ACC Basketball

NCAA Tournament Preview: Duke Blue Devils

Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

HOW THEY GOT HERE:
It was a simple plan…add Jabari Parker (the next Carmelo Anthony) and arguable one of the nation’s best incoming transfers, Rodney Hood, to a group of solid role players fresh off a trip to the elite eight and Duke couldn’t fail, right?

Playing one of the nation’s toughest non-conference schedules, the Blue Devils won the games they were suppose to win, including victories over current 2-seed Michigan at home and 4-seed UCLA in Cameron North (MSG ). However, when challenged, Duke would often struggle to hold on to leads. They gave up 90 points to Vermont at home and fell to both Kansas and Arizona at neutral sites , despite seemingly having control of both games late in the second half.

In ACC play, the trend continued against Notre Dame and Clemson, dropping both games late after blowing second half leads. However, the latter ended up being the needed wake up call. As the season wore on, Duke’s struggling defense got better and they picked up signature wins over Virginia, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and North Carolina…Yet except for the victory over the Panthers, all those wins came at home, where Duke hasn’t lost in two years.

They ended up finishing third in the ACC regular season after a bad loss to Wake Forest and while they avoided the upset in the ACC tourney, they had no answers late against the Cavaliers in the ACC title game.

PROJECTED STARTING LINE:
PG – Tyler Thornton, 6-2 190 Sr
SG – Rasheed Sulaimon, 6-4 190 So
F – Rodney Hood, 6-8 215 So
F – Jabari Parker, 6-8 235 Fr
F- Amile Jefferson, 6-9 210 So

KEY RESERVES:
Quinn Cook, 6-2 180 Jr
Marshall Plumlee, 7-0 260 So
Andre Dawkins, 6-5 215 Sr
Josh Hairston, 6-8 235 Sr

Jabari Parker is the star, arguable the top player in college basketball. With the ball in his hands, if he’s playing smart and working hard inside, no one defender can stop him. Rodney Hood is Parker’s Scotty Pippen. He’s good enough to be the star of the team, but unselfish enough not to let it effect his game knowing Parker gets all the headlines. If these two are both on, Duke can’t lose. If both are struggling, Duke can’t win.

The biggest question for the Blue Devils every game is who will step up and be the third option? Rasheed Sulaimon is the most gifted of the remaining players. He’s the one who has a legit shot at an NBA career. He can create his own shot and has proven that he’s not afraid to take the game winning shot, already beating Virginia back in January and then hitting the game-tying three in Syracuse. However, he gets out of control at times and can get sloppy with the ball.

Quinn Cook and Andre Dawkins have shown flashes of greatness, especially from deep, but both have really struggled lately. Dawkins has seen his minutes fall over the last month, while Cook has lost his starting job to Tyler Thornton. However, because Parker and Hood draw so much attention and both are so good at working the ball inside, Cook, Dawkins and even Thornton can be game changers with their shooting abilities; on the defensive end though, not so much. All three have struggled to stop penetration. Thornton is the best of three, but he fouls way too much.

Inside, Duke really struggles with a lack of size. Because they have no shot blockers, opponents are not afraid to attack inside. While Amile Jefferson has taken a giant leap forward creating his own shot, he’s really proven to be a solid rebounder. The problem is, he’s still too skinny for a guy who sometimes is stuck playing the five spot. This is why Marshall Plumlee is so important. He can do almost nothing on offense, but he’s long and a ball of energy. He’s not a shot blocker, but he can certainly eat up space, bust up screens and work the boards.

POTENTIAL TOURNAMENT MATCH UPS:
Duke’s route to the final four is brutal. I don’t see a cakewalk anywhere, not even in the first round. Mercer won the Atlantic Sun conference regular season for the second straight year. Last year though, they were upset by Florida Gulf Coast, you remember, Dunk City who became the first 15-seed to make it to the Sweet 16. This year the Bears took care of business and they are the kind of team that can give Duke trouble. They got Langston Hall, a quick guard with good size who can attack the rim. They also have a trio of 6’9 guys (Daniel Coursey, T.J. Hallice and Monty Brown) who can rebound and protect the win.

While Mercer will keep it close, I still think the Blue Devils will win and they could face either UMass, Iowa or Tennessee. While UMass is a solid ball club, I’m personally picking the Volunteers to advance. They are ranked 13th in Ken Pom’s ratings, thanks to the 19th rated defensive efficiency.

Michigan won the Big 10 regular season after a rough start to the 2013-14 season, so plenty of folks are picking them to advance to the second weekend. However, don’t sleep on Arizona State. The Sun Devils are a speedy team, that actually has a couple of potential future pros on it.

I, like everyone else, am picking Louisville to advance to the Elite Eight, but man wouldn’t it be fun to see the Duke Blue Devils go up against a still-undefeated Wichita State. Neilson wouldn’t be able to handle those ratings.

OUTLOOK: 
When Duke plays defense…When Duke is hitting their threes…When Duke rebounds…When. When. When. When Duke is doing those things, no team can beat them. That’s the problem though, a championship team is already doing those things come tournament time. There is no more “when.” The idea that a team can suddenly just figure it out or turn it on once the tournament just baffles me.

This is why it is so hard to figure out this team. I’ve seen people ready to have them losing to Mercer, but then change their mind and put them in the Final Four. The Blue Devils are either going to make you look brilliant when you pick your brackets or they’re going to kill any hope of having bragging rights rather quickly.

WHY THEY’LL FALL SHORT OF THE FINAL FOUR
If Duke has done one thing constantly this year, it’s not finishing games. Against someone, probably in the Sweet 16 or Elite 8, the Blue Devils will open up a double-digit lead in the second half. The announcers will be tripping over themselves praising Parker and Hood, yet you’ll know and I will know, their opponent really has them right where they want them. Duke will go into stall mode and it will kill them. The opponent will rally and send the Blue Devils home without a title.

WHY THEY’LL ADVANCE TO THE FINAL FOUR
After struggling to hit the long ball the past three weeks, Duke will rediscover their shooting stroke. When the Blue Devils are draining threes from deep, no one can stop them. they thrive on it; they rebound better, they defender better, it’s sort of surreal to watch. Both Cook and Dawkins will hit over 40-percent, Plumlee will pull down an angry rebound, Hood will dominate from mid-range and Parker will hit a shot you can’t believe was possible…oh and Josh Hairston will play three minutes without fouling.

MY WORTHLESS PREDICTION: 
The Blue Devils get to the elite eight, falling to Louisville for the second year.

 

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