Duke was a heavy preseason favorite in 2016-17, but early season injuries, chemistry concerns and Grayson Allen’s tripping incident set the Blue Devils back.
Instead of finishing first in the ACC and earning a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament, Mike Krzyzewski squad slotted in at fifth in the league standings and lost to South Carolina in the second round of the Big Dance.
The Blue Devils started to find peak form during the final weeks of the season — Allen finally looked like himself, Jayson Tatum was a freshman superstar, Harry Giles produced at an above-average level and they won the ACC Tournament — but Coach K’s team ran into a Gamecocks unit that had home-court advantage and exposed Duke’s lack of a true point guard in the NCAA Tournament.
In 2017-18, Duke won’t have the services of Tatum, Giles, Luke Kennard, Frank Jackson, Matt Jones or Amile Jefferson, but they do have another elite freshman class, a motivated Allen and a loaded front court.
But can the Blue Devils answer the questions that have affected their postseason success in the past? And can they overcome the fact that they once again may be preseason favorites to win the whole thing?
We will find out soon enough.
2016-17 record: 28-9 overall (11-7)
Key Returnees: Grayson Allen, Javin DeLaurier, Marques Bolden, Antonio Vrankovic, Jack White
Newcomers: Marvin Bagley III (five-star PF), Wendell Carter (five-star PF), Trevon Duval (five-star PG), Gary Trent Jr. (five-star SG), Jordan Tucker (four-star SF), Alex O’Connell (four-star SG), Jordan Goldwire (three-star PG)
Departures: Luke Kennard, Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson, Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones, Chase Jeter, Harry Giles
1. Does Duke finally have their true point guard?
Duval is the best freshman point guard in the country. He’s athletic, tough, strong, fearless, explosive and can score at any time during any game.
But is he capable of running a college team? Can he find a balance between getting others involved and getting his own?
That’s to be determined.
Duke has had lead guard issues for years as it failed them last season against South Carolina’s lethal pressure defense and almost caused them to lose to UNC-Wilmington in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
If Duval can run the offense successfully and make good decisions with the basketball, this will help and improve the entire team.
That means Allen will be able to operate off the ball, where he will have more space to attack the rim and better opportunities to have open shots from the perimeter. It will also limit turnovers and allow the Blue Devils to have more chances to score.
Duval can also allow the Blue Devils to get easier opportunities at the bucket because of his speed and comfort level attacking in transition.
It may take an adjust period, but this five-star talent may finally be the guy the Blue Devils were searching for.
2. Will defense hold the Blue Devils back?
Duke is known for their ability to add elite talent, especially offensively. But they aren’t necessarily known for their defensive scheme or system.
This year, things could be different as the Blue Devils have Bagley, the best freshman in the nation, according to ESPN, and Carter to protect the rim and Duval and Trent to defend on the perimeter.
Bagley is long and athletic while Carter is physical and tough. Those two will combine to provide a powerful frontcourt that will likely intimate opponents from attacking the bucket.
But the value of Duval and Trent on the perimeter could be even greater if they reach their potential. We know Duval and Trent love to score the basketball but they both have the physical attributes to be versatile pieces defensively.
Can Coach K get the best out of them? Will they not reach their true potential defensively until they reach the NBA where they realize it’s not as easy to cut out a role by just scoring the basketball?
Again, that’s to be determined.
3. Can Allen be relied upon as a leader?
Whether it’s tripping an opponent or having an emotional outburst, Allen has had maturity issues throughout his Duke career.
This year more than ever, though, the Blue Devils need him to grow as a person and get past these concerns.
They cannot afford turmoil on a young team that lacks the veteran presences of Jefferson and Jones. And they certainly cannot afford to see Allen suspended when they know he is likely to be the team’s leading scorer and one of the best players in the nation.
If Allen can put all the issues aside, he can not only improve his NBA stock, but he can become a First or Second Team All-American…nationally and potentially lead the Blue Devils to a national championship.
Remember, in his sophomore season, Allen averaged 21.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game on 47 percent shooting.
His numbers obviously dipped significantly last season, but he has proven that he can be one of the best players in the nation if he is right mentally.
Duke is going nowhere if Allen doesn’t re-kindle his magic.