Take of the week: Duke men's basketball poised for top-end ACC campaign after up-and-down nonconference start

Freshman guard Jared McCain drives to the basket in Duke's win against Baylor.
Freshman guard Jared McCain drives to the basket in Duke's win against Baylor.

Just two weeks ago, it seemed like Duke men’s basketball’s season may be defined by intense underperformance — a-la 2022-23 North Carolina, who similarly began highly ranked before enduring an early slide. With star sophomore point guard Tyrese Proctor suffering an ankle injury and the Blue Devils sitting at 5-3, the outlook was bleak. Fast forward to the week of Christmas, where Duke knocked off then-No. 10 Baylor at Madison Square Garden to improve to 8-3, and it seems like Duke has regained the form needed to win the ACC.

With Proctor out, head coach Jon Scheyer’s team has seen immense growth from its freshman guard tandem of Jared McCain and Caleb Foster, while also receiving excellent play from senior captain Jeremy Roach and star sophomore big man Kyle Filipowski. Combine this increased level of play with the imminent return of their elite floor general, and the Blue Devils are set up to go on an early tear in conference play and position themselves in the driver’s seat to win the conference.

In the team’s recent three-game winning streak, Duke solved its offensive woes, with the ball moving much more freely than the previous isolation-prone offense. This resulted in excellent shooting performances from multiple Blue Devils, especially Roach, who has been on fire from beyond the arc, going 7-for-12 from three over these contests. McCain was the big beneficiary of this ball movement in the win against the Bears, as the Sacramento, Calif., native put up 21 points on 7-for-11 shooting to pace the team in scoring. 

When Proctor returns, Duke’s shooters will only get more open looks, as the sophomore has a reputation for being an excellent passer. The Blue Devils currently are ninth in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom, and they seem to have the potential to reach even greater heights.

Obviously, Scheyer’s unit did not start out on the right foot in conference play, dropping its first ACC game on the road against unranked Georgia Tech, an ugly loss that will undoubtedly follow the team until Selection Sunday. But, looking forward, the early conference slate sets up very favorably for Duke. The next half dozen ACC games are against unranked opponents, with two of them being against bottom dwellers Notre Dame and Louisville. At their current level of play, it is not unreasonable to expect the Blue Devils to handle this portion of the schedule with relative ease. Doing so would place them at 15-3 and 6-1 in the ACC — assuming they beat Queens in the final non-conference matchup of the season. This may very well put Duke in the top 10 going into a home matchup with current-No. 18 Clemson, where the brunt of the ACC gauntlet begins.

While certain metrics may point to the ACC as a weaker basketball conference compared to its peers, there are still a number of very talented teams. The Tigers are on an absolute roll to start the year, North Carolina looks the part, Virginia has a history of being right in the thick of the ACC title race and Miami has advanced late in March back-to-back seasons. 

Still, Duke’s schedule is very favorable. The Blue Devils only encounter Clemson and the Cavaliers once, with both contests coming at Cameron Indoor Stadium. If the team can continue to gel and build momentum upon Proctor’s return without enduring too many surprise losses (looking at you, PNC Arena and Cassell Coliseum), there is no reason why Duke cannot reclaim its preseason status and claim the No. 1 seed in Washington D.C. at this year’s ACC tournament. 


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