul trouble—the senior averages three fouls per game—and partly due to a lack of endurance. Duke will have to take advantage when he is off the court and, if he’s on the court, the Blue Devils should not be afraid to foul Azubuike, who is a career 40 percent shooter from the line.
Shoot it over the trees
The Jayhawks plan to rotate their three big men in Azubuike, Silvio De Sousa and David McCormack between the power forward and center position. While this should give Kansas an advantage on the glass and the interior against a pair of Duke freshmen in Carey and Matthew Hurt, it will be interesting to see if the Blue Devils can take advantage and stretch the floor.
Both Carey and Hurt have the ability to hit from the perimeter and the Blue Devils will need to convert from downtown in order to create space to operate on the interior. Like Carey, Hurt could also have a hard time battling on the interior, facing much larger competition than he would have been up against at the high school level. In order for Duke to take down Kansas, it’ll have to avoid an off night from the perimeter. Hurt along with sharpshooters Alex O’Connell and Joey Baker will need to get going from the opening tip.
On the dot
Like the Blue Devils with Tre Jones, Kansas’ roster received a major boost when Devon Dotson decided to return for his sophomore season rather than head to the NBA. The Jayhawks’ floor general averaged 12.3 points per contest and 3.5 assists in his freshman season. Dotson will be relied upon to lead the perimeter attack with Kansas losing three of its top perimeter threats from last season, as Lagerald Vick graduated, Quentin Grimes transferred and Dedric Lawson left for the NBA.
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Dotson connected on 36.3 percent of his attempts from downtown last season, but the next strongest returning Jayhawk from the perimeter was Ochai Agbaji at 30.7 percent. Kansas would greatly benefit by spacing the floor with sharpshooting to allow Azubuike to go to work on the interior against Carey, and graduate-transfer Isaiah Moss—who hit 42 percent at Iowa last season—could be the answer, if healthy. If the Jayhawks cannot hit, look for Duke to pack the paint against the opposing bigs.
In contrast to the Blue Devils’ likely three- or four-freshman lineup, Kansas’ entire starting five from its exhibition contest against Pittsburg State Thursday started at least nine games last season. The Jayhawks are also no stranger to the big stage, with De Sousa and Azubuike playing in the 2018 Elite Eight against the Blue Devils and the Final Four.
On the flip side, you never know how the freshmen will respond in their first chance on the big stage—Duke certainly was not fazed in Indianapolis last year. Duke will need to avoid the anxiety it exhibited during its nightmarish preseason opener against Northwest Missouri State. The Blue Devils were plagued in their narrow six-point win early by sloppy offense and costly turnovers. Against a veteran Kansas team, Duke will have little room for error or else it could be a long flight back to Durham.
The 2018-19 campaign turned disastrous in a hurry for the preseason No. 1 Jayhawks. Kansas was plagued by injuries to Vick and Azubuike, in addition to De Sousa’s ineligibility due to recruiting violations. The Jayhawks were never able to recover, ending the season as a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, going home in the first weekend after losing to an eventual Final-Four team in Auburn.
Ranked No. 3 in the preseason AP poll and healthy once again, Kansas is looking to prove that it deserves to regain its spot among the nation’s elite. With the majority of its core back and a few key members from the 2018 Final Four run, the Jayhawks will look to prove the doubters wrong and make a statement to open the season, like Duke did a year ago.