Tuesday, October 21, 2008

No. 9 Duke: 2008-2009 Team Preview

2007-2008 Team Record: 28-6, 13-3 ACC (2nd)

Key Losses: DeMarcus Nelson (14.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg)

Key Returnees: Kyle Singler (13.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Gerald Henderson (12.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg), Jon Scheyer (11.7 ppg)

Newcomers: Olek Czyz, Miles Plumlee, Eliot Williams

I know, I know. Everyone hates Duke and thinks they are so overrated and are going to be terrible next year. Well, here is the bottom line. Duke won 28 games last year and finished second in the ACC (the conference with the highest RPI rating), and just so happen to return pretty much their entire team. The loss of Nelson is going to hurt a bit (mostly because he was so adept at producing in the paint at 6'3"), but there is more than enough talent on this roster to make up that production.

In my opinion, the Devils most important returner is Gerald Henderson. I love this kid's game. He is a fantastic athlete and very long, and at 6'6" he uses that length and athleticism to "make plays" - getting into the passing lanes, blocking shots, grabbing o-boards. He always seems to be in the middle of everything, and is definitely not afraid of contact or of going all out (remember the infamous elbow). If he can develop his handle and his jump shot, he has lottery pick written all over him. Kyle Singler is Duke's leading returning scorer. The sophomore had a great freshman season, and creates a lot of match-up problems because he is big enough where he can hold his own against most posts defensively. But his biggest asset offensively is his perimeter game, and he is simply too quick for most centers to guard because they have to respect his jump shot.

The rest of Duke's front line is questionable. Brian Zoubek is your typical 7-foot stiff. Lance Thomas is a great athlete, but not much more. Dave McClure is a good defender (when healthy), but can't do much offensively. The Blue Devils do bring in two freshman to help bolster that front line depth. Miles Plumlee is a thin 6'10" forward (Duke does have him listed at 230 lb) that opted out of his commitment to Stanford when Trent Johnson left. He seems like he will fit perfectly into Duke's offense right now as he is perimeter oriented (he's most effective facing up) and runs the floor well, although his lack of strength won't help Duke's glaring weakness in the post both offensively and defensively. He is long, however, and has garnered a pretty good shot blocker. Olek Czyz is a strong, 6'7" athlete that loves contact, plays hard, and should provide Duke with some toughness.

Duke will have four good guards in their rotation this year. It will be very interesting to see who ends up starting at the point, as there have been a lot of rumblings that sophomore Nolan Smith will replace senior and three year starter Greg Paulus. The two have polar opposite games. Smith is a quick penetrator and a tenacious on the ball defender, but is lacking in the jump shot department. Paulus was Duke's best shooter last year, but is a poor defender and has struggled mightily with his consistency and confidence. As much as I (the non-Dookie BIAH writer) despise Paulus, I have to admit that the kid carried Duke at times last year. He did make some poor decisions and he was appallingly inconsistent, but you cannot argue with the fact that he was far and away Duke's best shooter and that when he was playing well, he was/is one of the better point guards in the country. That said, I still think Nolan Smith is a better point guard for this team, although I suspect they will be sharing the court a lot.

Also in the Duke back court is Jon Scheyer and freshman Elliot Williams. Scheyer had a lot of hype coming out of high school, but has yet to really live up to the billing. He is a solid shooter and crafty offensively, but struggles defensively at this level. He is a smart player with a high basketball IQ, and could be primed for a breakout season with Nelson gone. Williams is a top-25 recruit out of Memphis that can do it all offensively. He has range on his jump shot, can attack the rim, and is able to play both guard positions, meaning he should fit into Coach K's system well.

Outlook: What made Duke so effective last year was how balanced their scoring was (top five players all averaged double figures) and the fact that most of the time, everyone on their team could not only knock down an open three, but could also penetrate and get to the rim or drive and kick to another open shooter. That won't change this year. But neither will the fact that the Devil's are missing a presence inside both offensively and defensively. Just like last year, Duke is going to shoot a lot of three's, score a lot of points, and win a lot of games playing that way. But you need an inside presence to make a long tourney run, so I wouldn't be surprised if the Blue Devils had another early round exit.

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