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ChronChat: Predicting the 2020-21 Duke men's basketball season

With the Blue Devils' 2020-21 season beginning in less than a week, our senior beat writers break down their predictions for the upcoming campaign. How do you think Duke will fare?

What do you think Duke’s record will be?

Evan Kolin: 22-5 (15-5, 3rd in ACC)

The outlook of this year’s Blue Devil squad seems eerily similar to last season. Duke’s still a top-10 team, but doesn’t have the overwhelming talent of 2016-18. A top-three recruiting class is nothing to belittle, however, and that doesn’t even take into account the fact that the Blue Devils return two five-stars from its top-three 2019 class as well. I think Duke wins both of its high-profile nonconference matchups against Michigan State and Illinois, though neither will be a walk in the park. In ACC play, I expect the Blue Devils to split their two matchups with North Carolina and lose to Virginia—sprinkle in a few of those inevitable conference upsets (watch out for at Georgia Tech March 2/3) and you get five losses.

Shane Smith: 21-6 (15-5, 2nd in ACC)

Even in these crazy times, nothing has changed. Duke will trot out five current or former five-star recruits and a cast of other important contributors as a formidable team likely in line for a top-3 seed in the NCAA tournament. I believe the Blue Devils will stay true to history and fare well in their matchups against other top ACC contenders, yet also fall victim to the usual unfocused, embarrassing upsets against the bottom half of the league. Ultimately, this season is going to hinge on the star power of Jalen Johnson, who I expect will emerge as Duke puts together another solid season.

Glen Morgenstern: 22-5 (16-4, 2nd in ACC)

If Duke doesn’t have the star power it had last season (the year of Vernon) or the season before (the year of Zion), then why am I so optimistic for the Blue Devils this season? Two words: Coach K. There will be no fans, reduced media interaction and no real college experience for the players. In a season like this one, the experienced coaches and support staff will shine. No coach in the game is more capable of handling this season than head coach Mike Krzyzewski. The team might be unsteady in November, but Coach K will develop another dominant rotation by January and come close to taking home the ACC title.

Conner McLeod: 22-5 (15-5, 2nd in ACC)

Though Duke has once again successfully reloaded with the third best recruiting class in the nation, the jury is still out on how much the team’s veterans have progressed since last season. Luckily for the Blue Devils, a good amount of their more challenging matchups will be held in Cameron Indoor, which will give them as much of a home court advantage as you could ask for this season. I predict that Duke will best its nonconference foes behind heroic efforts from returners Jordan Goldwire, Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore Jr., who will use their experience to grind out victories. And even if the Blue Devils suffer a few unexpected losses in ACC play, they should still see a familiar single digit in the loss column at season’s end.

Derek Saul: 23-4 (16-4, 1st in ACC)

I did not expect to be the most bullish on this team, but here we are. This is as deep a Duke roster as I can remember, and I can legitimately see up to 12 players contributing (sorry, Mike Buckmire and Keenan Worthington). While depth is always a great thing, the real reason for my optimism is the offensive versatility among the Blue Devils’ top options. Matthew Hurt and Jalen Johnson could be an absolutely devastating combination, as not many teams have the capability to defend two 6-foot-9 guys that can score in so many different ways. Add in the defense of Jordan Goldwire and Wendell Moore Jr. plus the playmaking abilities of Jeremy Roach and DJ Steward, and I think Coach K may have himself a juggernaut.

Who will be the team MVP?

Evan Kolin: Matthew Hurt

Jalen Johnson is probably the safer bet to be the Blue Devils’ alpha. But the players and coaches have been talking up Hurt all preseason, and there’s a reason he came to Duke last fall as the No. 11 recruit in the country. I expect the Rochester, Minn., native to make the leap to All-ACC status this season, proving to be one of the most lethal scorers in the conference.

Glen Morgenstern: Wendell Moore Jr.

Moore won’t lead the Blue Devils in scoring, assists or rebounds. What he will lead the team in, however, is leadership and versatility. Yes, he had a pretty bad season last year. But since he can defend both guards and forwards, Moore is going to see a huge bump in playing time, and he’s the type of player who needs playing time to improve. Plus, his crunch-time experience will come in handy (see: North Carolina game-winner). I don’t expect Moore to be winning any individual awards this year, but I don’t expect the Blue Devils to win any team awards without him.

Derek Saul: Jalen Johnson

Because of his chaotic high school career, many people are sleeping on just how good of a recruit Johnson was. I am enamored with his talent, and expect him to join Jahlil Okafor, Marvin Bagley III and Zion Williamson as the fourth Blue Devil freshman to win ACC Player of the Year.

Who is Duke's most underrated player?

Shane Smith: Jeremy Roach

Roach has flown under the radar as a recruit, mostly due to an ACL injury he suffered during his junior year of high school. Krzyzewki’s point guard recruits have been very hit or miss in the one-and-done era, yet I expect the Leesburg, Va., native to be a focal part of this offense. With Jordan Goldwire taking on defensive responsibilities against the opponent’s lead guard, Roach will have free reign to display his elite playmaking abilities on the offensive end and become Duke’s second best weapon.

Glen Morgenstern: Jaemyn Brakefield

On most other college teams in the country, Brakefield would be not only a starter, but the face of the program. Instead, the No. 31 ranked recruit in his class will come off the bench for Duke, playing backup to Jalen Johnson. Brakefield is 6-foot-8, can play either forward position and really strokes it from deep, yet remains criminally underrated—look for him to either crack the starting lineup by the end of the year or be the best sixth man in America.

Conner McLeod: DJ Steward

Though his Tik Tok persona may not show it, Steward is an offensive killer from almost anywhere on the court. No matter how many sets or plays a team runs, sometimes you just need a bucket, and Steward is the best man for that job. He may not see a starting lineup bid to begin the season due to inexperience, but once he shows the world how effortlessly he scores, Coach K will have to put the ball in the sparkplug’s hands in crunch time.

What will Duke’s best win be?

Shane Smith: Virginia

Once again, the Cavaliers are primed to take home the ACC regular-season crown with an experienced group. However, just because Virginia has recently finished higher than Duke in the standings doesn’t mean the series between the two teams goes the same way, as Krzyzewski holds an 11-4 career record against Tony Bennett. With this year’s matchup taking place in Cameron Indoor, I expect the Blue Devils to find a way late for an impressive win against a probable top-10 team.

Derek Saul: Michigan State

I must admit, I did not expect picking Michigan State to come with so many complications, as who knows what this team will look like when it plays Duke given head coach Tom Izzo’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis and fifth-year senior Joshua Langford’s long injury history. But I think by the end of the regular season, the Spartans will solidify themselves as one of the top squads in the nation, and near the top of the Blue Devils’ NCAA tournament resume will be their win against Michigan State.

Conner McLeod: Illinois

The Fighting Illini edged the Blue Devils by one spot in the preseason AP poll, as head coach Brad Underwood returns two NBA-caliber players to go along with the 16th-ranked recruiting class in the country. However, that won’t stop Duke from wearing down Illinois in Cameron Indoor, as the Fighting Illini’s depth is no match for that of Duke’s. The Blue Devils will also have had experience facing off against a top 25 opponent by then after battling Michigan State less than a week prior. This experience will only help propel Duke to victory in what could be one of its only upsets of the season.

What will be Coach K’s go-to lineup?

Evan Kolin: Roach, Moore, Johnson, Hurt, Williams

I simply don’t see how Hurt can start at center. Yes, I just called the 6-foot-9 sharpshooter my team MVP, but that All-ACC caliber season happens for Hurt as a stretch four, not a five. Would starting him at center be lethal offensively? Sure. But Duke would get pummeled on the defensive end as well as in the rebounding game. I could go on, but I’ll stop myself since we already have dueling columns debating this exact scenario. The point is this—the Blue Devils need a true center out there by the time they face Michigan State Dec. 1.

Derek Saul: Roach, Goldwire, Moore, Johnson, Hurt

It’s time for Duke to get out of the old mindset of needing a traditional center on the court at all times and actually embrace what its greatest strength as a team is: versatility. With this lineup, any player is capable of getting a bucket on their own or knocking down a spot-up 3-pointer. I understand concerns with defense and rebounding with this group, but I think the unit’s athleticism will account for its lack of size. 

Will Duke win the ACC regular-season title?

Shane Smith: No

Like every year, the Blue Devils certainly have the talent to compete for the ACC crown, yet it has just become a given year in and year out that it won’t be fulfilled. With unbalanced scheduling and Duke having a massive target on its back in every ACC contest, I’ll be shocked if Virginia or Florida State don’t sit atop the standings come March. Some just have the luxury of not facing North Carolina twice every season.

Derek Saul: Yes

I am definitely surprised that I’m the only one to pick Duke to win the ACC. When I look at the rosters of the other teams predicted to compete for the conference title, I simply can’t understand how the Blue Devils aren’t the favorite. Sure, head coach Tony Bennett will get the most out of Virginia and Duke perennially drops a couple games it shouldn’t, but I expect this to be the first time since 2010 that Krzyzewski’s team finishes on top in the ACC. 

Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.

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