Just one year after No. 14 Mercer defeated them in the Round of 64, when they were a No. 3 seed, the Duke Blue Devils are back in the big dance as a No. 1. And they’re out to make a statement. This year’s squad is deep, but questions still remain.
Sure, Duke was the last team standing in 2010, but what about lately? As good as they are, harsh losses to Mercer last year and Lehigh in 2012 still have some doubters out to play.
But this year is different. Despite some bad losses over the regular season, Duke is a more complete team than it has been in recent years and is ready to make another long tournament run. Built on the perfect combination of youth and experience, this team has what it takes to go far. But the question remains: can the Blue Devils shake off last year’s upset and keep their eyes forward?
Let’s dig a little deeper and find out.
On numbers alone, Duke had an incredible year. Not only did they finish fourth in the nation in scoring, but third in field goal percentage. That was good enough to help them finish with an overall record of 29-4 (15-3 ACC) and place second in the ACC, just one game behind the Virginia Cavaliers. Thinking about it now, the only reason Duke got a No. 1 seed over Virginia is because they actually beat the Cavaliers in Charlottesville on January 31.
That certainly wasn’t Duke’s only big win of the season, in fact, the team had quite a few. Over the course of the year, the Blue Devils managed to take down Louisville, Wisconsin, Michigan State, and many ACC rivals. They even swept the season series against in-state foe North Carolina Tar Heels.
But it wasn’t all roses and rainbows for Duke this year. Despite their phenomenal play, the college hoops world was dealt some shocking news when it was announced that junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon had become the first player under head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s watch to be dismissed from the program for “being unable to consistently live up to the standards required to be a member of our program,” as the Hall of Fame coach put it. Even worse, ESPN later reported that Sulaimon was the subject of two different sexual assault investigations.
But that didn’t stop the Blue Devils. Not one bit. They just kept on rolling, with positive results on their agenda.
This year’s success can be attributed to the players gelling incredibly well together from start to finish, and having a strong freshman at center didn’t hurt either. Blessed with incredible size at 6’11”, 270 pounds, Jahlil Okafor posted 17.7 points, nine rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting an eye-popping 67 percent from the field.
Combine Okafor’s great basketball IQ with Krzyzewski’s tournament experience and this team’s overall talent in general, and it’s hard to brush off Duke’s success this season. They’re primed for a long tournament run, and they’ll stop at nothing to get far.
Head Coach Spotlight: Mike Krzyzewski
Think of Duke basketball, and it’s hard to not automatically think of Mike Krzyzewski. Honestly, what can be said about the man that hasn’t already been said?
He has been at Duke for 35 years, and has led the team to the NCAA tournament in all but four of his seasons. His tournament resume includes four national championships, 11 trips to the Final Four, 13 ACC Tournament championships, 12 ACC regular season championships and on top of all that, he has won two Olympic gold medals coaching the United States Men’s Basketball team, in 2008 and 2012!
This season has also been a milestone one for the man they call Coach K, as he won his 1,000th career game against the St. John’s Red Storm on January 25. And he’s far from finished.
Krzyzewski turned 68 this season, making him one of the oldest coaches in the tournament this year. To give a better idea, Southern Methodist’s Larry Brown is 74. The fact is that much like his signature run-and-gun offense, Coach K is showing zero signs of slowing down and has given no hints as to when he might step away from the game. All signs point to him being at Duke for many years to come.
Mike Krzyzewski is a man who just eats, sleeps, dreams and breathes Duke Blue Devils basketball, and the Hall of Famer is going to stop at nothing to bring the program that has given him so much another championship run.
Team Leader: Quinn Cook
Now, I know that Jahlil Okafor is definitely the best player on this year’s Duke squad, and he’s definitely their most valuable player, but the leadership in the locker room begins and ends with senior guard Quinn Cook. A four-year veteran of Krzyzewski’s program, Cook went from being a rotational guy as a freshman to a starter his final three years of school. In that time, he developed a knack for nailing clutch three-pointers.
In his final season, Cook posted 15.7 points per game and shot 45 percent from the field and a solid 40 percent from three-point land. His scoring output was second only to Okafor.
He is a quiet leader, simply doing his job on and off the court and not seeking attention for his accomplishments. He is there to play and help the team win, by any means necessary. Though he averages 11.5 shots per game, he isn’t one to demand the ball possession after possession. He gets open when he needs to be, and lets his teammates do their part as well. Like a true leader, he knows when to step back.
If he can continue that approach in the tournament, Duke is sure to enjoy a much longer run than it did last year.
X-Factor: Tyus Jones
Okafor may be the A-list freshman sensation on Duke this year, but the team owes just as much of its success to freshman guard Tyus Jones. Simply put, this young man is an incredibly special type of player.
Jones is on the smaller side at 6’1″, 190 pounds, but you wouldn’t guess it based on how he plays. As the starting point guard for this year’s Blue Devils squad, he averaged 11.6 points, 5.8 assists, 1.5 steals and even 3.6 rebounds! For a little guy, his athleticism is borderline off the charts.
Jones also shot 41.5 percent from the field and 38 percent from long range. Though he still has a lot to learn in terms of when to shoot and when to pass, despite averaging just eight shots per game, the young man from Apple Valley, Minnesota can very easily become one of college basketball’s top guards if he makes the right decision and stays in school for at least another year. Yes, Nbadraft.net has him projected as a late first round pick going into the tournament, but that shouldn’t sway his decision.
Jones is excellent now and is definitely a key to Duke’s success in the big dance this year. But if he stays in school, his ceiling his very, very high.
I’m going to be 100 percent honest. When it comes to teams that play run-and-gun, I have a hard time picking them to go far in the tournament simply because any opposing squad that either has a shutdown defense or is more athletic can easily take the wind out of their sails.
This year’s Duke Blue Devils are not in danger of that happening.
For the first time in many years, the team has a center in Jahlil Okafor that is not purely a pick-and-roll big man. For once, the man in the middle can work the low post and has size that he actually USES. As a result, Duke this year became more than just a team that can score quickly and in bunches. With Okafor manning the middle and Jones’ speed, this team actually has a well-rounded defense.
Moreover, it has been clear all season that coach Krzyzewski is hungry for a long run. Last year’s early exit stung badly, and anything less than at least a Final Four trip this year will not satisfy his appetite.
Combine that with the incredible talent on this roster, and Duke is a team not to be taken lightly in the tournament this year, more than deserving of a No. 1 seed.
*Section Photo credit to Streeter Lecka, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Neil Redmond, AP Photo