The Blue Devils officially begin their quest for their sixth national championship Monday against Jacksonville. In order to reach lofty expectations, Duke must start its season on the right foot. Here are five things to know ahead of Duke’s season opener.
Freshmen in the spotlight
Duke’s No. 1-ranked freshman class has been a major topic of discussion entering the season. Monday marks their first step into the spotlight, literally and figuratively. For better or for worse, the raucous environment of Cameron Indoor Stadium will shed light on whether this crop of freshmen can live up to the hype.
However, it is likely that two of Duke’s biggest freshman names, Dariq Whitehead and Dereck Lively II, will not play Monday. With the two battling injuries, the Blue Devils have not had their full squad available and healthy during the preseason. This places Whitehead and Lively under even more intense scrutiny, as monitoring their health will dominate discussions of Duke’s standing among the top teams in the country.
“[Whitehead and Lively] are working really hard to get back. But that's what you try to do in those moments is ‘how can we find something,’ and our guys have stepped up, and we'll be ready for them when they come back,” head coach Jon Scheyer said in Friday's media availability.
Some of those players Scheyer mentioned include graduate transfer Ryan Young and freshman Mark Mitchell, who combined for 27 points in Duke’s Nov. 2 exhibition against Fayetteville State. Mitchell shined, showcasing his energy in transition and aggressiveness in pursuing loose balls.
That’s how the team describes Mitchell.
"'Easy,' everybody calls him 'Easy,'" Scheyer said. "And when you watch him play, he's easy to play with and then you get to know him off the court. He's easy to be around. And I told him, 'as long as you're not easy to guard, then we can keep that nickname.'"
Mitchell certainly was not easy to guard in the exhibition, as he constantly finished through multiple defenders and shot a perfect 5-for-5 from the free throw line. This trend should continue against Jacksonville, as he will have an advantage in pure athleticism against the Dolphins. Look for Mitchell to pursue the ball on defense and take advantage of opportunities on the fast break.
If Mitchell can continue to make things look so easy, the Blue Devils will have success against the Dolphins.
Don’t take Jacksonville for granted
The Dolphins finished 21-10 last season, reaching the ASUN championship before falling to Bellarmine. They are led by Kevion Nolan, a unanimous pick for the preseason all-conference team.
Nolan led the team in scoring and assists last season, and he will likely be guarded by Jeremy Roach and Tyrese Proctor Monday. The two guards consistently hounded the opposing ball-handlers in the Blue Devils' exhibition game, and they will have to bring the same effort Monday to make Nolan uncomfortable.
While the first game of the season could be viewed as a tune-up, the Blue Devils should not come into Monday underestimating the Dolphins' ability.
Duke's bench scored 34 points in Wednesday's exhibition, and while this number may be inflated due to its context, the Blue Devils will likely reach into their bench again Monday. One player that will likely come off the bench and have a major impact on the game is graduate transfer Jacob Grandison, who led the team in scoring with 17 points and three triples against Fayetteville State.
Grandison and the rest of the Duke bench will likely get their chances to impress Scheyer and the coaching staff early in the season, especially in the absence of Whitehead and Lively. Moreover, it will be interesting to monitor how Duke handles the point guard position. The obvious starter is Roach, but Proctor and sophomore Jaylen Blakes both continue to impress. If the Blue Devils follow their starting lineup from their exhibition, Proctor will start alongside Roach. This allows both players to act as point guards of the offense and gives Duke a unique look on offense.
"We can swap in and out I mean, whenever I want him to bring it up, he'll bring it up," Roach said. "If I want to bring it up, I'll bring it up, but I think we were so, so good together. I just saw him coming off the ball screen, he's looking at other guys. He's looking at the roller. Just his vision, that's personally what I think separates him from a lot of guys, and he can shoot it too."
A discussion of Duke cannot go without mentioning Scheyer. It cannot be understated how meaningful this game is for him and the team. Immediately, people will compare him to former head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
However, it does not seem like this pressure is getting to Scheyer. He has all the makings of a great coach and has earned the trust of his players.
“I feel like Scheyer has been comfortable since he walked in,” Roach said. “I mean, it's a tough job to come in as the Duke coach, but I feel like he's been comfortable. He's been with the program for the last six or seven years coaching. So, I mean, I'm pretty sure he knows what to expect. But I think just, in my perspective, him coming to lock in the preseason was when he really flipped the page and was like, yeah, he's really on top of everything that needs to be done.”
But he is not Krzyzewski, and he doesn’t need to be. This is a new era at Duke, and Scheyer will have his first chance to create his own story Monday.
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