Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Blue Devil's Corner: 2011/2012 Duke Basketball Season Preview

Mason Plumlee will need to step up for Duke to be a contender.

As many of you know, I am the Duke fan in the STOB bunch.  With that I will be sharing my posts that I put on my old Mr. Duke site on this much more frequented blog because...well...Ken and Derrick let me and spreading the word of Duke is what I do.  With the season just around the corner, it's time for a Duke Season Preview.  I'll be breaking down all the players, the teams strengths and weaknesses, the key games on the schedule and then giving my prediction for what the season holds for this version of the Duke Blue Devils.  Haters, lovers and indifferent college basketball fans all should find at least one nugget of either info or opinion that they can take into this season in a near 4,500 word preview.

Player Breakdowns -

Freshman -

0 - Austin Rivers (G - 6'4" 200lbs)

We start with the most talked about player on Duke's roster and he is a freshman yet to play his first regular season game for the Blue Devils.  Depending on the recruiting site or outlet you check Austin Rivers is probably the top or very near the top recruit in the 2011 class.  He is the son of NBA head coach and ex-player Doc Rivers, and with all of that combined with an "I know I am better than everyone else on the court" attitude makes Rivers a target for a lot of attention.  Rivers is looking like he'll become the most hated Dukie since Greg Paulus and by being much more relevant on the court, probably the most hated since JJ Redick by Duke haters. 

Rivers has amazing scoring abilities. 

His best asset is an amazing array of one on one moves to get all the way to the bucket and finish or pull up with his unstoppable floater.  He has a quirky looking jumper that is streaky, when it gets going though Rivers is unstoppable.  In China and Dubai, Rivers showed flashes of greatness but in general looked like a freshman.  He tried to do too much leading to large amounts of turnovers and plays that you know he heard about later from Coach K.  A few months of work with K and Rivers should be more under control for the start of the season.  Rivers will carry Duke offensively at times this year, but the key to Duke and Rivers being great will be if Rivers uses his athletic abilities to focus on the defensive end of the court.

2 - Quinn Cook (PG - 6'0" 175 lbs)

Cook comes in and joins sophomore Tyler Thornton as the only other true PG on the roster for Duke.  Out of Oak Hill Academy, Cook has a great ability to get his teammates the ball in positions to score.  He also has the ability to get to the rim and finish, while his outside shot lacks some consistency.  Duke has enough scoring elsewhere that Cook's main role will be as a creator of offense for others this year.  He wasn't able to play in the overseas trip due to an injury, so his development maybe a bit behind Duke's other freshman that were able to play during that exhibition play in August.

12 - Alex Murphy (F - 6'8" 220 lbs)

Alex Murphy comes to Duke a year early, much like Andre Dawkins a few years ago.  Murphy is a swiss army knife basketball player much like Kyle Singler.  Not to put expectations on Murphy's career at the level of Kyle Singler's shining four years at Duke, but not only due to his number but due to his body type, size and his movements you will be rubbing your eyes questioning if Singler somehow is playing with a 5th year of eligibility (especially if you don't have an HDTV).  Murphy has three point range, nice athleticism, and ability to do it all offensively.  He will need to add some strength but I see Murphy making improvements all year and looking like a serious contributor at the end of this year.

13 - Michael Gbinije (G/F - 6'7" 235 lbs)

Gbinije is another smart, all around sound player to be paired with Alex Murphy.  Michael will be able to play at three different positions for Duke this year, the 2, 3 and 4 positions.  He is solidly built, looks to always make the smart play, can score in any way possible, but isn't amazing at anything while being pretty good at everything.  Gbinije will be a security blanket off the bench for Coach K as he will know that Michael will go in and not hurt Duke while having the ability to really help in any aspect of the game.

40 - Marshall Plumlee (F - 6'11" 225 lbs *looks bigger than 225 now*)

The 3rd Plumlee has arrived but don't expect huge things, barring injuries to other front court players, from Marshall this year.  Duke, unlike many years in the past, actually has a lot of depth with their stable of big men this year and it will be tough for Marshall to carve out many minutes behind his brothers (Miles and Mason), Ryan Kelly and Josh Hairston.  Once Marshall starts seeing the court, expect a player that is very mobile and athletic much like his elder brothers.  Marshall also plays with a great intensity, has a nice hook and turnaround with great hands.  Marshall should be an impact player for Duke on the practice court this season if he is possibly red-shirted, working hard on Miles and Mason and forcing them to get better. 

Sophomores -

3 - Tyler Thornton (PG - 6'1" 195 lbs)

Tyler Thornton was thrust into a more prominent role last year as the back up PG to Nolan Smith after Kyrie Irving went down with his toe injury.  He showed himself to be a great on ball defensive player and energy guy off the bench.  Thornton will probably back up Seth Curry at the PG position this year, battling Quinn Cook for that position.  Thornton will get more minutes when Duke takes on teams with offensively gifted opposing PGs.  Thornton offensively will look to defer to his teammates for scoring while making the smart decisions and controlling the ball, but will hit open threes and can, if needed, get to the hoop and finish.

15 - Josh Hairston (F - 6'7" 235 lbs)

Hairston didn't get a ton of playing time in his freshman campaign.  His sophomore year won't look a ton different.  Hairston is still going to be behind both the elder Plumlees and Ryan Kelly this year.  But the Plumlees get in foul trouble as often as Lindsey Lohan breaks her probation so Hairston will get his playing time.  When on the court Hairston is a hustler, who will work his but off on the defensive end and on the boards.  Offensively, Hairston will look to crash the boards and kick it back out, his only shots will really be put backs and an open mid range jumper after the defense forgets about him to try to cover the other offensive threats.

51 - David Mayer (G - 6'4" 200 lbs)

Mayer is a great clapper, this season he will be looking to improve his focus in time outs.  Last year Mayer could be seen watching time out on court festivities and watching the arena big screen.  With a lot of work in the summer though I see Mayer improving on this greatly.  His towel waving skills following big plays may still be lacking though, he lacks the aggressiveness of a Casey Peters type that Duke has won with in the past. Fun fact - he plays the ukulele.

Juniors -

5 - Mason Plumlee (F - 6'10" 235 lbs)

Is this the year?  Many thought Mason would have his breakout season last year as a sophomore and really after a huge game against Marquette and a building repoire with Kyrie Irving early in the season it looked like it maybe coming true.  But then Kyrie went down, and Mason moved back to being greatly talented but frustratingly irrelevant.  The middle of the three Plumlees, he has the highest upside still but needs to get the game figured out in between his ears if he is to reach that potential.  Mason makes many mental errors, and at times looks to lack interest in becoming great and only perks up when a wide open dunk comes his way.  Coach K is focusing on getting his big men more involved this year, hopefully the increased looks on the offensive end will perk up the rest of Mason's game and we will start seeing more of what we saw against Marquette last year.

20 - Andre Dawkins (G - 6'4" 200 lbs)

Dawkins, much like Mason, has had his up and downs throughout his career at Duke.  A tragedy marred his freshman campaign with the death of his sister as she travelled to see him play.  His sophomore campaign was at times very promising but at other times it seemed Dawkins couldn't get out of Coach K's doghouse as he lacked consistent effort defensively.  Dawkins is arguably the best shooter on the team with Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly, which then makes him arguably the best shooter in the country.  He is always ready to shoot and has the range to pull it from anywhere over half court.  Dawkins has looked to improve other aspects of his offensive game on top of hopefully not being a defensive liability.  If Dawkins can play good enough defense to stay on the court, I see him having a break out season.  He is my favorite player on the team, so I'll be rooting for him to bring the rest of his game closer to the his elite shooting prowess.

30 - Seth Curry (G - 6'2" 180 lbs)

Actually in his fourth year at the D-1 level after his transfer from Liberty, Seth Curry looks like he will be the leader of this Duke squad.  Not only will he possibly lead in points per game, he needs to step into the role left void after the graduation of team leaders Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler as the vocal leader and leader by example.  His first year as a Dukie (playing, not sitting out his transfer year) was up and down.  At times he took over game (hello home UNC game) and at other times he faded into the background.  Nolan Smith had his breakout season in his junior campaign, Duke and it's fans are hoping that Curry has the same light bulb moment. 

Curry will have the ball in his hands as he will be the starting PG for Duke come the November 11 opener against Belmont.  I expect Curry to be much like Scheyer in his senior year, bringing the ball up the court but then passing it off to then run off screens and play much more like an off guard in the half court.  Curry made big strides last year defensively and should be a solid on ball defender even at the point guard position.  Seth should be the leading scorer for Duke this season, unless Rivers is even better than we thought he was.

34 - Ryan Kelly (F - 6'11" 230 lbs)

Last season was a bit of a coming out party for Ryan Kelly.  He showed just how good of a shooter he could be when in a two game stretch he didn't miss a shot and approached a record for consecutive makes.  From the looks of things during the overseas trip for Duke, Kelly is ready to build off of his sophomore campaign and have an even better junior season.  Kelly was Duke's leading scorer on the trip, and after losing some weight in the off season looks trim and athletic.  He is moving around the court with and without the ball much better than last year and it showed in those preseason games as Kelly was slashing to the hoop and making more athletic scoring plays.  Adding this element to an already outstanding shooting game for Kelly makes him a lethal weapon whether he is in Duke's starting lineup, as he should be some, or coming off the bench.

52 - Todd Zafirovski (F - 6'9" 240 lbs)

Todd is Duke's only player with a "Z" in his name, and being the overachiever that he is, he actually has two "Z's".  Was born in Edina, MN.  Minnesota is the home of STOB, so we love Todd.

Senior -

21 - Miles Plumlee (F - 6'10" 245 lbs)

Miles Plumlee is the lone senior on Duke's roster this season.  With that comes an assumed leadership role, and again I'll refer to the overseas trip Duke took in August and say that Miles looked to be taking on that role quite nicely.  Miles outplayed all of the other big men, outside of Ryan Kelly, and looked much more decisive in his play.  Throughout his career, and so far in Mason's as well, the Plumlees at times look lost and seem to be thinking far too much on the court instead of letting their excellent athleticism take over.  Getting past that trend is key for both, and possibly Marshall as well but I can't judge him yet, if they are to reach their potential.  Miles though looked to be on the right path in August and hopefully will build off of those good performances and be a better player for Duke inside in his final season with the Blue Devils.

Duke Strength's -

Shooting - Duke has a plethora of options when it comes to shooting the three.  Not that this should come as a surprise as Duke for years now has been built on a great outside shooting.  This year's best shooters are: Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins, Ryan Kelly, Austin Rivers, Alex Murphy, Michael Gbinije, Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton in close to that order.   Going down from knock down snipers, to streaky shooters, to guys that can hit it when left open. 

Athleticism - This could be one of Duke's more athletic teams in a few years.   The Plumlees are amazing athletes for their size, and the incoming freshman class doesn't have an athletic dud in the bunch.  While Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins aren't Gerald Hendersons they both are quite athletic and Dawkins more so though we don't always see it as he looks to shoot the three rather than attack the rim.

Coaching - Duh.

Depth - Duke has capable back up players at every position on the court.  Within that depth is a nice mix of youth and veterans.  As we have learned in the past few championship winning teams, freshman make splashes and nice stories, but veterans leading the way (Kemba, Scheyer, Hansbrough...) with a mix of freshman sprinkled in (Lamb, Mason, Andre and Ed Davis) win titles.

Inside Play - What?  Yeah I said it, Duke has inside play and Coach K agrees with me, "Our strength right now is our big guys." K told SI.com.  This is a nice statement, and I believe it could be true if what we saw in China/Dubai continues with Miles Plumlee and Ryan Kelly stepping their game up and Duke making a concerted effort to work the ball inside.

Duke Weaknesses/Question Marks -

Point Guard Play - While moving SGs to PGs has worked well for Duke the past two years with Nolan Smith last year and the title winning year with Jon Scheyer, it isn't guaranteed that Seth Curry will have the same success.  Curry up to this point has been best coming off screens to get his shots, Duke showed that a player like that can be successful though as Scheyer was this type of player and had success.  In Seth Curry's player breakdown above we get into this more.  Look for Quinn Cook to take the starting role over if Curry struggles at the point and for Tyler Thornton to continue to be the defensive specialist/energy player off the bench.

Post Play - Wait...didn't I just say...yes I did, but until we see it I still have to list this as a question mark for Duke.  While I know that Ryan Kelly can score from the outside, whether or not he has good post moves is still yet to be determined.  The Plumlees are yet to prove they have any inside offensive moves other than open dunks.  So while I agree the potential is there for this to be a strength, until I see it I still will list it as a question mark.

Defense - While Coach K stresses defense and his teams historically have been great on that side of the floor, you can see with this team why there maybe some concern.  Austin Rivers and Andre Dawkins are two potential starters who are yet to show they want to be good on the defensive side of the ball.  Seth Curry is now going to almost exclusively be guarding point guards, whether he has the quickness and strength to stay in front of the country's elite is a question that will be answered.  While the Plumlees have shown the ability to make spectacular defensive plays, it has been the routine plays they at times struggle with.  Whether it's picking up silly fouls 30 feet away from the basket or being slow on defensive rotations the Plumlees need work to be on the level of a Lance Thomas or Brian Zoubek.  Surprisingly Duke's bench maybe better defensively than it's starting 5, with Tyler Thornton, Michael Gbinije and Josh Hairston all being hard headed defensive players.  I think by the end of the season, Coach K will have Duke playing it's normal style of defense, but watch to see if Duke struggles early in their season on that side of the ball.

Leadership - The past two seasons Duke has never had to worry about leadership.  With Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler playing lead and other lesser known players like Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek also adding leadership.  This year though, Duke has upper classmen used to having built in leaders like those already listed, and a freshman coming in that seems possibly eager to take that role on.  It will be an interesting dynamic to see if Seth Curry and Miles Plumlee take on the role of leader or if Austin Rivers steps in and is the leader as a freshman.  So far in preseason play, it seems Curry has the role locked down but it still is a question mark.

Schedule Highlights -

November 15 vs. Michigan State - Just the third game of the season for Duke they head to Madison Square Garden to take on the Spartans.  Last year Duke took care of Izzo's boys at home led by Kyrie Irving, after that Michigan State stumbled the rest of the way.  Look for the Spartans to try to use this early season game to prove they are ready to bounce back from their down year last season.  I think Duke comes out on top, as Austin Rivers has a small coming out party on the national stage of Madison Square Garden.

November 21 vs. Tennessee (Nov. 22 vs. Michigan or Memphis and Nov. 23 vs. UCLA, Chaminade (lol), Georgetown or Kansas) - Three real good tests in three days, unless Duke somehow ends up taking on Chaminade in one of the match ups at the Maui Invitational.  Tennessee is scrappy but Duke should get by them, Memphis and Michigan are both tough teams on the rise.  Duke will have a battle in store with either, and if they get by them then look for UCLA or Kansas to be on the way and again the Devils will have their work cut out for them.  I see Duke making through this unblemished, with the best chance of a loss coming from the Memphis Tigers in the second round.  This trip will be huge for the growth of this team, and even if they take their lumps, actually more so if they take their lumps and lose a game or two they will learn a ton from this three day stretch.  You learn more from a loss than a win and an early season loss isn't going to hurt Duke at all as they are playing for March not November.

November 29 @ Ohio State - And here is where Duke's NCAA tournament simulation in November comes to a big end with a game that will be as tough, if not tougher, than a NCAA Title game.  I look at Duke's November like the NCAA tournament: 2nd round - Mich State, Sweet 16 - Tennessee, Elite 8 - Memphis, Final Four - Kansas, Title Game - Ohio State.  All of that in the matter of two weeks.  If you can simulate a NCAA tournament run any better in November, I am not sure how.  Going into Buckeye country will be an amazingly tough task.  Sullinger is back and will test the Plumlees and the rest of the front court players, while William Buford and Aaron Craft frustrate our back court.  Craft vs Curry will be one of the many match ups to watch.  If the great defensive sophomore Craft shuts down Curry, Duke will be in for a long day as they will need the junior to keep the rest of the team calm in the road atmosphere.  I don't see Duke winning this game, but I see them learning a ton about themselves that will help them be much better prepared for this type of elite team come March.

December 10 vs. Washington - Another trip to MSG, this time to take on a very athletic team in the Washington Huskies.  The Huskies are young and will probably be led by the young PG Tony Wroten Jr. who will give Seth Curry another great test at the PG position.  I think Duke comes out on top in this one, but yet again it is a great non conference match up.  Derrick has predicted a Washington win.

January 4 @ Temple - Last year the Temple Owls came into the Cameron and left defeated, but they were impressive.  They will be looking for payback this year as Duke heads to their house.  Returning 3 of last year's 4 top scorers in Ramone Moore, Juan Fernandez and Scootie Randall, Temple is a veteran squad that will be dangerous at home.  Duke will need this win as a confidence builder in their last game before they go into ACC play.  Duke will pull this one out as they will just have too much depth and fire power but don't be surprised if Temple gives Duke all they can handle.

January 28 vs. St. John's - It will be a while until I forget the dismantling that St John's laid on Duke last January in a 93-78 beat down at MSG.  This year Duke invites the Red Storm to Cameron, and it will be a very, very young team coming into the hostile Crazies house.  Seven freshman round out the Red Storm's roster, I think Duke will win as St John's gets a bit rattled by the venue, but this is a very dangerous game.

February 23 @ Florida State - If you are a Duke fan, you need no explanation as to why this game would be circled as a possible loss.  Florida State just brings it when Duke comes to town.  This year will be no different as Florida State will be looking to prove that the ACC isn't just a two horse race.

February 8 @ UNC and March 3 vs. UNC - Of course we round out the list with North Carolina, the #1 team in all the land this preseason.  It may not even be close, UNC has everyone back and adds great freshman into the mix as well.  To beat UNC you have to stop one man, Kendall Marshall.  If Duke can slow Marshall down, they will have a chance.  If they don't, nobody has a chance against the Tar Heels as Marshall has too many options to get the ball to, who can all score at will.  A split is welcomed, a sweep is dreamed of, being swept isn't embarrassing if they keep them close and battle.  If Duke does well enough in their super tough November run, the February game might be huge between a #1 and anywhere from #2 to #5 team.  Can UNC go undefeated this year?  They have to go through Duke at least twice and probably three times first, and I don't see that happening.

Where does Duke's season end? -

After all of this is looked at where will the Devils end up?  Duke's expectation is probably a Sweet 16 to Elite 8 team.  I think they can do more.  Am I just a fan, blinded by the Duke blue haze I see the world in?  Yes.  But let me explain:  The preseason #1 team has only won the title 6 times in the last 25 years, just look at Duke last year for example.  So Duke being ranked 6th isn't a bad thing, heck UConn wasn't even ranked preseason last year.  I think Duke could win it all because of the mix of veterans and youth they have, as well as the balance of inside players and outside players.  They should be able to play almost any type of game an opposing team throws at them.  Fast paced, slow paced, inside, outside...whatever it is they have players that can play that type of game.  I think Duke more than likely doesn't win it all, but I think there is a chance if things fall right, players play up to their potential (looking your way Plumlees) and we stay away from major injuries. 

I predict Duke makes the Final Four and loses there.  That is what I will write not to get ripped too bad by those that will call me a lunatic, but you know in my heart I think Duke will win it all this year...and for that I won't apologize.

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