Duke kicks off their first public practice an hour from now on ESPNU and ESPN3, live from Fort Bragg army base in Fayetteville, North Carolina. After the loss to Lehigh ended last year’s season in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, this Duke team has a number of questions to answer as the season begins.
1) Where will the leadership come from? Duke had only one senior on the team last year, but four juniors. Miles Plumlee never seemed to be much of a vocal leader, even though he shared captain duties with Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry. Of the five upperclassmen from last year’s team, only Kelly, Curry and Mason Plumlee remain. Kelly and Plumlee have been designated captains this season but neither of those guys showed the ability to truly lead the team last year when it needed it the most. A leadership vacuum was created when Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler left the team in 2011. To date, nobody has stepped up. With half this year’s team as underclassmen, Duke needs someone to guide the youngsters throughout the season.
2) Where are Duke’s strengths? Coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff are some of the best in basketball at adapting their offensive and defensive strategies around the team’s strengths. In preseason interviews, Coach K has intimated that the team will be built around Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry. Are these statements due to the fact that they are the only seniors or is it because those are truly the team’s best players. From early practice reports, Duke plans to feed Mason and Ryan the ball as much as possible. The rest of the squad is young and malleable, but the Blue Devils need those two to be strongpoints of Duke’s lineup, with Seth Curry balancing things out on the perimeter.
3) Who will start at small forward? In the offseason, Coach K made it clear that Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry were the only guaranteed starters. Sometime between those statements and Friday’s press conference, Quinn Cook locked up the starting point guard position. However, no such guarantees have been made about the small forward spot, which is likely a battle between Alex Murphy, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson. Duke has two players between 6’8″ and 6’9″ in Murphy and Jefferson that they didn’t have last year, giving them the ability to guard other small forwards at that size. But knowing his personality after watching him for the last two years, Rasheed Sulaimon is not going to give up that spot easily. I expect this position to see all three of these players starting at times during the season.
4) Will the defense return? Duke’s defense last season was the worst of any Coach K team. A lot of those issues came from an inability to pressure the ball on the perimeter, which led to breakdowns on the interior of the defense. In my opinion, the lack of size at the small forward position and a constant rotation at the point guard contributed to this the most. Since both of those issues are fixed to some degree already, I expect to see a Duke defense that more resembles the defenses of old. However, Quinn Cook’s play at point guard on the defensive end will be the lynchpin to the team
5) How will Quinn Cook handle starting at PG? Much has been made about Duke’s lack of elite point guard play last year. A lot of this was due to Cook re-injuring his knee during the season, Tyler Thornton being more of a blue collar player than a facilitator and Seth Curry being a natural shooting guard. The only natural point guard on Duke’s roster is #2 and I just don’t think he was ready to lead the team last season after missing most of the offseason and preseason with an injury. The rest of his team never had the chance to develop trust and cohesion with Cook in practice. By all accounts, Cook is ready to take the reins of the 2013 Blue Devils.
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