A national championship is the ultimate goal for any Duke team, but any hardware is certainly a cause of celebration.
After failing to capture their first ACC regular season title in a decade, the fourth-seeded Blue Devils will have another chance at glory in this week’s ACC tournament, opening play after enjoying a double-bye Thursday at 2:30 p.m. in Greensboro, N.C.
Here are five things to watch for in Duke’s quest to repeat as ACC tournament champions.
Can Jones and Carey back up their hardware?
Tre Jones was named ACC Player of the Year and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Monday morning, but the sophomore point guard may not even be the best player on his team. Vernon Carey Jr. earned ACC Rookie of the Year honors as well, giving Duke a clean sweep in the three most important conference player awards. Despite having arguably the two best players in the conference, the Blue Devils’ path to a championship is not easy—Duke would likely face top-seeded Florida State in the semifinals and either Virginia or Louisville, both teams that beat the Blue Devils in the regular season, in the final. Both Jones and Carey’s play will need to back up their awards for Duke to have a chance.
What will Justin Robinson’s role be?
Justin Robinson sure had his moment in the spotlight Saturday. His story is certainly one that will live on in the Duke basketball lore, but more importantly for right now—has the graduate student earned consistent playing time or even a spot in the starting lineup?
I doubt we ever see Robinson log 25 minutes again, but it’s clear that he brings two elite skills to the table: shot blocking and 3-point shooting. The San Antonio native has 17 blocks in just 102 minutes this season, as well as a 42.9 percent mark on 21 3-point attempts. The sample size is very small, but clearly Robinson has worked his way into a consistent role moving forward.
Have we seen the last of Joey Baker and Alex O’Connell?
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s usage of Joey Baker and Alex O’Connell has fascinated me throughout the season, and it seems like we’ve reached a new equilibrium with the two sharpshooters often struggling to keep up defensively. In the Blue Devils’ two games last week, O’Connell did not play in either contest, while Baker logged an uneventful four minutes against N.C. State last Monday before not playing against North Carolina.
There are two primary reasons for the duo’s disappearance: Robinson’s emergence and Krzyzewski paring down the rotation heading into the postseason. Robinson can similarly knock it down from beyond the arc, but provides superior defense to Baker and O’Connell. The addition of Robinson makes it an 11-man rotation. With an ACC or NCAA tournament title on the line, do you really think Krzyzewski will play 11 players? Baker and O’Connell have been the odd ones out recently, and I anticipate that will continue.
Will the Wolfpack howl or yelp?
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North Carolina State handed Duke one of its most embarrassing losses in program history Feb. 19, but the Blue Devils returned the favor March 2 by blowing out the Wolfpack. The two teams are set for another matchup in the ACC tournament, assuming N.C. State can get past the winner of the Pittsburgh-Wake Forest contest. The Wolfpack match up well with Duke and have a lot to play for, as a lopsided loss could burst N.C. State’s NCAA tournament bubble. Will the ACC tournament quarterfinal look like one of the prior meetings, or will the in-state opponents finally play a close game?
What are the NCAA tournament seeding implications?
Anywhere between a No. 1 and a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament is in play for the Blue Devils pending how this week goes. Both extremes of that range are unlikely, but certainly plausible: if Duke beats Florida State and Louisville/Virginia en route to a tournament championship, I’d imagine they’d leap up to one of the top seeds. If N.C. State stomps the Blue Devils again, Duke could be relegated to a No. 4 seed.
Should the Blue Devils lose in the semifinals or finals, they will almost certainly be a No. 2 or No. 3 seed. The difference between these outcomes may be relatively inconsequential, but, hey, the most fun part about March is the speculation.