After the postponement of Wednesday’s game vs. Gardner-Webb, Duke is currently one of two top-10 teams yet to start its 2020-21 campaign.
That’ll change Saturday afternoon when the Blue Devils take on Coppin State at 2 p.m. After the Eagles had to postpone their opening two contests this past week, it initially appeared that this game was in jeopardy of being postponed as well. But after another round of tests on Coppin State's players, coaches and staff came back negative, it appears Duke will finally open its season.
It’ll be a far more unusual opener than usual, however, with one of the biggest differences being the fan-less Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“I'm starting my 41st year here, so I've benefited greatly from having that sixth man that creates one of the best environments in sport, not just in basketball,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said during the ACC’s preseason teleconference Nov. 19. “Not having that, we'll see—after we play a couple games I'll let you know how good or how bad it is.
“I will tell you this, though—I know overall it's an advantage for us, but other teams really looked at that as a challenge coming in to beat Duke in Cameron because of our fans, and that created many unbelievable games over the years. So it’ll be interesting to see how our opponents adjust to not having the Cameron Crazies in there.”
Coppin State is coming off an 11-20 season with a sub-.500 record in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. And after losing two of his top three scorers from last season, head coach Juan Dixon will need to find a creative way to get points against his most formidable opponent on his schedule this year. Most likely, the Eagles will rely on the senior guard duo of Koby Thomas and DeJuan Clayton, who both put up double-digit scoring averages last season.
The Blue Devils, meanwhile, look to start the season strong as they field a more experienced team than usual. Preseason murmurs indicate that Duke could start three veterans to begin the season with senior Jordan Goldwire alongside sophomores Wendell Moore Jr. and Matthew Hurt. This emphasis on returning players is somewhat atypical of recent Blue Devil lineups, but could offer a sense of stability amidst the most unpredictable and unprecedented season in NCAA history.
Furthermore, in a gameday environment without the Cameron Crazies, solid leadership will be more important than ever in keeping the team focused and motivated on the task at hand, especially against a nonconference opponent early in the season. Fans saw last November exactly what can happen when an opposing team is underestimated coming into Cameron when then-No. 1 Duke lost in overtime to unranked Stephen F. Austin.
Goldwire is largely a known entity for this year’s squad—he played solid minutes last year, even starting 15 games, and is best known for his role as a defensive specialist in the backcourt. Moore and Hurt, on the other hand, have the highest ceilings of any Blue Devil returners but are coming off seasons riddled with inconsistency.
Last year, Hurt shot 39.3 percent from deep but left a lot to be desired in the rebounding department, averaging a mere 3.8 boards per game. He’ll need to step up as a more well-rounded player in order to meet his lofty expectations. The team has constantly emphasized Hurt’s 20+ pounds of added weight over the offseason, and on Saturday everyone will see how that increased muscle will translate on the court.
As for Moore, it’s all about the mental game.
“If you want to ever be a pro, you have to develop consistency and a certain mental toughness where, if anything goes a little bit wrong, you don’t let it go a lot wrong,” Krzyzewski said.
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Krzyzewski’s final two starting nods will most likely go to freshmen Jeremy Roach and Jalen Johnson. The two newcomers are a five-stair pairing bound to give opponents nightmares on the offensive end, though will both have to demonstrate their ability to adjust to the college level Saturday. Roach especially will have a lot to prove as he attempts to fill the shoes of current San Antonio Spur and Duke fan-favorite Tre Jones, who finished last year as the ACC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
While those five are expected to open the Blue Devil season on the floor, Krzyzewski and Duke’s assistant coaches have emphasized the depth of this year’s group. Freshmen DJ Steward, Mark Williams, Henry Coleman and Jaemyn Brakefield could also be in the mix for minutes, as well as junior Joey Baker and graduate transfer Patrick Tape.
“We think we’ll have good depth and not as much separation of players,” Krzyzewski said.
Saturday’s season-opener should be an entertaining contest with two teams that love to run the floor—Coppin State placed 12th in KenPom’s adjusted tempo last year, while Duke placed 34th and is expected to play even faster this season. And without the Cameron Crazies in the bleachers, the Blue Devils must exhibit discipline and concentration to take down an Eagles team hungry for a signature win.