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Point: Coach K must go against the norm without true center

Thanks to the talents of Matthew Hurt and Jalen Johnson, Duke has the roster to be able to play an effective small ball lineup.
Thanks to the talents of Matthew Hurt and Jalen Johnson, Duke has the roster to be able to play an effective small ball lineup.

If Duke wants to compete for its first ACC regular season title in more than a decade, it is absolutely necessary for head coach Mike Krzyzewski to wholly embrace small ball lineups.

Now, I don’t want you to think this is a very original idea from me. In fact, associate head coach Nate James recently suggested that the starting lineup would be 6-foot-1 guard Jeremy Roach, 6-foot-2 guard Jordan Goldwire, 6-foot-5 forward Wendell Moore Jr., and 6-foot-9 forwards Matthew Hurt and Jalen Johnson. 

But after three years of watching Krzyzewski give consistent minutes to the likes of Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier and Jack White over someone who could actually contribute offensively, I’m skeptical that this willingness to go small will stick. 

Specifically, I am worried about Krzyzewski leaning too heavily on high-flying 7-foot freshman center Mark Williams and bruising 6-foot-9 graduate transfer forward Patrick Tapé. Williams is Duke’s first athletic 7-footer since the Plumlee brothers graduated (sorry, Antonio Vrankovic), and Tapé was a solid contributor inside during his three-year career at Columbia.

Both Tapé and Williams come with some baggage, however. Neither player stretches the floor, as Tapé attempted one 3-pointer while at Columbia and Williams does not project as a spot-up threat. Also, Tapé has not played in a real game in 21 months after sitting out last season to preserve his eligibility, while Williams has a history of injuries, not a good sign for someone of his frame. 

“[Tape’s experience is translating], but I would tell you it’s slightly a little bit different than you may think because Patrick didn’t play last year, so he sat out,” James said Nov. 12. “Also, Mark, who went to IMG [Academy]— he had some tendinitis issues—so he missed a great deal of the season. So, you have two big guys who are new, who are learning and developing unlike a typical grad-transfer player in Patrick. With Mark, he’s just this 7-footer who’s still trying to figure out how to use all of his tools, and because of the level of play at his previous high school before transferring to IMG–the speed, the athleticism, the physicality of each and every practice–those two guys are learning a lot.” 

My insistence on going small has less to do with the effectiveness of Tapé and Williams, but even more to do with maximizing Hurt and Johnson’s unique talents. A frontcourt consisting of two 6-foot-9 players who can score at every level could be unstoppable, and I believe playing Williams or Tapé with the lethal duo of Hurt and Johnson will only slow the Blue Devils down. 

The writing is on the wall that Duke must abandon the concept of relying on a traditional center, a strategy that has slowed the Blue Devils down previously. It’s only a matter of whether Krzyzewski and his coaching staff stay true to their commitment of positionless basketball.

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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